City Life

Madison's formidable freethinker

Annie Laurie Gaylor started as an activist at 14

Annie Laurie Gaylor walked her first feminist picket line at age 14, against Madison Newspapers Inc., for the company’s use of segregated (or, as she called them, “sexegrated”) “Male Wanted” job advertisements. “We embarrassed them and it worked,” she says of the campaign that put an end to the gender-specific ad policy. 

About a decade later, in 1981, Gaylor published “Woe to the Women: The Bible Tells Me So,” a scathing examination of the Bible’s treatment of women. The book has had numerous printings. 

Gaylor has filed lawsuits, appeared on national television and purchased ads on the sides of Madison buses, all on behalf of women’s rights and keeping religion out of government. 

Gaylor, 62, co-president of the Madison-based Freedom From Religion Foundation, has fought so hard for so long that she has, perhaps inevitably, been portrayed by critics as hostile and humorless—quick to meddle in the business of others.

Yet seated at her desk in the foundation’s downtown office, near a portrait of her late mother, Anne Nicol Gaylor, she is relaxed—friendly and soft-spoken.

Annie Laurie acknowledges the “angry atheist” stereotype her organization still confronts.

“We’re at the bottom of the social totem pole when it comes to acceptance,” she says. “I once asked a researcher, ‘Why?’ She said, ‘Many people have not knowingly met an atheist, and it’s just ignorance.’ ”

Whatever the stereotype, it has not prevented the foundation from growing. Incorporated nationally in 1978 (two years after it was founded locally), the foundation today has more than 29,000 members and a paid staff of 24 full-time and several part-time employees, including nine attorneys. An ambitious expansion of its headquarters building, Freethought Hall, at the corner of Henry Street and West Washington Avenue, was completed in October 2015.

One enters through the Anne Nicol Gaylor Lobby, an homage to the woman who, prior to her death in 2015, was both mom and mentor to Annie Laurie.

Anne Nicol grew up on a farm between Sparta and Tomah. Anne’s mother died before she was 2; her father was not religious.

“I don’t think he ever put a word on it,” Annie Laurie says. “My mother always said he was embarrassed by religion, and in hindsight she thought that was a good reaction.”

Anne Nicol married Paul Gaylor in 1949, and the couple in the 1960s bought the Middleton Times-Tribune newspaper. Annie Laurie recalls helping collate the ads while she was in junior high.

In 1967, Anne Nicol wrote an editorial for the paper calling for legalizing abortion in Wisconsin.

“It created shock waves,” Annie Laurie says. “Middleton in those days was a very Catholic community.”

They eventually sold the paper, and Anne Nicol traveled across the state giving speeches and media interviews advocating for the legalization of abortion and contraception. Her teenage daughter often tagged along.

“We both saw the opposition was entirely religious,” Annie Laurie says. “That was really the impetus for getting more involved in state-church separation.”

The Freedom From Religion Foundation was founded in 1976 when Annie Laurie was studying journalism at the University of Wisconsin–Madison (having graduated from West High).

The Gaylors learned the Madison City Council and Dane County Board were starting their meetings with prayer.

“We were shocked,” Annie Laurie says. “We went in and reminded them they should stay secular. We thought it would seem a little weak if it was just the two of us, mother and daughter, so we said we represented the Freedom From Religion Foundation.”

Annie Laurie volunteered at FFRF through the early 1980s while publishing The Feminist Connection newspaper. She started working full time at the foundation in 1985.

In 1983, Annie Laurie received a letter from a man named Dan Barker, a Christian pastor who had recently left his religious post. He said he admired her “Woe to Women” book.

The following year, Annie Laurie and Baker met in person when both appeared with Oprah Winfrey, then hosting a show called “A.M. Chicago.” Annie Laurie and her mother had been on Oprah’s previous show in Baltimore to talk about sexism in the Bible, and Oprah used the tape in her audition for the Chicago job. 

Barker and Annie Laurie hit it off, too. They married in 1987. Barker is co-president of the foundation.
They get more than 5,000 complaints a year—reports of state-church violations—and each gets an individual response. Litigation is a last resort.

Annie Laurie’s recollection of the various battles over the years is vivid, though exact dates can elude her. Early on, she complained about prayer at UW–Madison commencement, and found herself speaking to the senior class officers.

“I was nervous, standing up and trembling,” she says. “I gave my little homily, and they smiled and agreed. They took it to Chancellor Edwin Young, and he agreed.”

Decades later, Annie Laurie took on an issue she refers to as “maybe my favorite case.” It involved the foundation’s challenge to the National Day of Prayer, which in 2010 was ruled unconstitutional by U.S. District Judge Barbara Crabb, a decision later overturned on appeal.

“We’re still looking for ways to go back to it,” Annie Laurie says.

In its own way, the foundation provides a big tent, Annie Laurie says, with no litmus test for potential members, be they atheist, agnostic or freethinkers, a term the foundation has tried to popularize.

Annie Laurie smiles. “We’re welcoming to people of whatever skeptical stripe.”

Doug Moe is a Madison writer and a former editor of Madison Magazine. Read his weekly blog, “Doug Moe’s Madison,” on madisonmagazine.com.


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