In memoriam: Farewell to ‘unabashed atheist’ Connie Threinen
By Annie Laurie Gaylor
As FFRF honorary director and famed neurologist Oliver Sacks poignantly wrote before his own death:
“My generation is on the way out, and each death I have felt as an abruption, a tearing away of part of myself. There will be no one like us when we are gone, but then there is no one like anyone else, ever. When people die, they cannot be replaced. They leave holes that cannot be filled, for it is the fate — the genetic and neural fate — of every human being to be a unique individual, to find his own path, to live his own life, to die his own death.”
Connie Threinen, who died Sept. 17 at nearly 97, is part of that generation “on the way out.” And her death leaves a hole. There certainly will never be anyone else, ever, like this adorable-in-person, vigorous, thoughtful and forward-thinking woman.
Connie was born on Dec. 10, 1925, in Belmont, Mass., and attended Mount Holyoke College, finishing her degree in economics in 1948 at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Her husband Bill Threinen predeceased her, and they are survived by three children, four grandchildren and a great-granddaughter. She died with her family by her side.
Connie, who lived in Middleton, Wis., a bedroom community to Madison, was a peer and colleague of my mother Anne Gaylor, the Freedom From Religion Foundation’s principal founder. Connie was an early member and supporter of FFRF, joining in 1978 when FFRF first became a national organization.
Anne and Connie bonded over a shared feminism as women who were in their 40s when the second wave of feminism hit. They became firm allies after an editorial that my mother, then editor of the weekly Middleton Times Tribune, wrote in the late 1960s, calling for the legalization of abortion rights. Connie’s immediate support when this editorial created a local firestorm was very meaningful to my mother. Meanwhile, Connie was doing her own activism, agitating for inclusion of women’s sports in schools when she served on the Middleton School Board. She only served one term because, as her obituary put it, “some of the more conservative elements of the community rallied against her.”
Like my mother, Connie was a professional working woman prior to the feminist movement. She was also, like Anne, what was known quaintly in those days as a “working mother.”
Connie’s rebellious roots could be traced in her family tree to a famous ancestor. This independent thinker’s great-grand-aunt was Margaret Fuller, the early 19th century feminist. When I was editing the anthology of 19th and 20th century freethinkers, Women Without Superstition, published by FFRF, Connie provided a photo of the beautiful portrait of Fuller displayed in her home. Fuller was in fact among the foremost 19th-century women writers and critics, writing Woman in the Nineteenth Century (1845). (Connie’s other famous relative was Buckminister Fuller, inventor of the geodesic dome, who was the second cousin of Connie’s father.)
Long before our wonderful ally Ron Reagan recorded his television commercial for FFRF describing himself as “an unabashed atheist, not of afraid of burning in hell,” Connie had labeled herself “an unabashed atheist.” My mother invited her to give a speech at our annual national convention in October 1990 in Ann Arbor, Mich., and Connie titled her talk, “An unabashed atheist looks at women and religion.” She opened that speech by observing: “This convention is one of the few places in the country where one could be announced as an atheist and not expect shock, disbelief and scorn in response.” It is religion, she said, that “still keeps women ‘in their place.’”
Connie worked for the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Outreach Division for 28 years, directing innovative educational problems for women, then went on to chair the Wisconsin Women’s Network, a coalition of 100 Wisconsin organizations working to advance women’s rights. She kept her hand in, teaching classes such as “Quest for Equality” at the UW Extension, including lectures broadcast over the university’s educational network. She was also active with the League of Women Voters. Her activism after retirement included chairing a committee advising the Department of Public Instruction about sex education.
Connie turned up at decades of feminist gatherings (many that she organized herself), protests and local FFRF events. Even in 2010, when she was in her late 80s, Connie was game to be part of FFRF’s launch in Madison of our “out of the closet” billboard campaign. She was one of about two dozen local members appearing on a revolving digital billboard filled with freethinkers coining their own slogans.
Connie Threinen did much to make the world a better, more rational and more egalitarian place. She is truly irreplaceable.