5 Feminist Heroes Who Were Actually Terrible People


One of the most common questions I get from journalists and people interested in #WomenAgainstFeminism goes something like this: “but aren’t you grateful for all the work feminists did fighting for your right to vote and work and go to school?” To be honest, I’m a lot more grateful those early feminists didn’t get the opportunity to roll out their whole program of ideas. It’s easy to romanticize the past, but dangerous to do so. Here are five feminists considered heroines of the movement who were actually pretty terrible people. Shout out to Prentice Reid for calling my attention to these charming ladies.

1. Victoria Woodhull

On the surface, Woodhull seems pretty badass. She was a stockbroker, a newspaperwoman and the first woman to run for President of the United States of America. She went head to head against Ulysses S. Grant in 1872 arguing for women’s suffrage, legalized prostitution, short skirts and free love. Not much to argue with there. Unfortunately, her ideas didn’t extend to everyone. Just to the right people. In fact. Woodhull thought that a central role for government was to limit who could get married and thus reproduce (her knowledge of how humans reproduce seems sketchy – it doesn’t require marriage), writing that a compassionate government would “legislate to prevent the birth of the criminal rather than legislate to punish him after he is born.” Woodhull was a big, huge, super excited fan of eugenics, and really felt there was potential for the “scientific development” of the human race.

2. Emily Murphy

Murphy was famous in Canada for becoming the first female Magistrate in the entire British Empire, and she was an outspoken advocate of birth control. The ability to choose parenthood, a right still not accorded to men, was central to her whole feminist persona. One might even say she was obsessed with birth control, and there was one group in particular whose birth rate she wished to control. Murphy’s duties as a Magistrate and judge in the juvenile courts brought her to contact with a lot of disadvantaged people, especially those facing deeply ingrained racism and brutal, back-breaking labor constructing Canada’s railways: Chinese immigrants. Murphy felt the Chinese were inherently immoral and breeding way too fast. She wasn’t fond of the “feeble-minded” either and would have loved the chance to forcibly sterilize the lot.

3. Marie Stopes

Stopes was a feminist activist who put her money where her mouth was and delivered contraception and abortion services in 38 countries around the world. She penned what is considered the world’s first sex manual called Married Love, insisted that good girls got horny and was adamant that women (but not men) should have the right to plan the births of their children. She also thought that only the most beautiful should be allowed to survive. Stopes found a kindred spirit on a trip to Berlin in 1935 at the International Congress for Population Science: none other than Adolf Hitler himself. Stopes sent him a copy of her book Love Songs for Young Lovers with a gushy declaration of her admiration.

4. Margaret Sanger

Sanger is credited with creating the organization that eventually became Planned Parenthood, and is considered the original advocate for birth control and family planning. Sanger campaigned tirelessly to make certain women had access to contraception and had the means to decide where, when and under what conditions their children would be born. Well, white women. Smart, white women. Sanger wasn’t just interested in controlling the birth rate of the black population. She wanted something more, but knew she would have to keep it on the downlow because even she knew this shit was terrible. “We do not want word to go out that we want to exterminate the Negro population, and the minister is the man who can straighten out that idea if it ever occurs to any of their more rebellious members”.

5. All the Suffragettes

Lest you think the contemporary stereotype of feminists as whiny, joyless shrews who hate fun is something new, rest assured, they have been like that since day one. Joining forces with the Ku Klux Klan and rising resentment of the beer guzzling Protestant immigrant classes, the Suffragettes managed to push through Prohibition, leading to one of the least fun eras of American history.

Am I grateful to the Suffragettes who were so instrumental in giving me my rights as a woman? Uh, sure? Not entirely convinced poor, disabled, colored women should be joining in that celebration. If those early feminists had their way, those women would either be sterilized against their will or just plain killed off.

You know on second thought, I’ll just pour myself a glass of wine and breathe a sigh of relief that the powers that be were able to intervene before feminists rolled out their whole genocidal plan against women who were not exactly like themselves.

Feminists. Privileged white women.  They’ve sucked since the beginning.