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5 Feminist Icons That Are Actually Pretty Problematic


The path to gender equality has been paved by millions of women fighting for the right to live as independently as their male counterparts. It is important to recognize their contributions and understand how far women have come from the days of picketing for votes at the White House gates. This, however, doesn’t excuse the problematic pasts of some of the most notable influences of feminism. As modern advocates, it is our job to acknowledge the faults of past  women’s rights campaigns, in order to cultivate a more inclusive atmosphere in the present movement. The five women in this list have been praised for their contributions to gender equality, but lack empathy towards women of color and the LGBTQ+ community. 

1. Virginia Woolf 

Virginia Woolf is notably one of the most influential modernist writers of the 20th century. By her untimely death in 1941 at the age of 59, she had written nine novels, 46 short stories, and three book-length essays. A Room of One’s Own, an extended essay based on lectures Woolf gave in 1928 to a number of women’s colleges in England, became an essential feminist text. It tackled the struggles of female writers and the lack of resources they receive regarding education, funding and independence. While her work has certainly influenced perceptions of women’s societal expectations, Woolf lacks a sense of intersectionality in her work. Her classism, racism and anti-Semitism are all prevalent throughout her bibliography. Arguably, the most troubling aspect o f Virginia Woolf’s life came from a famous hoax on the British Battleship the H.M.S. Dreadnought. In 1910, she, along with several other future modernist authors, wore blackface in order to impersonate Ethiopian royals. They spoke in fake Swahili and were labeled as “jolly savages.” 

2. Betty Friedan

Known by many as the “mother” of the second wave of feminism, Betty Friedan wrote “The Feminine Mystique” in 1963 to address the dissatisfaction of housewives in suburbia. Labeling it the “problem that has no name,” Friedan compared the restrictiveness of womanhood to imprisonment. Her book sparked a national movement towards women’s rights, and in 1966, she was elected president of the National Organization for Women (NOW). Her controversy, however, lies in her nonprogressive views on sexuality. She believed the inclusion of LGBTQ+ voices in women’s liberation would invalidate the movement and labeled the threat of lesbianism as “The Lavender Menace.” Although Friedan would relax her homophobic views later in life, her book still holds harmful assumptions towards the effects of race, class and sexuality. In The Feminine Mystique, she states, “Male homosexuality as the end-point of the feminine mystique is not just artificial, a regrettable but accidental distortion of the reality it overlays: it is a sinister source of cultural contamination.”

3. Elizabeth Cady Stanton 

As one of the leading figures in the suffragette movement alongside Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton is regarded as one of the first leaders of the women’s rights movement in America. She wrote several essays discussing the role of women in 19th-century society and is noted for conducting the first women’s rights convention, the Seneca Falls convention, in 1848.  While she and her husband Henry Brewster Stanton both identified as abolitionists of their time, Stanton disapproved of the 15th amendment prioritizing Black men’s voting rights over women’s suffrage. Her racist rhetoric towards the rights of Black men attempted to paint white women as more deserving of the vote because they were “educated” and “virtuous.” Her feminism, and the feminism of many of her first-wave constituents, completely ignored the struggles of Black women in America, who at the time were the most vulnerable minority population. 

4. Margaret Sanger

Margaret Sanger was a pioneer in birth-control advocacy. She established the Planned Parenthood Association and was instrumental in patenting a contraceptive pill. Influenced by her mother’s death, who, after enduring 18 pregnancies during her lifetime, died from tuberculosis and a weakened immune system, Sanger began a career focused on sex education. Through her advocacy, she began working with prominent figures in the civil rights movement such as W.E.B Du Bois and Martin Luther King regarding the unplanned pregnancy rate in predominantly Black communities. Unfortunately, her work is also linked with the eugenics movement of the 1920s, which has made her a figure of criticism. Like eugenicists, she wanted to “assist the elimination of the unfit.” Her views were not founded in a hatred of the poor but instead in the lack of choices for lower-income families. Even if her intent was not based in racist or classist sentiments, pro-life advocates have used Sanger’s questionable views towards eugenics as a way to demonize efforts for reproductive rights. 

5. Hillary Clinton 

When Hillary Clinton won the democratic nomination for president in 2016, it felt as though a glass ceiling had been shattered in the realm of American politics. As former first lady to the 42nd president of the United States, Bill Clinton, she has been in the public light for almost the entirety of her adult life. While her husband’s administration boasted the longest period of peacetime economic expansion, the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994 continues to systemically impact communities of color.  One of the bill’s major components aimed to be “tough on crime” with African American youth. Sentence enhancements and giving prosecutors the ability to charge 13-year-old children in adult criminal courts have made the school-to-prison pipeline increase drastically. In support of her husband’s bill, Hillary Clinton called Black youth “super-predators” to a New Hampshire crowd in 1996. Clinton now regrets this terminology, but the effects of the legislation still have a significant impact on Black communities to this day.

Hey guys!! I'm Lorin O'Rear and I am a freshman at the University of Alabama. My major is Secondary Language Arts Education with minors in the Blount Scholars Program and Theatre. Outside of writing, I love listening to music, keeping up with politics, spending time with my two dogs Max and Goose, and spending way too much time decorating my island in Animal Crossing.
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