By Anita Sarkeesian and Ebony Adams
In the latter half of the 20th century, a gilded empire of excess and murder loomed. Cocaine formed the bricks, and blood was the mortar that held it fast. In the 1970s and ’80s, greed was good and ruthlessness was better. It was the undisputed era of the narcotics kingpin, and as a nation, we were in their thrall. Perched atop mountains of snow-white powder were ruthless, swaggering figures whose names we whisper: Pablo Escobar. “Freeway” Rick Ross. Nicky Barnes.
But one name should be included on this list that many people don’t know: the Colombian queenpin among these kingpins, Griselda Blanco. They called her the Black Widow, and with more than 200 alleged murders to her name, she was deadly.
There’s a reason La Madrina, the Black Widow, isn’t talked about in the same breathless tones as narco commanders like Pablo Escobar; a reason she’s the subject of made-for-TV movies (one that ran on Lifetime, another forthcoming from HBO) instead of big studio films. We have a cultural fascination that feeds on the thrill of real-life dangerous men, but Western cultures are often wildly uncomfortable with real-life women who do evil things. The fact is we don’t quite know what to do when the worst excesses of human wickedness lurk behind a female face.
But it’s vital that we stop downgrading stories of women behaving badly, not to feed our appetite for the lurid, but because, as counterintuitive as it may seem, it gives us a better picture of the full humanity of women. The assumptions that make us hesitant to reckon with female villainy are the same assumptions that diminish women in other ways. The root belief that women are simply not as capable as men—of the highest virtue or the basest depravity—doesn’t do women any favors. Nor does the idea that women are inherently nurturing and therefore incapable of truly evil deeds.
The names of men, the noble and the infamous alike, are familiar to us because we learn them in school. But women who color outside the lines are largely forgotten.
It’s tempting but facile for feminists to celebrate only those women who have achieved remarkable things in admirable, socially acceptable fields. We can and must excavate our histories for those women, like Griselda Blanco, who paved a trail of terror from Colombia to the United States with all the swagger and mercilessness of her more well-known criminal brethren. Only a truly feminist history that wrestles with all the good and evil women are capable of can provide the lens for learning who we are and where we go from here.
Our upcoming YA book, History vs. Women: The Defiant Lives That They Don’t Want You to Know, is an effort to present this kind of fuller, more nuanced feminist history. As we shine a spotlight on a dynamic range of women across the globe and throughout the past couple millennia, we aim to weave all sorts of women back into the tapestry of our stories: good, bad, and all those women in between. And although we don’t shy away from tales of murder and mayhem, we aren’t trying to celebrate violence or tantalize young readers with stories of charming rogues and malefactors (well, not entirely). We are trying to excavate the lives of the unruly, unsavory women history doesn’t want us to remember. It’s not simply that we don’t know their stories; we don’t even know their names. The names of men, the noble and infamous alike, are familiar to us because we learn them in school. But women who color outside the lines are largely forgotten. On the rare occasions that we do look back at memorable women from history, we tend to make room for the ones we can safely label good, kind, or honorable. It’s much more rare that we make space for the cutthroat or the malicious.
There is a term to describe the extra efforts taken to overly idealize women and to hold us to different standards, and that’s benevolent sexism. By erasing the lives of the thieves, murderers, corrupt politicians, and other folks of questionable morals who just happen to be women, we’re perpetuating some nasty notions about gender. It may not be pretty, but the fact is there are extraordinary women from our past whose acts would astound you in their savagery and callousness. Ching Shih, a 19th-century Chinese pirate, was one of the most feared and ferocious brigands of her time. Margaret Thatcher, the first female prime minister of the U.K., oversaw destructive policies that exceeded the heartless standards of her male counterparts. The reign of Isabel I was marked by a monstrous persecution of Muslim and Jewish Spaniards.
Feminism affirms women’s full humanity, and a true feminist history wrestles with the ways women can exploit others or contribute to existing power structures of oppression. There’s an important difference between celebrating all women and acknowledging all women. The former tries to veil our weaknesses in the misguided effort to honor our strength. The latter boldly asserts our full humanity and fights to replace existing oppressive systems of power with a more equitable system. We do a profound disservice to future generations by erasing the stories of our villains of any gender.