The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Rush Limbaugh had a lot to say about feminism. Women learned how to not care.

Rush Limbaugh and Newt Gingrich, together in 1995, a few years after Limbaugh began using the term “feminazi.” (Keith Jenkins/The Washington Post)

In early 2012, Rush Limbaugh leaned into his microphone and went on the attack against a Georgetown law student named Sandra Fluke.

“So, Ms. Fluke and the rest of you feminazis, here’s the deal,” he announced on his radio show, before launching into a prurient and frankly weird diatribe.

Fluke’s sin had been testifying before Congress, which was debating whether employers should be required to include birth control in their health insurance plans. Speaking in favor of mandated coverage, she’d told lawmakers of a friend who needed oral contraceptives to treat a difficult medical condition.

To Limbaugh, this made Fluke a “feminazi.” That moniker was his calling card — and, to the extent that it was used to short-circuit any real discussion of feminism in millions of American households, it is now part of his legacy.

The man died on Wednesday at the age of 70, leaving behind an army of listeners, thousands of hours of content, and a diabolical eight-letter portmanteau.

“Feminazi” took the concept of women’s rights, and the concept of the most murderous, evil political philosophy of the 20th century, and lashed them together. It put advocating for gender equality on the same plane as wanting to annihilate people and culture. It provided misogynists with a get-out-of-hard-conversations-free card: Reasonable people have no obligation to listen to Nazis. Why should they extend any courtesy to feminists?

The earliest you ever heard the word was in 1992, which is when Limbaugh first used it on his show. He once said the term was actually invented by a professor friend of his, but Limbaugh was the one who put it in the mouth of America’s dads and sons (and yes, moms and daughters). He’s the one who spread the gospel of “obnoxious feminists” who were allegedly hellbent on having freewheeling abortions and forcing others to do the same.

“They don’t need men in order to be happy,” Limbaugh wrote, horrified, in a book published that year. “They certainly don’t want males to be able to exercise any control over them.”

Reading those sentences today is — well, it’s hilarious. Limbaugh, huffily presiding over his vitriolic fiefdom, had accidentally gotten it right: Feminists, like any reasonable humans, didn’t want another group of people to exercise control over them based on their gender. They didn’t want marital status to dictate their happiness.

Limbaugh presented these basic concepts of equality and personal freedom as the downfall of Western civilization: If women gained, men would lose.

And this was that loud, angry man’s greatest trick: Chew on something reasonable; spit it back out as a masticated, unrecognizable blob. A disgusting thing that nobody wants. Equal rights became special rights. Feminists became feminazis. Somehow this made his listeners’ mouths water, even while it filled everyone else’s with bile.

His hatred of feminism ended up inadvertently shaping it. The way he mischaracterized the movement forced his exhausted opponents to repeatedly re-explain it. The way he attacked it put feminists on eternal defense.

As is so often the case, his issues with feminism revealed his own hang-ups and foibles. When Limbaugh first started using the word in the early 1990s, he insisted it should be used sparingly. “Feminazi” referred specifically to women “to whom the most important thing in the world is seeing to it that as many abortions as possible take place,” he said. He estimated there were maybe 25 feminazis in the whole country.

By a decade later, according to Media Matters, a liberal outlet that tracked Limbaugh’s use of the word, he described an abortion rights rally as containing “about a half-million” feminazis.

Two years after that, women who’d opposed Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito’s nomination were feminazis.

Two years after that, in 2008, the National Organization for Women promoted a “Love Your Body Day,” which Limbaugh renamed, “love your body day if you’re a feminazi . . . because nobody else does.”

Were all feminists feminazis, then? Were all women? All people with bodies?

In the same broadcast, he declared that “feminism was established so that unattractive women could have easier access to the mainstream.” And by then the meaning of feminazi had finally become clear: Rush Limbaugh didn’t want all women to have access to the mainstream. He didn’t like the idea that they might be judged on merits other than the ones he favored. He hated their unruliness, their insistence on dictating the terms of their own humanity. He hated that the country seemed increasingly open to this. So many feminazis, and more every day.

And then, Sandra Fluke.

“If we are going to pay for your contraceptives, and thus pay for you to have sex, we want something for it, and I’ll tell you what it is,” Limbaugh said on his show. “We want you to post the videos online so we can all watch.”

Limbaugh made Fluke’s request for universal medical coverage into a sign of personal promiscuity. “It makes her a slut, right?” he demanded. “It makes her a prostitute. . . . She’s having so much sex she can’t afford the contraception.”

Never mind that in her testimony, she hadn’t mentioned her own birth control needs, if she even had them. She’d only talked about the needs of women she knew.

Limbaugh’s denigration of Fluke revealed a fundamental lack of understanding about birth control — the pill costs the same amount whether you have sex once a month or every day — but a deep insight into what the broadcaster thought might motivate the conservative male psyche: that women could be having sex, lots of it, and not for your benefit or with your say-so. That the men in these women’s lives might lose a measure of control.

I talked to Fluke on Thursday to learn about what she was doing now, to hear about her recollections of the time.

She said that she’d been careful, back in 2012, not to respond with details about her personal life, or to try to prove that she wasn’t a “slut.” She thought that doing so would keep the argument on Limbaugh’s terms.

No person deserves those labels,” she said. “Those insults were not a personal insult on one woman, but on women in general, and how they are looked at and how they are talked about.”

She instead wanted the discourse about birth control to be a moment where “these types of old, old slurs couldn’t stop us from having those conversations,” she said.

The conversations that words like “feminazi” were supposed to short-circuit.

In the days and weeks following Fluke’s 2012 testimony, she received a lot of messages. The ones she remembers weren’t the ones from people who supported Limbaugh, but the ones from people who shared with her their own stories of harassment and perseverance.

When Fluke called me, the first sentence she uttered was sympathy for Limbaugh’s family and loved ones. “Anyone who loses a loved one, that’s difficult regardless of what else might also be true,” she said.

She has spent the decade since her run-in with Limbaugh working against the types of rancor and divisiveness she believes he spent his career sowing. Today, she’s the president of a nonprofit that focuses on economic and social justice, on giving everyone an equally loud voice.

Limbaugh’s legacy includes introducing the word “feminazi” into the American lexicon. But it also includes, contrary to what he intended, catalyzing the work of women like Fluke. A woman who was called a dumb name by an angry man — and chose to be the bigger person.

Because though it would have driven Rush Limbaugh crazy, she really didn’t care what he had to say.

Monica Hesse is a columnist writing about gender and its impact on society. For more visit