With a nickname like “the most hated woman in America,” you’d think everyone and their mother would know who Madalyn Murray O'Hair was. But since you’re probably shaking your head with confusion right now, that’s clearly not the case.
In 1995, O’Hair disappeared. Not soon after, so did her legacy. But once you hear the story behind Netflix’s new movie, The Most Hated Woman in America, you’ll meet a woman who’s impossible to forget.
Before there were notable atheists like Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens, there was a Texas housewife who didn’t want her son to pray in the classroom. Born in 1919 to a religious Pennsylvania family, Madalyn O'Hair grew up to become the funny, foul-mouthed, and feud-prone face of the modern atheist movement.
The story begins in 1960, when O'Hair sued the Baltimore City Public School System under the assertion that it was unconstitutional for her son to participate in mandatory Bible readings. By 1963, the Murray v. Curlett lawsuit had climbed all the way to the Supreme Court. An 8-1 ruling effectively ended official Bible-reading in schools across the country.
Following the Supreme Court decision, O'Hair moved to Austin, TX, to found the American Atheists organization. She devoted the rest of her life to campaigning against the church’s power, including a campaign to remove "In God We Trust" from U.S. currency.
In addition to being an atheist, O’Hair was an outspoken feminist. In a revolutionary interview with Playboy in 1965, O'Hair said she believed in “complete equality with men: intellectual, professional, economic, social, and sexual; they're all equally essential, and they're all equally lacking in American society today.”
She also had some choice words for the American male: “I'm not saying that all American men are this way, but nine out of ten are breast-fixated, wham-bam-thank-you-ma'am cretins who just don't give a damn about anyone's gratification but their own.”
So, given this reputation as a magnet for criticism, and given the significance of her life’s work, you’d think that people would notice when a woman who had been causing a fuss her entire life suddenly disappeared.
On August 27, 1995, O'Hair, her son Jon, and granddaughter Robin vanished. On the locked door of the American Atheists was a cryptic note: “The Murray O'Hair family has been called out of town on an emergency basis. We do not know how long we will be gone at the time of the writing of this memo." Yet O’Hair’s messy house, replete with open pill bottles and abandoned dogs, wasn’t the home of a person on a pre-planned trip.
Despite the apparent fishiness of this scene, everyone, from the Austin police to the American Atheists society, went on with business as usual. A missing persons report was filed. The missing persons report went cold.
It was only years later, when a private investigator, Tim Young, and a reporter, John MacCormack, teamed up to write a story about the O’Hairs that the truth finally came out. In March of 2001, the dismembered bodies of O’Hair, her son, and her granddaughter were found buried on a ranch in Texas. And this brutal murder wasn’t the work of her political enemy. David Waters, a disgruntled former office manager at the American Atheists, orchestrated and carried out the killings.
O’Hair’s influential life ended with a deeply disturbing and macabre twist. But why would a story like this languish in the 20th century?
“The first obvious answer, again, is that she’s a woman,” Leo said.
At least the film is a step in the right direction towards exhuming O'Hair's story from the dusty files of forgotten history.
The Most Hated Woman in America airs on Netflix on March 24, 2017.