There has been a fair bit of criticism lately about “marketplace feminism” (New Republic, Huffington Post, In These Times, and even a hilarious spoof of the concept from the New York Times). Marketplace feminism in these cases can be loosely understood as the commodification of feminism and female empowerment for commercial gain.
The conversation has given those of us who count ourselves as both entrepreneurs and feminists pause for thought: what does it mean to deploy a political ideology – in this case feminism – in a business context? Is marketplace feminism an inherently exploitative phenomenon, or – if done well – something that can be a positive force?
As a longtime self-proclaimed feminist and career entrepreneur, I am clear on my bias and will come right out of the gate with it: I believe that feminism has a valid and even essential place in business – just like it does everywhere else.
For the record, however, I didn’t always feel this way.
Growing Consciousness And Raising Capital
When I first came to feminist consciousness in my late teens as a university student in the 1980s, unchecked corporate greed was an article of faith. Sure, there were rumblings about divestment in portfolios containing South African mining businesses, however for the most part the Bonfire of the Vanities was still burning bright. Profit was awesome, bigger was better and ideas like corporate social responsibility were barely on the horizon.
As an activist, and furthermore a person of such privilege that I had never been faced with the raw necessity of earning a real living for myself, I turned up my nose at the idea of pursuing a business career. It felt suspect, greedy, dirty to be a money-chaser. I naturally assumed that I would go off and save the world, I would never need to worry about profit or margins, and my income would come from… somewhere. (As an aside, there really is nothing quite like being 19. It feels so great to know everything, even if that time is short.)
When, edging into my mid-20s, the penny (ha!) finally dropped that my limited and condescending attitude towards business served no one, and was actually pretty troubling given my championing of gender equality across the board. I realized that business in fact had the potential to be an elegant and powerful tool to create the social change that I craved, and that meanwhile I had rent to pay and groceries to buy. In short, I got over it.
My entire rationale for commercializing Lunapads and Luna Undies (then known as Lunapanties) in 1994 was to promote feminist values. The company’s original mission statement was “To create more positive and informed relationships between women, their bodies and the Earth”. The first marketing tagline was “Your Body. Your World. Your Choice.” A feminist agenda was the why. Lunapads was the how.
Thanks in large part to the mentorship of my amazing business partner Suzanne, I’ve become a fierce proponent of entrepreneurship as a vehicle for gender equality. Done from a values-based place, it can bring creative freedom, financial independence and workplace flexibility, an aspect particularly critical for parents. Why fight the corporate patriarchy when you can have your own scene, on your own time and terms?
Meanwhile in the for-profit menstrual space, we have watched in recent years with mixed emotions how multiple firms of varying sizes have taken up the banner – or at least the voice – of feminism in the service of marketing their goods and services. Some have featured brilliant, relevant messages about, for example, the absurd double standard of throwing/running/fighting “like a girl” in the service of selling chemical-soaked disposable tampons. Great message. Products? Don’t get me started.
Buying and Selling Empowerment
It rankled us deeply to witness what had essentially been our philosophy since day one get doused in marketing dollars and co-opted by companies that sincerely don’t care about their customer’s health or the environment, let alone gender equality.
The phenomenon, recently explored at length by Bitch magazine founder and creative director Andi Zeisler in her recent book We Were Feminists Once: From Riot Grrrl to CoverGirl®, the Buying and Selling of a Political Movement, takes on the disconcerting fact that since feminism has in recent years become “cool”, it’s now essentially being sold back to us as consumers, erasing the movement’s all-too-real goals and challenges. To be sure, we wholeheartedly agree that buying “feminist” lip balm will not end gender-based violence or pay inequity, nor will it safeguard reproductive rights: it’s an insincere ploy that ultimately adds insult to injury.
As feminists, entrepreneurs and marketers, it leaves Lunapads in an interesting bind. On the one hand, Andi’s critique of the “empowertising” shill is bang-on. On the other, where does it leave “real” feminist businesses (whatever that might be, which begs yet another question) like ours? Do we check our politics at the door? It reminds me of how I think about women in the military, as in I really wish that this thing didn’t exist in the first place, however if things are ever going to change then we need to get in there.
For all practical intents and purposes, a market-based economy is all we’ve got for now. If we’re making useful, environmentally responsible products and thus supporting our employees and community – is profit so bad? How are people supposed to be able to earn a living otherwise?
The current vitriol towards marketplace feminism – almost entirely coming from non-entrepreneurs, I should add – leaves us with the feeling that there may be some babies getting thrown out with the bathwater. Limiting the meaning of marketplace feminism (or not offering a more nuanced take on it) to something inherently negative – as opposed to a practice that can range in quality from appalling to awesome – feels deeply unfair and risks discouraging entrepreneurial feminists from seeking to earn a living, grow the economy, create progressive jobs and generally be their awesome selves.
It bothered us to read, for example, Andi’s sweeping statement in a recent Bitch editorial that “...corporations do not exist to change collective minds, normalize diverse bodies, or promote real-life equality. They exist to profit, to satisfy investors and stockholders, to cut costs to maximize efficiency, to skirt labor laws where they can. The recent elevation of feminism from political movement to brand ideology doesn’t change those goals.”
Ouch. We are not disputing that there are some major assholes out there who take every advantage of the capitalist system in the name of profit at any cost (some even calling themselves feminists while doing it), but – hello, what about those of us who are trying to find a better way?
I can almost hear Andi in my head now saying “I didn’t mean you!”. (Full disclosure: we have had a warm, respectful and entirely successful business relationship with Bitch for a heap of years). But nevertheless there’s something here, something that I recognize because I’ve been there and thought that. And that something goes back to the stereotype that you can’t be a “good” feminist while trying to make a buck. Because then you’re a capitalist, which, as Sarah Jaffe so acridly spelled out in her New Republic article, doesn’t work because “… what is good for capitalism is not necessarily good for women.”
At the risk of getting mired into a potentially endless debate about what qualifies as a “real” feminist business or “good” or “bad” marketplace feminism, here are a few personal guidelines on how, as marketers and consumers who are committed to doing their best to live their politics both personally and professionally, we support our own decision making.
- Does a product or service offering meaningfully support feminist values, or is their “empowerment” message just a ploy to sell an otherwise unrelated, possibly dodgy, product? Does the message imply that you are personally deficient (disempowered) if you don’t use their products, or use crappy ingredients or labor practices?
- Does the company behind the offering practice what they preach in terms of their internal policies and practices? When I first heard about REI’s Force of Nature campaign, for example, the first thing I did was look up how many senior managers and directors the company employs. Same/same, or different?
- Look for consistency, thoughtfulness and tone sensitivity. It’s hard to quantify this one, however as a recent example we were stunned to spot another menstrual product company passing out business cards at the Women’s March in January 2017. Sorry, ladies: not cool.
- Is the company taking a stand or otherwise supporting relevant issues and organizations outside of marketing opportunities? Look for initiatives and donations that are not related to marketing. At Lunapads, for example, we donate time and money to organizations that we believe in (Planned Parenthood, and our local Sexual Health and LGBTQ2S activist nonprofits) that we don’t try to “leverage” – we just believe in what they do, support them to the extent that we can and leave it at that.
- Look for certifications like Fair Trade, Cruelty-free and Women-Owned and (big shout-out here) B Corp. In order to qualify for B Corp status, a company’s entire operation, specifically its social and environmental impact, is third-party assessed and quantified. Chances are, if a company is committed enough to commit to being transparent enough to participate in these types of programs, there is a good chance that the rest of their values will be a fit for you.
Finally, for those who remain sceptical of the possibility of the feminist reinvention of capitalism, or an authentic expression of feminist values in a business – or at least small business – context (responsible marketplace feminism?), we urge you to, at a minimum, cut us some slack while we rise to the challenge and – better yet – support us. But then again, there we go again using our politics to sell something 😉
PS: if you have read this far, here’s a bonus for you! There is a Canadian blog called Liisbeth that is dedicated to Feminists in Business. Don’t miss their interview with me if you’d like to hear more on how and why I think that feminism can actually save capitalism. Liisbeth’s founder Petra Kassun-Mutch, has even developed a Feminist Business Canvas: check it!