Women pickets in suffrage procession down city sidewalk.
Wikimedia Commons

IDEAS | LINDA RODRIGUEZ MCROBBIE

Is your feminist T-shirt helping women?

Long before there were pink protest hats, or “Notorious RBG” T-shirts celebrating Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, women on both sides of the Atlantic were making fashion statements about feminism.

On Dec. 5, 1908, at Royal Albert Hall in London, David Lloyd George gave a speech that went on for more than two hours. As he wound down, it became clear that the Lloyd George — a top official in Britain’s ruling party and later the prime minister — was not going to address one of the most pressing issues of the time: Women’s suffrage.

A cry went up: “We want deeds, not words!” Helen Ogston, a 25-year-old Scottish woman wearing the green, violet, and white sash of the suffragettes around her shoulders, flowers in her hair, stood up and excoriated Lloyd George. As Royal Albert Hall guards approached, she pulled out a dog whip and began hitting the men. They dragged her from the stalls; one of them, she said later, pushed the lit end of his cigar into the fleshy inside of her wrist, another repeatedly punched her in the chest.

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Ogston was by now, however, used to this kind of violence — the reason she was carrying the whip in the first place was for protection, after having been savagely beaten by men leaving suffragette meetings. Women dressed in the green, violet, and white of the militant suffragettes could expect to be punched, spat at, or even sexually assaulted, but they wore the colors anyway.

Today, replicas of the “Votes For Women” badges that got suffragettes beaten in the streets are for sale in museum gift shops. And that’s not all: You can buy a stuffed suffragette bearing a “Votes for Women” placard for your Christmas tree; violet and green “Votes for Women” umbrellas; a “Suffragette Cocktail tea towel,” featuring a vintage cocktail recipe — “one suffragette cocktail will convert man and four will make him wash dishes,” it reads; an eggcup shaped to resemble Emmeline Pankhurst, a woman whose demand for “deeds not words” propelled the suffragettes into acts of arson and assault, hunger strikes, and sabotage.

Mrs Emmeline Pankhurst, Leader of the Women's Suffragette movement, was arrested outside Buckingham Palace while trying to present a petition to King George V in May 1914.

The neo-suffragette merchandising is just the beginning. As feminist leaders decry President Trump’s court picks and his party’s legislative and regulatory agenda, American women can show their solidarity through all manner of products. Beyond the “Notorious RBG” swag, there are T-shirts declaring that “This Is What a Feminist Looks Like” and tote bags bearing the slogan “Strong Girls Club.” You can read about “17 Pieces of Feminist Jewelry That’ll Show You’re a Nasty Woman” and the “Feminist Jewelry to Wear While You Smash the Patriarchy.” There are the “Feminist” T-shirts peddled by H&M, the cheap “Feminist” necklaces sold by Forever 21. There are the independent retailers selling cute sweatshirts that read “Females are Strong as Hell” and “Empowered Women Empower Women.” There’s Dior’s $700 “We Should All Be Feminists” T-shirt, which borrows its slogan from Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s essay, and Prabal Garung’s “Girls Just Want to Have Fundamental Rights” T-shirts, a bargain at $195. Think of something, anything, and the Internet provides. Feminist socks? Of course. Feminist blankets? Absolutely. Feminist soap? Why, yes.

The mass-marketing of feminist merchandise raises thorny ethical issues. Critics note that some fast-fashion retailers that sell “feminist” T-shirts use production methods often that rely on women in low-wage, exhausting work. What does it mean that the male CEO of a self-described “feminist” retailer — one that sells shirts that read “Ask Before You Grab” and “Let’s Talk About Consent” — fired his staff when they confronted him about how he had sexually harassed women in the past? Who benefits from a runway parade of impish and mostly white Chanel models carrying placards reading “Ladies First” and “History is Her Story”? Do we trivialize the ferocity of Emmeline Pankhurst and women like her when we eat soft-boiled eggs out of her head?

The intrinsic merit of an idea or an ideology isn’t the only factor in whether it catches on, and even the worthiest social-reform movements still need good marketing to succeed. But the question is whether this wave of feminist swag is attracting new adherents or diluting feminism’s “brand.” Is feminism, the ideology, being crushed under the weight of feminism, the trend?

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A lot of feminist merchandise comes across Andi Zeisler’s desk. Zeisler is the co-founder and editorial director of Bitch Media, which publishes a quarterly magazine and produces podcasts. The organization, which started in the mid-1990s as a zine, distributed out of the back of a station wagon, bills itself as “a feminist response to pop culture.”

In an interview, she brings up a $95 T-shirt, by designers Pam & Gela, bearing the slogan “Feminist Gangsta.” It’s aimed at someone who thinks “that feminism is cool and it’s a bad-ass thing to be,” she says. “But using a term that’s appropriated from black culture in a specific way makes it dicey.” The women who started the company might see themselves as pro-woman, she added, “But is it serving a larger feminist whole or is this just capitalizing on a thing that happens to be hot right now?”

Zeisler examined the glittery, feel-good, girl power commercialization of feminism in her 2016 book, “We Were Feminists Once: From Riot Grrl to Covergirl, the Buying and Selling of a Political Movement.” She charted the rise of pop feminism from Beyonce’s MTV Music Awards performance in 2014, when the queen performed “Flawless” against the word “Feminist” in brilliant, glowing white letters taller than her; “almost overnight,” Zeisler said, feminism was everywhere. “Feminism, so long dismissed as the realm of the angry, the cynical, the man-hating, and the off-puttingly hairy, was officially a thing. It was hot. And, perhaps most important, it was sellable,” Zeisler wrote.

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On a basic level, this makes sense: Clothing and fashion are part of how we tell other people who we are. “Clothing is very closely tied to our self-identity,” explained Carolyn Mair, a London-based fashion psychologist and consultant, via email; slogan T-shirts and accessories with messages broadcast that identity more clearly. “When clothing makes our group cohesion explicit, it unites us with that subgroup and simultaneously separates us from others.” Still, she notes, “when wearing a slogan T-shirt is fashionable, it can be worn simply because it’s fashionable without a great deal of thought about the message.”

Moreover, the products that have emerged from this brave new world of declarative feminism are also increasingly divorced from the actual message of feminism. “Have you seen the feminist lipstick? That’s my favorite,” laughed Julianne Escobedo Shepherd, editor-in-chief of Jezebel. (They’re not the only ones, but a company in California sells “empowering” lipsticks that come in shades called “Icon,” “Seeker,” “Explorer,” and “Warrior.”)

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“I understand why women, particularly women, and people who are new to feminism want to signal that they’re feminists,” Escobedo Shepherd said. “I understand why you’d want to wear a shirt that says ‘The Future Is Female.’ But I think in the past few years, there’s been a conflation of signaling that you’re a feminist with actually doing feminism, which involves to me feminist activism, and actually getting out there and fighting for the rights that we’re losing so frequently.”

Market-friendly feminism, she argues, is a distraction at a time when self-declared feminists ought to be at their angriest; money spent on slogan T-shirts is money that could be put to better uses. “I’m not interested in the feel-good, signal feminism because I don’t feel good at this juncture,” she says. “I think the ‘Future Is Female’ T-shirts. . . really signify a sleepiness about something we really need to be awake for.”

Still, the story of women’s empowerment has long been tied spiritually to material consumption and fashion. Historically, consumer power gave women a kind of freedom, however hollow, that they had previously not enjoyed or had lost in the face of tightening social and gender roles. From the early 1800s, for example, the rise of shopping districts, department stores, and shopping as a pastime allowed middle- and upper-class women to leave their homes without male chaperones and move more freely out in the world.

Wikimedia Commons
Helen Ogston being arrested on the 6 December 1908 as appearred in the Illustrated London News (that would have been sold in the US).

In the early 1900s, the suffragettes recognized the power of fashion and image in the marketplace of ideas. The leaders of Britain’s suffragettes, the Women’s Social and Political Union, encouraged their members to wear their best white dresses for the large scale public rallies, an effort to demonstrate that it wasn’t just whip-wielding harridans or frumpy unmarried matrons who wanted the vote, but beautiful, refined, elegant women, too. Modern feminists cringe at such distinctions, but the activists of that era hoped to to counteract the pervasive notion it was a fringe minority of unwomanly women who wanted rights.

Even though the ribbons, sashes, and badges in green, violet, and white were enough to get some women assaulted, the suffragettes’ colors proved fashionable. Where initially suffragette merchandise was only available at special shops and stalls run by the Women’s Social and Political Union, by 1908, you could even buy green, violet, and white underwear at major London department stores like Liberty and Selfridges. “The accessories made it exciting,” Rosie Broadley, curator of the National Portrait Gallery’s 2018 Votes For Women display, told The Telegraph. “They seemed like the latest thing. They made it fashionable to become a suffragette.”

Sound familiar?

Fashion helped make the suffrage movement mainstream in a way that pamphlets and protests never could. At the same time, it also established a norm: When you’re demanding your rights, your appearance matters.

Much of today’s feminist swag is aimed at stylish, conventionally attractive women who might not wear their politics on their sleeves in daily life, but would be a lot more likely to when that sleeve is on a clever T-shirt.

“People have this stereotypical idea of what a feminist looks like. If you don’t conform to that and you’re wearing a T-shirt that says ‘Feminist Gangsta’, everyone is going to be like, ‘Oh, that’s so cute!’ But if you fit the stereotype of a mean, nasty feminist who is going to cut [someone’s] penis off, wearing that shirt isn’t cute,” said Zeisler. Furthermore, she observed, white feminists have more freedom to wear confrontational slogans than women of color do. “It is very difficult,” she said, “for a nonwhite woman wearing a T-shirt that says ‘I had an abortion’ or that says that ‘I don’t care about your [expletive] patriarchy.’ ”

The blossoming of feminist swag does coincide with a greater social commitment to, or at least interest in, the empowerment of women — a time when a majority of people around the world agree that women’s rights are fundamental. According to a 2015 global survey from Pew Research Center, a median of 65 percent of women in 38 surveyed nations said that it is very important that women have equal rights with men in their societies. Teasing out the threads of causation and correlation, however, are difficult.

“I think any time you get a critical mass of individuals and companies recognizing that there is monetary value in an idea, an ideology, it’s fair to assume that people, consumers, whoever, actually have an interest,” said Zeisler. And selling engagement can work — feminism and feminist messages are increasingly part of the “ambient cultural background,” Zeisler said, “something that you pick up by osmosis.”

Every movement needs a way to draw in new members. “There is a really important place for an entry level,” said Escobedo Shepherd, the Jezebel editor. “I think that feminism’s most radical tenets aren’t necessarily going to be the gateway for a lot of people. But I do think that the gateway needs to be a little bit less connected to capitalism.” Ideally, she said, someone will buy a feminist T-shirt and Google what feminism means and its history. “That’s the best we can hope for,” she said.

Merchandising and fashion helped propel women’s rights into the mainstream in the early 1900s. And now that’s happening again, at a moment when corporate marketers have grown far more sophisticated at turning the cultural zeitgeist into profit. Still, there’s an easy way for anyone to visibly demonstrate a commitment to feminism — to proclaim an empowering message to the world — without dropping $700 on a designer garment, or even $13 on a fast-fashion version. “Everyone can just DIY their own feminist T-shirt,” said Escobedo Shepherd. “Thrift a T-shirt and get a Sharpie.”

7. Justice Ginsburg mid workout routine in RBG, a Magnolia Pictures release. Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures/ CNN Films.
7. Justice Ginsburg mid workout routine.
Magnolia Pictures/ CNN Films