Does Feminism Need Rebranding?
I was walking along the Cowley Road toward Oxford’s city center when suddenly I noticed, embedded in a stretch of stones I had crossed many times, a circular bronze ingot depicting a woman sign with a fist in the middle.
This bronze ingot glinted from the stones of Oxford, cutting through my funk as I worried over the state of feminism and the debate at Power Shift.
I stopped and looked quizzically at this marker. There was no legend to explain why it was there or when it had been set. I looked for a clue at the buildings nearby, a non-descript set of terrace houses next to a popular restaurant called the Kazbah, but there was no historical edifice or inscription of any kind.
I later discovered that there are 28 ingot pairs—“pavement jewellery” —along the sidewalks of Cowley, all set by a collective of artists intending to document the history of the community that has lived along the road.
This particular sign is, for me, the most meaningful symbol that remains of the Second Wave feminist movement. Just seeing it there, glinting in the early morning sunlight, evoked a rush of memories that have been formative of my path in life. Like the jagged lightning that emanates from the symbol in the ingot, the sign in my mind radiates outward toward a thousand speeches, articles, conversations, marches, arguments, cheers, and tears from my past. This sign means much to many of my generation. Though some of the associations it carries are negative and some positive, this was without question one of the most powerful symbols of our times.
My moment of noticing the beautiful ingot in the ground was magical. The reason I was staring downward so intently as I walked was that I was working through an argument about the current state of the feminist movement. The symbol interrupted this intense train of thought, presenting itself to me from the familiar pavement like. . . well. . .a sign.
I had been in London the previous day, meeting with the debate teams who are going to argue the question, “This house believes feminism needs rebranding,” at Power Shift. Putting together the debate is always the toughest part of designing the event, but this year has been particularly hard.
I had begun months ago with the question I really wanted to hear: “This house believes governments should intervene in the marketplace to equalize competition between women and men.” Three people volunteered immediately to argue on behalf of this proposition. But then I spent three months struggling to find three more who would stand for the opposite view.
The very idea that feminism could use markets and marketing is anathema to both economists and feminists. So the seemingly innocuous title of this book, edited by my friends Miriam Catterall, Lorna Stevens, and Pauline Maclaran, is an abomination in many eyes. I have an essay in this book titled “Market Feminism: The Case for a Paradigm Shift.” It is essentially an appeal to open up feminism to a new strategy by acknowledging how important markets have been for the movement. Today this 2000 article is one of my most frequently cited works.
Now, mind you, the idea that governments should not intervene in markets to show preference for or give protection to disadvantaged groups is orthodox economics. And, in the European Union, it is the law. Yet, as I pounded the virtual pavement from the governments of both the UK and the EU to the journalists at The Economist to the department for economics at Oxford, I could not find a single soul willing to stand up for this core piece of conventional wisdom.
I thought it really very disturbing that people who will otherwise spout this view in a classroom or over dinner as if it came directly from God did not have the courage to defend it in front of an audience who works to help those whom their wisdom disadvantages. I had felt as though I was staring at the dirty toenails of conservative economists’ clay feet and it was pretty disgusting.
So, eventually, I gave up. I picked what I thought was a light-hearted alternative that would help us collect material for this year’s action step, which is to be a report about whether and how the women’s economy should be branded. Again, three people popped right up to argue in favor of the motion: Sue Lawton, an indefatigable leader of the new global effort to identify and empower women-owned businesses, as well as Baroness Lorely Burt and Mike Thornton, both advocates for women and markets within the British political system. Fairly quickly, I also found two who would take up the position that feminism does not, in fact, need rebranding: Susan Rudy, a respected feminist scholar who now heads up the Rhodes Project, and Josh Levs, the brave father who challenged Time Warner’s paternity leave policy and author of a new book, All In.
I struggled for weeks to find the sixth and last person for this debate. The Power Shift team was telling me, urgently, to choose someone because we needed to announce the debate in the marketing materials.
I enlisted the help of one of the “opposing” team members, Susan Rudy, and together we explored the (always somewhat odd) territory of academic feminism, looking for someone game to stand up and say, essentially, “Are you kidding? Why would you rebrand the most important social movement of the past two hundred years?”
In both the UK and the US, the suffrage activists planned each appearance with a nod to drama, beauty, and press-worthiness. There were lovely programs like this one, as well as color themes for each march. Indeed, there were also hunger strikes and women chained to fences. But even these were designed to call attention to the movement. Importantly, even at the time of the suffragists, the women’s movement had renamed itself, as it would do twice more by the end of the 20th century.
You would think that’s an easy ask. But, as with the clay-footed economists, the reasons for demurring were revelatory. What we learned was that these scholars did not want to engage a debate that phrased the prospect of feminism in the terminology of the market. Implicitly, I think, there was also an unwillingness to appear before an audience trying to work through market means to empower women.
Here the crux of the problem is revealed. Orthodox feminism (and, yes, despite the inevitable protests, there is such a thing) maintains that “the market” is corrupt. Purists will not even share the air with those who think otherwise.
It is true that the most visible success of the Second Wave was the historic rush of women into the formal labor market that came from feminism’s challenge to sex-segregated employment, unequal pay, barriers to financial services, and so forth. Economists do agree that a major reason the rich nations are rich is the swell of productivity that came from including women during the second half of the 20th century. And, really, I cannot emphasize enough that the difference in gender equality measures between the developed and developing nations today is due mostly to the fact that the “advanced” nations had successful feminist movements early on. Nevertheless, the firm stance of those who guard feminism’s purity is that women and the market must have nothing to do with each other.
After the fierce activity of the 1970s subsided, the movement retreated to the quiet corners of the academy where it took up a doctrine based on an analogy between gender and class inequality and inspired by Marxism. For the next two decades, you could not breathe an argument that questioned feminism’s war with capitalism—and you still can’t, in those same quiet corners, despite the fact that the analogy to the class war was long ago declared completely inappropriate. (Heidi Hartmann’s 1981 “The Unhappy Marriage of Marxism and Feminism” is, for my money, the best critique, but Gayle Rubin’s classic “The Traffic in Women” presciently argued in 1975 that the evidence, even then, did not support the idea that capitalism was the cause of women’s subordination.)
As I documented in Fresh Lipstick, three splinter groups marked the Second Wave, each inspired by different books, with different leaders, agendas, and even style preferences. In marketing, we would call these “market segments” and the whole point would be to deal with each as inclusively as possible. In history, however, the approach was a turf war, complete with petty sniping over everything from jobs to hairdos.