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.

The anti-market stance became one of the political litmus tests used to determine whether you were a “true” feminist—a “mean girls” parlor game played by too many academic feminists in the late 1980s and 90s. Using quantitative methods was also enough to keep you outside the door to this remarkably exclusionary club. As a result of these prejudices, the Second Wave did not generate a distinctly feminist take on economics despite the focus of their reforms.

Then, about 1995, there arose a new discipline, feminist economics.  This breakthrough thinking necessarily erupted from a place entirely outside the women’s studies, gender studies, and cultural studies departments that had ring-fenced the movement. Brilliant scholars like Julie Nelson and Jane Humphries, who both were a big hit at Power Shift last year, took on the gender bias of neoclassical economics with astounding success. You can very much see the influence of feminist theory in the first edited book from that movement, Beyond Economic Man. But the influence did not go the other way. Ironically, both bastions that should have been affected by the rise of feminist economics—that is, orthodox economics and orthodox feminism—have remained pretty much in the dark about the very existence of this extraordinary work.

As I walked down Cowley Road that morning, I was feeling pretty grumpy about the blinkered attitude of orthodox feminism. However, I was also disturbed by things said the previous day by lay people, both on the opposite team and on the marketing team helping us with the action step. The general feeling expressed was that feminism needed rebranding because it was ugly and negative and no one wanted to be associated with it. Feminism was said to be “over,” very much an antique of the 1970s and no longer relevant. At one point, it was even said that feminism had contributed nothing to the advancement of women!

We now have data about the relative impact of capitalism on women. Contrary to conventional feminist wisdom, the industrialized Western-style democracies—where capitalism is most established and longest lived—show the best gender conditions. The communist countries are statistically significantly worse and the least developed countries have worse conditions still. In sum, the available data simply do not support the notion that capitalism, whatever other disturbing faults it may have, is uniquely detrimental to women, or that it is causal of their oppression. For this graph, three data groups were created, using World Economic Forum data: the market democracies, the former communist countries, and the sub-Saharan African countries. A box plot was constructed from the total composite 2010 WEF Gender Gap score for each group, as well as for all 134 nations. The boxes represent the middle 50% of each group. The bold line across the middle of each box is the median for that group. The vertical lines depict the range of the data and cannot be longer than 1.5 times the inter-quartile range (the range of the middle 50%). Points beyond are marked separately as outliers. On the far right, all nations are graphed. You can see that the market democracies are dramatically better on gender measures than the rest of the world.  I have used 2010 data here because the activities of the women’s economic empowerment movement and, particularly, the efforts of a few African governments, have created dramatic progress in the past five years, causing a handful of African countries to rise.

All the old saws came out.  At breakfast, Sue Lawton, a serious activist, had said that feminism was associated with negative things like bra-burning. Susan Rudy, a serious scholar, had retorted that no one had ever burned a bra. This is how that argument invariably goes. (While it remains contested whether anyone burned a bra at the Atlantic City demonstration in 1968, Toronto feminists did burn bras in 1979.)

Speaking purely from a marketing perspective, I have never understood why feminists deny the bra burning. The image perfectly distills the message of the movement into a single dramatic gesture. The attention the alleged incident warranted and the way it has stuck in the popular memory are testament to how brilliant it was (or would have been) as a protest stunt. And, really, forty years later, why would anyone fall on their sword in defense of brassieres? When feminists today are confronted with the bra burning, instead of denying it, they should say, “Yeah, wasn’t that great branding?”

But it made my soul sick to hear feminism attacked and to watch Susan Rudy, good sport that she is, gently trying to defend it. I was haunted through the night by the memory of Susan’s repeated insistence that feminism is not a brand, but a social movement.  It is a refrain I have used myself, many times, to remind feminist theorists that what they are dealing with is not a set of propositions, but a massive real-time push for change.  How will the question of the debate, even though it was meant as a bit of cheek, fit into a worldview where the movement, to Susan and her colleagues, as well as to me, is something sacred?

Yet as I stood in that magical moment on Cowley Road, I saw in a flash that the symbol in the stones was in danger of becoming, like so many unlabelled symbols dotting the architecture of this ancient city, the inscrutable icon of a lost history. We must resuscitate this movement before it fades, as it did during the 1950s, completely out of memory.

Should we invent new symbols that reflect feminist consciousness for a new women’s movement? Or must we keep muddling along under the musty thinking and insistent orthodoxy of the Second Wave, a movement that was highly effective in its time but that has become purposively disengaged?

The Guardian recently remarked that the term “riot grrrls” seems to come up every time “someone with a vagina starts a band.” There have certainly been new embodiments of feminism since the Second Wave, from Naomi Wolf to Sleater-Kinney. The Third Wave was declared and then the Fourth. In truth, none had the scope and vision of the First or Second Wave, nor did they get the same traction. Now, with several of these bands making a comeback, perhaps we could build a tent big enough for them and Helen Reddy. (No! No! Not Helen Reddy! I’m kidding about Helen Reddy.)

This, to my mind, is the question being addressed in the Power Shift debate. We have new information, loads of it, that shows Gayle Rubin was right: gender inequality is everywhere, even in the former communist societies and even in (actually, especially in) places as yet untouched by capitalism. There is a new global movement already working to “empower women economically” and Power Shift is, I am happy to say, becoming one of its main convening events. Yet the old feminists seem to be unwilling to engage with something that could literally change the lives of millions.

Building a self-awareness, a set of symbols, and even a theory for this movement is a necessary next step. In the marketing world, we call that kind of activity “branding.” But, really this is just another word for something all successful social movements do—they pitch a tent in a visible place, display their symbols and slogans, so they can recruit adherents, attract resources, and lobby for change. The feminist movement itself has been doing this, in “waves,” for 200 years.

There is little to be gained by maligning feminism, in disregard of how important and successful this movement has been in the past. Nor should we walk entirely away from symbols such as the one in the Cowley sidewalk. No rebranding campaign ever abandons its “brand heritage” altogether, nor does it toss out the legacy of the brand’s accomplishments (aka, the “brand equity”) carelessly. Determining how to create a new agenda, a new “position” for the brand, that will inspire new adherents, but retain old loyalties, is the final test of a rebranding campaign. The question is whether, and how, to do it for feminism now.  At the core of this exercise, however, must be the admission that, while the feminist movement has been right about many things, it was profoundly wrong about the power of markets to aid its cause.


The debaters at Power Shift will be joined by their sixth and sparkling member, Amanda Poole.  Amanda has been a leader of the Power Shift team since it was only an idea. She is a highly respected marketing expert and, of course, a feminist.  

The debate will occur at the Oxford Union on the evening of November 9 and will be presided by Helen Mountfield QC.  Further details about the Power Shift program can be found here.  If you wish to indicate your interest in being invited, please click here.

#feminismrebranding #rebrandingfeminism

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