Marketplace Feminism: Who is Really Being Empowered?

International Women’s Day has come and gone, the pink ribbons and pretty banners have been put into storage for next season’s wonder women and McDonald’s golden arches have been returned to their rightful state. Predictably, the annual onslaught of marketplace feminism made my gendered blood boil and I quietly seethed over the state of a sociopolitical movement I care so much about.

As a business coach with a “feminist” background, I urge you to cautiously consider how your product or service is actually “empowering” women. The intention may be well-meaning but to co-opt the language of liberation in the service of capitalism makes consumers uneasy for all kinds of reasons. In fact, it may just have the opposite effect of what you intended.

Marketplace feminism (also called “empowertising”) is a deep and far-reaching subject well beyond the scope of a mere blog post. If you’re interested in learning more I strongly recommend Andi Zeisler’s book, We Were Feminists Once: From Riot Grrrl to CoverGirl®, the Buying and Selling of a Political Movement (2016).

Before the Equal Credit Opportunity Act was passed in 1974, women in the US were prevented from having credit cards in their own names. Married women needed a male cosigner (husband or father) in order to use a card with his name on it. Single, divorced, and widowed women were denied credit altogether. The opening quote in Zeisler’s book sums up the concept of marketplace feminism nicely. This ad is from 1998:

“In a village chapel in upstate New York, 150 years ago, the initial bold steps in a revolution that would ensure women the right to vote were taken at the first women’s rights celebration at Seneca Falls. And now you can celebrate the anniversary of this milestone in women’s rights, and the strength and conviction of the courageous suffragettes involved whenever you use your First USA Anniversary Series Platinum Mastercard®. Celebrate women’s rights. Apply today.”

The idea that consumerism itself is a feminist act is a key principle of marketplace feminism and the idea is not at all new. One of the earliest adopters was the American Tobacco Company (ATC) who compared this emerging market of empowered women to “opening a gold mine right in our front yard.” In fact, the ATC was so committed to the cause that they helped to organize a New York walk for equality in 1929, “hiring female participants to hold aloft  Lucky Strikes as ‘torches of freedom’ while encouraging bystanders to ‘Fight another sex taboo!’ by joining them in inhaling the heady smoke of gender equality.” (Zeisler, p. 6)

The list of awkward and embarrassing advertising campaigns goes on and on, from “I dreamed I climbed the highest mountain in my Maidenform bra” to Massengill’s feminine hygiene “freedom spray” and Barely There lingerie models pining for “panties that don’t ride up so I can sign the Declaration of Independence and then go to the fireworks.

So before you give away another pink pen or post another well-meaning #thefutureisfemale or #girlpower meme, please consider your consumer audience. We’re smarter than that.

Instead, try demonstrating how your business charitable donations, hiring practices and HR policies actually make a tangible difference to the feminist movement and why that’s important to your company.

We may have come a long way, baby, but we still have much further to go.