Feminism is not for sale

Kat – September 2018

After almost four years away, I went back to the US for the first time a few weeks ago. It’s a little surreal walking down the same NYC streets as a visitor which you used to walk everyday to work. It’s also always interesting when you have moments to compare how much you have – and haven’t – changed. I’ve always been a feminist, but only during my time in Berlin did that influence my work choices, first by launching the women’s leadership podcast Leading Rebels and then cofounding CoWomen.

Awesome feminist merch from independent bookstore The Strand, Bulletin that donates to Planned Parenthood, Wildfang which donates to a rotating monthly charity, and The Hivery, another kickass women’s community & coworking space.

This time in NYC though, it was refreshing to see my feminist views reflected back at me in almost every store I stopped at. Everything from bookstores to clothing shops had notebooks, postcards, shirts, everything and anything you could imagine emblazoned with feminist slogans. I definitely was guilty of picking up something almost every time I saw it. Guilty though is the key word here, because on my last day I walked by a store that made me stop in my tracks. It was a huge clothing store, loud music blaring out the open doors, clearly targeting a younger generation. And it had a sign on the storefront which said: Work hard so you can shop harder.

After so long in Europe, which is by no means perfect (this is a quote attributed to Coco Chanel after all) but does have a slightly better relationship to consumerism, this was jarring to see. For someone to publically, unironically say the reason you should work is so you can buy stuff – and use this as an advertisement for you to come into their shop – seemed so tone deaf to me. This is targeting a generation of people that entered the job market in a huge recession, that have learned the hard way that happiness is not defined by what you own, and that chooses doing meaningful work over a higher paycheck.

Suffice it to say that I did not feel spoken to by this sign. But later that day, I had to realize that there is a connection between it and what I had been doing. Haley Nahman recently wrote a great piece for Man Repeller on how reaction culture is the internet’s biggest blindspot, and it’s growing in which she argues, “In the era of Instagram, when personhood becomes personal brand, aligning yourself with a particular set of beliefs has become more important than thinking and behaving in accordance with those beliefs.” Haley is speaking specifically about our culture of firing off quick reactions to events on social media instead of engaging with them more deeply, but that day in NYC I also saw the connection to our consumer culture. After all, if I buy a shirt which proudly proclaims I’m a feminist, I’m doing my part, right?

I’m not discouraging you to buy things about causes you believe in, voting with your money is a very real thing, and we at CoWomen have a shop too after all. But do have a look at who that money is going to. Are the companies you’ve giving your money to actually using it to further the cause they’re advertising on their products? Or just using a movement being “in” to create products that sell and fatten their bottom line?

Because you need to make sure your eyeshadow is on brand before you go out to smash the patriarchy.

Case in point: L’Oréal in Germany thought it would make use of the feminist “hype” and release a video with singer Lena Meyer-Landrut advertising an eyeshadow pallet you can use to create a “feminist statement look” (I wish I was joking). I’m happy to say that in this case the public created enough of a backlash for L’Oréal to take down the video – though they are keeping it as part of the pallet name.

I’m certainly not perfect when it comes to this – even if the items I bought that day in NYC were all from shops I support (such an independent bookstores), I can think of an item or two I own that didn’t help create positive change. I hope this also opens your eyes to questioning who you’re buying from next time and not get blinded by the cool slogan. Hint: A company like L’Oréal which only has 5 women on their managing board of 15, despite being about products for women, and doesn’t even pledge to use proceeds of their “feminist palette” for any cause beyond making money, doesn’t qualify.

Most important of all: Your time is as valuable as your money. Even if it’s just grabbing coffee with a younger woman to give her help and advice, we need action to follow words if we want to create lasting change. I’m certainly proud to be part of creating that change at CoWomen – we don’t just sell shirts that proclaim empowered (wo)men empower women, we also use the proceeds from those shirts to create a community that helps women to thrive in work & life.