As feminists and entrepreneurs, Madeleine and Suzanne have been working for nearly 20 years to run an unapologetically feminist for-profit business. Unfortunately, we’re now seeing brands co-opting feminist values in the name of making a buck, while turning away from the real social, economic and political conditions that make the patriarchy a reality. They took a moment to reflect on the current conversation about marketplace feminism – and how entrepreneurship done right can be a deeply feminist choice.
How do you define yourselves as feminists and entrepreneurs?
Madeleine: My entire rationale for commercializing Lunapads and LunaUndies (then known as Lunapanties) in 1994 was to promote feminist values. To wit, the company’s original mission statement was “To create more positive and informed relationships between women, their bodies and the Earth”. The first marketing tagline was “Your Body. Your World. Your Choice.” A feminist agenda was the why. Lunapads was the how.
I wasn’t always such a fan. When I first came to feminist consciousness in my late teens as a university student in the 1980s, unchecked corporate greed was an article of faith. Bigger was better, profit was the driver, and ideas like corporate social responsibility were barely on the horizon.
As an activist, and furthermore a person of privilege that had not considered the raw necessity of earning a real living for myself, I turned up my nose at the idea of pursuing a business career: it felt dirty to be a capitalist money-chaser. I naturally assumed that I would go off and save the world without having to sell anything, and my income would come from… somewhere. (As an aside, there really is nothing quite like being 19. It feels so great to know everything!)
Thanks in large part to the mentorship of my amazing business partner Suzanne, I’ve become a fierce proponent of entrepreneurship as a vehicle for social change and the economic independence of marginalized groups and individuals. It can also bring creative freedom, prosperity and workplace flexibility, an aspect particularly critical for parents. Why fight the corporate patriarchy when you can have your own scene, on your own time and terms?
Suzanne: My education on feminism began when I joined Lunapads in 1999. Before then, my values were a product of business school in the 1980s and working in a very traditional corporate environment in the mainstream business world. So, needless to say, feminism wasn’t on my radar. Let’s just say how grateful I am those blinders were removed when I met Madeleine.
After having been demoralized by my experience of capitalism in the mainstream corporate world, I saw the opportunity to grow Lunapads into a success story as a perfect way to prove that social entrepreneurship was not just a noble gesture, but a viable and worthy way to change the face of capitalism.
What’s your take on marketplace feminism?
Madeleine: The common definition of marketplace feminism is essentially using feminist values to sell products and services that do not necessarily have anything to do with meaningfully advancing the cause of gender equality (Bic for Her, anyone?).
The phenomenon, recently explored at length by Bitch magazine founder and creative director Andi Zeisler in her recent book We Were Feminists Once: From Riot Grrrl to CoverGirl®, the Buying and Selling of a Political Movement, takes on the disconcerting fact that since feminism has in recent years become “cool”, it’s now essentially being sold back to us as consumers, erasing the movement’s all-too-real goals and challenges. It’s an insincere ploy that ultimately adds insult to injury.
A feminist agenda was the why. Lunapads was the how
It rankles us deeply to witness what had essentially been our philosophy since day one get doused in marketing dollars and co-opted by companies that don’t care about their customer’s health or the environment, let alone gender equality.
As feminists, entrepreneurs and marketers, it leaves us in an interesting bind however. On the one hand, Andi’s critique of the “empowertising” shill is bang-on. On the other, where does it leave sincere feminist businesses like ours? Do we check our politics – the ones that got us here in the first place – at the door? Or do we become champions for a broader interpretation of marketplace feminism’s – and capitalism’s – potential to do good, given the right conditions?
What does a feminist business look like?
Madeleine: The current narrative against marketplace feminism leaves us with the feeling that there may be some babies getting thrown out with the bathwater.
It bothered us to read, for example, Andi’s sweeping statement in a recent Bitch editorial that “...corporations do not exist to change collective minds, normalize diverse bodies, or promote real-life equality. They exist to profit, to satisfy investors and stockholders, to cut costs to maximize efficiency, to skirt labor laws where they can. The recent elevation of feminism from political movement to brand ideology doesn’t change those goals.”
Ouch. We are not disputing that there are some major jerks out there who take every advantage of the capitalist system in the name of profit at any cost (some even calling themselves feminist while doing it), but, hello, what about those of us who are trying to find a better way? Limiting the meaning of marketplace feminism (or not offering a more nuanced take on it) to something inherently negative – as opposed to a practice that can range in quality from appalling to awesome – feels deeply unfair and risks discouraging entrepreneurial feminists from seeking to earn a living, grow the economy, create progressive jobs and generally be their awesome selves. My feminism tells me that women should be able to take power in the world, define it on their own terms and seek peace, prosperity and justice for all; sounds a lot like entrepreneurship to me.
I can almost hear Andi in my head saying “I didn’t mean you!” (Full disclosure: we have had a warm, respectful and entirely successful business relationship with Bitch Media for a heap of years). But nevertheless there’s something here, something that I recognize because I’ve been there and thought that.
Suzanne: At the risk of sounding fragile by saying “No fair! Don’t paint all corporations with the same brush!”, I’m happy to proclaim my fierce belief that being feminist and a capitalist are not mutually exclusive – when your values are on solid ground. Sure, the capitalist system needs a systemic overhaul and business is a major part of that. Recognition of this is what inspired and continues to fuel the B Corp movement (and why we became a B Corp in 2012). In today’s world, business has immense potential to be a force for social, economic and environmental justice.
The media is right to expose the hypocrisy of “feel-good” marketplace feminism, but I’m here to shine a light on feminist capitalists working behind the scenes (albeit less shouty and bold) who are in the trenches leading by example: entrepreneurs using capitalism as a means to promote meaningful, positive change.
“Who benefits when we sell units?”, my answer is: Fairly paid owners and employees supporting their families and the local business ecosystem by proudly working for a feminist organization committed to social change, making products that provide meaningful benefit.” That is what a feminist business looks like.
The subtitle in Sarah Jaffe’s “Feminism for Sale” article suggests “We need collective political action, not “marketplace feminism.” My response: What if being a successful feminist company means leveraging that success to provide ongoing support for collective political action that advances feminist activism? Hell yeah! Lunapads has supported numerous campaigns which could be considered political – we financed a campaign to raise awareness of the unfair “tampon tax” in Canada, which was ultimately removed in July 2015. We support homeless and women’s shelters with product donations and use our voice to raise awareness of the challenges faced by transgender people who menstruate.
And as for Zeisler’s final question of “Who benefits when we sell units?”, my answer is: Fairly paid owners and employees supporting their families and the local business ecosystem by proudly working for a feminist organization committed to social change, making products that provide meaningful benefit.” That is what a feminist business looks like.
How can consumers know that they are supporting a feminist business?
Madeleine: At the risk of getting mired into a potentially endless debate about what qualifies as a “real” feminist business or “good” or “bad” marketplace feminism, here are a few personal guidelines on how, as marketers and consumers who are committed to doing their best to live their politics both personally and professionally, we make decisions.
- Does the product or service offering meaningfully support feminist values, or is their “empowerment” message just a ploy to sell an otherwise unrelated, possibly dodgy, product? Does the message imply that you are personally deficient (disempowered) if you don’t use their products, or use crappy ingredients or labor practices?
- Does the company and it’s leaders practice what they preach in terms of their internal policies and practices? When I first heard about REI’s Force of Nature campaign, for example, the first thing I did was look up how many female or nonbinary senior managers and directors the company employs. Same/same, or different?
- Look for consistency, thoughtfulness and tone sensitivity in the company’s marketing. It’s hard to quantify this one, however as a recent example we were stunned to spot a company passing out promotional material at the Women’s March in January 2017. Yeah, no.
- Is the company taking a stand or otherwise supporting relevant issues and organizations outside of marketing opportunities? Are they giving back or supporting initiatives for reasons other than press releases? At Lunapads, for example, we donate time and money to organizations that we believe in (Women’s Voices for the Earth, Planned Parenthood, our local sexual health and LGBTQ2S activist nonprofits) and fund numerous Kickstarter campaigns. We don’t try to “leverage” that support — we support them with our time or money, and leave it at that.
- Look for certifications like Fair Trade, cruelty-free, Women-Owned and (big shout-out here) B Corp certification. In order to qualify for B Corp status, a company’s entire operation, especially its social and environmental impact, is third-party assessed and quantified. Chances are, if a company is committed enough to participate in these types of programs, they’re working to be transparent and trustworthy.
Find Your Voice
Suzanne: With governments and politicians giving lip service to feminism or cutting programs and essential services to meet election promises and gain political favour, we need businesses more than ever to step up and keeping fighting for systemic social change. Support certified B Corporation companies. Find your own way to fight and advocate for change. More and more people are embracing an activist feminist consciousness and are willing to stand up and speak out. This is a good thing – the future is feminist!