We Were Feminists Once

From Riot Grrrl to CoverGirl®, the Buying and Selling of a Political Movement


By Andi Zeisler

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Feminism has hit the big time. Once a dirty word brushed away with a grimace, “feminist” has been rebranded as a shiny label sported by movie and pop stars, fashion designers, and multi-hyphenate powerhouses like Beyoncé It drives advertising and marketing campaigns for everything from wireless plans to underwear to perfume, presenting what’s long been a movement for social justice as just another consumer choice in a vast market. Individual self-actualization is the goal, shopping more often than not the means, and celebrities the mouthpieces.

But what does it mean when social change becomes a brand identity? Feminism’s splashy arrival at the center of today’s media and pop-culture marketplace, after all, hasn’t offered solutions to the movement’s unfinished business. Planned Parenthood is under sustained attack, women are still paid 77 percent — or less — of the man’s dollar, and vicious attacks on women, both on- and offline, are utterly routine.

Andi Zeisler, a founding editor of Bitch Media, draws on more than twenty years’ experience interpreting popular culture in this biting history of how feminism has been co-opted, watered down, and turned into a gyratory media trend. Surveying movies, television, advertising, fashion, and more, Zeisler reveals a media landscape brimming with the language of empowerment, but offering little in the way of transformational change. Witty, fearless, and unflinching, We Were Feminists Once is the story of how we let this happen, and how we can amplify feminism’s real purpose and power.



The New Embrace


The Corridors of Empower

“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.”

It wasn’t the first time that women’s liberation had been connected to our power to spend money we didn’t have, and it wouldn’t be the last. But First USA’s linking of women’s enfranchisement and their freedom to go into debt, in the form of a 1998 credit card come-on, was an almost admirably shameless co-option of the language of feminism in the service of capitalism. (The bank even promised to send a free “women’s almanac” to cardholders after their first purchase.)

One of the many preliberation factoids that regularly makes the rounds to illustrate just how far women have come is that, up until the mid-1970s, women were unable to get credit cards in their own names. Married women needed a male cosigner—a husband or father—in order to use a card that was then issued in his name; single, divorced, and even widowed women were denied altogether. (Very often both of these standards applied to library cards as well.) So when 1974’s Equal Credit Opportunity Act was passed, it was a marker of liberation realized: marital status was no longer a bank’s business where credit was concerned, and women were granted the right to buy whatever, whenever, with money that was theirs, and to go into debt right alongside men.1 But the idea that purchasing itself was a feminist act became a key tenet of emerging marketplace feminism.

It’s not a stretch to say that modern feminism was co-opted by the market almost as soon as it was born. The white, middle-class “new woman” of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, who had leisure enough to chafe against the Victorian ideal of the “angel in the house,” was an early target of advertisers seeking a fresh demographic. Those advertisers constructed ideal female consumers as mothers and wives who, like the late-blooming heroines written by Henrik Ibsen, were full of unmet potential, longing to buck convention and participate in public life. For this woman, consumer goods were positioned as one route to autonomy: Shredded Wheat wasn’t just a cereal product, it was “Her ‘Declaration of Independence.’” Meanwhile, the breezy, pompadoured “Gibson Girls” created by illustrator Charles Dana Gibson came to embody the spirit of the younger New Woman, and were often shown bicycling, playing tennis, and serving on juries. Both the New Woman and the Gibson Girl were more palatable commercial versions of the dreaded suffragists of the era, whose zeal to have their message heard was widely lampooned. (“At the suffragette’s meetings you can hear some plain things—and see them too!”) And both were depicted as refined and educated, but not so much so that they were out in the streets, agitating and hunger-striking for the right to vote.

The importance of women as a new target market at the turn of the century necessitated the inclusion of actual women within the advertising industry, and because many of these women were also active in the suffrage movement, they found themselves in a bind: they were valued for their ostensibly innate sense of “what women want,” but resented validating such an essentialist mindset. Frances Maule, a copywriter at the J. Walter Thompson agency and an organizer of the New York State Suffrage Party, urged her colleagues not to consider women an amorphous blob of suggestible humanity, and instead keep in mind the suffrage slogan “Women Are People.” It worked: as of 1918, J. Walter Thompson’s Women’s Editorial Department was responsible for more than half the agency’s business.2

But while “Women Are People” seemed like a commonsense strategy, it was at odds with a growing mass-market culture whose profit motive not only emphasized gender divides but codified them, with manufacturers, retailers, advertisers, and magazine publishers all invested in establishing two discrete but reliable groups of consumers: men and (white) women. In fact, it was the women ignored by this sector who built some of the era’s most successful businesses with women-as-people in mind: entrepreneurs like Madam C.J. Walker and Annie Turnbo Malone, for instance, both became pioneers of the direct-sales model in creating and selling products for black women’s hair. Rather than structure their almost instantly successful businesses as top-down profit maximizers, they instead constructed them as sites of training, education, community building, and philanthropy.

The Sweet Smoke, Smells, and Sweaters of Freedom

Cigarettes were one of the first products that allowed the commercial realm to align itself—in market potential, if not political commitment—to emerging women’s movements. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, smoking was considered such an unseemly activity for women that they were often explicitly prohibited from doing so in public. So it made sense that the American Tobacco Company saw capturing this emerging market as akin to “opening a gold mine right in our front yard.”3 ATC deftly exploited the first wave of feminism when it hired Edward Bernays (now considered the “father of public relations”) to craft campaigns that would get more women smoking, and buying, cigarettes. Bernays initially appealed to women’s vanity by proposing cigarettes as slimming aids—“Reach for a Lucky instead of a sweet,” urged print advertisements—but his hunch was that appealing to their growing sense of autonomy might be the real mover of product. In 1929, Bernays and ATC orchestrated a walk for equality down New York’s Fifth Avenue, 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. In an early example of contrived media virility, the photos of the march caused a national sensation and, as expected, nudged the percentage of female cigarette buyers up by more than half, from 5 percent in 1923 to 12 percent post-march. Lucky Strike rivals quickly followed suit, with Philip Morris even organizing a U.S. lecture tour in which cigarette experts instructed women on the finer points of lighting up.

A similar view of symbolic liberation was the basis for Maidenform’s long-running “Dream” campaign. Devised by a female copywriter, Kitty D’Alessio, and launched in 1949, it was both less wordy than suffrage-era advertising and more visually evocative. In the ads, ordinary (though exclusively white) women were granted entrée to exotic places and fantastic careers via nothing but humble brassieres. “I dreamed I climbed the highest mountain in my Maidenform bra” mused the copy that accompanied a brassiered woman in a ski lift, St. Bernard dog at her side. Other dreams included boxing (“I dreamed I was a knockout . . . ”) and chariot-racing in ancient Rome (“I dreamed I drove them wild . . . ”), as well as playing chess and going to work in an office. This had the perhaps unintentional effect of suggesting that, for such women, going to work and playing chess were activities as fantastical as going back in time to race a chariot.

Four decades later, Virginia Slims, the first cigarette explicitly marketed to young, professional women, furthered Lucky Strike’s legacy by trading on the idea that smoking was a pivotal site of liberation. As with First USA’s later Seneca Falls Mastercard, Virginia Slims conjured up a historical past of such vivid, indignant subjugation that, really, any alternative would look like a giant leap in progress. The cigarette’s print and TV ads, launched in July 1968, used slapstick, sepia-toned vignettes of Gibson-Girl types putting themselves in outlandish situations in order to sneak a smoke away from the disapproving eyes of their husbands: a face-off between stodgy, paternalistic men and freewheeling women. (“In 1915, Mrs. Cynthia Robinson was caught smoking in the cellar behind the preserves. Although she was 34, her husband sent her straight to her room.”) The famous slogan “You’ve come a long way, baby” suggested that being able to inhale that formerly masculine smoke was liberation itself, rather than a byproduct of it: it’s fitting that when Mad Men’s Peggy Olson leaves Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce, in the show’s fifth season, her first task at her new agency is to come up with both a name and an ad campaign for “a cigarette for ladies.” As the first cigarette that used women’s images to appeal to women as customers, Virginia Slims was an unqualified success for parent company Philip Morris in the first two decades of its existence; by the 1980s, its market share had grown from 0.24 percent to 3.16 percent.4

As the second wave of the women’s movement gained momentum and media notice, the opportunities to market products using aggrandizing sales pitches grew. Take the Liberated Wool Sweater, the 1970 brainchild of the American Wool Council. Ads in women’s glossies heralded this garment as the “embodiment of the new freedom,” touting its ability to give wearers “freedom of movement, freedom from wrinkles, and freedom to wear any hem-length you like.”5 Advertisers were careful not to explicitly name feminism or the current women’s liberation movement: the whole point was to capture potential customers who believed enough in women’s liberation to want to support companies that referenced it, but not enough to shun what feminists saw as tools of sexual objectification. Could this cynical approach be enough to sell Massengill “feminine hygiene” aerosol douche by using the tagline “Freedom Spray”? Apparently it could.

The business of marketing and selling to women literally depends on creating and then addressing female insecurity, and part of the revelatory potential of women’s lib involved rejecting the marketplace’s sweet-talking promises about life-changing face creams and shampoos—not to mention the entire premise of women as decorative objects. There was good reason for industries that sustained themselves on the self-hatred of women to dread the potential reach of feminist movements. Co-opting the language of liberation to sell their products allowed them to have it both ways, celebrating the spirit of the movement while fostering a new set of insecurities (“Natural-look” cosmetics, anyone?) and a new aspirational archetype.

Charlie, a perfume “for the new woman” that launched in 1973, was the first American fragrance to become a blockbuster, in part because it was Revlon’s first to target women under thirty-five. Charlie’s iconic ad was a major part of its appeal: in it, model Shelley Hack jumps out of a Rolls-Royce and strides confidently down the streets of New York City in a kicky pantsuit, embodying all the freedom and confidence of the women’s movement with none of the baggy clothes or scowling. The accompanying jingle assured potential buyers that this was the fun kind of liberation: “Kinda young, kinda now, Charlie!/Kinda hip, kinda wow, Charlie!” As Revlon’s twenty-point marketing profile of the “Charlie girl” pointed out, their customer was “Irreverent and unpretentious,” “Can be tough, believes rules are secondary,” “Can be very soft, but is never passive,” “Is very relaxed about sex,” and, interestingly, “Is not a Jewish princess.”6 (Here’s where I note that my own Jewish mother worked in product development at Revlon until shortly before Charlie’s time.)

Indeed, the Charlie girl didn’t so much reflect the new vision of young, liberated white femininity as it did present it as a superior alternative to actual feminist activism. In her 2013 book Wonder Women: Sex, Power, and the Quest for Perfection, Barnard College president and self-described former reluctant feminist Debora Spar testifies to the power of Charlie’s decontextualized liberation: “Feminists were loud and pushy, strident, and unfeminine. Charlie, on the other hand, was gorgeous, ladylike, and successful, a working woman and a mom. Who needed feminism if you could have Charlie?” For women like Spar, Hack’s embodiment of liberation was much more alluring than the real-life agitators who made her possible. And that attitude, goosed by the product and embraced by its consumers, helped lay the groundwork for today’s marketplace feminism, in which image is removed from theory and the fun kind of liberation is the most valuable.

Revlon followed Charlie’s success with the 1978 launch of Enjoli, which took the new-woman iconography a step further. If Charlie was a sassy, carefree symbol of the liberated American female, Enjoli referenced what it took to maintain that freedom with its tagline: “The 8-hour fragrance for the 24-hour woman.” The Charlie girl was a playful girl; the Enjoli gal was a serious woman—an image that the advertising drove home with its Peggy Lee–adapted jingle: “I can bring home the bacon/Fry it up in a pan/And never never never let you forget you’re a man/’Cause I’m a woooomman/ Enjoli!” Its print ad showed a blonde woman walking to work, swinging a child, taking a business call, and jogging, a montage that is almost exhausting just to look at, but which was meant to flatter the modern superwoman in all her multifaceted glory. If you wonder where contemporary mass media got the idea that “having it all” is the holy grail of female existence, just refer back to the print ad: “You can feed the kids and the gerbils. Pass out the kisses. And get to work by 5 to 9.” This was the first time a cosmetic product hadn’t relied on a static image of a woman, and the first time perfume acknowledged that, for many women, life was largely unglamorous. It was definitely the first and last time the word “gerbils” was used to advertise fragrance.

The late 1970s also brought the launch of Secret antiperspirant, which, like Virginia Slims before it, used a battle-of-the-sexes advertising campaign to sell an intrinsically unisex product, emphasizing that though Secret was “strong enough for a man,” it was “made for a woman.” In its print ads, pairs of men and women—both black and white, though never interracial—flirted over which one of them got to benefit from the antiperspirant’s dude-caliber strength. “There’s some heavy talk going ’round that Secret antiperspirant is strong enough for a man,” says a buff bodybuilder to a Diahann Carroll–coiffed beauty. “That’s right, but it’s made for a woman. Sorry, muscles,” she responds.

Male figures weren’t the focus of ad campaigns that co-opted the language of feminism, but most of them included men in some way, either as part of a playful competition—as Secret’s ads would continue to do through the 1980s—or as adornment. Their role was to act as reassurance that the Charlie girl, the Enjoli woman, the gal in the natural-look foundation, and others weren’t taking their newfound freedoms too far. Shelley Hack’s Charlie pats her man on the tush in broad daylight but makes sure to order a salad at dinner; Enjoli’s 24-hour woman slips into a silky negligee after the kids and gerbils are fed, the better to give her man some loving before grabbing two or three hours of sleep. Ultimately, there was little that was threatening to the status quo in advertising’s liberated woman. It wasn’t until the supposedly postfeminist 1990s and beyond that men slipped quietly out of the feminist-consumer picture and the idea that women could do and buy things “for myself” took hold.

Subtext and the Single Girl

For decades, advertisers had spoken to women chiefly by emphasizing their roles in relation to others. Early ads for Listerine warned women that their “poor hygiene”—malodorous breath or, worse, genitals—would cost them their marriages, and tartly reprimanded mothers for not treating their baby’s butts with only the best diaper creams and disposable nappies. The 1990s brought ads that served as a departure, explicitly acknowledging not only that women can be happily single, but that many women, in fact, choose that status, and, as consumers, revel in it. In a 1999 Village Voice article titled “Women Are Easy: Why TV Ad Agencies Take Female Viewers for Granted,” journalist Mark Boal mused, “Today’s marketer or media buyer may well be a woman in Prada, reflecting the profound shift in gender roles that is also being acted out on the tube. The stay-at-home wife in Bewitched has been replaced by Buffy the weapon-wielding go-getter.” Yet his piece went on to surmise that even this brave new adscape was pulling from an outdated playbook in targeting women, one in which their identities are still built around love and romance.

To anyone with a pop culture habit, this wasn’t exactly news. Even flattering consumer appeals to single women served to underscore their status as outliers. One 1999 ad for Diet Coke featured a woman filling out a video-dating profile, telling the matchmaker that she has “great friends” and a “great job.” “Sounds like you have a pretty good life,” responds the matchmaker. The would-be bachelorette takes a swig of her low-cal beverage as those words sink in, and then zips out of the joint before wasting any more of her abundant singleton time. Who needs a man when you’ve got this artificially sweetened and caffeinated soda in your life? The ad was part of a series that emphasized “empowerment,” with a tagline (“Live Your Life”) conceived as a 180-degree turn from Diet Coke’s previous appeal, whose smirky tagline (“You are what you drink”) prioritized physical appearance.

A 2000 ad for De Beers’ diamond solitaire necklace, meanwhile, cast the single woman as looking for Mr. Goodbar in a sparkler form. The ad copy invoked the language of a bar pickup, reading, “It beckons me as I pass the store window. . . . We look at each other. And though I’m not usually that kind of girl, I take it home.” Neither the Diet Coke nor the De Beers ad seemed entirely comfortable representing a single women; it seemed as though their makers were so hamstrung by not being able to depend on the old wife-and-mom prompts that they had to hammer home exactly what these women weren’t to define what they were. But as more brands began marketing to single women, they realized that the language of liberation from just those old ideals was the right pitch.

“Your left hand says ‘we.’ Your right hand says ‘me.’ Your left hand loves candlelight. Your right hand loves the spotlight. Your left hand rocks the cradle. Your right hand rules the world. Women of the world, raise your right hand.

With its 1947 “A Diamond is Forever” ad, De Beers had single-handedly created the market for engagement rings, turning diamonds into as crucial a symbol of wedded bliss as the white dress or floral bouquet. But by the early 2000s, the company was looking to expand its market, and the proliferation of unmarried female consumers aged thirty to fifty was its target. The right-hand ring was born: a line of fanciful designs meant for that formerly lesser ring finger, and an ad campaign that set out to flatter their would-be wearers. In the language of the right-hand ring’s sales pitch, marriage was for unimaginative yes-women who were sweet, traditional, and, let’s face it, pretty boring. Why would you want to wear a plain old diamond solitaire given to you by some chump when you could pick out your own, even fancier model?

For a time, the campaign was a smash: “Nonbridal” ring sales increased 15 percent in 2004, and in 2005 the campaign won the Gold EFFIE award from the New York American Marketing Association for “exceeding its objectives of bringing ring growth into line with total diamond jewelry growth.”7 The founder of consumer behavior–tracking organization America’s Research Group told NBC News in January 2004 that the key to the rings’ success was the sense of empowered entitlement among female consumers. “The days of getting permission are really over, and that’s what’s really expanded the buying power of women over the last 10 years.”8

It turned out to be a short run. The brisk trade in right-hand rings was slowed down in part by the rising awareness of the blood-diamond scourge in Angola, Sierra Leone, Zimbabwe, and the Democratic Republic of Congo, where children as young as five were forced into mining labor in order to fund civil wars in those countries. But stateside, things had changed as well: in the years after 9/11, there was a new emphasis on stability and domesticity, much of which envisioned a re-centering of traditional gender roles. Magazines theorized that the terrorist attacks had been a wake-up call for men emasculated by American culture, and declared the return of the cowboy as heart-throb; George W. Bush played at comic-book fortitude with his florid references to “evildoers” and chest-pounding entreaties to “Bring ’em on!” Publishing houses and women’s magazines were suddenly all about the “art of domesticity”; sleek scouring tools and aromatic floor cleaners became stars of a new prestige-housekeeping category of consumer goods. Marriage was on the country’s mind: the Bush administration, egged on by conservative-Christian advocacy groups, dedicated $1.5 million toward encouraging low-income couples to marry, but was quick to note that the push was for straight couples only. At the other end of the spectrum, splashy celebrity nuptials like those of Jennifer Lopez and Marc Anthony, David and Victoria Beckham, and Ben Affleck and Jennifer Garner were obsessively chronicled in a glut of new wedding-industry media, and even credited for bumping up the overall marriage rate. And despite Bush’s fierce “protection” of heterosexual marriage, the wedding-industrial complex welcomed gay marriage with open arms and a slew of rainbow-themed product. By 2014, the new trend in “nonmarital” rings, according to Vogue, was single women wearing wedding band–esque baubles on their left-hand ring finger for a psychological sense of belonging. So much for upending tradition.

I Am Strong. I Am Invincible.

I Am Good for the Bottom Line.

“If you let me play,” said the little girl, “I will like myself more.” “I will have more self-confidence.” “I will be 60 percent less likely to get breast cancer.” “I will be less likely to get pregnant before I want to be.” “I will be more likely to leave a man who beats me.” “I will learn to be strong.”

It was 1995, and Nike was reaching out a well-muscled hand to female consumers with its heart-tugging “If You Let Me Play” campaign, which turned the studied benefits of young girls playing team sports into a girl-power salvo. Using research collected by the Women’s Sports Foundation, the brand packed decades of rebuttal to sports as a “boy thing” into thirty seconds of airtime. The spots featured a multicultural array of preteen girls one by one voicing these statements to the camera, as though addressing viewers’ complicity in marginalizing girls’ sports. It was one of Nike’s most successful campaigns ever, and served to align the brand with feminism, education, and progressivism without compromising its bottom line.

“It wasn’t advertising. It was truth,” said Janet Champ, who served as Nike’s chief copywriter during the campaign.9 Either way, it was a new move for a buzzy brand whose cutting-edge ads featuring characters like Spike Lee’s Mars Blackmon (“It’s gotta be the shoes!”) were definitely cool, but not usually quite so earnest. And the plaintive, fourth-wall-breaking dialogue worked even better than Nike had hoped. Mary Schmitt, who covered the campaign for The Kansas City Star, reported:

The ad has been running on television for about a month, and the phones in the Nike headquarters have been ringing off the hook the whole time. . . . Many of the callers are mothers whose voices break when they say they want their daughters to have the opportunities they never had. Some are fathers whose girls are entering those arenas previously reserved for boys only. Some are coaches or teachers who have seen the differences sports can make in the lives of young girls. And some are women who never had the chance to find out.10

But despite Champ’s heartfelt description, this was advertising, and very successful advertising at that. Unless you’re a soulless pod person or an actual robot, you’ve probably been moved to tears by an ad or two. (I don’t care what your product is, if the TV commercial makes use of Fleetwood Mac’s “Landslide,” I will be a soggy heap by the end of it.) Still, no matter how many hankies the ad necessitates, it doesn’t change the goal: to make you buy things.11


On Sale
May 3, 2016
Page Count
304 pages

Andi Zeisler

About the Author

Andi Zeisler is a writer, editor, and cultural critic. She is the cofounder of Bitch Media, the nonprofit best known for publishing the award-winning quarterly magazine Bitch: Feminist Response to Pop Culture, which has over 50,000 subscribers.

Zeisler is extremely plugged into the community of feminist bloggers, her writing on feminism, popular culture, and media has appeared in newspapers and magazines including Ms., Mother Jones, BUST, the San Francisco Chronicle, the Los Angeles Review of Books, and the Washington Post. She regularly speaks at colleges and universities and holds interviews in various national publications and radio programs around the country. She has been featured and interviewed in publications like the New York Times, among others.

Learn more about this author