If you haven’t been following the story, clothing retailer Lands End, under the leadership of a new CEO (late of Dolce & Gabbana) decided to do a series of catalog features on “icons”. The first profile in the series was of noted feminist, Gloria Steinem, looking elegantly casual in their clothing, and talking about the rights of women in the workplace. It was a good article. I read and enjoyed it, and then proceeded to check out the new spring sweaters.
Others in their customer base didn’t approve. Citing Steinem’s lifelong advocacy for abortion rights, they threatened boycotts. Lands End’s response was excruciatingly swift. Making it clear they had far more invested in their school uniform business than their marketing campaign, or their integrity, they pulled all traces of the article from their website (including a special monogrammed tote bag, from which a portion of the proceeds would be donated to women’s equality causes).
The response to the apology has been fierce, and although there is no way for me to gauge whether the company has lost more customers because of the original article or the ensuing backlash, damage to their reputation is assured. The company’s liberal “if you’re not satisfied for any reason” policy is leading to mass returns. Their Facebook page has become a rallying point for angry women feeling their trust (and consumer dollars) have been betrayed.
But this is just a clothing retailer right? Isn’t it unfair to place the mantle of social justice on a catalog company that sells cute cardigans and water shoes? Here’s my view.
Women and girls are routinely socialized that their rights are acceptable – as long as they do not offend or make anyone else uncomfortable. Our existence is regularly constrained by the possibility we might make someone feel bad, or horny, or angry, or threatened. It has broad and sweeping ramifications in terms of violence against women, educational attainment, workplace equity, the provision of medical care, basic bodily autonomy… virtually every part of our lives.
The current outrage isn’t about a single retailer, or even an individual iconic public figure. In apologizing for having promoted women’s equality alongside chinos and swimsuits, Lands End sent a clear message that women hear repeatedly:
Your rights are not important enough to discuss publicly because the people who feel they aren’t important matter more than you. Those who promote them will be dismissed. Those who bring them up will be castigated. And your protests over that dismissal will be met with weak apologies rather than any meaningful action.
It’s not a new refrain; we can all hum the tune, and it certainly doesn’t go with “Spring’s Must-Have Sundresses for Women and Girls.”