By Emilyn Kowaleski
Emilyn is a first year graduate student in the Women’s History Program.
If you attended the Women’s March last weekend, you likely saw protestors sporting T-shirts reading “The Future is Female.” Well, maybe they were hidden in the frigid January temperatures, but you’ve seen them – they’ve been everywhere these past few years. The T-shirt came back into feminist fashion in 2015 after lesbian history Instagram account, h_e_r_s_t_o_r_y, posted a photo. In 1975, Liza Cowan took a photograph of her girlfriend, Alix Dobkin, wearing a white crew neck T-shirt with the slogan printed in basic blue letters. The resurfaced photo prompted the hand-crafted goods retailer Otherwild to remake the T-shirt with a similar design. (1) The T-shirt has since been mass produced by a number of different companies in various styles. The pithy, alliterative slogan itself has become a rallying cry to elect female leaders in politics. Hell, I’ve shouted it. I’ve even contemplated buying myself a shirt. They’re cute. Here’s the thing, though – We can’t view the slogan with the same simplicity as the T-shirt’s monochromatic design.
“The Future is Female” implies that there is some sort of universal essence to “femaleness” or “womanhood.” Doing so provides a means of creating unity in order to combat the injustices faced as a result of sexism. The problem is that it ignores other factors of one’s experience that contribute to discrimination such as race, class, ability, sexuality, age, body type and gender identity. This is what Elizabeth Spelman refers to her in her book, Inessential Woman, as “the paradox of feminism.” When we only talk about women in terms of what they have in common, we sacrifice a discussion about difference, and when we only talk about difference, we often sacrifice a sense of unity (a sense of unity that I would argue is created by the slogan and shirt). (2) The real problem with ignoring difference though, as Spelman describes, is that historically, feminists have confused “woman” or “female” with “middle-class white woman,” falsely believing that they are referring to the experience of all women. Feminist thought has shifted as a result of critiques like Spelmans and legal scholar Kimberlee Crenshaw’s 1989 notion of “intersectionality” which focuses on addressing multiple forms of inequality and creating specific ways to resist these forms of oppression. (3) But the ambiguity of “The Future is Female” falls victim to certain kinds of feminist thought prevalent in the 1970’s which promoted notions of “universal sisterhood” at the expense of intersectional thought.
Liza Cowan states in a NY Times article on the resurgence of the T-shirt that “people are re-contextualizing the shirt. Trans-women, men, moms who have sons.” (4) Her comments point to precisely what is so complicated about it. A shirt, in and of itself, does not convey a context. As she insinuates, it is contextualized and re-contextualized by the person who wears it, and by those who interpret it. On each body, our sense of what “female” means will be different.
Let us then delve into some specific contexts in which the T-shirt has been worn and could be viewed. The photo of Dobkin wearing the shirt was presented in Cowan’s gallery show What the Well Dressed Dyke Will Wear. On Dobkin, the T-shirt and slogan together were used to communicate lesbian identity specifically. In its origin, the shirt was designed in 1972 for Labryis books, the first women’s bookstore in New York City. In this context, it operates in support of female entrepreneurs. Let’s take “female” off the shirt and to the dictionary. Merriam Webster defines “female” as “of, relating to, or being the sex that typically has the capacity to bear young or produce eggs.” (5) Definitions also list it as synonymous with “women,” or “girl.” But sex and gender are not the same thing; not all women possess female sex organs, or the capacity to reproduce, and not all that do identify as women. I’m not suggesting that we must hold stringently to Merriam Webster’s definition in our understanding of what female can be, merely that inevitably some viewers and wearers of the shirt do. For example, “T.E.R.Fs” (which stand for Trans Exclusive Radical Feminist) believe that trans women are not “real” women. T.E.R.Fs are all over the internet, and they march at women’s marches, and they wear this shirt.
In a deliberate attempt to avoid the shirt existing in this context and present a more inclusive interpretation, Otherwild writes on their purchasing page for the shirt, “Otherwild believes in an inclusive, expanded and fluid notion of gender expression, identities and feminisms. We support liberation, embrace our trans sisters and brothers, and call for the end of patriarchal ideology, domination, oppression and violence. We believe that ‘The Future is Female’ is the past, the present and the future, and is language that resonates.” (6) Awesome. But if that’s what the slogan insinuated, would the disclaimer be necessary? What the slogan does in practice is place these identities under the homogenous umbrella of “female,” ignoring their individual realities, and the specific forms of discrimination they face due to their race, class, sexuality, and gender identity, etc. If one is to assist in the creation of a future devoid of the white, cis, hetero patriarchy, we must understand the impact of ignoring differences that exist within and outside of womanhood. (Global warming may destroy the planet before we see that future, but let’s keep on chipping away at it, comrades.)
Since Otherwild reprinted the shirt, the slogan has been used to proclaim support for that future. Its sentiment, which in this context we can understand to mean, “In the future, females will lead,” has been used to support the bid for office of female candidates – from Christine Hallquist, Vermont’s first openly transgender gubernatorial candidate, to the first major party African-American female gubernatorial candidate in Georgia, Stacey Abrams, to the cis-white female candidate for president, Hillary Clinton, to name a few as examples. (7) While the solidarity with which the T-shirt and slogan are employed is useful and commendable, solidarity cannot replace an understanding of the specific factors involved in each of their bids for power. The homogeneity of the slogan implies that they will rise to political power at the same time, with equal difficulty, as if the obstacles in each of their paths are the same. As an African-American woman, Stacey Abrams faced a unique set of obstacles in the form of racial discrimination in her quest for leadership in Georgia, which are not the same as the hurdles of transgender discrimination Christine Hallquist faced, which are not the same as the impediments of gender discrimination that Hillary Clinton faced. It is here that eclipsing difference has practical implications because recognizing the uniqueness of each of their challenges is vital to successfully supporting each of their rise to power.
It may seem as though I’ve zoomed miles ahead of the T-shirt. I’ll take it back. Consider a cis-white-straight-female Clinton supporter: Her vision of “females” in power might solely be ones that are in her likeness: white, cis, and straight. When this woman wears the shirt, she could actually be implicitly affirming an ideology which does not include a place for LBGTQ individuals and women of color in power. In fact, using the word female as the “implicit referent” is its own assertion of dominance by cis-women because the word is so easily linked to biology. It insists that those who do fit neatly into gender binaries squeeze under this categorical umbrella that comes with its own connotation.
It would be spectacular to see this umbrella lift up all those that have been historically denied power. But in the attempt to soar, we cannot ignore the specific forces of oppression that will try to pull the specific groups of individuals under it to the ground. Wouldn’t Otherwild’s statement printed on a shirt charter a clearer path towards the future it envisions? Yes, a slogan is by design succinct, but we can’t afford to trade cleverness for a contextually ambiguous vision of the future. We have to specify whose leadership, entrepreneurship, and artistry our vision includes. Perhaps for now, we can settle for recognizing the vital nuance lost when we emboss what should be a multi-dimensional, multi-colored, intricately-shaded future in concise, black and white terms.
- “The Future is Female T-Shirt” Otherwild, accessed November 9th, 2018, https://otherwild.com/products/the-future-is-female-t-shirt
- Elizabeth V. Spelman, Inessential Woman: Problems of Exclusion in Feminist Thought (Boston: Beacon Press, 1988), 3-4.
- Patrick, R. Granzka, Intersectionality: A Foundations and Frontiers Reader (Bolder, Colorado: Westview Press, 2014), 4.
- Marisa Meltzer, “A Feminist T-Shirt resurfaces from the 70s,” New York Times, November 18, 2015, https://www.nytimes.com/2015/11/19/fashion/a-feminist-t-shirt-resurfaces-from-the-70s.html
- “Female” Meriam Webster, accessed November 9th, 2018, https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/female
- Otherwild, https://otherwild.com/products/the-future-is-female-t-shirt
- I will note that all three of my examples of candidates lost their races, however I am referring to the quest for power in the form of government leadership in the present tense as I do not assume that in all cases the quest is over.