If you put a bunch of people who identify as feminists into a room with a bunch of people who identify as free market capitalists, they would likely have some strained conversations. At best. They just don't roll with the same crowds. This is a shame, because feminists are actually quite savvy at operating within the voluntary mechanisms of the free market system.
Unfortunately, voices in the feminist movement, like philosopher Nancy Fraser, superstitiously fear women utilizing free market forces. Fraser explains that she wants a “more egalitarian, just and free” world, but it would be a “cruel twist of fate” for “women's liberation [to] become entangled in a dangerous liaison with neoliberal efforts to build a free-market society.” She is convinced that the rise of female entrepreneurs and individualism cannot be squared with other feminist values, like social advancement. Though vague about how to otherwise actually advance a social agenda, she assures us that the first step is to somehow destroy all links with the free market.
To be fair, feminists (and other identity-political groups) have allied with progressive proponents of big government not without reason. They have found vindication through the Violence Against Women Act and numerous pieces of anti-discrimination and reproductive rights legislation. And, it's hard to blame them for not jumping into the arms of capitalism's libertarian advocates, who have a documented problem selling their brand to women.
But, feminists do have reason to recognize that it's unwise to put too much faith in politics. After all, their opponents are wholly capable of affecting legislation in ways feminists don't like. And, this group has additional hurdles of limited influence, since women make up only 18 percent of Congress, the Obama Administration has a gender gap, and Republicans can be outright hostile. When push comes to shove, feminists ignore these problematic institutions and take their fight right to the free market.
Let's look at a recent example. Burt's Bees, owned by Clorox, sells a product, Güd Vanilla Flame Body Butter. Until November 14, it bore a label that read “Let the catcalling commence.”
Within hours of discovering this marketing slogan, non-profit and women's advocacy group Hollaback! began to agitate against the label. The group considers catcalling a form of street harassment and “the most common form of gender-based violence globally.” Hollaback! began a petition to get Burt's Bees to remove the statement about catcalling. The petition quickly garnered hundreds of signatures and the story spread organically through social media.
Burt's Bees replied that it would continue to sell the product and issued what the advocacy group deemed a “non-apology.” This prompted an even stronger backlash and a greater number of feminists took to Twitter to inform the company that they would boycott its products. The petition hit its 2,000 signature goal in no time.
The company took a hint, realized that it could lose a lot of money, and as the New York Observer highlights, issued a new apology and promised to relabel the product.
Feminists won a clear and direct victory without getting the long arm of the law involved. They showed their power through the marketplace and convinced one branch of a multinational, multi-billion dollar corporation to stop advocating for what they saw as violence against women. Unlike any government-backed response, this cost virtually nothing and was concluded in a matter of days.
Compare this to another group that also all too often gets the short end of the political stick. The Navajo Nation filed a lawsuit against Urban Outfitters over products that the nation claimed were not only offensive (the clothing company labeled some patterned underwear as “Navajo”) but also violated their trademark. Several years later and countless dollars spent, no settlement has been reached. Taking one's problems to the government, though sometimes necessary, is often dicey. A positive outcome is never guaranteed, and corporations tend to have a great deal of money that they can pour into litigation.
The feminists' victory with Burt's Bees was not a fluke. Rather, it was a function of the market. And, it's a trend that is set to further empower this demographic. As Cathy Young recently noted for Reason, women control 60 percent of the wealth in the U.S. This gives them massive clout for swaying the way companies engage women. On top of this, as feminist website Jezebel points out, the market has even supplied the means for an easy way to boycott products with a smartphone application.
Even if the petition to change Burt's Bees had failed, a more responsive competitor would have emerged to meet the feminists' demands. This, too, is a function of the market. For every time Lego ignores the demand for girl-oriented toys that are empowering and come not exclusively in shades of pink, the company forfeits potential profits to more market-friendly companies like GoldieBlox. Every issue of Cosmo that promotes what readers see as unhealthy body image helps competitors like Verily magazine, which refuses to print photoshopped pictures of women.
This process does not have to be seen so negatively, either. This is not a war of attrition where every storefront must be haggled with. Although no coercive, binding, bureaucracy-bloated, or tax-heavy government entity is involved, corporations like Cisco dedicate resources to educating and advancing women in the technological professional realm in Saudi Arabia.
Businesses have an incentive to respond to their customers. We can cynically see this as nothing more than effective marketing and public relations tactics. Or, we can embrace the fact that corporations rely on us. They are willing to go to lengths, changing their products and messages, because we tell them to.