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Will Businesses Get Beyond Superficial Feminist Gestures when Abortion Rights are at Stake?

The past several years have seen a dramatic increase in the amount of positive, inclusive marketing efforts centered on the female body and womanhood in general. The overarching idea is that the body is a source of pride to the autonomous woman who possesses it. The national chain where I get waxed encourages its freshly depilated clientele to strut confidently into the world. The online boutique where I buy bras bills its extensive size range as part of a bold inclusivity crusade to outfit “every body.” “Power in motherhood” proclaims a popular spin studio, while the website of the industry’s biggest shapewear brand cheekily announces its corporate “HERstory” in bright red letters. International Women’s Day and Women’s History Month have become occasions for businesses, from beauty concerns to less-obviously-female-focused banking, to uncontroversially and unspecifically bill themselves as on the side of women’s empowerment, bodily and otherwise.

For all these vague statements of sisterhood, every single one of these, and most other, brands have remained deafeningly silent on the most fundamental issue facing women now: the rollback of reproductive rights crystallized by the leaked Supreme Court brief signaling the imminent reversal of landmark 1973 decision Roe v Wade.

In this supposed age of “woke capitalism” and milquetoast you-go-girl empowerment, why have so few companies spoken out on abortion rights that have been encoded into law for half a century? And, given corporations are, despite their rosy rebranding as “communities” or even “families,” amoral, profit-seeking entities, should we even expect that they take a principled stance on abortion rights, and be outraged at its absence?

First, it’s worth noting how halting the recognition of women as consumers, much less full citizens, has been. For much of American history, advertising that targeted women sold products considered almost exclusively feminine: think care of body, home, and family. Once more women worked outside the home, and then gained access to credit, they were marketed edgier items in a way that recognized, and even celebrated, this newfound independence: a lady could smoke cigarettes marketed with the slogan “you’ve come a long way, baby” after going for a jog in her “Liberator” sneakers. But these congratulatory advertisements rarely did much to disrupt the assumption that an ideal woman invested her money and energy in being slender, fashionable, and self-disciplined.  

But as ideas about women evolved, so have ideas about effective advertising. The social revolutions of the 1960s often explicitly critiqued capitalism, but American business deftly morphed to market a version of hipness and counterculturalism compatible with both this irreverent sensibility and market imperatives. This “conquest of cool,” as historian Thomas Frank styles it, explains why instead  of categorically avoiding controversy, major corporations increasingly calculate that taking stances on hot-button issues can be worth the reputational risk—and even insulate them from it. In a moment when “silence is violence” is a catchphrase, speaking out on racism, gun control, and LGBTQ rights has become more common: when Nike signed Colin Kaepernick despite (or because) his taking a knee during the national anthem, some conservatives burned their apparel, but others sported swooshes ever more proudly. After the murder of George Floyd, corporations from Peloton to McDonalds clamored to showcase their solidarity in the fight against systemic racism. Each school shooting garners similar statements, often explicitly indicting those who stay silent or, worse, offer only “thoughts and prayers.” We are two weeks out from Pride Month, and if recent years are any indication, financial institutions and grocery stores alike will be dutifully wrapping themselves in rainbow flags.

And yet the line seems drawn at abortion rights. I spoke with an executive at a major media company that often takes progressive public stances; she enthusiastically came aboard precisely for this outspokenness, and is proud of her employer’s record, and of her own role in it. But when months ago, she floated a proposal to craft messaging strategy around the likely overturn of Roe, her superiors told her to slow down. In stark contrast to the aftermath of George Floyd’s murder, or more recently, the Don’t Say Gay bill, when her team was immediately authorized to spring into action to partner with activists and nonprofits, she was told “further research was needed” in the case of reproductive rights. Conversations about an action plan have restarted since the Roe news, but she was frustrated at how “we absolutely do the right things on these other issues, but when what is considered a ‘traditional women’s issue’ is at stake, there’s just that much more pause.” 

Read entire article at Observer