A feminist faux pas: thoughts on a t-shirt debacle

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Apparently David Cameron is not what a feminist looks like, but an embarrassed activist wearing a £45 t-shirt made by women working in sweatshops earning just 62p an hour might be, according to recent reports by the Daily Mail.

In collaboration with Elle magazine, the Fawcett Society (the UK’s leading charity for women’s rights and equality) recently worked with the high street chain Whistles to produce and market a redesign of their iconic ‘This is what a feminist looks like’ t-shirts, which caused a media firestorm when it was reported that the t-shirts were produced by under-paid women in Mauritius.

In light of  the recent allegations, perhaps a more appropriate slogan would have been, ‘This is what female exploitation looks like’. In response to the querying of the ethical standards of the clothing, the Fawcett Society Deputy CEO Eva Neitzert said that they were very disappointed by the allegations, but stated that, “At this stage, we require evidence to back up the claims being made by a journalist at the Mail on Sunday. However, as a charity that campaigns on issues of women’s economic equality, we take these allegations extremely seriously and will do our utmost to investigate them.”

All of the products in the new range sporting the feminist message were, the Fawcett Society had been assured prior the t-shirts hitting the stores, made in a “fully audited, socially and ethically compliant factory.” Thankfully, after further investigation, the Fawcett Society were able to report on November 4th that they were fully satisfied by the evidence they had seen, and able to reassure their supporters that all investigation so far “categorically refutes the assertion that the t-shirts produced by Whistles were made in a sweatshop.”

For a movement which has already been greatly criticised for not being inclusive of women of all cultures and socioeconomic groups, the price tag and branding of the range only seems to highlight the idea that this particular brand of mainstream feminism is for white middle- class women.

However, even if the initial investigations are wholly accurate and continue to be verified, should this quell all ethical concerns over this problematic piece of apparel? Fashion and feminism certainly aren’t the most straight-forward pairing. For a movement which has already been greatly criticised for not being inclusive of women of all cultures and socioeconomic groups, the price tag and branding of the range only seems to highlight the idea that this particular brand of mainstream feminism is for white middle- class women. Hopefully, this episode will ensure that in the future, the feminist group will make greater efforts at inclusiveness.

Setting aside the coverage of the production conditions, I think that the most disappointing part of this whole debacle is the decision by media outlets and commentators to focus more on an article of clothing and our politician’s fashion choices rather than the fact that November 4th was Equal Pay Day. Fortunately, the Fawcett Society did not let current controversy stop them from talking about this important issue of the widening gender pay gap in the UK- and quite right too.

Rachel Crossley

To read more on the pay gap and why the UK has recently slipped in the World Economic Forum (WEF) rankings of gender equal societies from 18th to 26th, you can read the Fawcett’s Society’s blog post at: http://www.fawcettsociety.org.uk/blog/november-4th-today-women-stop-earning-relative-men/

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