Lands’ End recently did something wonderful and bold. Their newish CEO, Federica Marchionni, launched a feature in their spring catalog called “Legends,” which aimed to highlight a broad range of individuals who have made a difference in the world. Their first pick, Gloria Steinem, was beautifully photographed and interviewed by Marchionni about issues including gender equality and challenges faced by women in the workplace. Steinem posed with an embroidered tote bag, and part of the proceeds from its sale would go toward the Fund for Women’s Equality, a backing campaign that supports the passing of the Equal Rights Amendment. What a lovely and unexpected move by a clothing company! Except soon after, they did something sort of terrible. They removed the interview from their website, apologized for it, and as a result, withdrew their commitment to the Fund for Women’s Equality.
As soon as the catalogs landed in the hands of the retailer’s shoppers, the brand’s apparently large contingency of anti-choice patrons—along with anti-choice activists—took to social media to condemn Lands’ End for featuring a woman who has been vocal about her support of reproductive rights. Religious schools that recommend Lands’ End products threatened to cut ties with the company. Others threatened to boycott their products as well. The claim was that the partnership with Steinem worked against the traditional “family values” that the brand is apparently associated with. Though reproductive rights were not discussed or even touched upon in her interview, the backlash against her as a figurehead for the pro-choice movement was swift and fierce. Lands’ End quickly responded by retracting the interview and apologizing, saying, more or less, that they never intended for the feature to take a political stance, that they were sorry they had offended their customers.
However, their willingness to cave to anti-choice activists only served to enrage customers on the other side of the aisle who came out in support women’s reproductive rights, Steinem, and efforts toward an Equal Rights Amendment. Now a whole new set of shoppers were boycotting the brand.
The ensuing controversy has raised a lot of questions for me about what risk a woman takes on by being vocally pro-choice, and also about how the current trend of shopping in accordance with one’s ethics might become more heated as the divide between left and right in America grows ever greater.
Caitlin Meyer: Lands’ End is making a business decision by pulling their interview with Steinem, but could a backlash like this make women feel more at risk by vocalizing their stance as pro-choice? What kinds of repercussions can events like this have on reproductive rights in America?
Carole Joffe: Lands’ End’s decision to pull its interview with Gloria Steinem in response to anti-abortion pressure is hardly a new phenomenon in American culture. One of the first and most famous protests occurred in 1972, when the popular CBS sitcom Maude had the main character, a forty-seven-year-old grandmother mother, choose an abortion in the face of an unexpected pregnancy (abortion was then legal in New York state, though not nationally). This episode provoked a huge outcry, and as has been well-documented, mainstream television has been very timid about portraying an abortion in a positive light ever since. Just recently, the station manager of an NPR affiliate in Wichita refused the request of a director of an abortion clinic in that city to buy a day of sponsorship; as the manager explained, “I didn’t want to upset the apple cart.” Sometimes the abortion-related censorship takes on a surreal aspect, as when social conservatives organize boycotts of Girl Scout cookies, because the organization in some areas occasionally does programs with Planned Parenthood (programs which have nothing to do with abortion). My all-time favorite for the most absurd such incident occurred in 2009, at the time of President Obama’s first inauguration, when Krispy Kreme advertised that people could get a free donut of their choosing to celebrate “freedom of choice” (presumably of a presidential candidate). An anti-abortion group grew so outraged over the term “choice” that they successfully pressured Krispy Kreme to change the wording of that campaign.
These incidents are undoubtedly upsetting to abortion supporters, and cumulatively contribute to abortion stigma. However, I do not believe that they will have any impact on women’s inclination to speak out about their abortions, a trend which has seemingly been dramatically increasing lately. To give just some examples: In an unprecedented action, the amicus briefs submitted to the Supreme Court included statements by women lawyers and judges about their own abortions and how this possibility impacted both their professional and personal lives; the #ShoutYourAbortion campaign, which encourages women to discuss their abortions on social media, continues, in spite of threats received by its founder; the creator of the Abortion Diary project, who records women’s abortion stories, recently was featured, with her picture, in a positive story in the Washington Post; the Seachange organization in Oakland, devoted to combating abortion stigma, has as a main focus encouraging women to tell their abortion stories. So, all this is to say that Lands’ End’s action has no doubt sealed the loyalty of some customers, while alienating others, but will have no real effect on the interminable abortion wars in American society.
CM: In today’s marketplace, how important is it to customers that they shop at retailers that align with their ethics, and what kind of lasting impact can an incident like this have for a brand?
Fran Hawthorne: In a world where big corporations exercise so much power, ethical shopping is a rare and important opportunity for consumers to leverage our (far fewer) dollars, and we can do so in many ways. First and most crucially, we can choose not to buy—to reuse, to share, to simply own less. For items that we truly need, we can consider issues like the ingredients, the carbon footprint, and the treatment of the workers involved, both in the manufacturing process and at the retailer.
But in advocating consumer empowerment, we have to remember the cliché about geese and ganders. If progressives are going to shop according to their ethics, it’s only fair that conservatives will, too. For every Tom’s of Maine, there’s a Chick-fil-A. For every religious activist who boycotts Lands’ End, there’s a supporter of abortion rights who makes sure to shop there. (Or vice versa.) And that’s fine with me. The key value is to have an open, democratic society with multiple choices and thoughtful consumers.
About the Author
Caitlin Meyer is a senior publicist at Beacon Press. Meyer previously worked at Facing History and Ourselves as Public Relations and Communications Manager before joining Beacon in 2008. She is a graduate of Emerson College.