Human Rights

Many of the Self-Styled 'Feminist' Corporate CEOs Aren't as Empowering as They Think They Are

Has capitalism turned feminism into a meaningless lifestyle choice we can all buy our way into?

Photo Credit: 2M media / Shutterstock.com

Is there anything the internet enjoys more than the story of an uppity woman getting her comeuppance? You’d think not, judging by the schadenfreude that seems to have surrounded the fall from feminist grace of Miki Agrawal, the founder of period-underwear company Thinx.

In the last few years Agrawal has built both Thinx and her own personal brand off the back of loud and proud feminist values. Thinx was going to dismantle the stigma around periods! Thinx was giving sanitary pads to women in Africa! Thinx was a woman-led company working to benefit women!

It turns out, however, that Thinx’s feminism was mainly just benefitting one woman: its founder. A sexual harassment complaint brought by Chelsea Leibow, Thinx’s former head of PR, accuses Agrawal of creating a hostile and uncomfortable work environment in which, inter alia, the founder allegedly shared nude photos of herself, video-conferenced while apparently naked in bed and supposedly FaceTimed into a meeting while on the toilet. Which all seems like Lena Dunham-style feminism writ large.

The complaint further accuses the company of exploiting its mainly female workers with low pay, noting that the only two employees who had successfully negotiated higher salaries at the company were men. All this came shortly after a Racked article in which current and former Thinx employees describe a company which, from inadequate maternity leave to substandard benefits, failed to live up to the feminist values it so publicly espoused.

Agrawal is far from the first self-proclaimed feminist businesswoman whose feminism has been found to be somewhat lacking. Indeed, as Buzzfeed points out: “Agrawal is just the latest in a string of female founders and CEOs … who don’t practice the ‘fempowerment’ they preach.”

There’s Sophia Amoruso, for example, who founded online fashion retailer Nasty Gal in 2006 when she was just 22. For a while the fast-growing company was the darling of the startup world and Amoruso was feted as a feminist icon. Like all modern feminists, Amoruso wrote a memoir slash self-help book (#Girlboss) and started a #Girlboss foundation, which provides grant funding to up-and-coming female entrepreneurs. 

In 2015, however, Nasty Gal was sued for allegedly “firing four pregnant women, as well as one man about to take paternity leave”. (These suits have been settled out of court.) Nasty Gal has now filed for bankruptcy.

And there’s Ivanka Trump, of course; an entrepreneur with a memoir slash self-help book for “women who work”. At the Republican national convention last July, she said: “Policies that allow women with children to thrive should not be novelties. They should be the norm.” However it was soon pointed out that G-III Apparel Group, the company which licences Trump’s apparel line, doesn’t offer any paid maternity leave.

Since her father became president she has remained conspicuously quiet on issues such as the repeal of Obamacare, which would particularly hurt women. Rather, she has focused on campaigning for a child-care tax cut that would only really benefit the rich.

So what are we to take from all this? Other than the fact that modern definitions of “feminism” are utterly meaningless and that not enough startups have adequate HR departments?

Buzzfeed argues that the Thinx debacle demonstrates that “feminist hypocrisy is the new trend in startup narratives”. While there is certainly some truth to this, it’s important to point out that the hypocrisy isn’t that new and the trend encompasses far more than startups. Rather, the rise in brands hypocritically espousing pseudo-feminist values is the latest chapter in a broader rebranding of capitalism and consumerism.

For a long time, capitalism ran on the premise that greed was good and bling was in. Slowly, however, people began to demand more from companies and capitalism started to transform itself into what the philosopher Slavoj Zizek has termed “cultural capitalism”. In other words, capitalism started to obscure its profit motive and exploitative foundations with an appeal to a higher purpose.

It wasn’t just about what you were buying anymore, it’s what you were buying into that counted. Zizek quotes a Starbucks campaign which exemplifies this: “When you buy Starbucks, whether you realise it or not you are buying into something bigger than a cup of coffee, you are buying into a coffee ethic.”

Hand in hand with this shift came the rise of “conscious consumption”; consumers began seeking out brands aligned to their social values. As more companies realized the profitability of appealing to a higher purpose, conscious consumerism became more mainstream and widespread.

First there was organic and Fairtrade food. Then there was the one-for-one model, popularized by Toms shoes, where your purchase is matched by a donation to a person in need. Then there was the so-called sharing economy where companies like Airbnb rebranded “rich landlords making money” as “community building”. Now there’s the “fempowerment” economy.

When you drink Fairtrade coffee or wear Toms shoes or buy a pair of Thinx or book an Airbnb, you can kid yourself that you’re participating in a “better” sort of capitalism. One which is benevolent rather than exploitative. However the truth is rather more complicated. Capitalism is fundamentally exploitative; it’s predicated on inequality. As such it’s incompatible with feminism. The hypocrisy of “fempowerment”, then, isn’t just confined to Miki Agrawal or Sophia Amoruso or Ivanka Trump; rather, it’s woven into our economy.

“We should all be feminists,” Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie famously argued. She’s right. Unfortunately, capitalism has turned feminism into a meaningless lifestyle choice we can all buy our way into. Indeed, you can now buy Adichie’s words emblazoned on a $710 Christian Dior T-shirt. Don’t worry about the price – all proceeds will go to Rihanna’s charity!

Arwa Mahdawi is a writer and brand strategist based in New York. Follow her on Twitter @ArwaM.

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