You might know Lands’ End as L.L. Bean’s slightly more fashionable nemesis. But did you know the clothing retailer also cares about “individuals who have made a difference in both their respective industries and the world at large”? At least it said it did earlier this week, when it launched a “Legend Series” intended to “honor” and “thank” said individuals, starting with Gloria Steinem. Lands’ End’s newest catalog features a softball Q&A between CEO Federica Marchionni and Steinem; according to Jezebel, they talked about fashion and “the struggles women face both as mothers and in the workforce.” Lands’ End also said it would offer merchandise like tote bags monogrammed with the Equal Rights Amendment Coalition’s logo and donate $3 for each item purchased to the group’s Fund for Women’s Equality in Steinem’s honor.
Within hours, angry pro-life consumers began flooding Lands’ End’s Facebook page with complaints and promises to boycott the brand. Two Christian schools said they would no longer buy uniforms from Land’s End. Lands’ End quickly scrubbed the feature and ERA bags from its website and issued an apology:
We understand that some of our customers were offended by the inclusion of an interview in a recent catalog with Gloria Steinem on her quest for women’s equality. We thought it was a good idea and we heard from our customers that, for different reasons, it wasn’t. For that, we sincerely apologize.
If you’re a feminist, the controversy might make you throw up your hands. Gloria Steinem is hardly a radical by today’s standards, and the Equal Rights Amendment—which was passed by Congress in 1972 but never ratified by the states—shouldn’t be controversial. I would very much like to live in a world where mainstream brands would be able to associate themselves with known feminists and promote women’s rights without anyone batting an eye.
But Lands’ End really should have known what it was getting itself into. The ERA Coalition is a group with an explicitly political aim within the United States. Of course Americans are going to have opinions when an anodyne brand endorses a domestic political cause! As a pro-choice feminist, I would have been upset if Lands’ End had featured an interview with, say, Rick Santorum, and offered tote bags engraved with the logo of the anti-abortion Christian Coalition.
If Lands’ End had wanted to subtly boost its feminist cred without upsetting anyone, it should have chosen a different cause. Americans, in general, seem much more comfortable with organizations that seek to boost women’s rights abroad than organizations that seek to boost women’s rights domestically. If Lands’ End had announced an initiative to raise money for CARE, the Global Partnership for Education, or the Fistula Foundation, I doubt there would have been any outcry. Americans love the idea of saving poor women in developing countries—not so much the idea of challenging our own prejudiced practices.
I’m not saying Lands’ End shouldn’t have done the Steinem interview and offered ERA-branded merchandise—I’m just saying if they were going to do it, they should have done it unapologetically. (See Honey Maid’s LGBTQ-affirming ads for a lesson in such gumption.) If the clothing company had partnered with Steinem with the knowledge that it would upset some people, and they’d held firm in their commitment to feminism in the face of criticism, they could have potentially won over some feminist-minded shoppers. By flip-flopping, Lands’ End has alienated both sides: first the pro-lifers who were upset at seeing Steinem in the catalog, and then the pro-choicers who are upset that Lands’ End apologized for the interview. Other brands, take note: If you don’t choose your causes carefully, everyone will end up hating you.