I’m writing this blog post in my favorite coffee shop, wearing my favorite t-shirt. It was a gift from a friend of mine, but that’s not why it is my favorite. It’s my favorite because it says “This is what a feminist looks like,” allowing me to wear my ethics out into the world, and I feel like I make a tiny dent in misogynist culture every time I wear it. Wearing this shirt declares that feminism is for everybody and that men have a stake in feminism and gender equality, without having to actually say anything at all. I receive compliments pretty much every time I wear this shirt, and occasionally get into really wonderful conversations as well. Maybe that’s why pictures of this t-shirt has been making the rounds on Facebook lately:
I actually have a collection of about a dozen different t-shirts with some kind of feminist statement on them, many from different events I took part in or groups I was a part of. So, this month’s group activity is about wearing your ideals. This could be as simple as purchasing matching t-shirts from some larger group, like my shirt that comes from the feminist majority foundation. It could mean deciding to all wear your shirts on a certain day. It could mean creating your own t-shirt design and having them printed for your group, or even fundraising to buy a bunch of extra shirts to give away or sell.
These t-shirts are based on the idea of social norming campaigns, pioneered by Alan Berkowitz and H. Wesley Perkins. The basic idea (admittedly oversimplified) is that there are some men out there who think rape, sexual violence, and gender inequality are normal and ok; moreover, they think that most other men agree with them in supporting rape culture. When these men hear a rape joke or a story of sexual bravado that doesn’t mention getting consent, they see that as evidence that other people support sexist and sexually violence behaviors.
By making a very clear public statement that this is not the case, making it frequently, and making it appear completely normal, t-shirts and other social norming campaigns can shake this sense of social support for sexual violence. They provide support for other men who are against violence but might struggle to take a stand if they feel alone in their convictions. Over the long run, they hopefully shift the culture so that most people think that sexual violence is unacceptable, and moreover, think that most everybody else also thinks the same way. This shift in perceptions could also help more women feel confident in reporting sexual assaults, taking perpetrators to court, or demanding appropriate responses from institutions like universities, employers, and the military.
If you are considering making your own shirts, make sure you cover your bases. Think about the message you are conveying, how it might be received by multiple audiences, and how well it aligns with you group’s mission. Print enough for future use, and in enough sizes for anyone who might want one (think about whether you should be making some in women’s or children’s sizes as well). Consider the ethics of your materials: could you get organic cotton t-shirts, sweatshop-free production, maybe even non-toxic inks?
Make sure to get permission if you are using someone else’s phrase or design, or get around that by designing your own shirt. Think about current trends in popular culture, and see if any of them could give your shirts more appeal; when I was at USC, their Men CARE group printed a run of t-shirts in the school colors that featured the phrase “Keep Calm and Get Consent,” a play on a popular meme. That idea came from a t-shirt design contest, which is another thing you might consider doing.
Here at my coffee shop, someone walking by just gestured to me to take out my earbuds so he could tell me he likes my shirt! He said he wants one himself, and I told him where to find them. That reminds me of one other important thing to consider when wearing your feminist t-shirts out into the world: be ready to respond to people’s reactions. In a decade of wearing feminist t-shirts I’ve never had a hostile or confrontational response, so that is less of a concern than you might think. The worst response I ever got was when I hadn’t shaved and was wearing shorts, and some guy thought I was making a joke about how feminists are hairy and unattractive; I tried to correct his misinterpretation, but I do wish I had been more prepared.
Much more common are the very responses from women excited to see a male-bodied person supporting them in their struggle for equal rights and equal safety. I’ve written before about the pedestal effect and how guys who show any support for women are often given kudos and attention far beyond their actual contributions. Try to have some responses prepared in case you get put on a pedestal. Responses like “I’m just doing what all men should be doing,” or “Women have been working for equal rights for decades, it’s about time men start getting involved as well.” A friend of mine gave my favorite response to being put on a pedestal for his feminist activism: “If you need to thank someone, thank my mother; I wouldn’t be here without her guidance and support.”
What are your favorite feminist t-shirts? What responses have you received while wearing your shirts? Have you run into any trouble?