An Incomplete History of the Feminist T-Shirt

From “Lavender Menace,” to “The Future Is Female,” to “Say Her Name” and beyond, feminist slogan tees have helped drive important messages into mainstream conversation.

feminist tshirts
Design by Ingrid Frahm

There’s something powerful about wearing a message on a T-shirt; something vulnerable about putting it on your body. You’ve committed to your message, and it’s there in plain sight across your chest for everyone to see.

Feminist activists have been using T-shirts to challenge a culture that denies women and others their basic rights for decades—and to keep pushing social justice movements themselves to be more inclusive. In the same way that posting a feminist or anti-racist meme on social media is not a substitute for the hard work of political organizing and action, there’s certainly a limit to the T-shirt’s political power. Without any further activism behind it, a T-shirt is just cotton fabric. Yet, fashion, like social media, can increase visibility, which in turn can make a political message more accessible and approachable, and more widely seen, forcing itself into the cultural conversation.

lavender menace tee
Diana Davies

Feminist fashion extends back before the advent of the T-shirt in the late 19th century. (Suffragists were known for wearing white, for example, and Macy’s was even the “official headquarters” for suffrage paraphernalia—perhaps the earliest known example of what Andi Zeisler calls “marketplace feminism.”) But one particular T-shirt made waves during the women’s liberation movement of the 1960s and ’70s. In 1969, Betty Friedan, a leader of the National Organization for Women (NOW), used the term lavender menace to dismiss an outspoken sect of lesbian women in the group advocating for NOW to include equal rights for lesbians within their group’s goals. Friedan and others worried that association with lesbians would be bad for NOW overall and distanced the organization from lesbian causes. In response, lesbian activists including Rita Mae Brown and Karla Jay formed a group called Lavender Menace, reclaiming Friedan’s phrase, and famously revealed T-shirts printed with the slogan at a meeting of the Second Congress to Unite Women in 1970. “Yes, yes, sisters! I’m tired of being in the closet because of the women’s movement,” Jay shouted as she unbuttoned her blouse to reveal a Lavender Menace shirt. This attention-grabbing demonstration contributed to Friedan later apologizing and NOW pivoting to include lesbian rights within its agenda.

This same shirt that was used to highlight how lesbian rights were left out of the second-wave feminist movement was later adapted to call attention to discrimination against trans people, both within mainstream gay and lesbian spaces, and in society at large. The Transexual Menace, the first direct action group for transgender rights, was formed in 1993 by activists Riki Wilchins and Denise Norris in reaction to widespread violence and harassment against trans people. The group’s visual trademark was a goth-style shirt modeled after The Rocky Horror Picture Show logo, which marchers wore at demonstrations to encourage trans visibility and center trans issues. “If you passed [as cis], you were safe,” Wilchins described in her 2017 book TRANS/gressive. “But pulling on the T-shirt screwed all of that forever."

transexual menace t shirt
© Mariette Pathy Allen

Maxine Wolfe, a coordinator of the Lesbian Herstory Archives and keeper of the archive’s T-shirt collection, champions the power of political T-shirts. “People wonder why we would save T-shirts,” she tells BAZAAR.com over the phone. “Most people, when they think about politics, they don’t think about T-shirts. But I think that [making or wearing T-shirts] is one of those things that people have been doing forever as a way of creating an identity and being visible.”

salsa soul sisters tee
Pat R. Chin, Courtesy Lesbian Herstory Archives

Wolfe describes several of the shirts in the collection that were created by marginalized groups claiming space for themselves, including one made by the Salsa Soul Sisters, the oldest Black lesbian organization in the United States. Salsa Soul Sisters formed out of the Black Lesbian Caucus of the gay liberation movement in the mid-’70s in response to existing gay organizations neither welcoming nor supporting the concerns of women of color. The group held regular community meetings on topics including racism and single lesbian parenting, and published Azalea: A Magazine by Third World Lesbians and the Salsa Soul Gayzette. They would often wear T-shirts featuring their organization’s name and logo to marches and other events to spread awareness. In the ’80s and ’90s during the AIDS crisis, T-shirts with messages like, “Who’s the Cure For,” and, “Woman with AIDS Dead Not Disabled,” were part of the efforts of ACT UP’s National Women’s Committee to draw attention to women with AIDS, who were left out of laws addressing the disease and excluded from receiving disability.

act up protest at fda
An "ACT UP" T-shirt spotted in Rockville, Maryland in 1988.
Catherine McGannGetty Images

T-shirts have also been used as corrective advertising. During the late ’80s and early ’90s, an era when feminism was derided by conservative leaders and media personalities like Rush Limbaugh, whose term feminazi was adopted by broader culture, the Feminist Majority Foundation (FMF) was on a mission to take back the word feminist. “We deliberately named ourselves Feminist Majority, because we viewed it as a consciousness raiser,” FMF executive director and Ms. executive editor Kathy Spillar says. Despite the widespread negative image of feminism, the majority of women polled at the time self-identified as feminists, she adds. The organization debuted a T-shirt featuring the slogan, “This Is What a Feminist Looks Like,” for a pro-choice march on Washington, D.C., in 1992. “We wanted to fight back against the negative images that had been created around feminism,” Spillar explains. “We wanted to popularize the term, and we wanted feminists to be proud that they’re feminists.” Ms. did a 2003 cover featuring celebrities including Whoopi Goldberg and Margaret Cho wearing the shirt, and a 2009 cover with then President Barack Obama wearing it. The now iconic T-shirt has helped to encourage a diverse, inclusive image of feminism that pushes back on negative stereotypes.

We wanted feminists to be proud that they’re feminists.

Activists have also used T-shirts to help spread awareness and push boundaries around reproductive justice. In 2004, Planned Parenthood began selling shirts featuring the declaration, “I had an abortion.” Created by feminist writer Jennifer Baumgardner alongside a film she made around that time, Speak Out: I Had an Abortion, the shirt was meant to destigmatize the common procedure and put names and faces to the issue. While in 2004’s conservative political climate it seemed taboo even to acknowledge getting the procedure, newer T-shirts are even more unapologetic in breaking abortion stigmas. Viva Ruiz’s “Thank God for Abortion” shirt was created in 2015, in response to the closing of abortion clinics throughout the U.S. The shirt, available in several languages, reads, “Thank God for Abortion,” and features outreached hands and a dove. Ruiz’s shirt resists the dichotomy of being either pro-choice or religious, insisting that abortion is a normal, shame-free part of life.

the future is female tee
Liza Cowan

In the mid-2010s, feminism—and feminist fashion—took an unprecedented turn toward the mainstream. From Wildfang’s “Wild Feminist” tee to Thugz Maison’s “Goddesses Shirt” highlighting important feminists of color, and even Dior’s $710 shirt featuring Nigerian feminist author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s quote “We Should All Be Feminists,” T-shirts promoting women’s empowerment were suddenly everywhere. In some ways, these massive troves of T-shirts, found everywhere from runways to H&M, depoliticized the substance of feminism by divorcing the term from the still-urgent fight for so many women’s rights. But in another sense, the ability for the masses to embrace feminist fashion helped make feminism more palatable and approachable for younger generations. Perhaps the most popular feminist tee at the time was the “The Future Is Female” T-shirt. First photographed in the 1970s by Liza Cowan, the shirt was created for Labyris Books, New York City’s first feminist bookstore, and was re-created by L.A. retailer Otherwild in 2015. “If we are to have a future, it must be female,” Cowan told The Washington Post, “because the rule of men—patriarchy—has just about devastated life on this beautiful little planet.” The slogan has since been adapted to include shirts that say everything from the corrective, “The Future Is Non-binary,” to the pragmatic, “The Future Is Accessible Midwifery Care.”

During the Trump presidency, new waves of activism brought with them slogan T-shirts that ditched the playful, abstract feel of their fast-fashion predecessors for a more direct, serious tone. When Mitch McConnell scolded Elizabeth Warren for criticizing Jeff Sessions’s record on civil rights, McConnell’s words, “Nevertheless, she persisted,” were repurposed as a rallying cry for women refusing to be silenced, and they were plastered across everything from T-shirts to bumper stickers. At the height of the #MeToo movement in 2017, retailers like America Hates Us sold “Believe Women” T-shirts to help “obliterate the patriarchal standard that creates a deterrent for women to report attacks against them.” During widespread Black Lives Matter activism last summer, “Say Her Name,” the slogan created by Kimberlé Crenshaw and the African American Policy Forum five years earlier to bring attention to the stories of Black women killed by the police, was worn on T-shirts by many protesters, as well as WNBA players, to draw attention to the movement.

minnesota lynx v seattle storm game two
Julio AguilarGetty Images

T-shirts alone can’t replace real, material activism for social change, but they act as a visual reminder of the important and varied work feminist activists have been doing for the past five-plus decades. Now that Women’s History Month has come to a close, we should reflect on the very movement that sparked International Women’s Day: female garment workers fighting for better labor conditions. When it comes to the future of feminist T-shirts, we can look more and more to fashion retailers that use ethical labor practices and responsible materials, and support women, prioritizing not just the people who wear or profit from these shirts, but also the livelihoods of those who make them. After all, if the work of feminists—and the T-shirts they’ve worn—have taught us anything, it’s the importance of centering the voices, experiences, and concerns of the most marginalized among us—of evolving or ending up on the wrong side of history.

This story has been updated.

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