How do we recognize that a business is working to be accountable to the feminist community? 

If “connection to the feminist community” is one of seven dimensions that defines a feminist business, what can we look for to see this connection?

In my recent PathMinding workshop on Feminist Business Accountability, I identified six declarations that every feminist business needs to make to extend itself into its feminist community.  Through these declarations, feminist businesses show themselves to other feminist businesses and feminist communities, by showing their audiences that the business is taking responsibility for its feminist practice. And, these declarations help others (e.g., non-feminists) develop a better understanding of what it means to be a feminist/ business.

Six Ways to Declare Your Connection to the Feminist Community

  1. Defining The Feminism We Practice

  2. Unfolding Our Feminist Legacy & Naming Our Current Community

  3. Displaying Our Social Justice Commitments

  4. Clarifying Our Organizational Values and Principles

  5. Territory Acknowledgments

  6. Using Inclusive language

1. Defining the Feminism We Practice 

Feminist businesses don’t take it for granted that everyone knows what they mean when they call themselves “feminist”.  Instead, they become very deliberate and forthcoming about where and how they position themselves in the feminist spectrum.

There are many different ways to define feminism, and many different experiences and praxitional* legacies that feminisms can foreground.  For example, your company can foreground Indigenous Feminisms, anti-racist feminisms, Black feminisms, Liberal feminisms, and so on.  Companies and individuals choose their feminist positions based on their contexts, their industries, their own identities, and even current events and trends.

When a business presents itself as feminist in a way that resonates with our own understandings and definitions of feminism/s, we know they are part of “our” community and we can look to create a relationship with them.  And, if their feminism doesn’t ring true to our definitions of what it means to practice feminism, then we know what to expect of them if we interact with them and what we can avoid if we do not engage with them.

These are many legitimate feminist perspectives, and a few perspectives that call themselves feminist that are absolutely not feminist (e.g., libertarian ‘feminism’, trans-exclusionary ‘feminism’, White ‘feminism’).   (Some faux feminist positions are irredeemable — it’s impossible to imagine how they’d ever learn their way into an actually feminist position. However, sometimes organizations and people with these faux feminist positions are not fixed here but will soon be moving away from these positions as they learn more about actual feminisms. We can always hope.)

Regardless of the particular feminism(s) your business foregrounds, you should declare what feminism(s) you are using. This way we can recognize your efforts and determine whether and how we can connect (support, offer criticism, etc) with you.

 2. Unfolding Our Feminist Legacies & Communities 

Noting our feminist legacies and current communities is the feminist business’s way of acknowledging, crediting, and thanking their teachers and their influences.  Noting legacies also helps create a richer, more complex context within which we can understand who they are. This context can be really important, since the simpler descriptions we offer in our definitions may not be enough. For example, stating that your business practices “intersectional feminism” doesn’t always tell folks what they need to know and what you fully mean. Moreover, everyday business communications are usually succinct (almost terse) and so these won’t always convey a lot of information about a business’s positions.

And, while many of our feminist sources, experiences, and influences might not be easy to convey in a short statement or even in longer text (e.g., 150 words), these influences do show actually do show up in our practices, our feelings, and our visions.  We want to give people a way to recognize these influences when they show up, if we can.

In scholarship, it’s common to add a (Name, Date) citation when you first mention a construct or conversation that was originated and developed by a specific person or community. Because scholars work in ecosystems/ conversations/ communities, usually all the other folks in the conversation “get” the reference. They recognize and bring in the insights and critiques that are related to the construct and the conversation. They understand the concept’s provenance.

You’ll sometimes see feminist business writers like myself, or Kelly Diels, or Helena Liu use this (Harquail, 2016) form of citation since we’re often talking across the academic/practitioner divide and we know that academics will recognize this citation strategy. But, in everyday business communication, be that through Zoom, blogging, social media posting, or workshopping, it can feel weird to add a formal citation when you introduce terms, language, and arguments developed by others or that you’re deliberately drawing from. In these situations, if you’ve already shared your legacies and your current communities, you’ve shown others where your ideas are grounded, giving them a deeper sense of the context behind your statements.

Legacies are the individuals, communities, experiences, and works (books, articles, talks) that have influenced your growth and that are part of your past. For me, my feminist legacies are the individual professors I worked with in graduate school, the businesses I worked for, the communities and movements I was part of. They all still influence me actively, but the direct contact was in the past (hence, ‘legacy’).  Legacies can also be connected to each other and be understood as a lineage.  When I cite Taylor Cox and Stella Nkomo, you can expect that Stacy Blake-Beard is also part of that conversation, since all of these scholars influenced each other.

We also have legacies that occur in real time, in the connections that exist (that we create) between our work and the people and entities whose work influences ours right now. I think of these as more like live hyperlinks. I’ve never had the pleasure of meeting bell hooks, yet I connect with her work in real time when I go to my bookshelf and read a passage from her latest work.  Similarly, I feel like I have an ongoing debt, like an open bar tab, when it comes to Barb Orser’s work. Although we don’t work together directly on shared projects, and although I’ve never taken a class from Barb, my work always refers to and depends on hers in real time.

And, I think of my actual ideas— my articulations of concepts, explanations of relationships, the tools I make, the workshops I hold, as connected with the ideas that Petra Kassun-Mutch and Kelly Diels promote. Their ideas and mine are always interacting with each other, and they circulate within and among our related work. So too does the flow of ongoing learning/practice / insight from within the Feminist Enterprise Commons and The Gathering, feminist business communities stewarded by Petra Kassun-Mutch and Kelly Diels, respectively. Between my work and theirs, between my work and these communities, I feel a close, ongoing connection.

Listing your business’s legacies, links, and communities tells us a bit more about the provenance of your position. It gives us a sense of the analysis behind and underneath the words you use.  Your current community tells us who you are working with, learning with, and advocating with now. Knowing both your feminist past and your feminist present gives us a sense not only of where you and your positions come from but also tells us who your business feels closely responsible to, and thus to whom you hold your business accountable. For example, if you mention the Feminist Enterprise Commons as part of your community, we might expect you to respond to a criticism from them of your business’s positions. In contrast, if the Boy Scouts of the USA criticized your business, we might pay less attention because you have already shared they are not part of your community and not an enterprise to which you feel accountable.

For an introduction to some of the conversations that are foundational to my work, check out this list of resources from my post on Transforming to a Feminist Economy.

3. Displaying Our Social Justice Commitments

Feminist Businesses also make public statements about their social justice commitments. These can include simple statements, longer blog posts, recaps of donations, videos and timelines of allied actions, and more.

We saw a lot of feminist businesses post about their anti-Black racism efforts in the summer of 2020.  More recently, we’ve seen them state their commitments to the Asian American community, or proclaiming that “sex work is work”. It’s important to note that not all of these displays of commitment are new. Many of these represent long term, ongoing commitments to particular allied movements. Other statements may be more superficial or time-bound, if the movement or issue isn’t part of the business’s “advocacy portfolio” (Harquail, 2021). While feminist businesses can’t work on every important anti-oppression effort, every feminist business must have some active anti-oppression work beyond its own main focus.  Often this will be anti-oppression work that doesn’t “seem like” it’s gender related (e.g., Fight for Fifteen) even though it obviously helps women, females, and all people.

These social justice commitments help businesses make explicit that the feminisms a business advocates includes acting to end all oppressions, not just those that (seem like) they are for ‘women and girls only’. These statements of commitments also help others (e.g., non-feminists) develop a better understanding of what it means to be a feminist business.

4. Clarifying Our Organizational Values and Principles 

Listing organizational values and principles is a classic business move. You’ll see it at Unilever, McKinsey, and ExxonMobile, not just at a feminist business. Conventional businesses list their values as a matter of course, to help establish themselves as good (or better) companies, and as part of making their vision- missions public.

That said, when you look at the values and principles of feminist businesses, you’ll notice two things. First, you’ll see that the values themselves are often different from those of the status quo corporations. Feminist businesses use values like “justice”, “equity” “anti-oppression”and “democratic”. Second, feminist businesses will also often go beyond corporate-speak boilerplate to use language that’s specific to certain social justice movements, such as “permaculture” or “regenerative” or “body autonomy”. They may even add more information that shows us how they are demonstrating these principles. (Aisle offers great examples of this practice).

Some feminist businesses will also be clear about who their work is for and not for. They’ll mention explicitly that they aren’t interested in working with companies that build weapons, steal personal data, or promote diet culture. So, if that fat-shaming nutraceuticals startup wasn’t already clear that they don’t share your worldview, the ‘who we don’t work with’ statement will send them somewhere else to find their marketing, their packaging, or their office space.

5. Territory Acknowledgments

Feminist businesses acknowledge the traditional stewards of the territories where they and their employees are located. Territory acknowledgements can be brief or in-depth. They can format a recommended basic format (e.g., We acknowledge that we live and work on the unceeded, ancestral homelands of <these indigenous nations>…). Or they can be more freestyle, reflecting the journey of the business into the acknowledgement and reconciliation process. These territory acknowledgements also often include information on what a territory acknowledgement is, where to learn more about them, and how to begin an acknowledgement process for the reader’s own businesses.

On my own website I have a short, broad territory acknowledgment. Then, at the start of each meeting or workshop I offer an expanded territory acknowledgment that shares what I’ve most recently learned and done regarding reconciliation.

Territory acknowledgements are important because, as Kelly Diels always notes at the start of her workshops, “None of us is born into a world that’s free of oppression”. A territory acknowledgement literally and figuratively grounds a business in its recognition that nearly everywhere we are participating in and benefiting from some kind of privilege, and that we have to be deliberate about dismantling privilege right where we are.

6. Using Inclusive Language

Feminist businesses make a point of using inclusive language. They want both to be inclusive and also to make including language the norm and not the exception.  For example, a business may be very explicit about serving “women, marginalized men, and all people”, or “women and people who menstruate” or “feminists of all genders”. With these constructions, businesses deliberately try to avoid the trap of inclusive language that is actually exclusive, the way that the term “women and people of color” excludes women of color from the term “women”. They’ll use language like “cisgender” or “neurodivergent” or whatever language feels updated and maximally inclusive. The point with this language, again, is not only to be specific but also to show others how they might be both specific and inclusive.

To be sure, there is some disagreement about which words are the most liberatory.  Some businesses decide to use the terms that (they believe) best reflect what the people who these worlds refer to might choose for themselves (e.g., Apsaalooke and not “Crow”, queer and not homosexual).  Some businesses choose the terms that are the most accepted in their location, while acknowledging these terms can still be “problematic”. In the US, for example, it’s mostly fine to use the term BIPOC, while in Canada that’s less popular. Similarly, in the US folks often refer to Native People, while in Canada the term “Native” is out, and the more specific appellation “Indigenous, First Nation, and Metis People” is up to date ).

Feminist businesses will also add the pronouns that their members use, when they list out members names on their About Us or Our Team pages. At the very least, noting members’ pronouns shows that the business is attending to the ways that individual people want to be seen, which is a key element of feminist values like agency and equality.  Feminist businesses may use the pronoun “they” all the time, whether singular or plural, when they are referring to a woman, a man, or a gender-non-conforming/ gender-expressive person.

Similarly to how feminist businesses define the term feminist, we also see them being specific about who they include in the category “women” and even how they spell the word women (wimmyn, womxn). Historically, these non-traditional misspellings have been used to eliminate the word “men” from the category label for folks who aren’t men. These spelling have also historically been used to “queer” or problematize the word “women” to challenge the very notion of that some other authority beyond the people/ women/mxn/myn themselves gets to construct the category they are put into. (Category construction is a power move, so naming and defining your own categories can be liberating.)  In my Introduction to Feminisms keynote at the 2017 EFF, folks were very excited when I discussed the concept of women as a political category and offered my own definition of who I was referring to when I used the term “women”. It unlocks a lot of agency for us when we realize that we are free to establish and define our own terms and our own inclusive categorizations.

In many cases, territory acknowledgements and inclusive language can look like superficial “virtue signaling”, intended to show that the business is up to speed on the latest diversity trend. While it’s true that some of these practices are relatively new (land acknowledgments around for a decade, pronouns for about five years), they reflect a new and recent understanding of what it means to be against oppression and pro feminist. Both practices are things we are learning how to do — we are learning how to make them part of our normal ways of doing business. So, while they may seem trendy or sticky right now, consider that in the 1980’s it was weird to talk about a company’s vision and mission statement but now it’s a move that is not only normal but also expected.

Examples in the Wild

I’ve seen examples of these six types of declaration all around the interwebs, with some of the very best examples being from people who’ve taken classes in Feminist Marketing from Kelly Diels. Kelly teaches several of these declarations as basic feminist branding because they not only tell others who we are, but also they are part and parcel of feminist “culture making” in the online world.  They are important examples of feminist practices for declaring and connecting who we are, what we care about, and how we are trying to be more feminist as businesses.

I know I should add links and images to this post to give you examples of businesses doing this well… and I will at some point. For now, I’m 2,700 words into this and ready to pause. For now. Please keep in mind that these online declarations of feminism are one of the several steps that feminist businesses need to take to connect themselves to the feminist community and make themselves accountable to feminism as a collective practice.  I’ve talked about this at length in my workshops on Feminist Accountability Practices, and I’ll be unfolding these ideas in future posts.

*praxitional is a word I made up to refer to ‘things related to praxis”. Praxis is the activity of blending action/ practice and theory to figure out how to transform the world around you. It is the product of critical feminist consciousness. Also, my spell checker didn’t recognize the word “unceeded”. Hmm.