The conference crowd was pleasantly surprised when the face of the woman who almost became president appeared on the screen, grinning.
Through a video, Hillary Clinton welcomed the cheering throng to AOL’s 2017 MAKERS conference in California, where women and men gathered this week to learn about leadership, policy and female empowerment. Clinton, who in her lengthy career has been first lady, a U.S. senator, secretary of state and the first woman to secure the presidential nomination for a major party, told the room full of “heroes,” “history makers” and “glass ceiling breakers” to “step up and speak out,” “dare greatly and lead boldly.”
It was Clinton’s first formal appearance since President Trump’s inauguration, which she attended, and the women’s marches across the globe that tugged millions into the streets, many in her name.
“Despite all the challenges we face,” Clinton said, “I remain convinced that yes, the future is female.”
The room, the Los Angeles Times reported, went wild.
“The future is female” is a phrase that was invoked often by Clinton’s supporters during her campaign for president and in recent years has become a rallying cry among women and feminists who advocate for more female everything. T-shirts and onesies and lapel pins have featured the phrase. Of course, it’s a hashtag.
And although it became mainstream around the same time Clinton announced her candidacy, “the future is female” wasn’t created by Clinton, and it wasn’t even created this millennium.
Its mothers were, in fact, lesbian separatists.
In 1972, New York City’s first women’s bookstore, Labyris, opened in a small space in Greenwich Village. The founders — all lesbian feminists — wanted the space to be a hub not just for literature by women, but activism for them, author Kristen Hogan writes in her book “The Feminist Bookstore Movement.”
“Other bookstores,” the women said at the time, “don’t discuss racism or lesbianism with you.”
Labyris was criticized for being elitist and exclusive, according to Hogan, perhaps because it experimented with lesbian separatism, a school of feminist thought that promotes the complete isolation of lesbians from men and heterosexuals, either temporarily or permanently. But the bookstore also had support from women like Audre Lorde, the black writer, feminist and lesbian who died in 1992.
It’s slogan, printed on merchandise to fund their efforts, became “the future is female.”
In 1975, photographer Liza Cowan captured an image of her then-girlfriend, singer-songwriter Alix Dobkin, wearing a white T-shirt that bore the slogan over a powder-blue turtle neck. Cowan published it as part of her slide show, “What The Well Dressed Dyke Will Wear,” and feminists claimed Labyris’ words, wearing them on clothing and pins to rallies and protests.
But the phrase fell out of — or never made it to — mainstream popularity.
Now fast forward four decades.
In 2015, Rachel Berks, a feminist graphic designer, was skimming Instagram when she found an old photo posted by the account @h_e_r_s_t_o_r_y, a wordplay on the masculine “history.”
It was Cowan’s portrait of Dobkin, wearing her “the future is female” T-shirt.
Berks shared the photo on her own Instagram account and wrote: “If everyone’s not following @h_e_r_s_t_o_r_y, you should be. It’s an awesome place of discovery.”
The photo got more likes than any other she had posted, Berks told Think Progress in 2015.
More empowering, though, were the suggestions flooding her comment section: revive the slogan.
Berks had the skill set to upgrade the design and the platform to sell the shirt — her feminist California studio Otherwild — so she got to work, at first printing just a couple dozen. They quickly sold out, she told Mic.
The graphic designer later collaborated with Cowan, who gave Berks permission to use her original 1975 photo of Dobkin to promote the reincarnated T-shirt. Working together, they updated the purple “the future is female” buttons Cowan sold decades ago. They’re now available for purchase through Otherwild, and the women share the profits, Berks told Think Progress.
Realizing the power she wielded as her T-shirts soared in popularity, Berks decided to donate 25 percent of all proceeds to Planned Parenthood, as Congress was threatening to defund the women’s health-care organization in 2015.
“‘The Future Is Female’ really is about looking towards a future where we don’t have to have some of these conversations that we’re always having, like a rapist is always getting off. Where Planned Parenthood is constantly under attack. Where women’s rights and healthcare aren’t a priority,” Berks told Mic.
Model Cara Delevingne and her girlfriend, musician Annie Clark (a.k.a. St. Vincent), helped thrust Berks’ design into the spotlight, sparking a fashion frenzy that drove early attention to the T-shirt. But Delevingne also whipped up controversy — and put Berks on the defensive — when she started selling nearly-identical T-shirts bearing the phrase.
There was negative press and animosity, something Berks described to Mic as a “major bummer.”
The lesbian separatist roots of the phrase have seemed to fade, but both Berks and Cowan recognize that this is a product of the ever-evolving nature of feminism.
“For me, the past, present, and future are female, and we need to hear that, because we’re told the opposite of that every day of our lives. I think that this message has sort of evolved in a very important way,” Berks told Think Progress. Women have embraced the slogan, of course, but so have men and people of various gender identities, and even those who don’t believe in the gender binary, Berks said.
“I think it really transcends the notions of what its initiation was,” she told Think Progress, “and I think it’s really relevant today.”
In an interview with i-D magazine in 2015, Cowan said that if asked 40 years ago, she and Dobkin would have never been able to anticipate the pop culture sensation their photograph inspired.
“In some ways the message ‘The Future Is Female’ is, if not lost, then certainly understood differently than it was in the 70s,” Cowan told i-D. “Feminism has changed, the world has changed. It is difficult for many younger women to imagine the power, the excitement and the urgent need for women to come together to change the world. This may change. I do like that people think it’s a cool image. It IS a cool image.”
In 2015, Cowan posted to Instagram a re-creation of the portrait she created 40 years before. In it, Dobkin once again dons a turtle neck beneath a white T-shirt reading “the future is female.” This time, it’s Berks’ design.
Cowan told i-D the slogan is a “call to arms,” but also an “invocation.”
“If we are to have a future, it must be female, because the rule of men — patriarchy — has just about devastated life on this beautiful little planet,” Cowan said. “The essence and the spirit of the future must be female. So the phrase becomes not just a slogan, but a spell. For the good of all.”
And this week, when news reports touted Clinton’s “new line,” Cowan used tools not available to her back in 1975 to spread the word.
“Not new to us!” she wrote on Twitter. “#thefutureisfemale.”
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