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How To Make A Feminist T-Shirt Without Exploiting Women

Nadya Tolokonnikova in one of the shirts, courtesy of the writer

In the summer of 2013, when news broke about women being crowd-raped in Tahrir Square, I started spray-painting “MATRIARCHY NOW” on T-shirts from the thrift store and distributing them to friends.

One of these friends happened to live in Los Angeles, and a friend of hers happened to run a small boutique in Echo Park called Otherwild. This friend of a friend requested a few of the shirts to carry in her store, and I began mailing batches to L.A., each time in an odd selection of colors and sizes. I started screen-printing rather than spray-painting the shirts, so the text wouldn’t fade. But other than that, my production method changed not at all: I kept printing on shirts from thrift stores. The whole affair was casual, fun, and free of incongruities.

Nadya Closeup (Cropped)
Nadya Tolokonnikova in a ‘Matriarchy Now’ shirt

Then, during a single week in October 2015, two things happened in swift succession. First, Nadya Tolokonnikova of Pussy Riot posted a picture of herself on Instagram wearing one of my shirts. Later in the week, Lena Dunham posted a picture of her hot, male chiropractor friend in one of the tees. 17,019 likes and 266 comments later, I was left wondering if I needed to scale up.

And here is where my quandary began. Everyone around me seemed certain I was sitting on top of a gold mine. They suggested I drop out of grad school. And why not? It was just a short leap to that prototypical 21st-century American elysium: contented early retirement following wildly successful social media-fueled entrepreneurship.

But the path between me and Matriarchy moguldom was cluttered with all kinds of historical, socio-political, and ecological undesirables. Because of the way the clothing-manufacturing industry works, I wasn’t sure if I’d be able to make a T-shirt about the exploitation of women without, well, exploiting women.

My struggles began with the most basic of elements: what to use to make my shirts.

Having spent the last five years researching contemporary practices in the textile and clothing industry, I had no wish to make a product with conventional cotton. The global garment industry is basically a system that sucks water from the developing world and delivers it to rich countries (the U.S., Europe, and Japan) in the form of cotton — and this trend has accelerated exponentially since the fall of garment tariffs in 2005. And then there’s the widespread use of Paraquat in cotton farming, which is linked to Parkinson’s and leukemia in agricultural workers, and was banned in Europe but is used regularly here in the US of A.

Moreover, I had no interest in printing on shirts sewn by non-unionized child workers in factories where basic safety, let alone fair wages, could not be guaranteed.

In 2013, I visited spinning factories in Tamil Nadu, a major hub of knitwear production in Southern India, which has 1,600 textile mills with a workforce of more than 400,000 workers. Sixty percent of the total labor force consists of girls and young women. The mills employ what its critics call the “Sumangali scheme,” three-year “apprenticeships” that come with a lump sum payment at the end, aimed at rural girls in Tamil Nadu to help them pay for their dowries.

The term “apprenticeship” helps mask the fact that the women are paid radically less than India’s minimum wage. The lump sum payment also prevents women from leaving the mills before the contract ends, for fear of losing years of wages if they did — even in the case of injury or abuse.

Once the young women have signed on to a mill, abuses appear to be rampant. One recent report by an NGO gathered information on 93 workers in Tamil Nadu over a three-year period and documented several cases in which workers were paid only part or none of the promised lump sum at the end of their term.

It documented four deaths and numerous injuries ranging from the dramatic (“rods pierced neck,” “clothes/hair pulled into machines”) to the more mundane (cotton in stomach, cotton in lungs, tuberculosis, asthma, bronchitis, fainting spells, insomnia). The courts have, upon examination, declared the scheme to constitute “bonded labor,” an appellation the Southern Indian Mills Association is lobbying to have overturned.

The more I learned about the clothing industry’s history, the more I came to understand how patriarchal forces have enabled sustained abuse.

Industrial textile production emerged in England as a phenomenon powered by the underpaid labor of women and children. Today, the exploitation of women in textile and garment manufacture is the dual product of patriarchal control and the colonial legacy.

lowell mill
Lowell Mill girls (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Some liberal economists argue that textile labor, no matter how exploitative, is a good thing for women in poor countries. In The Travels of a T-Shirt on the Global Economy, the economist Pietre Rivoli argues that the female textile and garment workers of the developing world are “sisters in time” with America’s own Lowell mill girls, those underpaid but ever-sassy heroes of America’s industrialization mythology.

What the two sets of women share, Rivoli writes, is “the cotton mill and the sweatshop as the ignition switch for the urbanization, industrialization, and economic diversification . . . as well as for the economic and social liberation of women from the farm.” In this problematic industrialization-as-superhero narrative, the women of Tamil Nadu are being saved by the spinning mill from starvation and abandonment.

The general pattern of women moving into industrialized labor is familiar: First, a seismic shift in land ownership or trade policy breaks the viability of the agricultural village (in this case, destruction of the traditional textile industry by the British). Then, factory work is offered to the dispossessed as a consolation prize.

This can happen in a scenario as militarized as that in Guatemala, where the widows left by the government’s war on the indigenous population streamed into garment factories in the 1980s, or as legalistic as that in England during the Enclosure Acts (primarily put into place in the late 18th and early 19th century), when peasant cultivators barred from access to ancestral common fields were forced into factory work in Lancashire.

But even if we assume, as Rivoli does, that countries with bitter post-colonial legacies will follow the U.S. along metamorphic phases as predictable as those of a monarch butterfly, it is still worth asking whether the ends justify the means. Or, more to the point, if whether there is any likelihood that a society that relies on cheap female labor to pull ahead in the global economic race will abruptly start valuing its women once some invisible threshold is crossed. In this respect, the United States, where economists note a distinct trend toward the “feminization of poverty,” should serve as a cautionary tale.

Given this history, it is going to be quite a journey to build my “Matriarchy Now” empire in a way that makes the Matriarchy proud. So far I have found two American companies I’d be willing to work with: one called Spiritex, based in Asheville, North Carolina, that manufactures clothing in the U.S. that exclusively uses organic cotton grown, spun, woven, and sewn in North Carolina; and another called Lunatic Fringe, comprised of two women and a spinning mill that use ecologically sound California cotton.

I recently ordered a batch of MATRIARCHY NOW baby onesies from Spiritx and put them up on an Etsy site. I have also planned a research trip to the Greensboro area this month to tour some new cut and sew facilities that are just beginning to reappear in that region almost a quarter century after NAFTA gutted its textile and garment industries.

For now, though, I am still screenprinting on shirts I find at thrift stores. And no, I’m not rich yet.