What “The Future Is Female” Really Means

What AfterEllen.com got wrong about Tegan & Sara's "The Future is Female" homage.

Slogan tees have taken on a feminist slant as of late, largely due to the success of one specific shirt that’s reemerged from the 1970s: Rachel Berks, owner of Otherwild, worked with lesbian historian Liza Cowan to re-create a tee captured in one of Cowan’s photographs: Alix Dobkin in a t-shirt reading “The Future is Female.”

With Cowan’s permission, Berks then reproduced t-shirts, tote bags, sweatshirts and other items with the same typeface as the original, donating part of the proceeds to Planned Parenthood. Celebrities started to be seen wearing her items, and then Cara Delevingne started selling her own version, much to Berks’ dismay. But ownership of these kinds of phrases are often debatable, even when they are tracked and well-documented.

Cowan tells NewNowNext the phrase has no precise meaning but the initial idea was “to absorb two power archetypes, and to imagine them in relationship to each other.”

“The meaning of ’The Future is Female’ has not changed for me, despite all of the ways it is used today, from selling politics to selling underwear,” she says. “It is such a powerful, magical phrase that I believe it even repels corporate corruption. It is its own armor.”


With the success of “The Future is Female” merch, though, fast fashion followed suit: TopShop, H&M, and Forever 21 rake it in sales on tops with “Femme Forever” and “Females of the Future,” emblazoned on them. Even high-fashion is getting in on the trend: Prabal Gurung charges $200 for black or white tees reading “This is what a feminist looks like” and “Nevertheless she persisted.”

Prabal Gurung

Queer-women-owned retailer Wildfang was blatantly ripped off by Forever 21 for their Wild Feminist slogan, which was widely covered by fashion and lifestyle outlets demanding that retailers stop biting off of small mom-and-pops (or mom-and-moms) who also donate part of their proceeds to charitable causes. (Wildfang donated 10% of profits from their Wild feminist T to Planned Parenthood and the ACLU.) Forever 21 eventually took the shirt off of its website.

Forever 21

When it’s corporations or high-end fashion designers deliberately stealing from the hard work and good intentions of LGBT women and allies, it’s frustrating and despicable, and often affects those multi-million and billionaires much less than it affects the much smaller businesses who were the originators of an idea.

Those ideas largely come from the communities the creators are a part of, which is why they are so resonant to begin with. But once co-opted, the messaging changes, and now straight, cis women are wearing “Femme Power!” shirts out into the world, further confusing what it means to be “femme” and what the word means to and for other people.

It’s clear when a big box chain takes something for their own that they are wrong with a capital W and reparations are owed. But what about when its a facet of your own community attacking your use of a phrase, one that is resonant for other members of your community and even benefitting them by giving back?

That’s exactly what’s happening for Wildfang now, and for musicians-activists Tegan and Sara who are a part of a collaborative campaign dubbed The Future is Fluid. Last week, the campaign kicked off with gender non-conforming messaging that tied in with Wildfang’s brand of androgynous clothing.


“Research shows Gen Z will have the most fluid identity of any generation yet, with almost 50% identifying as something other than straight and 56% knowing someone with a gender-neutral pronoun,” the press release read. “The ‘Future is Fluid’ video celebrates that fluidity and proudly showcases 20 queer, non-binary and trans individuals who represent non-conformity in their gender identity, expression, sexuality, and relationships. Tegan and Sara lend their voices to the powerful piece with reminders that ’the future is not assigning gender to genital’ and ’you are enough.'”

The accompanying video shared stories of several non-binary and gender non-conforming individuals of varying identities and some with various identities. For Tegan and Sara, who recently launched their first non-profit venture, The Tegan and Sara Foundation for LGBTQ Women and Girls, the idea was to create a line of clothing that anyone could wear and feel comfortable in.


“We’re living in a time of divisive rhetoric and it’s important to remember that we’re all equally valuable human beings with endless potential,” Tegan Quin said in the release.


All of the profits from The Future is Fluid line goes to Tegan and Sara’s foundation, which has already launched a new app for LGBT women to find LGBT-friendly medical professionals and supported existing orgs like the Audre Lorde Project and Egale Canada’s Two Spirits, One Voice, a community-based initiative that seeks to bolster support for persons that identify both as LGBTQ and Indigenous–Two Spirit people. So when AfterEllen.com (my former employer) published an article titled “Tegan and Sara x Wildfang’s ’The Future is Fluid’ is a Slap in the Face to Feminism,” it was truly disheartening for Emma McIlroy, queer woman and owner of Wildfang.

The article’s author, Jocelyn Macdonald, stated that Wildfang was making “an effort to recruit straight shoppers” and “saying that straights and non-straights are just another false binary.” In a bizarre twisting of words and ideas, the writer attempted a jumbled argument that Tegan and Sara were “dragging” the feminists who created the original “The Future is Female” slogan.

Cowan said that she doesn’t believe her personal feelings about the phrase being repurposed will change the fact that it has been borrowed by many others (charitable and otherwise), but that any dismay she might’ve felt is overshadowed by the overall reach of the original.

“More than anything, it’s just bizarre for me to keep seeing this phrase, this concept, this idea, spreading all over the world. I never would have imagined, even in my wildest dreams, that this could happen,” Cowan said. “The good that comes out of it is that the magic of the phrase is spread.”

Wildfang owner and CEO Emma McIlroy said she sees “The Future Is Fluid” as a statement that “that liberates us all from the rigid rules of gender conformity that have held us all back.”

“The Future is Fluid relates to all genders and is inherently inclusive,” she tells NewNowNext. “It’s 2017―feminism must be inclusive of those who identify as women and those who do not. Feminism is the fight for gender equality―if that movement does not include the trans community, the gender non-conforming community, and men, then it’s bogus. The movement must be inclusive of all genders who share the same goals and values.”

Eli Erlick, director of Trans Student Educational Resources, said she doesn’t find “The Future is Female” in and of itself to be exclusionary—that mentality comes from the person wearing it.

“If someone imagines a future where womanhood and female-ness are accessible and collectively working toward justice, then that is perfectly fine,” she tells NewNowNext. “Gender is not the problem, gender roles are. Fluid identities―queerness, gender fluidity, gender nonconformity, etc.―are not more subversive than ’female,’ and all marginalized communities are the future. However, if by ’female,’ one means cisgender women—which I can only assume the author does—then there is a problem.”


If we as lesbians and as women are to see any otherness as the opposite of feminism, we are truly the rigid, angry, hateful separatists that we’ve been made out to be by the true opposition, which is to say the patriarchal, conservative, right wing people and believers who see us as less than human and enforce laws as such. What the article’s author seems to forget is that lesbians were once the “lavender menace” of feminism—that we were excluded as were women of color and trans women and anyone who didn’t fit Betty Freidan’s mold of what a “woman” should be and should look like all in order to please the powers that be—powers who aren’t so different from the ones we still have in place decades later.

“TS x Wildfang seems to be saying that the problem of patriarchy will be solved if binaries come to be understood as fluid,” AfterEllen writes. “But the problem is not just a binary between male and female. The problem is the hierarchy assigned to the binary.”


But what the writer and the site fails to acknowledge or accept is that we don’t have to live our lives according to those structured binaries—and as queer people (lesbians! bisexuals! trans people! GNCs! etc!) we can create our own rules, or lack of rules, and live our lives day to day, whoever we want and feel to be, while also acknowledging that the binaries that exist still very much do exist are what we are saying should be destroyed―not women, not feminists or feminism, not lesbianism.

“The majority of transgender women aren’t straight and are part of the lesbian community of both cisgender and transgender women,” Erlick said. “Feminism must champion self-determination, gender autonomy, and collective liberation. Anything less is reactionary. The key piece that the writer seems to be missing that ’fluid’ is not contrary to ’woman.’ Multiple communities can be empowered at once. All of these aspects of our lives bind into one another. Trans and cis women both face violence from men, subjugation, and a lack of reproductive autonomy. All of these issues, closely tied with all waves of feminism, can be better addressed when we work together.”


The idea that Wildfang or Tegan and Sara or any fluid or trans or gender non-conforming person is at odds with feminism and lesbianism is false. And I take issue with that as a feminist lesbian and woman who is tired of feeling like “lesbian” should now be synonymous with hateful exclusionary separatist—a “feminazi” as coined by the likes of Rush Limbaugh. That’s not what I want for me or my feminist family who is much larger and broader than those who refuse to accept that the world is larger than just us, and the future will be even better because of it.

“It’s possibly a good idea to think of it as homage rather than ripoff. I try to,” Cowan said. “And, at the same time, I think it’s important to keep reminding people about the origins of the phrase. Probably people think of the phrase ’Future is Female’ when they see another ’The future is……,’ so in an odd way, the spinoffs amplify the original message.”

Trish Bendix is a Los Angeles-based writer.