The Future Isn’t Female, It’s Gender Fluid

How a radically feminist idea ended up as an empty slogan on T-shirts

Photo: Robyn Beck/Getty Images

“The Future Is Female,” a phrase that has dotted a lot of mainstream feminist arguments in recent years, has become representative of many different ideologies, depending on who you talk to. The alliterative reference speaks to a sort of inevitable feminist utopia — a rejiggering of gender dynamics and power that we’re all hurtling toward — but also of women’s increasing professional prowess, resources, and ingenuity. I’ve heard the phrase used in reference to changes in rape culture, in wielding of political influence, in praise of women’s presence in corporate America and growing entrepreneurial acumen. I’ve also heard it used in reference to projections and statistics about how the world is shifting in “our” favor, like some women eventually owning two-thirds of private wealth.

Somewhat analogous to “pro-woman” rhetoric, “the future is female” has unfortunately swelled to encompass anything and everything remotely female and positive.

How this phrasing came to represent so much mirrors how it came into the mainstream in the first place. According to Google, the first noted spike in public interest in “the future is female” arose in 2015, after queer public figures like singer St. Vincent and her then-partner Cara Delevingne started wearing apparel with the phrase. It peaked in early 2017 around the time Hillary Clinton used it in her first public appearance after Trump’s inauguration. And most tellingly, the top searches were all about products, like “the future is female shirt,” “future is female sweatshirt.

It didn’t originate this way. “The future is female” has a deeply radical history that begins with lesbian separatists. How a lesbian separatist “call to arms” ended up on a Nordstrom clothing rack and came to embody everything from shameless capitalist ascension to Instagram hashtags is the perfect case study in white feminism.

The phrase was originally printed on T-shirts in the 1970s to promote New York City’s first women’s bookstore, Labyris Books. Founded by lesbian-identified feminists, they used the space to explore racism and activism. In 1975, photographer Liza Cowan photographed her then-girlfriend, activist Alix Dobkin, in the T-shirt. That photograph then lived in the severely underfunded and underappreciated queer women’s archives — a primarily volunteer effort to preserve history for people who are often told they don’t have one.

In 2015, Rachel Berks, founder and owner of queer clothing brand Otherwild, reportedly saw the vintage photo of Dobkin on the @h_e_r_s_t_o_r_y Instagram, an account founded by Kelly Rakowski dedicated to preserving “dyke imagery.” Berks revived the phrasing in a contemporary line for Otherwild that sold out quickly; a portion of proceeds were donated to Planned Parenthood. Berks told the New York Times in 2015 that it was exciting to watch a lesbian separatist sentiment be “embrace[d]” by so many people, as the sales seemed to show. Upon seeing “The future is female” take on a new popularity, she interpreted the phrase as “a reaction to a misogynist and patriarchal culture that affects a lot of people.”

The popularity of “The future is female” accelerates very quickly after that. Shortly after the Otherwild collection became available, Delevingne started her own “The future is female” shirt line to benefit the Girl Up organization, and then the phrase started to appear on apparel at Topshop and ASOS. Some four years after St. Vincent was photographed wearing a sweatshirt from a small, queer, female-owned business, you can now purchase a rendition everywhere from Nordstrom to Net-a-Porter. And that doesn’t even include the myriad key chains, tote bags, stickers, magnets, pins, and prints or the modifications of the phrase that have appeared elsewhere, like “Females are the future” and “The future is a female.”

“The future is female” is often used to affirm a gender binary rather than challenge it.

One of the points Berks made to the New York Times was that she was taken with the way a gender-specific mantra was being adapted to a less binary-centric future. She told the outlet, “People are recontextualizing it: trans women, men, moms who have sons.”

But as “The future is female” has been adapted into the mainstream, that recontextualizing hasn’t always carried through. And in feminist-branded conferences, in panel discussions, in female-centric work spaces, it’s often used to affirm a gender binary rather than challenge it. When parroting the talking point that some women making money means progress for all women, white feminist outlets often assert some variation of “Why the (Entrepreneurial) Future Is Female.” They are clearly only talking about people who identify as female or women.

Not surprisingly and completely unironically, cisgender women who do not challenge the binary make a lot of money for companies, and for themselves, and are reaffirmed as pretty, sexy, influential, and otherwise culturally valuable. These narratives uphold the dangerous and pernicious claim that there are only two genders.

As the “new year, new you” ideology rolls around again this January, we will no doubt see our inboxes flooded with messages that “the future is female” again. This is also the month that we’ll get our first female vice-president in Kamala Harris, promising — and perhaps achieving — real gender progress. I expect everything from the commodified self-improvement pitches I used to get every January when I edited a women’s website to newsletters advising me how to maintain my New Year’s resolutions. (Reader, I didn’t make any.) But when we get to this alleged feminist “utopia” where non-white women and other marginalized genders do have increased wage protection, health care access, affordable housing, and food security — that future will not be strictly “female.” It will be gender fluid.

Adapted from WHITE FEMINISM by Koa Beck. Copyright © 2021 by Koa Beck. Reprinted by permission of Atria Books, a Division of Simon & Schuster, Inc.

Koa Beck is the author of the book White Feminism: From the Suffragettes to Influencers and Who They Leave Behind.

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