The most iconic women-centric scenes revolve around shopping. The women of Sex and the City touted shopping bags like accessories. Pretty Woman’s “Big mistake!” scene defined Vivian’s character. And the trope of the dressing room montage seeped through all the best ‘80s films.
While it’s been a (mostly jovial) mainstay in pop culture, the portrait of women shopping has not always been flattering–in fact, it’s often seen as vapid, frivolous, and a materialistic guilty pleasure. Yet, at closer glance, the relationship between women and shopping has a deeply feminist thread running through it. Money is power and for hundreds of years, women have quietly used consumer culture to get a piece of it.
In America’s humble beginnings, everything we needed was largely imported from England, keeping us economically reliant on a country we were breaking free from. A small group of female patriots, “The Daughters of the Revolution,” saw an opportunity to cut these financial ties and lead a boycott on British cotton, opting instead to create their own fabric. Women went to work creating a simple homespun linen, even hosting parties and competitions to ramp up production. On April 7, 1766, the Boston Gazette recognized this patriotic effort was no small feat, “…they exhibited a fine example of industry, by spinning from sunrise until dark, and displayed a spirit for saving their sinking country.” The boycott was successful and this act changed the way the colonists shopped during the war – and women learned a valuable lesson on the power consumers held.
Shopping as an act of female rebellion continued with the introduction of the department store. In 1867, 70,000 people attended the opening of Wanamaker’s department store, which oozed luxury. A full city block long, this was no simple store but boasted nursery services, tea rooms, parlors, and other attractions where women lingered and shopped. On first glance, the department store seemed like a leisure space for women, but once inside, it was a place to think, discuss and learn independently. Breaking out of their homes, department stores gave women a socially acceptable place to be together unchaperoned. Looking around his Boston department store, owner Edward Filene called the scene an “Adamless Eden”.  This gathering space provided a forum for women newly ready to advocate for their rights. In London, women entered department stores and went on “window smashing” raids to publicly demand the right to vote. These violent efforts eventually helped women in England win the vote in 1918.
Women’s feminist history with shopping hasn’t always looked rebellious or radical. During WWII, women filled offices, factories, and other workspaces while their male counterparts enlisted in the army. These “We Can Do It” women were expected to retreat back to the home after the war, but they had gotten a taste of empowerment earning an income and weren’t ready to give it up. Enter: The Home Shopping Party. Hostesses could earn a paycheck and bonuses while entertaining their guests. From Tupperware to Avon and Mary Kay, women became direct sales people, while retaining their housewife and hostess veneer. Yet, there were still expectations of the women who hosted these parties. The “Tupperware lady” was a suburban housewife who, in her “hose, hat, heels, and gloves seemed to personify the female stereotype of the plastic… 1950s.” But under this ladylike portrait, women were changing the lives of their families.
When money was tight, women could make a difference. Eleanor Sterhan, a Tupperware seller in 1949, was able to “replace their 1937 Packard car with a new automobile, practically re-furnished their home, bought a TV set, took a motor trip to California, and made financial problems a thing of the past”, all with her own income.  In a time when women were not welcome in the workforce, they found a way to both adhere to traditional ideals of beauty and womanhood, while empowering themselves in the process.
Today, women still make a statement through their shopping habits. Purchasing from women-owned brands, shopping with a cause, or supporting local businesses is a way to vote with your money. From protest tees to merch for politicians and causes, to branded accessories, women are making it known where they stand: all while shopping.
So go forth and shop with pride – your foremothers knew it was the feminist thing to do.
Special thanks to Phoebe McDougal and History Associates Incorporated for their research and efforts.