School Uniforms, Easter Eggs, and Abortion: What Were the Lands' End Execs Thinking?

What were they thinking?! Why did Lands' End, the clothing retailer that sells plaid uniforms for Catholic school girls and family-friendly apparel for middle America, feature an outspoken abortion advocate in their spring catalog?

Sue Ellen Browder understands the mindset of Lands' End executives, who elicited a firestorm of protests last week by featuring an interview with pro-abortion feminist Gloria Steinem. In 1967, before her conversion to the Catholic faith, Sue was a writer for Cosmopolitan magazine. During her tenure at Cosmo, she bought into the idea that there existed a link between “women's rights” and widespread abortion. 

Browder talked with the Register about a strategy session in Washingon D.C.'s posh Mayflower Hotel on November 18, 1967. In her new book Subverted: How I Helped the Sexual Revolution Hijack the Women's Movement, Browder recounts how Betty Friedan bullied the National Organization of Women that day, forcing the widespread availability of abortion onto its list of demands. Before that, the issues which the fledgling women's rights organization espoused had included only noncontroversial concerns such as accessible child care and equal employment opportunities for women. The controversial pairing of women's rights with abortion-on-demand was approved by a vote of only 57 women gathered that day in the Mayflower Hotel's Chinese Room. One-third of the women present walked out when the abortion plank was adopted, Sue reports; and they later resigned from N.O.W.

Fast forward to 2016, and the ill-conceived decision by Lands' End executives to applaud the life's work of Gloria Steinem, a founding member of N.O.W. who was present that day in the Chinese Room. “I think that Lands' End failed to recognize that to be pro-abortion is to be anti-family,” Browder explained.

“Families were not happy to see the representative of abortion in the same magazine that features Easter egg hunts. Corporations should stay out of the culture wars. But when they venture into it and alienate mothers with children, they're alienating a lot of people.”

Sue has seen firsthand the negative impact of corporate insensitivity toward their clientele. She worked for J.C. Penney while writing her new book and, as she explained to the Register,

“They put two gay men on the cover of their catalog. There was no big fuss—but people just stopped shopping at Penney's. Shoppers said, 'Okay, that's it. I thought I was just buying shoes; I didn't realize I was buying a political platform.' I don't think Penney's ever recovered.”

With the Gloria Steinem tribute, Lands' End has outraged pro-life shoppers, who are likely to take their business elsewhere in the future.   At least one Catholic school, Fr. Tolton Catholic High School in Missouri, has cancelled their contract for school uniforms, which represented nearly $150,000 in sales. And a Christian college, College of the Ozarks, followed Fr. Tolton Catholic School's lead in voicing opposition to the Lands' End campaign.

According to the Cardinal Newman Society, Fr. Tolton School's president and principal Kristie Wolfe explained the decision in a letter to parents:

“While Land's End has been one of Tolton's official uniform providers since our opening in 2011, we  cannot in good conscience continue that relationship. We believe unequivocally that all life is sacred, from conception until natural death. It would be contrary to our school's very identity to support a company who celebrates the work of someone so opposed to our beliefs, a company who is conducting a campaign 'in honor of her work.' For this reason, Lands' End is no longer an official uniform provider for Fr. Tolton Catholic High School.”

Wolfe went on to write that Gloria Steinem has been a consistent advocate for abortion rights for several decades, even referring to abortion as a 'sacrament.' Wolfe asked that parents, rather than giving business to the company which lauded Steinem's dubious accomplishments, make future uniform purchases through Snow Creek Apparel, a local Missouri firm owned and operated by a Catholic family.

Lands' End management, who were blindsided by the fury which erupted following their Steinem article, quickly removed the article and photo spread from their website and on-line catalog and issued an apology, saying,

“We understand that some of our customers were offended by the inclusion of an interview in a recent catalog with Gloria Steinem on her quest for women's equality. We thought it was a good idea and we heard from our customers that, for different reasons, it wasn't. For that, we sincerely apologize.”

But the apology rings hollow to pro-life shoppers, who recognize that while Lands' End regrets getting caught, they have taken no responsibility for their unpopular editorial decision. Rather than appeasing pro-life customers, the apology served only to anger the other segment of its customer base, pro-abortion shoppers. While the company has tried to turn the corner and leave the controversy behind, customers continue to express their anger at the store's Facebook page.

All of which serves as a reminder to corporate public relations staff that business and politics don't mix well, and that their goal is not to proselytize for their political preference, but to sell stuff. As my fellow blogger Simcha Fisher said, Please Just Sell Me a Shirt!