A little throwback to the height of the Clinton-era culture wars for your Wednesday morning: In 1995, Wal-Mart pulled t-shirts featuring a Dennis the Menace character declaring “Someday a woman will be PRESIDENT!” from one of its stores because somebody thought it was “offensive.”
According to the Telegraph, Nick Kapur first pointed out the story on Twitter, linking to Associated Press coverage of the controversy. The shirts were the creation of 70-year-old Florida psychologist Ann Ruben and featured the character of Margaret triumphantly making the prediction. She got them into her local Wal-Mart, where they were doing a brisk if small-scale business—until they were pulled. At which point she went to the press.
Ruben said Sharon Higginbotham, a buyer for women’s clothes at Wal-Mart’s national office in Bentonville, Ark., told her the store would not carry the shirt nationwide because the message “goes against Wal-Mart’s family values.”
Higginbotham did not immediately return messages. [A spokesperson] wouldn’t discuss what the buyer told Ruben.
A spokesperson for the big-box store confirmed to the AP that the shirts had been removed from shelves, saying that: “It was determined the T-shirt was offensive to some people and so the decision was made to pull it from the sales floor,” though the story added that, “She refused to reveal the nature of the customer’s complaint.”
The story also made it to People magazine, which ran a brief interview with Ruben. “I was never aware that promoting women as leaders flew in the face of family values,” she said. “It didn’t make any sense.” She also provided a bit about her own history:
A woman’s place has been an obsession for Ruben since she was a girl. The daughter of Russian immigrants, she recalls when she was 8 and playing with an older cousin, Irwin Molever. “Annie, you be the secretary,” he told her, “and I’ll be the president.” Ruben happily shuffled papers on Irwin’s behalf—for a while. “On Monday, that was fine,” she says. “On Tuesday, it was still okay. But on Wednesday, I said, ‘It’s my turn to be president.’ “ Irwin scoffed. “Boys are never secretaries,” he said, “and girls are never presidents!” Exasperated, Ruben flung her papers at Irwin. “He wasn’t pleased,” she says. “He punched me in the stomach.”
In a classic instance of the Streisand effect—and perhaps an early forerunner of celebs getting a little social media boost by “hitting back at the body/mommy/breastfeeding/woman shamers”—the fracas did wonders for the shirt’s availability. According to People, Wal-Mart was flooded with complaints and eventually ordered 30,000 for sale nationwide. Look for them in a Goodwill near you.
Update, 2:50 pm: A Walmart spokesperson has reached out to say: “Wow, it still pains us that we made this mistake 20 years ago. We’re proud of the fact that our country – and our company – has made so much progress in advancing women in the workplace, and in society.”