A few of the pink pussyhats I’ve been working on over the past couple months.
Since early December, I’ve been knitting “pussyhats” and selling pink yarn. Lots and lots of pink yarn. Part of my job is working and teaching at a small LYS (local yarn shop) in Jamaica Plain here in Boston called JP Knit & Stitch, and it’s been interesting to see this effort come to life from this vantage point. It’s had me thinking a lot about the role of knitting and other textiles in political activism; the meaning attached to making something with one’s own two hands that is capable of reaching a wider audience with a wider message.
Last week, Petula Dvorak, a columnist for the Washington Post, wrote a piece criticizing the Pussyhat Project, arguing that such “frippery” can only detract from the more serious issues at stake; that to mix theater with a much-needed civil rights march is a strike against the marchers’ platform before it even hits the pavement.
I remain full of complicated feelings about the use of the word, “pussy,” and acknowledge the general merits of the argument that theater for theater’s sake, when it reaches over-the-top tone-deaf heights, does have the potential to overshadow that which inspires it. But there’s more to the story than the over-simplified argument Dvorak makes. There is passion and purpose here. So much, that I’m sure one simple blog post can not do it justice. Here’s a start though…
The Devaluation of Women’s Work
Some first wave feminists, quite understandably, distanced themselves from the traditional needle arts that women had long been confined to, in order to advance their message and move into the world held out of their reach. The same does not necessarily hold true for many third-wave feminists of the 21st century. Over the past several decades, more scholarly work has been done to clarify the legitimacy of these art forms, and those who’ve practiced them, than at any other time in history. The scholarship is immense and to dismiss handwork as merely an adorably silly pastime concerned only with adornment, rather than a medium for genuine human expression, seems strikingly out-of-touch.
The current handmade movement, born in part from this body of scholarship and cemented in the lives of many by the bleakness of the worldwide economic recession, serves to empower people in the way that it promotes authenticity and individual intention in a world of half-baked plastic. To Make is to have hope that it is possible to shape life into something nearing beauty despite all that remains outside our control. To take that action into the political realm as a Craftivist is a serious form of democratic engagement because it subverts a medium that has traditionally served as a from of oppression, keeping women from engagement in the public sphere. When Dvorak refers to this kind of action as “goofy” and labels it as “frippery,” she devalues female-identifying voices.
An Impact Beyond the March
I think Dvorak may be misconstruing the nature of this particular effort based, in part, on a lack of understanding about what’s going on behind the scenes. You see, it’s not simply about the statement made on the day of the march itself. From where I’ve stood behind the counter, I’ve seen countless people who’ve stepped inside our doors to support a small business that is locally owned by, gasp, a woman of all things. In times such as these when the president-elect boasts about the cheapness of women’s bodies and businesses are applauded for excluding their fellow citizens based on sexual orientation, gender, race, disability, or political/religious affiliation, it has become a political act to seek out and support inclusive businesses under the ownership of oft-marginalized voices.
It’s also been a privilege to help manage a community-oriented space where people are gathering to knit these hats. They see another person eyeing the pink yarn, they end up sitting down to discuss how they came to the project; how it is giving them hope and direction; how this act is connecting them to a wider community of like-minded citizens they can work alongside in the coming years. They share practical, empowering knowledge around craftsmanship, and in the process, have incredibly meaning conversations about our current political climate and what the next steps are. They talk about their grandmothers and how this act honors them. They talk about their children and the world they will work to craft for them.
If any of this sounds silly or trite, I invite you to consider the long history of knitting as a means of bringing people together in times of war and political strife. This current pink-toned undertaking is far from the first of its kind. Consider the prolific role of knitting on the home front in WWII, the felted peace cranes of Japan, the pink yarn-bombing knit by Marianne Joergensen to cover a combat tank in protest of Denmark’s involvement in the Iraq war, or the efforts of early Americans to clothe Revolutionary troops.
Do these statements really mean less because they take the form of traditional women’s work? Does a message mean less because it is associated with craft and visual communication rather than the written word?
Case in Point
Dvorak references the Suffragist Parade of 1913 in D.C. as a particularly successful event, supposedly unfettered by gimmicks and theater.
Only it wasn’t.
A successful protest clearly not involving theater: participants perform an allegorical performance near the Treasury Building as part of the 1913 Suffragist Parade in Washington, D.C. (The Atlantic).
The march, organized by Alice Paul, featured, “8,000 marchers, including nine bands, four mounted brigades, 20 floats, and an allegorical performance near the Treasury Building.” Take a look at some of these incredible historic photographs and the visual imagery that helped to rally so many voices around a common platform. Do you notice anything in particular? Apart from the pageantry, one thing that jumps out to me is just how many women are wearing the color white. White, along with purple, yellow, and green gave suffragists across the country a means of unification and common identity, bolstering their cohesiveness, camaraderie, and ability to be seen and heard without the use of one voice or language.
Color and dress, form and pattern, when applied to the human body in a thoughtful manner, can communicate things about ourselves and our values that words can only chip away at. When it comes to crowds, this seems a critical means of convocation that can only be dismissed at great cost. For our own times, neon pink, a fierce and brazenly modern alternative to the bashful “baby pinks” of times past is a bracing and bright shade while still, in the words of the Pussyhat Project organizers, “is considered a very female color representing caring, compassion, and love—all qualities that have been derided as weak but are actually STRONG. Wearing pink together is a powerful statement that we are unapologetically feminine and unapologetically stand up for women’s rights.” In its unrelenting and bracing brightness, it does indeed seem a rather appropriate symbol of reclamation for marginalized genders, faiths, races, abilities, and creeds to unite under as we seek to reclaim space in our national dialogue for integrity, autonomy, and equality.