Tuesday, February 7, 2017

Taking a 'Gentle Craft' to the Streets

No, I don't own a pussyhat (yet). Mainly because vain me doesn't believe that it would suit me. And partly because when the hats first started becoming a thing on social media, they didn't really appeal to me because, though for no particular reason, I've never been one to strongly identify with the feminist reclamation of terms like pussy and bitch or the color pink. However, the pictures of women marching in a sea of pink dots in cities all over the world has definitely made me want my own pussyhat to wear in public as a visual sign of my affiliation with the women's movement - no matter how silly it may make me look. And it has made me want to give one to all my friends' kids (especially to those who don't necessarily see eye to eye with me on feminist issues) because of the subtlety of its meaning and because it's never too early to educate children about feminism. 

London Women's March, 21 January 2017. © Anne Caldwell

If not for the millions of pictures on social media with the hash tag #pussyhats, at least since Time magazine's feature cover of a pussyhat, the small handcrafted item has gained iconic status for a new feminist social justice movement sparked by the election of Donald Trump. The Pussyhat Project was co-founded by California based Krista Suh and Jayna Zweiman with the initial goal of providing a "unique visual statement" for the Women's March in D.C. on the day after Trump's inauguration. In addition, they wanted to offer a way to contribute to the cause to those who could not be physically present at the National Mall. Instead, people could knit, crochet or sew a pussyhat and donate it to the Pussyhat Project which would eventually distribute the hats to marchers. In their mission statement, Suh and Zweiman claim that the idea of a handmade textile item appealed to them specifically because of needlework's popular associations with the feminine. In this context, they were keen to reframe dismissive and patronizing discourses of needlework and femininity in a language of female community and empowerment. Art historian Rozsika Parker, in her seminal work The Subversive Stitch (1984), shows how by the nineteenth century, needlework, specifically embroidery, had become closely knit to the Victorian feminine ideal of a virtuous, pious, and nurturing woman - a view that to this date strongly influences Western society's perceptions about needlework and femininity. Like the suffragettes and third-wave feminists before them, the makers and wearers of the pussyhats have consciously subverted this discourse by appropriating needlework as a powerful tool in their advocacy for women's rights. 

However, like their foremother's, the Pussyhat Project needs to answer to questions of the suitability of needlework as a tool for protest. While a yarn shop owner from Franklin, Tennessee refuses to sell yarn to anyone wanting to contribute to the "vulgarity, vile and evilness of this movement", others ridicule the project and fear that it will "undercut the message the march is trying to send".  The latter criticism is particularly interesting because, to a certain extent, it assumes that colorful and fun needlework do not mix with serious political protest. In the run up to the Women's March, Washington Post columnist Petula Dvorak feared that because of an armada of cute, fluffy, pink hats, the Women's March would be remembered for exactly that and not for its united call for political reform. She fears that the Women's March lacks a clear message and, consequently, will be of low political impact. But what clearer message can there be, than millions of women worldwide taking to the streets in support of women's rights? Though opinions of the marchers are sure to differ on matters such as reproductive rights, in the big picture of things, this seems unimportant because, after all, women's rights ARE human rights. 

A selection of signs made by marchers of the London Women's March. © Anne Caldwell

The controversy over the pussyhats seems to reflect a larger discussion of how we define (effective) activism and protest. Why should a painted cardboard sign with a cunning slogan bear a stronger message than a soft pink hat? Arguably, both show equal dedication and creativity on the side of the maker. To dismiss the pussyhats as what Dvorak calls "she-power frippery" is to dismiss an object and creative practice in which millions have found an outlet and voice for their concerns about the current state of the world. The making of the hat may have provided many with a soothing activity in which to channel their anxieties and worries, while, at the same time, feeling part of a community of like-minded people across the world. As Betsy Greer, one of the forerunners of the craftivist movement (craft + activism) has argued: "The very essence of craftivism lies in creating something that gets people to ask questions; we invite others to join a conversation about the social and political intent of our creations". This conversation can be created as one stands in line at the local coffee shop, donning hand-made pussyhat or as one marches down National Mall towards the Capitol surrounded by thousands, if not millions, of fellow activists. Surely, as with any movement, it remains to be seen how much momentum the Women's March was able to gather in effecting actual social and political change. However, advocacy groups already see an increase in women who are keen to receive training on how to actively lobby policy makers and on how to support female candidates for government positions. Either way, the heightened discussion of the role of craft, specifically needlework, in feminist activism has highlighted the need to question our assumptions of how we define and evaluate different forms of activism. Rather than comparing different forms of protest and trying to apply standard evaluation tools as measurements for their success rate, we should focus on creating and environment in which more people are comfortable to identify as activists as they embrace a variety of techniques and tools in the championing of a special cause.

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