Thursday, March 8, 2012

Knitting is a political act

In honor of International Women's Day, I'd like to consider not only how women have risen above their culturally designated "station" to change the world -- and those are often the women we recognize and celebrate, like Susan B. Anthony, Margaret Sanger, Madeline Albright, and Eleanor Roosevelt -- but also those who have changed the world by doing what society has assigned them to do.


The sneaky secret of empowerment is that it doesn't have to consist in grasping after a power beyond our mandated reach. It doesn't have to smash any ceilings. Not to belittle those who do; they are heroines, courageous beyond most of our imaginings. The backlash they suffer for daring to be more than what their peers imagine them to be is not something most of us would sign up for, or endure if we did.

But delving into the history of women's work, of the domestic sphere, as limiting and degrading as women can experience it to be (when it is all they are allowed to be), one finds powers that the defenders of the status quo have consistently overlooked.

The making of things empowers all of us. But it empowers women especially because the things we have been assigned historically to make are so fundamental, and therefore so radical. The cloth that we wove, the food that we cooked, the family structures we defined -- these are the root experiences of the human being. They are what we point to when we seek to differentiate our culture-bearing ancestors from their animal relatives.

As culture became more complex, women could chafe at being left on the ground floor, as it were. But oh, what a central position, what a powerful position that hearth and home can be. I'm not talking just about being a force behind the throne, influencing the men who go out into the world unwittingly carrying our ideas. I'm talking about shaping the physical world -- bending it around a needle, transforming it over a fire, shepherding it from helpless infant to independent adult.

When we knit, when we weave, we claim not only the powers that our politically active sisters gave to us over the past century. God bless them and what they did; no one in touch with their own humanity could wish it otherwise. But we can claim and exercise something deeper and more basic: the connection between our power to bear children and our power to beautify, adorn, warm, protect, and craft meaning into the world. Those powers meet at the hearthfire, where women inherited the jobs that were compatible with childrearing by virtue of being interruptible, not too dangerous, and practiced close to home. We found our pride and purpose there, something no one gave us and no one can take away. No matter how far we travel from that fundamental place, from those roots, we will always be able to call it back with the simple act of taking up the needle or the shuttle.

I'm following the Twitter feed of @RosiesWWII, the diary of a Seattle housewife who goes to work at Boeing after her husband joins the Army.  Rosie's friend Betty is constantly knitting for the troops, including during the bus rides to and from the factory, and during her lunch break. Rosie tries to learn, too, but finds it confusing. So much for the notion that all women are born with those domestic skills in our genes. Like riveting, it's a learned skill.  Like military training, it is passed from knowledgeable people to novices. Like all human occupations, it's a particular form of the urge to create merged with the imperative to survive.

Try telling Betty or Rosie that knitting is not a political act. That it's a hobby, a pastime, an unimportant and accidental aspect of life. Do it or don't do it -- you are making a political statement, about the way you want to be a woman. Be proud, be ashamed, be aggressive, be passive, keep it in a closet, take it out in the board room or the halls of government. They are all political acts. Because how we choose to be women, what we embrace and reject and leave behind and pick up again, our pasts and our futures, are political realities. They are our 95 theses, posted on the doors of our houses and offices and churches and trailing behind us as we move through our communities.

Whatever choice you make, do it consciously. I am not entirely comfortable with the new domesticity. I judge the way some women promote it or live it out. I am suspicious of their motives or their stance. Yet I recognize more and more every day that this is limiting and counterproductive. I realize this partly because of the judgment on whose receiving end I have been. When I continue on my path of making and connecting with the history of women in these crafts, I do so with the newly sober knowledge that the path has meanings I didn't choose.

Yet the only way to change those meanings is to keep choosing to enact the ones you believe in. Does my knitting limit me? No. Not being a knitter, being helpless before the tools and materials of the craft, laughing off my inabilities as if they were charming ineptitudes, afraid to begin lest I fail not only myself but my gender ... that was what limited me. And all those realities were my choice. They were not imposed on me by history or culture.

We are freer to acquire skills in this internet age than we ever have been before. Ignorance is no longer an excuse; the lack of a teacher in close proximity makes no difference. What inspires me and empowers me is that my connections are not only person to person as our bodies occupy the same time and space. We can be given power, inspiration, courage by people we will never meet in the flesh, thousands and millions of them, living out a way to be woman or man that we find freeing and creative -- and we can turn it into material reality. That's the key. Not just psychological liberation, but transforming matter, shaping the physical environment. Making it real.

How does participation in craft, especially those traditionally associated with women, give you power?  I'd love to hear from you in the comments.

Thanks for reading the manifesto.


Pilgrim said...


Kate.e.pitts said...

I am thankful for the women who use knitting as a political voice. There was a lady at my church growing up who would embroider gifts for new couples or babies. At her eightieth birthday, the pastor asked people to raise their hands if they had received a gift from Miss Pegg. Almost every palm in the congregation flew high, saluting decades of her love that she had stitched into their most important rights of passage.
Material creation,like planting heirloom tomatoes in a school garden,is meaningful on so many levels.

Reaction: you do not support an industrial system or too big economy.

Place- based: you are connected with the moment, or as positive psychology would say - "you are in the flow of things." From the standpoint of the community,material skills such as music making or knitting connect to Bill McKibben's book Deep Economy, in which local economies are habitats for individual satisfaction and ecological survival.

Sensual: Bamboo yarn feels calm like a warm breeze on Petij Jean Mountain or the soft sigh before peppermint tea. I feel beautiful when I wear something that I have knitted. Most of the time, I knit in green.
As for tomatoes, try an heirloom Cherokee Purple or Valencia or Hillbilly Tomato Leaf from the farmer's market this summer (unless you feel inspired google the skills to grow your own!)