At one time, women’s education included critical training in needle arts like sewing and knitting, which were “not only necessary skills but also political tools for the women involved in resisting authority.” At PBS, Corinne Segal reports on pussy hats and brain hats as just two examples in a long line of handmade symbols of women pitting themselves against the status quo. Then and now, knitting circles are perfect environments in which to sew the seeds of political and social discontent.
In October 2014, Sewell and Payne helped form the Yarn Mission, a knitting collective aimed at fighting racial injustice through community organizing and by supporting black creators’ work. The quiet setting of a knitting circle has helped them discuss difficult topics, Payne said. “A lot of times what we’re talking about is really traumatic,” she said. “It’s the only way I’m able to talk about a lot of the things that have happened in Ferguson and continue to happen in St. Louis.”
Recent marches such as the Women’s March on Jan. 21 and the March for Science on Saturday have brought knitting into the international spotlight and lured newcomers to a symbol of activism that dates back hundreds of years.
Academics and historians say that these new knitters are tapping into a long history of needle arts in the U.S. that is inextricably bound up in race, gender and class issues. Its recent popularity is only the latest chapter.
And during the movement for abolition, sewing circles continued to serve as a place for women to exchange ideas and talk about political work. The Liberator, an abolitionist newspaper published by William Lloyd Garrison between 1831 and 1965, wrote on Dec. 3, 1847:
“Sewing Circles are among the best means for agitating and keeping alive the question of anti-slavery. … A friend in a neighboring town recently said to us, Our Sewing Circle is doing finely, and contributes very much to keep up the agitation of the subject. Some one of the members generally reads an anti-slavery book or paper to the others during the meeting, and thus some who don’t get a great deal of anti-slavery at home have an opportunity of hearing it at the circle.”
Prince made too much music for just one person. He knew this, banking thousands of hours of unreleased material in the vaults of his Paisley Park studios. A year after his unexpected death on April 21, 2016, we’re no closer to realizing what he stashed away in his vaults, but what he gave away in his lifetime represents an important chapter in his legacy.
A year after his unexpected death. Prince was the soundtrack to the most naively optimistic years of my life, the years that my life was first my own. Years full of risk and erratic income and the first time I fell in love as something resembling an adult. A year after his unexpected death. I still catch my breath when there’s a Prince song on the radio. I can’t sing along without my voice literally choking on the emotion I still feel from this loss.
At Pitchfork, Stephen Thomas Erlewine reminds us that Prince existed beyond his own discography. We know about “Manic Monday” and “The Glamorous Life” and “Jungle Love,” but there was so much more. And much of it went to women.
Prince’s cottage industry as a songwriter for hire was a key part of his purple reign in the mid-’80s. He wasn’t contracted to write hits but instead gave songs to acts he deemed worthy. Usually these were women, which emphasized Prince’s androgyny and feminine empathy, but also reflected the practical reality that he no longer had Vanity 6 and Apollonia 6—the short-lived girl-groups he built, respectively, around his ex-girlfriends Vanity and Apollonia in the early ’80s—as a vehicle for exploring this side of himself. Certainly “Sugar Walls,” the tune he gave to Sheena Easton in 1984, felt like a throwback to Vanity 6’s sex-saturated 1982 hit “Nasty Girl,” and Easton delivered it with a heavy-handedness befitting its single-entendre. But if “Sugar Walls” treads familiar territory, “Manic Monday”—written for the scrapped second Apollonia 6 album—was a genuine departure into psychedelic pop. In the Bangles’ hands, “Manic Monday” carried a bittersweet sparkle suiting the Paisley Underground scene, which inspired the Revolution’s Around the World in a Day.
There’s an Apple Music playlist included at the end of Erlewine’s homage to Prince’s diverse side projects. You might want to grab your headphones.
The Hulu adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale could not have been more timely, and therefore chilling. “In February, the book overtook George Orwell’s 1984 on the Amazon best-seller list. Texas is Gilead and Indiana is Gilead and now that Mike Pence is our vice president, the entire country will look more like Gilead, too.”
In The New Republic, Sara Jones (a former fundamentalist Christian whose education prepared her for a life of tending home and making babies and obeying a husband) writes about The Handmaid’s Tale, how its world could not exist without conservative women — represented in the book by the character Serena Joy — and what it ultimately means for those women’s lives.
America is rich in Serena Joys. One need look no further for her contemporary counterparts than Michelle Duggar and her daughters; or Paula White, the televangelist who allegedly led Donald Trump to Christ; or his aide Kellyanne Conway, who defends him as a “great boss” to women. The character Atwood invented is an amalgam of Phyllis Schlafly and Tammy Faye Bakker with a dash of Aimee Semple McPherson. The spectacle of the female fundamentalist celebrity is not recent, and she is not an anomaly. Her existence is proof of American fundamentalism’s durability, and a reminder that it could not thrive without the enthusiastic backing of women.
The dilemma of Serena Joy feels deceptively easy to resolve. She’s in this for power, and understands that it’s hers if she says the right things to the right audiences. Schlafly achieved international fame, and Conway has the ear of the president. With Gilead, however, Atwood reminds such women that they might not like the results of their labor; that by the time they come to regret it, the culture they helped create will have developed far beyond their control. Serena Joy is a warning, not only to her feminist antagonists, but to conservatives, too.
For many women, the idea of ambition is complicated. Too often when we’re are described as ambitious, it’s hard to tell whether it’s a compliment or a criticism. Often, it’s an all-out accusation. For the essay collection Double Bind, editor Robin Romm tasked 24 women writers with considering their own relationships to ambition. Hawa Allan‘s essay “Becoming Meta” is a meditation on the mantra of I’ll show you that drove her to achieve—first as the only black student in her elementary school’s gifted and talented program, then as a law student, and finally as a law firm associate, hungry for the validation of the “rainmaker” partners whose ranks held no one that looked like her.
A noun is the proper denotation for a thing. I can say that I have things: for instance that I have a table, a house, a book, a car. The proper denotation for an activity, a process, is a verb: for instance I am, I love, I desire, I hate, etc. Yet ever more frequently an activity is expressed in terms of having; that is, a noun is used instead of a verb. But to express an activity by to have in connection with a noun is an erroneous use of language, because processes and activities cannot be possessed; they can only be experienced. —Erich Fromm, To Have or to Be?
I have been to a few Madonna concerts in my day, so I may or may not have been straining to get a view around the pillar planted in front of my discount seat when I beheld the superstar kick up into a forearm stand in the middle of the stage. For non-initiates, a “forearm stand” is a yoga pose wherein you balance your entire body on your forearms—lain parallel to one another on the ground, and perpendicular to your upper arms, torso, and legs, all of which are inverted skyward. Imagine turning your body into an “L.” And then imagine Madonna doing the same, except spotlighted before thousands of gaping fans in a large arena.
I hadn’t done any yoga at that point, so the irony of Madonna flaunting her ability in a discipline meant to induce inner awareness was totally lost on me. I just thought it was cool. Precisely, I interpreted Madonna’s forearm stand as a demonstration of power—power that was quiet yet fierce. An expression of power that I immediately decided I wanted to embody. So, not too long thereafter, I went ahead and enrolled in a series of free, introductory lessons at yoga studios across Manhattan and Brooklyn. My modus operandi: take advantage of the introductory classes and skip to another studio (once I no longer had a discounted pass). I was doing this, I told myself at the time, to test out different teachers—to find “the right fit.” In hindsight, I can see that this was just an excuse for being itinerant and cheap.
Rose Weitz, who writes about the importance of hair in the lives of women, says that we are sending a message with our locks; that hair—whether fine, kinky, purple, or cut close to the scalp—is “part of a broader language of appearance, which, whether or not we intend it, tells others about ourselves.”
Changing my hair transformed my relationships and my identity. When I changed it, it almost felt like I was being reborn, being given another chance to recast, re-create who I was—sassy, obedient, sexy, demure. But around my grandmother, I often followed her lead, walking with the weight of her expectations and the benefits of her struggle. She bought me clothes, jewelry, and gym memberships and mailed me newspaper clippings about which fruits and veggies I should eat to lose weight faster.
When hair is bound up with identity, history, and family, a hairstyle can bring women closer — or push them apart. In OregonHumanities, Kimberly Melton tells how she finally styled hers in a way that reflected who she was, and demanded that her loving grandmother accept this as a sign of strength.
We’re taught that all narrative conflicts boil down to one of three stories: man versus man, man versus himself, or man versus nature. So what about women? Megan Mayhew Bergman takes to the pages of The Paris Review, looking for depictions of women acting and exploring with agency—from fictional women like Judith in Artemisia Gentileschi’s famous painting, to modern explorers like Rahawa Haile—and finding not nearly enough, and not much range. Still, there are inspiring examples of women taking on nature, and the hopeful note that women will continue carving out large spaces in adventure art and literature.
In the midfifties, Emma “Grandma” Gatewood, sixty-seven years old and mother of eleven children, became the first woman to hike the Appalachian Trail. She carried her gear in a homemade knapsack and slept under a shower curtain. She wore Keds. Emma was a survivor of domestic abuse: she had been nearly beaten to death by her husband more than once; when she divorced him, he threatened to commit her to an insane asylum. In 1955, she turned to her kids and told them, I’m going on a walk. She completed the 2,168-mile trail three times, the last when she was seventy-five years old.
In the sixties, Audrey Sutherland, who was raising four children alone on Oahu, would leave for weeks at a time to take solo expeditions. She explored the northern coast of Molokai, swimming in jeans and pulling her camping gear behind her in an army bag. From 1980 to 2003, she explored over eight thousand miles of waterways in Alaska and British Columbia, traveling with an inflatable kayak.
In this installment of the Survival Skills column at Hazlitt,Katherine Laidlawrecalls an abusive relationship in which her boyfriend threatened her with a boxcutter. In examining why she stayed as long as she did, she observes how the emotional scars affect her thinking and perception in what should be a new, exciting relationship — to the point where “Everything now — a flicker of tone, a sideways glance, a distant voice on the end of the phone — is a sign, a flag, a warning.”
It’s hard to know what to do when someone says, “this is the knife I was going to use to kill you.” On a cold day in January, he holds a box cutter up to my face, runs it in front of my neck, his expression placid as flat water, and then walks calmly back over to a cardboard box that sits on the other side of the room waiting to be sliced open.
It’s hard to know what to do when that same person, later, says he loves you.
For women who are raised to believe they are strong, agency is complex. Privilege makes you reckless. I remember the moment I chose to buy into the interesting situation I could sense unfolding. It happened one morning, maybe around 4 a.m., when I couldn’t sleep—I usually couldn’t sleep when I slept over. We almost always went to bed angry and I almost never knew why. There is something insidious about love built by two brittle hearts. I made a choice and chose wrong. How naive I was, to have thought that when someone hurts you, the polite response is to ask him to stop.
The March 2017 issue of Vogue Magazine has a number of glorious spreads celebrating powerful women, but my favorite is this one on women working at NASA:
By the ’80s, though, NASA got better at recruiting women. “I remember that when I first came here, I was the only one in my group,” recalls Luz Marina Calle, the lead scientist and principal investigator of the Corrosion Technology Laboratory at an outdoor exposure facility. “When I used to answer the phone, people thought I was the secretary, and I would say, ‘No, in fact, he is my colleague.’ ”
We still have a ways to go, but thanks to women of science, we could make it as far as Mars — and beyond.
What makes a strike work? Large crowds, a focused goal, and inclusion. The evolution of the Womxn’s March on January 21, 2017, had a bumpy start, but evolved to have a focused, intersectional mission. Similar questions face the strike; who’s it for, who gets to go, and what’s its purpose?
Women’s strikes have typically succeeded when they have some clear idea of what women’s work is, some obvious problem that will become clear through women’s strategic withdrawal—for example, a French strike in which women left work early (to symbolize the time of day they stopped getting paid, as compared to men with the same job). Without a specific, labor-related point, after all, a “strike” is just a particularly righteous personal day.
Below is the first chapter fromFlâneuse, Lauren Elkin’s incisive hybrid book of memoir, cultural criticism, and social history about the female urban walker, the contemplative, observant, and untold counterpart to the masculine flâneur. Our thanks to Elkin and FSG for sharing it with the Longreads community.
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Where did I first come across that word, flâneur, so singular, so elegant and French with its arched â and its curling eur? I know it was when I was studying in Paris at university, back in the 1990s, but I don’t think I found it in a book. I didn’t do much required reading, that year. I can’t say for sure, which is to say I became a flâneur before I knew what one was, wandering the streets around my school, located as American universities in Paris must be, on the Left Bank.
From the French verb flâner, the flâneur, or ‘one who wanders aimlessly,’ was born in the first half of the nineteenth century, in the glass-and-steel covered passages of Paris. When Haussmann started slicing his bright boulevards through the dark uneven crusts of houses like knives through a city of cindered chèvre, the flâneur wandered those too, taking in the urban spectacle. A figure of masculine privilege and leisure, with time and money and no immediate responsibilities to claim his attention, the flâneur understands the city as few of its inhabitants do, for he has memorised it with his feet. Every corner, alleyway and stairway, has the ability to plunge him into rêverie. What happened here? Who passed by here? What does this place mean? The flâneur, attuned to the chords that vibrate throughout his city, knows without knowing.
In my ignorance, I think I thought I invented flânerie. Coming from suburban America, where people drive from one place to another, walking for no particular reason was a bit of an eccentric thing to do. I could walk for hours in Paris and never ‘get’ anywhere, looking at the way the city was put together, glimpsing its unofficial history here and there, a bullet in the façade of an hôtelparticulier, leftover stencilling way up on the side of a building for a flour company or a newspaper that no longer existed, which some inspired graffiti artist had used as an invitation to add his own work, a row of cobblestones revealed by roadworks, several layers below the crust of the current city, slowly rising ever upward. I was on the lookout for residue, for texture, for accidents and encounters and unexpected openings. My most meaningful experience with the city was not through its literature, its food, or its museums; not even through the soul-scarring affair I carried on in a garret near the Bourse; but through all that walking. Somewhere in the 6th arrondissement I realised I wanted to live in a city for the rest of my life, and specifically, in the city of Paris. It had something to do with the utter, total freedom unleashed from the act of putting one foot in front of the other.
I wore a groove into the Boulevard Montparnasse as I came and went between my flat on the Avenue de Saxe and school on the rue de Chevreuse. I learned non-textbook French from the names of the restaurants in between: Les Zazous (named for a kind of jazzy 1940s hepcat in a plaid blazer and a quiff), Restaurant Sud-Ouest & Cie, which taught me the French equivalent of ‘& co,’ and from a bakery called Pomme de pain I learned the word for ‘pinecone,’ pomme de pin, though I never learned why that was a pun worth making. I bought orange juice on the way to class every day at a pretzel shop called Duchesse Anne and wondered who she was and what was her relationship to pretzels. I pondered the distorted French conception of American geography that resulted in a TexMex restaurant called Indiana Café. I walked past all the great cafés lining the boulevard, La Rotonde, Le Sélect, Le Dôme, and La Coupole, watering holes to generations of American writers in Paris, whose ghosts hunched under café awnings, unimpressed with the way the twentieth century had turned out. I crossed over the rue Vavin, with its eponymous café, where all the cool lycéens went when they got out of school, assertive cigarette smokers with sleeves too long for their arms, shod in Converse sneakers, boys with dark curls and girls with no make-up. Read more…