Knitting Us Together

In January, my daughter Erika wrote in her Facebook post, “I love the idea of knitting as a feminist act…” The post accompanied a selfie photo of her wearing the pink pussy hat she had just finished knitting for the Women’s March in Boston in January. “And knitting reminds me of my mother and her mother,” she added.

I am touched that Erika feels this connection. I like the idea that this handiwork, this unaccountably soothing domestic women’s craft has the effect of weaving three generations together even as it creates a feminist symbol for the modern age.

I remember teaching her to knit, just as my mother had taught me — to cast on stitches, to knit, to purl, to make a ribbing stitch alternating knits and purls, to retrieve a dropped stitch, to establish an even tension in the stitches, to develop a stitching rhythm.

A “crafty” child, Erika was easy to teach, an eager learner. She loved to work with her hands, building things out of clay — a very small tea set for me — bead necklaces and little figures for her friends, using sculpy, a colorful polymer craft clay. Erika has what my mother, a kindergarten teacher in the 1950s, used to call “tweezer dexterity.” I have it, too, and so did my mother. A woman often at war with her world and all of us that occupied it, she excelled at needlework — knitting, sewing, needlepoint — and it quieted her. It pleased me that my mother wanted to teach me to knit, exhibiting as she did a patient attention to me, leaning in to show me how to hold the knitting needles and wrap the wool around my forefinger, pulling more wool from the ball of wool as I stitched.

My mother, born at the beginning of the 20th century, when women had already been planting the seeds of a women’s movement for half a century, was not a feminist. Nevertheless, she had an instinct to resist the status quo. A poor student, she fumed when her mother sent her to a young ladies’ boarding seminary. There, with fierce indifference, she earned nearly failing grades in her academic subjects, but excelled at needlework. She could knit and sew and embroider. She had little interest in other domestic arts, cooking for example, but needlework was something she was good at, and she embraced her sewing and knitting projects with enthusiasm and pride. Knitting was a source of power, of competence, of strength for her.

Is knitting a feminist act? Perhaps it was, in a way, for my mother. It led her to competence. For the thousands and thousands of women who downloaded the pattern for a pussy hat, exhausted the supplies of pink wool in knitting and craft stores across the country, and feverishly produced as many hats as they could turn out, for themselves and their friends and strangers who would march in women’s marches across the globe, it emphatically was.

I have to confess that I, a 50-year veteran of the wars generated by the women’s movement, rejected the idea of making or wearing a pussy hat. I understood the irony and power of reclaiming the word “pussy” from locker room references to women’s genitals, and reinventing it as the name for a political symbol — like the ubiquitous red “Make America Great Again” trucker’s hat was for supporters of Donald Trump. But I thought the gesture, thousands of women wearing silly pink hats, was demeaning to the march, to women’s issues, and to women. We feminists from the sixties couldn’t afford to trivialize our cause and invite ridicule by wearing pointy pink hats.

But I was wrong. Those hats were an astonishing sight, that sea of pink stretching as far as the eye could see across the Mall in Washington, pushing out to Independence and Constitution Avenues and up the numbered streets towards the center of the city until there was no place to march. They were a powerful statement of solidarity and connection and strength. And perhaps most importantly, a kind of genial humor that made the march feel like a celebration of common purpose as much as a statement of resistance. Ask anyone who participated in one of the hundreds of marches around the world, and they will tell you how friendly, kind, patient and full of good will the crowd was. And best of all, it was generational. Everyone was there, with their daughters and mothers as well as their husbands and male friends.

We think of knitting as a domestic act, but maybe that’s the point. The pussy hat website speaks of the “power of the handmade,” noting that it’s a celebration of a traditional women’s craft, with a nod to knitting circles taking time to create their craft, (giving it meaning and purpose) that over the generations have been powerful to groups of women listening to and supporting each other. Connecting feminism to women’s work allows us to use what we know to find strength. We are using the medium of the familiar to strike out, stand up, resist, not because it’s easy, or maybe partly because it’s easy, familiar, but also because it’s defiant…”So you think this is insignificant work? Well, we can weaponize it, make it mean something that creates solidarity, community, and that is power.”

The teaching goes on. Erika is now teaching her son, another eager six-year-old with tweezer dexterity, who is anxious to learn to knit. “Not his first lesson in feminism,” Erika says, “and not his last.”