Wednesday, March 1, 2017

Pussyhats - the interactive edition (survey link included)

(Note: if you want to just go to the survey - which is for everyone, whether or not you knitted a pussyhat - you can skip below to where it says Here is the link.)

I think a lot of you may know that a knitting friend/colleague and I (hi, Marie!) have been researching the knitting community for a while now.  It started with a survey that I posted on Ravelry and advertised at the first Sock Summit (remember those?).  The response was pretty overwhelming - not only did I get over 2,000 responses in a very short time, but people wrote screeds in response to the open-ended questions.  We have also interviewed knitters individually and in focus groups.  My colleague and I are still (!!) coding the data; you people have a lot to say, all of it rich and thick.  I've gotten a paper out, and she and I are giving a presentation on more of the data in June, so we're starting to get a handle on it.  The goal is something larger, when all put together.

And then came January, and the pink pussyhats and the Women's March.  My first real exposure to the pussyhat discussion came before the march when I saw a response that someone posted on Facebook to a Washington Post article.  The article, entitled: "The Women's March needs passion and purpose, not pink pussycat hats", fascinated me.  Especially when the author referred to the proposed pink hats (this came out before the march) as "well-intentioned, she-power frippery".  Wow.

Knitters (including the one who posted on Facebook) responded in ways that I didn't find at all surprising, given what we've seen in our data, and what I know of my fellow knitters.  Like: “We are going to protest on our own terms. We don’t have to do it in the way that the patriarchy deems serious or correct.”  And: "Knitters can walk and chew gum at the  same time. We can knit while we call our representatives, wait on hold while trying to get through to congress, we can put down our needles and make donations to Planned Parenthood and the ACLU and sign endless petitions. We can knit while we attend PTA meetings and community organize." Both of these quotes capture sentiments that we see in our data; they also capture the sense of having to explain things about knitting that knitters know and non-knitters don't.

Other articles discussed not only the issues with pink, and craftiness (as an index of non-feminist femininity), but also with the word itself: "pussy".  People don't like it.  At all. 

In fact, the pussyhats are interesting in no small part, I think, because of the uncomfortable mixing of (assumed) prefeminist (maybe even antifeminist) knitting - and don't forget that color! - and the reclaiming of that impolite, raucous, uncomfortable word (the one we all had to hear our now-President saying on a hot mike): pussy.

Words for female genitalia are marked.  By which I mean, we notice them in conversation.  They are more derogatory, more shocking, more offensive, than similar words for male genitalia.  Calling someone a dick just doesn't have the same sting as calling someone a pussy - let alone calling them that other word for female genitalia that I don't say in class without a warning that it's coming.  (It's one of two words that I treat that way.)

Note: I'm a linguist - this is all data.  We have to be able to talk about these words; they both mean and do something in the public sphere.

So, what did these hats, in all their knitted, offensively-named, pinkness do in the public sphere?

The answer to that, I think, is emblematic of knitting and knitters in some very interesting ways.  They were aggressive without being mean; they were noticeable and visually arresting, and lighthearted at the same time.  My experience of them was that they were bonding; they created a tribe out of a disparate group of people.  When we finally crammed onto a trolley to go to the San Diego march (after letting two trains go by because they were too full of people to fit any more in), while there wasn't a sea of pink, the hats were definitely in evidence:

The women who created the Pussyhat Project offered a few reasons for their inspiration.  One that particularly caught my attention was the goal of letting people who could not go to the march nevertheless participate by knitting hats to send to Washington for people who could not knit their own.  That, right there, captures something that we see again and again in our data: knitters' desire to use their knitting to create community, and to show connection and caring for other people.   Recipients of the hats talked about how much it meant to them to get the gift of a handknitted hat from a stranger; it created circles of connection that went far beyond the day and location of the main march.  This, too, is something that knitters celebrate and work to create.

The pride in making something by hand, in the activism that many knitters participate in (whatever end of the political spectrum they may inhabit), and the surprise (re)realization that not everyone understands/participates in/experiences the joy of making something by hand - these also showed up in articles discussing the hats and the march.  I also appreciated this author's point that the hats (along with signs and clear backpacks) and the organization that they represent are a clear link to the kinds of (often unacknowledged) work that women do every day: tedious, detail-oriented, repetitive but necessary tasks (dishes, laundry, changing diapers - I'm looking at all of you).

All of this is to say that the pussyhat phenomenon strikes me as quintessentially knitting in action.  I know that by no means all knitters (or even the majority of knitters) agree with or support the politics of the march, or knitted a hat (or hats); but I still think that that this is a moment that captures the essence of how knitters see their craft in relationship to their lives more broadly writ.

So, Marie and I have put together a short survey on pussyhats.  It offers questions both for those who did knit pussyhats, and for those who did not.  We'd like to hear from everybody.  It's truly short - probably only five or ten minutes to fill out.  And we'd love to see it distributed as widely as possible.  So please, feel free to post it (if you let me know where you've posted it, I'd love to drop by and say thanks!), email it out, FB it, tweet it, whatever you want to do to get it out to your own community of knitters (again, whether they were pussyhat knitters or not).

Here is the link:  You can copy and paste it, or just click on it from here.  Thank you in advance for your input and help.

As a rather ironic addendum, I was so intrigued by the whole movement and how it relates to what we've learned about the knitting community that I utterly failed to knit any of my own, for me or for my girls (who marched with us).
I have since made up for it:
And I've been informed that I have a whole list of hats to knit before April 15.


Unknown said...

We have seen that knitting is not valued in the market economy. Who would pay a reasonable wage to a knitter for the time spent on a project - practically no one. I am knitting projects for my friends that is helping me deal with the angst of this election. Someone needs to write a dissertation on knitting and why it is not marketable for it's value.
thanks for you interest in political action and knitting.

Unknown said...

WHen my daughter was young, my DH and I had intense discussions about what to call her private parts! They are all quite derogatory, or belittling and silly. Va-jay-jay was terrible. We settled on vulva and penis for our son. Until our neighbor bought a Volvo, and the confusion began! Linguistics are interesting.

Anne said...

Oh, how I have missed these posts. I learn so much from you and come away wishing I could take one of your classes. Off to the survey. (When my elder daughter was small, she apparently learned her words for body parts before we were paying attention ... at about 2 1/2, she turned up at breakfast one morning and asked "does this [dress] cover my vagina?")

Mary Lou said...

I agree with Anne - loving your writing again, and maybe you will inspire me. Footing is getting a little better here, so I hope to skip today (Super windy) and get out tomorrow. I was in DC last week and over the weekend, so no horsing around. Except of the political variety. Off to take the survey with my morning tea.