Wednesday, April 12, 2006

Knitting and Feminism

Sometimes I'm immobilized when I try to reconcile my deep commitment to feminism and my intense attachment to things traditionally associated with domesticity. Both parenting and fiber crafts, as well as cooking and baking, have drawn me in despite the fact that I realize that they have all been places of oppression.

Certainly feminism contains divergent opinions about this. Some feminists posit that instead of fighting for equality, we should fight for increased visability and value of women's work. I agree up to a point. Valuing the traditions of my female ancestors is a way of respecting their lives rather than discarding them. It gives me a sense of connection rather than rupture. At the same time, latching on to traditional women's work reinforces the divisions between men and women. Feminists recognize that jobs and skills and hobbies that have been traditionally reserved for men are in no way more important than those belonging to women, even if we have treated them as if they were.

But if we stay within our gender boxes, we aren't actually getting anywhere. It is only through the disruption of traditional gender assumptions that we're going to change the world.

My personal answer to this has been to teach my male son and male partner to do the traditionally feminine, rather than stretching out myself to learn the traditionally masculine. I don't fiddle with electronics or use power tools or fix car engines or even watch sports.

Thinking about what these traditionally-female crafts meant to women in the past always renews my sense of commitment to them. Sitting down with knitting gave women a time for peace, just as it does for us now, even if they were knitting what was required to keep them warm through long winters. It was, as it is now, an outlet for the expression of creativity. "Women's work" was so often about the maintenance of the status quo. Dishes washed were just dirty again after the next meal, and laundry hung on the line would just need to be scrubbed again the next week. Tasks like those cannot easily make us feel fulfilled, partly because they are never done and partly because they require no bit of ourselves. Even the most ordinary handmade items were outward expressions of the intimate, public displays of the personal.

The objects that were made afforded warmth to those who used them, but they also offered comfort and pleasure to those making them. What a shame it would be to detatch all our everyday objects from the process of their creation. When we buy a blanket or shirt or scarf at Walmart, we've done just that. The consequence of this process of detachment seems to be that we care less and less about our world. We don't keep our things because it is cheaper to buy new ones than to care for the old ones. We don't care very much what goes into our things when the process of their production is hidden from us. We don't even care very much about what we do to the planet in the process.

Is the honoring of traditional craft one way to forestall this destruction?


Me said...

I am a feminist, an engineer, can repair a bicycle and a car, use power tools, have bought a house on my own, live on my own, am a mother, breastfeeding promoter, fulltime employed single mother and a knitter, know how to sew, love shoes: all of these for me are not contradictory. And it is in living my life and showing as an example that these are not contradictory that I think I can contribute a tiny bit to making gender discrimination less important in people's heads.

Poops said...

I left you a rather long-winded reply on the Blog board on knitty: I think this is an interesting discussion.

Sometimes I think the problem with feminists is that there is a need to get out of the "female" gender box and jump both feet into the "male" box. To me that is far worse.

I prefer to live outside the box entirely, choosing from each what pleases me, and if I take way more from the "female" box, what's the harm in that?

allisonmariecat said...

My view of feminism is that it's about choice. If you choose to be a stay-at-home mom, or to cook, or to knit, then you've empowered yourself by making those choices. If patriarchal society tells me I can't do traditionally male things, and feminism tells me I can't do traditionally female things, where does that leave me? And more importantly, how are those two views different? Both are carving out "acceptable" ranges of behavior and limiting my choices.

I love knitting. And cooking. But I don't cook because I have a husband who expects his favorite dish on the table at 6 on the dot. (Ha! Like that would happen.) I cook because I enjoy the creative, often inventive process, and because I enjoy making food to share with others. Same with knitting. I love the creative, meditative process of knitting, but I didn't make my husband a sweater because I had to--it was because I wanted to.

Wow, I did get going there.

Bezzie said...

Hm. Who's to say that knitters of yesteryear enjoyed knitting? Did it really give them peace? Or was it just another chore to them? I think that's a broad generalization to make. True a majority of our foremothers may have enjoyed it, but I'm willing to bet there was a percentage out there that didn't. Their knitting items may not have been objects that offered comfort and pleasure to those making them. Maybe it was that disgust that led the way for dishwashers, machine-made clothing, and all of our other modern conveniences?
I think the reason I take so much joy in knitting now is because it's NOT a common thing that everyone does. If we were to make it mainstream again, and it entered the realm of a necessity (to knit your own items to survive), would those garments we knit be that "special" anymore? Or would it just be another sweater to keep us warm for another winter?

quiltyknitwit said...

I agree that having the choice is what makes the difference. I knit because I like it and want to do it, not because I have to. I quilt, sew, and cook because I choose to do those things. For me that's what feminism is about - honoring choices.

Cara said...

Hi! Just wanted to let you know that this submission made it into this month's Yarnival! You can view the issue on my blog. Thanks for submitting! Have a GREAT DAY!

Anonymous said...

Choice, amen. Isn't that human nature, though? We love and will pursue those things that are not foisted on us.

Your words sound so much like some of my milling thoughts. Freaky. Here are some associated questions I've had: Would I be willing to let my husband teach me some traditionally male skills? Would I humour him out of love? Would I argue that there's no problem with the world valuing "men's work" so I don't need to make an effort to know how to do it? Do you have to know how to paint in order to enjoy a painting? Of course not, but it does lend greater depth to appreciation. But traditional men's work is (are?) jobs of neccessity (like changing a car's oil). The world honors the physical neccessity of it and will pay for it. We have to work a little harder, talk a little louder to get the world to honor the emotional neccessity of art and craft. Teaching your partner and son is about even more than changing gender assumptions, then. It's also for the greater good of the arts!!! (Phew! Sorry about the rant. My hubbo is a painter and we're between gallery checks just now. I tend to get a little strident...)

Kate A. said...

Wow, how could I have missed this post? I only discovered your blog in May or June, I think, so I'm really glad Yarnival brought me here.

You really said it, but I just wanted to point out that you do do a "man's job" - you're a scholar. The male monopoly of scholarship has done a lot more damage in the world than the male monopoly on fixing vehicles and electronics. I think you're making a very important difference with your own work, as well as with what you've taught your son and partner.

This is very much the third-wave feminism of my generation, but I think we must demand nothing less than the right to be as fully human as every one else - period. Nothing else. That means that some of us like knitting, and some of us like cars. Some (okay, a lot) of us are smarter and more capable than the vast majority of men (who suffer from living entitled lives), but we can be dumb and make mistakes, too. We are, simply, too human to be one thing or another all of the time. Just like everybody else. It's the right to be *anything* we want to be that I think is most important now. I don't want to fight for the right to be just like a man. I don't respect very many men, or the way they live their lives. I want the right not to have patriarchal idiocy screw up what I'm doing, 'cause I think I'm pretty good at living my own life in my own way. I think I should get to choose how girly (or not) my clothes should be, and what my hobbies are, and that *this* is an important right (that men should have too...they haven't had it at all either, until recently, and now even less so than women in many ways). Of course, I also think it's a no-brainer that equal work deserves equal pay. I like to think that the internet revolution is helping to make it more and more possible to be ourselves, rather than fit into social categories that don't accurately reflect anyone but that made it, in the past, a little easier to deal. But that's a whole 'nother discussion.

Thanks for this great post.

robin said...

I'm here via yarnival - wow - how I wish I had a knitting group to bring this up at. the thing that struck me most was the difference in knitting as a required activity - no warm clothes, no mended socks if you don't get it done - and one we choose to do for whatever reason - our own enjoyment, contributions to others be they family or strangers. It's all really about attitude - I work with people who are so serene about the value of their work (some of it rather mundane to most) that they probably get as much out of the day to day as I might get out of knitting or spending time with my dogs. Of course in earlier times, some of the serenity came in some cases as a sort of complacency that there was no other option - be blessed peaceful in your station in life. We are so lucky to have so many choices and one of them is to choose to be happy/content where we are or do the things necessary to get to a place where we can be. For some strange reason this makes me want to do more with my knitting and my blog as creative outlets - glad I found your blog - yay for Yarnival!

Anonymous said...

You may be interested to know that even though knitting is considered a woman's territory, it was not always so:

In my opinion the line is drawn as to why you choose to do something. Are you knitting because it is expected of you due to your gender or because you want to?

Very interesting topic!

kelli ann said...

here in quebec, there's an added dimension to this same debate (and possibly in other cultures, too, but this is what i've observed living here): the last generation of women were so bent on rejecting the constrictions and the values that society was handing them, that they rejected handiwork as (imho) something that kept women 'in their place' or soumises. things like home economics have been cut from the high school curriculum (not necessarily a bad thing, depending on the course content; i myself question the usefulness of learning 'the measurable distance that the cutlery should be from the edge of the table' when setting it, as i recall from my own home ec. class) then again, school boards are also cutting gym time... which i think is awfully dangerous, too. there is so much joy in learing a skill: cooking a stew. baking bread. knitting your own mitts. and so much love in making them. that's what we should be learning... imho, there is no gender implied in 'making stuff.' and it's our job as parents to make sure that we don't teach that stigma to our kids-- they're so happy to learn this stuff!! thanks for a wonderful post...

Theresa said...

An insightful, thoughtful post. I think knitting and cooking and taking care of the things I have - spending the time to darn a pair of socks or a sweater, for example - is a way of being in this world and asserting the value of the common things in life. I spend my days doing the "man's work" of doctoring, I like to have this piece of woman's work for balance.

Anonymous said...

I am many things, with compulsive crafter and loose feminist both being pretty high on my priority list.

I have decided to start a craft collective (sew darn feminist) for those that see their practice as a way to liberate themselves. I think that there is nothing more independent and liberating for a woman to do than to create her own garments/home decor items - why should one be told to wear/adorn items that are generically 'pretty', 'stylish' and 'attractive'. Surely being feminist, and actually independent regardless of your gender, is to recognise the power of the individual and create things that are made for you? It's just a thought. I've started a facebook group called sew darn feminist, if anybody wants to join:


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