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Yarn Wars: The Knitting Circle Strikes Back

Pussyhats were the visible symbol for the Women’s March. Everyone saw them, but few are aware of the pushback The Pussyhat Project had from both Trump supporters and feminists—or of  the political impact this “national knitting circle” continues to have.

My daughter Liza is not the sort of person to call her Congressman. Or run for office. Or campaign for a candidate. Or any of the “normal” things expected of political involvement.

She is a lifelong feminist, however. And everyone in our family was planning to march somewhere in America on the day of the Women’s March. So, of course, Liza was planning to go to the march in San Francisco, where she lives. A few weeks before the march, however, she got caught up in an unusual form of political involvement:  making pussyhats.

As I guess everyone on the planet knows by now, the pink hats with the two “ears” that appeared all over the world on January 21 were a wildfire DIY phenomenon started by a group out of Los Angeles, called The Pussyhat Project. I’m guessing, though, that most folks don’t know the degree to which the making of the hats—and even selling the yarn for the hats—became a political statement within the “crafty” community.

Liza jumped on this project like a true craft nerd: “I made 5 pussyhats in one day before the march, I had the day off so I just sat and watched Doctor Who and made pussyhat after pussyhat all day. “

Two avid knitters, Krista Suh and Jayna Zweiman, had the original idea.  Their initial intention was not to create a mark for the movement and produce a sea of pink in the news photos, but to give people who were unable march a way to participate.  It came up when Zweiman was unable go to to the March in DC because of a recent injury.  The two friends came up with the idea of a “national knitting circle” of people who would show their support by making the hats and giving them to those who were going to Washington—where it would be cold! And, if you couldn’t go to the march, you could at least display your own solidarity by wearing the hat.

The design concept was intended to spit back Donald Trump’s scandalous claim that he could “grab” women by the pussy, as an act of both pride in womanhood and outrage at the normalization of sexual assault.  The Pussyhat Project started with a very simple pattern that used worsted cotton yarn, which is both cheap and easy for beginners to work with. Then, on Thanksgiving Day, they put up an equally simple website with the manifesto, the pattern, and instructions—and then asked for volunteers using Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook.  Next, the Project and website were promoted via Ravelry, a specialist network that has been called “the Facebook for knitters.”  (Who knew?)  They then engaged local knit shops all over the country, who offered discounts on pink yarn, gave instruction on the pattern for beginners,  and hosted knit-alongs. Some knitters gave their caps to people in their communities who were going to the march.  But many of the finished hats were shipped to an avid knitter in Reston, Virginia (a suburb of DC), who  volunteered to be a pickup site, so that marchers could collect hats on their way in to the demonstration. Still others were taken to the various sister marches and given away to people who wanted a hat but did not have one.

Forbes reports that, by the time of the March, the website had 4 million views.  The woman in Reston was buried under 12,000 hats. There were 60,000 in the online registry run by the Pussyhat Project, but, as Forbes notes, it is clear just from the photos of the marches that there were many, many more. Knitters from all 50 states, as well as several European countries, had contributed.

Back to the radicalization of my daughter.  Liza is very crafty and is specifically addicted to crocheting (not knitting but similar), pulling out her yarn to pass the time on the train, in the dentist’s office, wherever. She produces a prodigious amount of knitwear each year, irrespective of politics.  So when this call came out, she was on it immediately.  She began crocheting for herself and her friends, her husband and her friends’ husbands.  Then one day, she sent me a text with a photograph saying that she couldn’t get more yarn.  She had bought the last pink yarn at the third store she visited looking for it.

Liza texted me a photo of the yarn outage at JoAnn’s. This was the first sign that the march turnout would be huge, if only the media had been listening.

The national news media and even the organizers of the march vastly underestimated the size of the crowds that were about to pitch up for the protest.  If they had their fingers on the pulse of the craft world, they would have known at this point that the march was going to be huge.  Knit shops and craft stores all over the country were running out of pink cotton worsted.  (One store in Chicago sold enough pink yarn to pay the rent for three months.)  With the shortage of yarn presenting a solid obstacle, knitters and knit shops everywhere began to innovate and improvise.  They used different types of yarn, experimented with other materials, varied the pattern, and so forth.  That’s why, on the day, there was so much variation in the colors and patterns on the hats.

Though it was later featured in Forbes as an example for budding entrepreneurs, the Pussyhat Project was never seen as a commercial effort.  The knitters were all volunteers, and the hats given as gifts, not sold. It all happened so quickly and so “off the grid” that garment manufacturers and retailers did not have time to prepare.  At the time you saw all those pink hats on TV, the Pussyhat Project had not sold a single hat and had relied only on volunteers.

In San Francisco, as everywhere, there were legions of Pussyhat beneficiaries on view.  So much so that marchers who had none were asking where they could be bought. Liza wrote, “When we got there people kept coming up to us asking if we had extra pussy hats on us and where we got them and if somebody was selling them or if somebody was giving them away. And all my friends were like ‘Liza made them!’ But I didn’t make any spares. Next time l’ll be better prepared!”

A few hats were sold at the marches, on an impromptu basis, and then the funds were given to Planned Parenthood. In the “tax march” planned for April, Liza and her friends plan to have lots of hats to give away in exchange for donations to Planned Parenthood.

People were everywhere with these hats, of course, but the thing that struck me most, in DC and in Liza’s photos, was that men were wearing them almost as often as women were.  These hats are exceedingly and unabashedly feminine, in addition to making an clear visual allusion toward a part of women’s anatomy that many people can’t even call by name. So it was impressive that men were wearing them, I thought, and a major statement of the way the movement has changed its base since the 1970s:  they are with us now, they get it.  (Not all men, of course, but also not all women.  See further below.)

Old people wore them and so did children.  At the Providence rally in front of the Rhode Island statehouse, an older couple who had an extra to give away decided to bestow it on my granddaughter, who was there with her parents (this would be my East Coast daughter, who is more of a politico, but also a lifetime feminist, and her husband).  We are thrilled that we will be able not only to tell Nova that she was there, but that she will have her very own historic memento.

In Washington, I saw my former doctoral student, Laurel Steinfield, who is now on the faculty at Bentley University, at the march in DC.  She was wearing her hat and carrying a theme sign that was everywhere, in both printed and home-made forms:  This pussy grabs back!

In sum, a wide range of people—male and female, old and young, black and white—embraced the pussyhat as was intended:  a mark of solidarity and support.  But some people really had trouble with this hat.

In the days after the Women’s March, a Tennessee knit shop owner made the news by refusing to sell pink yarn for the purpose of making these hats.  She wrote on Facebook:

With the recent women’s march on Washington, I ask that you if you want yarn for any project for the women’s movement… Posted by The Joy of Knitting on Tuesday, 24 January 2017

Mission statement from the Pussyhat Project. This is an historically accurate representation. Women’s circles, for knitting or quilting or whatever, have indeed been the powerful gathering spaces for women, including politically.

Wow.  Or, as Liza wrote when she forwarded it to me, “Look at this crazy.”  Needless to say, there was a lot of blowback for this lady.

When I saw this post, I was taken aback.  I could not see, at first, what the objection was.  Clearly, the woman was antifeminist (“the women’s movement is counterproductive to unity of…”).  But the language of “vulgarity, vile, and evilness”  seemed over the top even for a Christian extremist.  What was she talking about?  Well, I finally “got it” (I can be slow) that she was offended by the idea that people were wearing hats that represented vaginas.  Never mind any of the other discourse that situated the hat in political action. Never mind the story behind the project nor all the volunteers coming together to help.  For her, it was nothing but a vagina made of yarn.  And, twenty years after the Vagina Monologues, people like this knit shop owner find the word and the thought of “vagina,” no matter how remote and symbolic, obscene.

I could not help but wonder whether this woman voted for Trump. I suspect she did.  She fits the profile.  Interesting that Donald Trump’s use of the word did not bother her.  Nor his lack of “mutual respect” for others.

But you expect that kind of stuff from these folks, right?  You do not expect it from feminists themselves.  So you can imagine my dismay when I also saw that feminists were dissing the pussyhat people.  Bitch, for example, posted a blog even before the march saying, if you can believe it, that the hat was not good feminism because it was pink (too feminine) and, of course “essentialized” women by suggesting that they were all the same. The symbolism was just not right, as far as they were concerned.  (But naming your magazine Bitch is good symbolism?  Really?)

New Feminism made an extraordinarily self-defeating argument against the pussyhats.  It was not ok (they too used the word, “vile”), in their book, to give the women at the marches a sign of their shared sisterhood to wear because it undermined the diversity that was the true purpose of the march.  First, as I have written before, I dispute that this march was primarily an exercise in diversity.  It was, from the beginning, a Women’s March.  To deny that, and to expect the women (who were there in all shapes, colors, sizes, and identities) to stay low profile (no hats? how about posters?),  is to subsume the women under other causes. This is cheating feminism of its appropriate recognition as the origin of the march.

What this sequence of organizing meant was that women’s rights were, for the first time, the umbrella under which others marched.  And that is an important milestone. In the past, women have been the unrecognized tagalong to marches on so-called “larger issues.”  Or—and MORE OFTEN—they have marched alone.  Alone. Because these other folks don’t join in marches for women’s rights.  They don’t think it is their business.  They don’t have time.  Don’t see women as relevant.  Think the “women problem” has been solved.  So, I think that the way these marches brought together a lot of different groups was only part of the beauty—the other, crucial part, was that these protests brought other groups to march in solidarity under a women’s banner.

This older couple was giving away pussyhats at the march in Providence. They gave their last one to Nova, my granddaughter. On the right is Nova’s mom, my daughter Caitlin. Nobody thought the hats were undermining diversity: how could they be if everyone was wearing them?

And I guess New Feminism did not actually attend any of the marches, but just saw the aerial photographs.  If they had been there, they would have seen that the hats were not just being worn by women or by white women or by straight women.  They were being worn by everybody.

Another fire against the hats erupted on social media, among intellectual feminists.  Their problem was that the people who came to the Women’s Marches (and wore the hats) were “previously uninitiated.”  In other words, these intellectual feminists thought that, since they had allegedly been around longer, they had the right to turn away anyone new.  The hats were just a particularly insulting aspect of what had happened. Too undignified.  Even “vile.”

But let’s not overlook what had happened in power terms or we won’t get what this ire is really all about.  The old-fashioned, crabby, exclusively intellectual feminists who have jealously patrolled the fences around the movement since the Second Wave—thereby rendering it moribund—were dramatically, historically, joyously upstaged by a bunch of newcomers wearing silly pink hats while they brought the movement back to life in the space of one day. The Pussyhat Project and the organizers of the Women’s March achieved what some thought could never happen again:  they brought feminism back into the kitchens and knitting circles where legions of ordinary women could join up.

The truth is that the women’s movement only makes progress when it has a broad base.  Indeed, the only way any social movement ever reaches its goals is by winning the sympathies of many who were not with the movement when it started. Social movements must become popular or they fail.  A movement where the secret handshake is only taught to a few is not a movement at all.  It’s a private club.  This stance is self-serving and dangerous to the ongoing fight for the rights of women.

Looks like something out of a happy Hollywood movie, rather than a protest march, right? But I think it is great that Liza and her friends all showed up, including their men, all of them in these super-feminine, anatomically brazen hats. From the right, this is Liza’s husband, AJ, Liza, her friend Elizabeth, and then going up Kapril and her boyfriend, Alex. They, along with a large group of their friends, plan to march again in April, and Liza is crocheting like crazy. They are going to dress up as “Trumpbusters” (as in who you gonna call?) and give out pussyhats in exchange for donations to Planned Parenthood.

Right now, there is an extraordinary amount of activity going on in the grassroots of America.  I get an announcement of some new protest being held in my hometown every day.  If you go to the organizational meetings behind these events, you see something that would have seemed utterly normal to the suffragists, but would have shocked Second Wave feminism:  the people organizing this stuff are partly retirees, a few students, but mostly stay-at-home moms.  Not thin-lipped intellectuals in black, spouting theory. Nope.

I mean, it’s incredible.  These moms organize the demonstration, sending around emails with directions, then, on the day, they line everybody up at the State House like it was a Girl Scout field trip and march right in.  They make sure there are cookies and coffee when they train new recruits to call their Congressmen (or “Congresscritters,” as one mom holding a letter-writing meeting in her home called them).  They patiently explain everything three times using visual aids.  They’re great.  We would not be getting anywhere without them. Instead of dissing them, we should all be thanking them, profusely, to their faces.

The Women’s March and their sister marches have coalesced around a list of action steps.  They now hold periodic “huddles” where they gather and plan.  Yet more experienced organizers said, before the March, that these naive newbies would fail because they were not organized enough, did not “get” what needed to happen next.

So did my daughter  just make her funny hats, romp off to the march with her friends, and then  stop caring?  Liza called me on the Monday after the March.  She had already called her Congressman.  She wanted to go to the first “huddle” in her neighborhood, but since it was oversubscribed, she and her friends are planning their own.  And making hats for the next march.  So they can give hats away in exchange for donations to Planned Parenthood. Liza, like many of us right now, are more politicized than we have ever been and I don’t see that changing any time soon.

Keep watching.  The knitting circle is getting it right.


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