Revolution in the Making

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Revolution in the Making

Puppies

The night of the presidential election, I drank ginger ale to settle my stomach. Could it happen? Could he win? My mom, husband and I watched the news in the den, but when early results came in, we switched to the weather. We finally settled on the least stressful show we could find, a program about puppies. For half an hour, we followed the antics of a litter of Basset Hounds, with stubby legs and velvety wrinkles, as they napped, nuzzled, sniffed, played, and staggered around in a drunken puppy stupor. The puppies shared their home with a hamster named Dot. Dot careened along a tiled floor in one of those clear plastic hamster balls. She ricocheted off kitchen cabinets and barstool legs. Occasionally, she stopped running and the ball would wobble to a standstill. I assume Dot needed to catch her breath.

 

Pussies

Within weeks of the 2016 election, people upset by the outcome found outlets for their grief and concern. Jayna Zweiman and Krista Suh conceived of The Pussyhat Project in a knitting shop in Los Angeles. Krista needed a cap to keep her head warm for the Women’s March in Washington. Jayna, unable to attend, wanted her voice to be heard from afar. They envisioned a sea of pink hats that would make a visual statement of solidarity among the marchers. Knitted hats would also allow those who couldn’t travel to Washington to participate, by making hats for marchers, sharing yarn with others, or wearing the hats in their hometowns. An early description of the Project asserted, The more we are seen, the more we are heard. Knitting was positive and meditative at a time when many people felt enraged.

My mom didn’t plan to attend the march and doesn’t know how to knit, but she wanted a pussyhat. She called yarn shops to see if they had any to sell, but pussyhats were not for sale—they defied capitalism by being free. They weren’t a commodity to be consumed, though you can now find them on craft sites like Etsy. Making a hat to give away helped people feel good about something, which itself was healing, like salve on a wound.

Six days before the march, on the Project’s main website, my mom entered her zip code to find a pussyhat distribution location. She went to a local yarn store called Loom With a View, but they’d already run out of hats. The woman at the counter, Amy, offered to knit one for my mom, who purchased a skein of muted pink yarn—not pale but not bright—and left it at the shop.

When my mom picked up the hat the following week, Amy wouldn’t accept payment for her work. That act of generosity towards a stranger has made the hat that much more valuable to my mom. Still, to show her appreciation, she wanted to give Amy some flowers or a dozen cookies. She returned to the shop a few weeks later and found that Loom With a View had closed; the owner retired. An insurance company rents the space now.

The Pussyhat Project has been criticized for its use of the word pussy and its choice of the color pink. Some have said the term pussy promotes Trans-Exclusionary Radical Feminism, and that pink excludes women of color. Co-founder Jayna Zweiman acknowledged that no project is perfect. In January 2018, she responded on the Project’s website, again taking aim at capitalism: “Commercial advertising’s concept of ‘shrink it and pink it’ so women will buy runs rampant. We wanted to take ownership of this feminine color and project it en masse to create a powerful statement.” Some critics took the color literally, as if it were a skin tone, rather than symbolically, as a color to be wrested from the patriarchy. But in a culture fixated on white heteronormative standards of beauty, concerns that pink pussyhats represent only white, cisgendered people with vulvas are well-founded. Unity should not require uniformity. As Zweiman has noted, “Not all women have pussies. Not all pussies are pink. Our intent was and always will be to support all women.”

Pink is the corporate shade of the feminine, downsized and crammed into a box studded with dollar signs. And it can be difficult to avoid, even when we’re aware of targeted branding. A quick household inventory reveals that I have a disposable pink razor (Schick Silk Effects) and travel-sized shaving cream (Raspberry Rain scent), a magenta toothbrush, ultra-plush “moisture gloves” that purport to contain vitamin E, pink underwear, and nail polish colors with names like First Kiss and Strawberry Candy and Sweet Romance.

My mom is my closest friend; we can tell each other just about anything.Yet, even I was caught off-guard when she said she wanted a pussyhat. We had always used the word vagina; I wasn’t prepared for pussy. Concerning the naming of the hats, Zweiman explained, “The name ‘pussyhat’ alludes to the shape of the hat with cat ears and references the Access Hollywood recording of Donald Trump…Pussy is a derogatory term not just about specific genitalia, but also about the feminine. We want to reclaim the term as a means of female empowerment.” I’m still not entirely comfortable with the word. I can’t get out of my mind the way some men might say He’s such a pussy to insult another male. The term can be so full of derision and disgust. Hatred even.

 

Feet

An estimated four million people marched in protests across the United States the day after Donald Trump’s inauguration in 2017. More than half a million converged on Washington for the Women’s March, and another three million combined in more than 650 marches nationwide. I couldn’t afford to fly to Washington, and was scared off by suggestions that protestors write emergency information on their arms in black marker—name, address, important phone numbers—“in case something goes wrong.” Instead, I spent the day doing homework. I was in graduate school at the time, writing a short story about a man who left Connecticut in 1864 to search for gold in Idaho Territory. He may have been running from enlistment in the Union Army—I haven’t learned his secrets yet, and the story remains unfinished. I’m still wondering if my protagonist is a coward, and if he is, what it will mean for him.

Photographs from the marches document a variety of signs, and bright swaths of pink throughout the crowds. The signs show the breadth of concerns at the dawn of 2017, ones that have endured through today. Stop the War on Women. Black Lives Matter. Science is Not a Liberal Agenda. Diversity Unity Equality. We’re Here We’re Queer. My favorite: We Are the Daughters of the Witches You Didn’t Burn. A sign in Montreal read Canadian Beavers Support American Pussies.

Sister protests took place on every continent; people marched in Iceland, South Korea, Colombia, Kenya, Iraq, and even Antarctica. A year later, the world marched again. More pink hats, on babies and grown-ups and pets. This time I marched in New Hampshire with my mom and husband. She wore her pussyhat and carried a sign on which she’d written, Can You Hear Me Now?

For a gentle pastel, pink has a violent history. In Nazi Germany, homosexual men were required to wear a pink triangle on their sleeves. Later, in concentration camps, the  downward-facing triangle was sewn onto their uniforms. The pink triangle symbol was resurrected by gay rights activists in the 1970s, who inverted it to point upward, imbuing it with new meaning. I was in college in the late eighties, studying queer literary criticism, the first time I encountered Silence = Death in bold letters at the base of a pink triangle. Around that time, I went to a poetry reading by writer and activist Paul Monette, who wrote of “[n]ewsreel footage and camp uniforms, ration books, code breakers, yellow stars and pink triangles.”

Pink is no stranger to protest art. In the 1990s, visual artist Portia Munson created an installation called “Pink Project: Table” as part of the feminist exhibit Bad Girls. First displayed at The New Museum in New York in 1994, Bad Girls showcased work exploring sex and gender representations. Its intent was to “mock, subvert and reconfigure” gender stereotypes, according to exhibit curator, Marcia Tanner.

My mom attended Bad Girls West at the Wight Gallery at UCLA that same year with her best friend, Eleanor. When the two met as college freshmen in the 1950s, the career choices offered to women were secretary, teacher, or nurse—ostensibly as ways to pass the time while waiting to get married and bear children. My mom wanted to be an architect, but chose stenography. Eleanor became a teacher; she retired as a superintendent. A few years after Bad Girls West, they went to the Armand Hammer Museum to see Judy Chicago’s The Dinner Party. Chicago’s ceremonial banquet, now permanently installed in the Brooklyn Museum, reinterprets feminine achievement in Western civilization. Women whose contributions were denied in history books became guests of honor, though Chicago’s limited guest list remains controversial. The banquet table forms a massive triangle, 48 feet long on each side.

Portia Munson’s table for Pink Project includes thousands of discarded items in various shades of pink, carefully arranged on an 8’ x 14’ surface. To Munson, the plastic objects—pacifiers, dolls, dildos, fake fingernails, tampon applicators, hair clips, cleaning products—represent the “mass seduction and consumption” of the female. Her work lays bare the corporate drive to infantilize women, what Jayna Zweiman called the ‘shrink it and pink it’ strategy. Over the last two decades, Munson has displayed Pink Project in several formats, including shaped as a bedroom, piled in a mound at the center of a room, and laid out in a glass coffin.

If I rummaged in the basement, I’d find a box of gender-specific baby clothes. I remember a lacy pink dress I once put on my nine-month-old daughter, and how she struggled to crawl as it became caught under her knees. At that moment I understood how the limits placed on female mobility begin in infancy, and that I had been complicit in such behavior. Thereafter, fancy dresses were reserved for holiday portraits, though my daughters wore sparkly princess t-shirts and pink footie pajamas, a lazy choice on my part. Just this afternoon I tripped over the dog’s pink dragon chew toy, the second one we’ve bought her because she disemboweled the first one.

 

Hands

The time and attention required to make something with our hands imbues it with meaningful intention, an intention that cannot be imparted by a machine. The Arts and Crafts movement of the mid-nineteenth century began as a response to the Industrial Revolution and its dehumanizing effects on society. British designer, writer, and activist William Morris (1836-1896) feared the loss of traditional skills as machines supplanted craftsmen. He believed the connection between an artist and his work, forged through handcraft, was necessary to produce both human fulfillment and items of true utility and beauty. Morris devoted himself to the creation of singular tapestries, textiles, furniture, wallpaper, ceramics, and painted glass, emphasizing forms found in the natural world. Not unlike a hat shaped like a cat, hand-knit with yarn that will keep your head warm. I have a rug patterned from a William Morris design in our living room. It’s showing signs of wear now, two children and two Labradors and two decades later, but the muted green rug is a prized possession, both useful and disarmingly beautiful.

Morris advocated for items made by hand because they resisted mass-production, and therefore couldn’t be divorced from the human spirit. One sign at the 2017 Women’s March consisted of a piece of red cloth stretched across a wide wooden hoop. The marcher had used black thread to embroider these words: I’m So Angry I Stitched This Just So I Could Stab Something 3000 Times. The message resonates loudly because its maker took great care to craft it. We can’t ignore the energy, both expended and contained, in the embroidered red banner. We also sense the inherent tension between peaceful protest and the violence of purposeful stabbing. By the time William Morris decried the risks of devaluing human handwork and creativity, the Industrial Revolution had machined and stamped its way across continents. Its advancements have led us into the robotic grip of the Fourth Industrial Revolution (or, in 21st-century parlance, the 4IR). Yet for millennia, throughout all human civilizations, a natural response to despair and displacement has been to make art. To meet destruction with creation.

Textile artists of the Artist Circle Alliance (ACA), a group of fiber artists based in Massachusetts, turned to their sewing machines to protest the Trump administration and its policies following the 2016 election. The ACA’s juried exhibition, “Threads of Resistance,” consisted of 63 quilts that addressed climate change denial, racism, sexual assault, free speech, immigration and the plight of refugees, gun violence, and misogyny. The organizers noted, “Art is about communication. Quilts have always been a means of expression for people whose political voices were silenced.” The AIDS Quilt is one example, as are human rights quilts made in response to apartheid, police brutality, and genocide. Chawne Kimber’s Elegy for Mike (2014), the first quilt in her Elegy series, commemorates the shooting death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. Her Self-Study #4 (The One for T)is a tribute to Trayvon Martin. Susan Hudson, a Navajo textile artist, sewed “Warrior Story” (2015) to honor her ancestors’ experiences. Hudson’s grandmothers were removed from their families and sent to government boarding schools as a means of assimilation into white culture.

Threads of Resistance traveled to twelve states across the U.S. in 2017 and 2018. The Fuller Craft Museum in Brockton, Massachusetts hosted the exhibit to coincide with the first anniversary of the Women’s March. My mom and I drove down on a cold January day, bare tree limbs like needles scratching a dull gray sky. We passed Corita’s famous rainbow swash, painted on a storage tank in Dorchester. My mom wore her pussyhat, and a button that read simply, Enough.

The museum is set on a 22-acre wooded campus, overlooking the expanse of Upper Porter Pond. Metal sculptures flank rocky outdoor pathways, surrounded by stands of birch trees. Inside the museum, glass walls and high ceilings shed light on the beauty of Threads of Resistance. The level of craftsmanship was beyond what I had imagined, though I’d seen images of the quilts on a website. My own sewing skills are rudimentary in comparison. While technically I’m not sure how some of the effects were achieved—a quilt entitled Nevertheless She Persisted formed a near-photographic image of Senator Elizabeth Warren’s face with her mouth taped shut—I’m less concerned with technique and more interested in the artists’ ability to speak through a fiber bullhorn.

Sue Bleiweiss, a co-founder of the ACA and organizer of Threads of Resistance, used appliqué to create a naked female form on a light background, accompanied by the words My Body My Choice My Pussy My Rules My Body My Right. There is no equivocation here, no quiet sampler framed under glass. Artists Deb Cashatt and Kris Sazaki sewed What Does An American Look Like? to honor Mitsuye Endo, a woman incarcerated in an internment camp from 1942-45, along with 120,000 other Americans of Japanese ancestry. Throughout the fabric rendering of Endo’s face, words of various sizes are imprinted, including newspaper headlines from WWII and current populist statements. When Endo was offered early release by the government, she chose to remain in a camp so that her case could make it to the Supreme Court and benefit other captives.Her legal victory led to the liberation of thousands of prisoners, yet I did not learn about her in school. Our nation’s history has been impoverished by a narrow focus on military might and men. In this America, where no policy is too cruel, no law inviolable, quilt-making and other handcrafts become a means to emphasize and preserve narratives at risk of erasure.

The quilts in Threads of Resistance aren’t blankets you’d use on a bed, though due to their construction—a top layer of fabric, a middle layer of batting, and a backing, joined together by stitches—they are in fact quilts. Some measure no larger than 20 square inches, such as Still Yearning, which depicts immigrants at the rough edge of an American flag that’s ripping apart at the seams. As part of her Artist’s Statement, Lyric Montgomery Kinard wrote, “Through our individual actions and compassion, we can stitch our country into a tapestry of great strength and beauty.” Strange how often we use these metaphors of fabric, weaving, and thread when discussing society. In Cloth and Human Experience, anthropologists Annette Weiner and Jane Schneider postulate that because cloth “wears thin and disintegrates, [it]becomes an apt medium for communicating a central problem of power.”Wasn’t it during the Reagan era that conservatives decried the unraveling of the social fabric of America? Women of color raising children by themselves, homosexuals, and divorced mothers like my own were blamed.

 

Hearts

Love. The energy pervading these resistance quilts is love, which I believe is inseparable from heartbreak. What else to call the profound sadness and anger inherent in each one? Love of country, and of people of all colors and ethnicities. Love of freedom, of peace, and of the health of our environment. Love of love itself, between all genders and sexualities. An arresting quilt called Equality spelled out the word in two-foot-tall capital letters, using the eight colors of the original rainbow flag. Another, called Equal Means Equal, showed a male-female gender sign in black, bordered by rainbow hues. The artist, Jessica Levitt, carried it as a banner at the 2017 Women’s March.

The day my mom and I visited the Fuller Craft Museum, a new exhibit devoted to The Pussyhat Project, aptly titled “Revolution in the Making,” was unveiled to accompany Threads of Resistance. Nearly a hundred hats made for the Women’s March filled the walls of a wide corridor, not far from the quilts. I was struck by the differences among the hats, another reminder that they were not mass-produced, but conceived and crafted by individuals. Some were sewn with fleece or cotton; others were crocheted. The knitted ones contained yarns of every texture and shade, from fuzzy and feathery to smooth, from palest pink to the most electric fuchsia.

These exhibits helped me feel hopeful about the daring nature of the human spirit. With each new indignity the world endures, this art of resistance becomes more crucial. Though disheartened, people are not backing down or receding into corners, hushed and defeated. Instead we are affirming our values and identities. What we create carries an intention with it, whether the item is personal, practical, or political. I’ve designed a panel for the AIDS Quilt to honor Paul Monette, who believed we are confronted with a choice in the face of oppression: collaborate or resist. Look about you. What is near at hand? A needle and thread? Yarn, paper, a paintbrush or a pen? Meet destruction with creation.


Photo used under CC.




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About Author

Andrea Caswell grew up in Los Angeles. She holds an MFA from the Bennington Writing Seminars and is a fiction editor at Cleaver Magazine. Her work has been published by Fifth Wednesday Journal, River Teeth, The Normal School, Columbia Journal, and others. She is currently completing her first novel. Follow her on Twitter @andreacaswell88 and read more of her work at www.andreacaswell.net.

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