Wednesday, 18 July 2007

Knit is a feminist issue

I grew up in a political household. Not political in the sense that I belong to a political dynasty like the Benns or the Foots, but political in the sense that we listened to the Today program at breakfast and watched the Six O'Clock News after tea, read The Observer on Sundays and talked Issues betweentimes. General Elections were treated as a sort of feast day in our home, with normal bedtimes rescinded for the evening, and shopping trips involved hunting around for the right kind of apple. One of the commonplaces of our family discourse was the statement, "everything is political".

I and my sister were raised in the belief that every opinion held and action taken manifests a political statement - even if the statement is of apathy or ignorance, no-one can evade their relationship to political debate. You may object to the system, but you cannot remove yourself from it. Mamacate's latest post has set me thinking, though, and I have started to wonder whether I've allowed the doctrine of "everything is political" to stand in the place of actual politics. I still read a lot of political journalism in the form of daily papers and fortnightly reviews, but, like Mamacate, I leave the Serious Stuff alone when I blog.

For me, knitting is tinged with politics. Among my reasons for originally wanting to knit was an urge to learn more about the things I use and have more control over the production process (brilliantly, I hadn't even thought about the production of the yarn, but I'll get there eventually, especially with Caroline to lead me). However, for most people, knitting is associated not with consumer politics but with gender politics. When my grandmother was at school, the girls had compulsory knitting and sewing classes while the boys learned woodwork: her education was intended to turn out a competent, hardworking housewife (it succeeded, too) while my grandfather was trained to be a good workman, and knitting stills bears the stigma of this streaming to stereotype.

It's a more various craft than that, of course: think of the gutter girls in their beautiful ganseys memorialized by Elizabeth Lovick in the Winter '06 issue of IK, or Ysolda Teague's grandfather, who learned to knit while recovering from injuries sustained as a WWII fighter pilot. A friend of mine was in the merchant navy with an old seaman who produced extraordinary cabled jumpers. Nevertheless, as Laura Hopwood's article on "The History Knitting" in the first issue of Yarn Forward shows, the default perception of knitting is as a feminine, domestic pastime. The text of the article includes just one reference to men knitting, and that is couched in disbelief and facetiousness: "Apparently, men were the first to knit for a living - I don't know how many do so today!"

As a teenager, I resented textiles class. I had no intention of being domestic. I was interested in ideas, in debate, and I was ambitious too; competing in the girls-only arena of fibre crafts had no appeal when I could be trouncing everyone in arguments about Lord of the Flies. My avoidance of what I saw as traditional female activities was a political position informed by a form of feminism which emphasized likeness between men and women, and wanted to break with an oppressive past.

But breaking with the past means losing our understanding of the people of the past, to some extent: scorning women's endeavors skims dangerously close to scorning women. Better, I think, is the feminism practised by Barbara Walker, whose interest in knitting formed part of a wide ranging-interest in women's culture. Nevertheless, this approach runs the risk of perpetrating the exact same error committed by my grandmother's (not-at-all feminist) schooling, and tying women to a limited role in the world.

I haven't read Walker's work so I don't have an opinion as to whether that is a problem in her thinking, but it did occur to me apropos an exchange in the comments of a recent post. Lilknitter wondered if knitting in public might be similar to the "baby bump phenomenon", in the way that it seems to override the usual barriers to social interaction with strangers: it's a lovely and apposite idea, and one that is intelligently extended by Honeybee33 after her. But it's an association with troubling potential, as Gillian Beer points out (Beer is writing about feminist literary critics making use of the same imagery linking artistic production and procreation):
Childbearing distinguishes women from men but need not define woman. The metaphors of womb and milk that Kristeva and Cixous employ , though full of comfort and recognition, risk being read as biological determinism. They may function to fix the idea of woman writing [or by extension, creating anything] as essentially reproductive. So, while respecting difference, we should be wary of the imprimatur of our generative organs as a sufficient description of creativity.
Gillian Beer, George Eliot (Key Women Writers Series)
For me, Beer's comment captures exactly the balance that should be strived for: as women, we should be respectful of our physiology, but wary of allowing it supremacy.

My knitting has become, in part, a way of showing respect to the women who didn't have the same choices as I do, because their physiology was deemed supreme. Through my knitting, I have learned sympathy and admiration for the hard work my grandmother had to put into caring for her family. Knitting is a leisure activity for me, not a necessity. Choosing to spend my free time knitting is a tacit statement that I look on her life as one of worthwhile enterprise, and not as the dissipation of potential which my teenage self considered domesticity to be. And seeing knitting as a feminist activity does not, of course, make it a necessarily feminine activity: I'm teaching my son to knit, and hope that over time he will acquire some of the same understanding with it.

So in this way, I consider my knitting to be a political gesture. But it has to be admitted, it's not a gesture easily interpretable to the external observer. There are knitters who turn their craft to direct political ends, but I don't think my production of shapely cardigans makes any comparable statement. Just acting on good principles is not enough. I should be able, at least occasionally, to say what those principles are and hold them up to scrutiny.

Edit: Of Troy points out that Juno is heading out along similar lines.

13 comments:

LilKnitter said...

Well said! I'm truly at a loss: I was thinking very similar thoughts only the other day, and you've said it all so well! When discussing feminism with the people I know you do not self-identify as feminist, but agree in principle (a distinction I think warrants consideration and exegesis in a future post of mine!) I always harken back to the fundamental belief that feminism is about choice, and not only on the question of ending pregnancies. It is the very ability we have - past generations of women might say the luxury we have - of making real and determinate choices regarding our lives. Whether to conceive, how many children and when, whether we will work or stay at home, study and be academic, or live domestically, it is the ability to self-direct, I would argue, which is the summation of the accomplishments of feminism.

Thanks for the splendidly written post; it's a good read!

Dawn said...

I was considering very similar things today, whilst knitting and reading Cixous funnily enough. I felt much the same during secondary school, ploughing far more effort into Physics and Maths to prove that a girl could succeed at a 'boy's' subject, to the extent that I nearly did a degree I wouldn't have enjoyed half as much as the one I've ended up doing (English Lit). Brilliant post!

Sarah said...

Some good food for thought here. I have to say that I haven't engaged with the idea that my knitting is at all political but it is a choice and I am grateful everyday for those who went before me and made sure that as a woman I would have choices.

Caroline M said...

I don't believe that every choice is a political one, nor a moral one but I can agree with your parents' beliefs that the purchase of apples is a political statement. We are still on the 1996 French embargo although there has been a slight softening of the household position on cheese and enamel cookware.

I learned to knit at school, I can't remember whether the boys did as well. It was a normal thing to do - everyone (female) knitted and someone had to teach you. Now I have a choice over my free time, to knit or play computer games. One is a traditional stereotypical female activity, one a modern stereotypical male activity. If I chose the latter does it make me in anyway more supportive of the work that went into getting me the vote?

clarabelle said...

What a thought-provoking post, thank you, Webbo! (I have tried, unconsciously, to be thought-provoking in my own ‘history of knitting’, but obviously not quite so eloquently.)

I find the whole thing about ?the meaning of knitting and its place on the gender-politics-map extremely difficult to unravel (hah, meaningful metaphor), because when I was young, knitting was the norm; it was unselfconsciously taught at my infants’ school (where boys had to learn as well as the girls), and most people that I knew (family, friends – though admittedly, all female) all knitted. Yes, essentially, it’s always been seen as a female domain, and over the past decades annoyingly as a ‘pastime for grannies’, I suppose in the same way eg fishing has been seen as a male domain.

I don’t personally feel the need to ‘knit in public’, as though I’m trying to force the issue. I don’t want to wave the banner for knitting as a feminist issue, or a political one.

If I want to wave any banner, then it’s for knitting as an enjoyable pastime, as a crafting pastime, as an artistic pastime. (And if guys ain't interested, then do I care? My son ain't interested, but then neither are my daughters.) Sounds much less interesting, but that’s my take!

clarabelle said...

Paragraph 3 of my comment: please read, 'nor a political one'.

Uuuggh. Snotty grammar school edukayshion.

OfTroy said...

Great Post.

i plan to link to it.

(i tend not to be political on my own blog, but.. politics is personal.

and yes, lil knitter, it is about choice... (the three big religions (the people of the book) all agree, one of gods gifts to mankind was free will.. we are born with the ability to chose.. it is a gift.

when we let others dictate to us, we are rejecting one of gods gifts.

you don't have to be too religious to accept that free will (which means thought, then action) is a characteristic of HUMANS. and it is a gift.

and everytime woman act with their own free will, they reaffirm their humanity.

Alice said...

Thanks for that thoughtful post - I really enjoyed reading it.

I sometimes think that knitting has stopped me being so political. I spend a lot of time if not knitting then talking, reading, thinking or writing about knitting, and this eats into time I'd otherwise spend keeping up to date with current affairs and, with it, engaging in political action. I sit and produce garments and designs; I don't get up and do anything. Added to that I tend to find the knit community is so friendly there isn't much conflict. And I'm all for (healthy, polite, respectful) debate for political change.

(plus so many knitters seem to engage in nothing more than extreme consumerism - as if because they are going to handcraft with it having a house-full of yarn is somehow 'ok', forget simply ignoring the production methods, all this 'stash enhancement' includes A LOT of waste, IMO...)

Or to put it more simply, I worry all this knitting is turning my brain a bit wooly (and I'm sure there is something about the patriarchy keeping us down there)

weblet said...

As a sewer it is rather more difficult to join the debate. As you know (being my big sis and all) I am also of the opinion that all decisions are political, although the choice I made to continue with textiles was not intended as such at the time. I had (and still have) no grand domestic ambitions other than not to live in filth- a desire that I am currantly failing to meet. It was more a question of selecting a technology subject in which I felt I could succeed. I didn't, but it did leave me a desire for that success. If I wear something I have made I will happily share my pride with others (not so much over my unfinished mis-mash curtains!) but I don't interpret this as a feminist act. Grandma supported me during my GCSE and demonstarted a level of skill that was born out of necessity and I am proud that this is something I have chosen and hope that she is proud of her constructive grand-daughters who respect her education, continuing these practices through choice.

Seahorse said...

Like this post!

I agree it's all about choice. I probably do as much cooking, baking, knitting etc as my grandmother did but the crucial part is that she had to, I don't. I'm actually very glad that the main arguments of feminism have moved on a bit (for most people). I grew up in the 70s and 80s, when there was great deal of sneering at anyone who enjoyed a bit of domesticity or practical creativity, it all (apparantly) being seen as brainless drudgery. I think now we're able to celebrate the joy of making something pleasing and practical with our own hands. I also feel it gives me a connection (however tenuous and sentimental!) with women through the ages.

glittrgirl said...

Right on sister.

Jen said...

I'm a little late to join this discussion, but just wanted to thank you and all the other commenters for this interesting conversation! I have to say that I really rankle when people (often men) make comments about knitting being grandmotherly or uber-feminine in a nonfeminist way.

I do worry that there's been this swing back in America from feminist progress to neo-fifties mores that SEEMS to be celebrating motherhood and babies and stuff like that and is in fact both highly conspicuous consumption/consumer-driven and a sort of backsliding in women's power in the country. I think that what you call the "baby-bump" obsession in the media is part of it -- and every once in a while I ask myself if I am just buying into this mentality with my knitting and cooking and other domestic activities. But at the same time, I really LIKE these activities, so if I could find a good argument to justify them to my feminist self -- great!

Lavinia said...

Very interesting piece - thank you. The mention of grandmother, and her enforced role, also struck a chord with me.

I didn't go into knitting/crochet as a political statement; it was mere yarn lust. And a chance to express a creativity that can't be used in any other part of my life.

But as I've gone on, I *have* found it to be part of my anti-consumerist expression. I don't have a large stash (mainly because I don't have large funds), so a lot of my yarn comes from charity shops and the like. I'm also beginning to look into making my own clothes (i.e. sewing), to begin to get away from giving my money to the 'fashion' industry (again - charity shops have been very useful here).

As far as the gender roles are concerned, it doesn't exercise me quite so much, I think, because I'm in a same-sex relationship. It happens that I like baking and knitting and my partner likes building stuff. But we both like cooking and gardening, so these are things we do together. Ideally, I suppose, that's the way things would be in a heterosexual relationship - each doing what they are good at and enjoy rather than what is expected of them because of their sex? [Incidentally, neither of us likes housework :-(]

I'm not quite sure what message I'm passing on to my sons, but I hope that as they come from a feminized (and feminist) household they won't hold too many preconceptions about what is a 'proper' role for a woman.