Shirley Chisholm notably said that the “stereotyping of females begins when the doctor says: ‘It’s a girl’”. This stereotyping is true for female dominated arts, like embroidery.
Historically, craft mediums have been dismissed as a female hobby. Le Corbusier and Amédée Oxenfant, founders of the purist movement recognised this hierarchy, “decorative art at the bottom, and the human form at the top. Because we are men.”
Labels such as ‘Women’s work’ were often reiterated to marginalise women and women’s activities within our culture. The patriarchal society we live in implements powerful beliefs among the public. As Professor Marybeth Stalp of the University of Northern Iowa explained to me, “typically society values what men do over what women do”.
And yet, many fibre craft skills were, and still are, considered a necessity for survival. As Professor Stalp explains these, often beautiful creations, show us that “great artistry can happen even outside of the formal art world”.
Embroidery’s roots in women’s lives means that today it is seen as a feminised community, which many women were taught by their mother’s when they were young. Associate professor at the University of Puerto Rico, Mayagüez, Ricia Anne Chansky, indicates that it is this matrilineal process that has caused many women to feel deep personal connections to embroidery: “We have affiliative safety with the medium”.
She goes on to explain that this means many are able to discuss complex issues such as politics with their crafts, which they perceive a “‘safe’ space”. “It is confrontational without the confrontation,” she tells me. It allows women a public voice.
This is why embroidery has been used in the feminist movement since women fought for the vote almost 100 years ago. The first wave feminists stitched signs and banners to support the fight for Suffrage.
Many more feminists adopted the technique during the surge of second wave feminism in the 1960s and 70s. Artists like Judy Chicago incorporated embroidery into her artworks, such as The Dinner Party, which places female icons from throughout history as guests at a dinner party symbolic of The Last Supper.
However, the ideals of second wave feminism did not always go hand in hand with the craft movement. Professor Chansky told me, “Betty Friedan and Simone de Beauvoir both referenced concerns over US college students knitting, implying that domestic craft and second wave feminism were not necessarily compatible”.
Third wave feminism, on the other hand, embraced embroidery. “Many third wave feminists have encouraged both a reclamation of domestic craft and a recognition of its worth within the movement as practice and product,” Professor Chansky explained.
The feminist use of embroidery continues to help to defy preconceived perceptions of the technique and embroiderers. Professor Stalp informed me, “Understanding that women (and feminists) are not monolithic is important”.
I spoke to an embroiderer who, along side many other artists, is currently selling her art and is part of what some are calling a fourth wave of feminism. Maria, aka Femmebroidery, started crafting as she wanted to indulge in feminism outside of academia. She says that she considers herself a feminist because she believes in the rights of all marginalised people.
Unlike second wave feminism, which has been criticised for focusing mainly on the rights of white women, this fourth wave of feminism is widely intersectional. Maria explained, “Contemporary intersectional feminism widens the scope to encompass the disabled, undocumented immigrants, and people of colour to name a few”.
So, modern feminists are conscious of not only issues of women’s rights, like the recent change in policy concerning abortion in the US, but also campaign for things such as the Black Lives Matter movement.
Arguably feminism’s reappearance is because of these pressing social issues, and though it can feel discouraging, Maria points out that it is these issues that make the community fight harder and come together: “I’m always inspired by the incredible work being done by artists and activists across the world”.
Professor Chansky mentioned that she worries third wave feminists had become complacent. “The time for complacency is now ended.” She encouraged, “Activism has to go back to the streets.”
The Women’s Marches that took place all over the world display the strength of the current feminist movement. Maria describes them as “a prime example of the mobilisation in response to the current administration”.
But craft can still play an important role in feminism. Professor Chansky clarified that activism in 2017 will be a “blended activism”, combining elements of second wave public activism with a third wave ingenuity and understanding. “People are activists in multiple ways and that’s okay.” Chanksy told me, “some people will march, some will call or write postcards, some will run for office… And, there will be craftivism.” She stresses that people must campaign in a way that’s right for them and that it’s working together that will create change.
A perfect recent example of craft within the feminist movement is the “pussy hats”. Millions of women around the world wore these hats at the recent Women’s marches. Professor Chansky explains, “These hats were crafted and worn as a reaction to the forty-fifth US President’s statement that he likes to grab women ‘by the pussy’.”
These hats are proof that craft can still form a strong political statement, despite being used by feminists since the early 20th century. The ironic contrast in medium and message remains pertinent.
Thanks to feminist’s work, embroidery is now often viewed more seriously as an art form. But Professor Stalp argues that until ‘feminist art’ and ‘women’s work’ are simply described as ‘art’ and ‘work’ there is still prejudice: “To have to describe something with an extra word marks it as ‘other’ and therefore, in some eyes, as lesser.”
Maria reminds me, “It’s important to remember the history of craft”. Adding that it’s amazing to be able to recognise that a medium that has long been used within feminized communities is now being used “to subvert gender norms and smash the patriarchy from within”.