The Pussyhat: Knitters and the Politics of Identity

Cover Image found on Twitter: @rmayersinger

In 2007, the term “social media” was on the rise, and Twitter and Facebook were changing the landscape of the internet. As an OG internetter, I chuckled, because the web had always been social. Whether it was the Prodigy bulletin boards of my junior high years, the lively blogosphere, or any number of other online pastimes, I was equal parts in love with the new tools and annoyed by the buzz about them. But as with many OG internetters, I was able to exploit my expertise and briefly flirted with holistic digital strategy (with a focus on social media) as one of my core jobs.

Around that time, my agency colleagues gathered around the “Lunch and Learn” conference table, with the smell of greasy pizza hanging in the air. That day I gave what I believe to be my first ever “talk” in a professional context. It was boldly titled: “Knitting: gateway drug for learning new technology and a case study for online communities (all you need is a computer and some balls.)”

It began with a personal anecdote.

I recalled the first time that anyone in meatspace identified me by my online moniker “semaphoria” — it was in my local yarn store. The woman behind the counter was strangely giddy, and asked me how my sweater project was going. We had never met before, and it was oddly jarring to mix my online identity with the real world in such a palpable way.

The core thesis of the presentation was that knitters were one of the first online communities to actively defy stereotypes, breakdown demographic barriers, and embrace folks from all walks of life. Contrary to popular belief, grannies were indeed internet savvy and blogging, straight men were not wary of knitting in public (and posting photos about it), and regardless of race, gender, age or sexuality, everyone was welcome. It was arguably more controversial if someone chose to wield a crochet hook or choose cotton over wool, than it was for a punk rock grannie with a Dead Kennedys tattoo to ask for help learning to yarn-over.

Throughout the presentation I continued to argue that social media was not new. Facebook was not the first to attract a new generation to the internet, or bring people together. They just brought scale to the equation. After all, knitters were chatting online in force in 2005 when the news broke that Martha Stewart had knit a poncho in jail.

Fast forward a full decade, and the online knitting community is still making history.

This last Saturday marked what is looking to be one of the most momentous marches in American history — The Women’s March on Washington — and the knitting community has been preparing for it for months. As pictures have rolled in from marches around the world, and across the nation, there is one unifying symbol: the pink pussyhat.

President Trump’s infamous “grab ‘em by the pussy” quote from 2005 spurred women to reclaim this moment, this word, by making and wearing pink hats with cat ears on them.

The Pussyhat is the knitted helmet of a new generation.

The Pussyhat Project was co-founded in L.A. by screenwriter Krista Suh and architect Jayna Zweiman—with the knitting Pussy Power Hat pattern designed by local yarn store owner, Kat Coyle. (If you doubted the crochet controversy of the mid-2000s, I encourage you to look at the FAQs of the Pussyhat Project, where two of the first three questions are dedicated to making the point that crochet is OK too!)

The Pussyhat Project not only provided knitting, crocheting, and sewing patterns for those wishing to march, but it also provided an incredible logistical infrastructure — knitalongs, donations, a hat tracker, official #pussyhat pick-up points for hat collection, and distribution of innumerable hats to marchers in Washington on Saturday. It was a movement from within the movement, and a very noticeable one at that.

While knitting (or any handicraft for that matter) may seem to be in tension with any feminist movement, there is strong historical precedent for feminists wielding their needles.

In her amazing, if not obscure, tome No Idle Hands: The Social History of American Knitting, Anne L. Macdonald notes that “many White House suffrage demonstrators packed knitting as well as lunch for the Lafayette Park suffrage vigil across from the White House” in 1918. About the same time, women also began knitting “stump socks” for wartime amputees, and were prolifically knitting other practical forms of waterproof warmth for our nation’s soldiers through the Red Cross.

“Certainly age was no deterrent… Grandma Parker, an acclaimed ‘aged though active knitter,’ completed 27 pairs of socks, three sweaters, two helmets and seven pairs of wristlets; ninety-one-year-old Hannah Eilenberger knit 11 pairs of socks and complained that the twelfth pair was unfinished because her dislocated shoulder slowed her down.” These women were also teaching the next generation (of both genders) to knit for the cause. Knitting was heralded by the military and the nation as one of the most important contributions that one could make.

And please note that Grandma Parker knitted helmets. In Bernat’s Handicrafter’s: Handknits for the Boys in the Service, it was said that “A knitted helmet is a must for every fighting man. He wears it in his plane, under his steel helmet, and to protect him against the cold on guard duty.”

This movement, like all movements, will be a part of a larger continuum in history.

Thousands of people knit pink pussyhats so others could wear them at the march on Saturday. These were a must for every fighting woman who needed protection against the cold. And just as I am grateful for the people who marched on behalf of women’s rights on Saturday I am grateful to the knitters who supported that sea of pink.

At the end of the day, whether you were one of the thousands that made hats to keep those women warm and safe, or whether you were one who marched, let these pussyhats remind us that this is just the beginning of our fight.

These are our helmets. We are the Women in the Service. In service to each other and in service to the citizens of the United States. We don’t know exactly what will happen in the days ahead, but it is looking likely that we will need to come together with a collective gift of warmth and solidarity.

Our solidarity now, like in the movements of the past, will inform our future.

Note: For those who marched on Washington in a pink pussyhat, please note that the Michigan State University Museum is collecting stories, selfies, pussyhats, and other items related to women’s participation in the Women’s March in Washington, D.C. Please consider donating relevant materials to the MSU Museum to document this historic event. Please contact Shirley Wajda, Curator of History, at wajdashi@msu.edu. Or, if you marched locally, please consider bringing your pussyhat back to your hometown and giving it to someone who needs it to keep warm.

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