Let's start with the painfully obvious. Sewing is a domestic activity, and as such, has generally been in the domain of women's responsibilities. Prior to the advent of feminism, home sewing was wrapped up in all the other messy notions that prompted the need for women's liberation: the erasure of women into undervalued roles and social conditions that didn't allow for sustainable life choices choices outside of marriage and motherhood. (Just for the record: I am not bashing homemaking. I am merely glossing over several decades of women's history! I'm not sure which should offend you more.) With the publication of The Feminine Mystique and the evolution of first wave feminism, women began to detach themselves from domestic work and hence, home sewing became a less popular - perhaps even ridiculed - activity. We have the second wave of feminism to thank for many legal rights that women now have. But sadly, this era also saw the further decline of home crafts. For some, sewing might even have been considered an anti-feminist activity.
This idea has, thankfully, largely been criticized by third wave feminists, who, for the most part, rejected the idea that to gain power women must inject themselves into traditionally male activities and give up any aspirations of domestic bliss. As these feminists saw it, disowning any activity that was traditionally feminine further compounded the cultural notion that women's work is meaningless - that to do work of importance, we must take on traditionally male roles.
Feminism took a pronounced turn for the crafty with the publication of Stitch 'n Bitch, the book single-handedly responsible for making knitting cool again. Authored by Debbie Stoller, founder of the feminist magazine Bust, the book is both a how-to and a decidedly feminist call to action. The beautifully written chapter "Take Back the Knit" speaks volumes about the relationship between feminism and crafting. It's a gem of a chapter all around, but my favorite passage is this:
"Betty Friedan and other like-minded feminists had overlooked an important part of knitting when they viewed it simply as part of women's societal obligation to serve everyone around them--they had forgotten that knitting served the knitter as well."In other words, crafts like sewing and knitting are nourishing to the soul, not just the home. Reflecting this idea, women today are far more likely to sew for themselves - because it feeds their creativity and sense of beauty - rather than a sense of gendered obligation. We live in a very exciting time in which feminism, punk DIY aesthetics, and eco-consciouness have converged to create a new crafting movement. And instead of feeling oppressed by sewing and other domestic arts, feminists now often use them as a means of connection to each other and to our creative selves.
But here's my question: why hasn't sewing become an emblem of crafty third-wave feminism in the way that knitting has? For whatever reason, sewing hasn't become a craft of choice for hip feminists, despite publishers' attempts to find the Stitch 'n Bitch of sewing. Sewing (or at least couture and vintage sewing) does seem to have less of a punk aesthetic than knitting - a bigger push towards refined methods rather than a scrappy DIY aesthetic. But I think we seamstresses need to start holding our own as crafty feminists!
What do you think? Do you see your sewing as feminist?