The Quilt Scout
by Mary Fons
Why Don’t Quilters Talk About Feminism?
A few years ago, while I was on a plane headed to a gig, reading an article about Gloria Steinem and Angela Parker, I began to wonder why quilters never talked about feminism. It was strange, really. I criss-crossed the country for years and taught day-long workshops at guilds and shops where there was ample time to talk about everything under the sun once the lesson had been given and everyone was sewing. I spent untold hours with women over the years, talking about kids, husbands, jobs; all the joys and tragedies of life. But never, ever “the F word.”
It’s important to know that I didn’t actively want to talk about feminism. I was just curious as to why it never came up. After all, the majority of my students were women in their 60s, which meant that meant that most of them “came of age” in the 1970s and ‘80s, when so-called “Second Wave” feminism was going on.
The quilt as feminist art object? Pictured here is The International Honor Quilt, a piece which extended that famous work, The Dinner Party (c. 1974-79) by artist Judy Chicago. Around 600 people, some professional artists, others “amateurs,” pieced and quilted the triangle components. Image: Photo by Gage Skidmore/WikiCommons.
This puzzled me, and anytime something puzzles me when it comes to quilt history or quilt culture, I gotta investigate. When I dug in, I found out something really, really interesting — and more than little disturbing, to be honest.
In my research, I found an essay written by philosopher and scholar Susan Bernick in an out-of-print book called Quilt Culture: Tracing the Pattern. The book is a collection of scholarly essays examining various aspects of quilts in broader culture. Bernick’s essay is called A Quilt is an Art Object When It Stands Up Like a Man and in it, she takes on the issue at the heart of my question: Why don’t quilters talk about feminism? I will now attempt to handily distill her essay into its most basic components for you. Susan Bernick, if you’re out there, I am dying to meet you, so if I get something wrong (or right) please call me.
Okay, buckle up and stay with me, here:
Bernick says that there are three distinct cultures in the quilt world as we know it. She positions these quilt cultures “in descending order of social legitimacy;” in other words, from “most respected” to “least respected.” First comes the art quilt tradition or culture; then the feminist quilt culture; and then traditional quilt culture. Got it?
Now, Bernick says right away that in no way is this final or perfect, and none of these delineations on their own “do justice to quilts’ multiplicity of meanings.” There’s overlap and gray areas, of course. But identifying these three “camps” helped me understand a lot. Because, as Bernick says, these three camps didn’t always exist — and therein lies the issue.
This untitled Hawaiian quilt was made in 1874 by an unidentified maker, but it’s very safe to assume that maker was female. It wasn’t a “feminist” object back then, nor was it put into a museum. It was just a quilt. It’s not that simple, no—and is that good or bad?
Image: Wikipedia via Honolulu Museum of Art.The split started in the 1970s. Before that era, people—yes, mostly women—just
sorta made quilts. Quilts existed. They
were important and valued sometimes; other times they were just sort of there. Folks didn’t talk much about quilts being
art objects, and there are problems with that for sure, but it doesn’t mean that people saw a beautiful quilt and were like, “Yeah, whatever.”
Quilts were obviously valued because we have so many of them and they are, on balance, seen as being more precious than money. Quilts are memories, and family, and they occupy this strange place in people’s hearts, so it’s really hard to put a monetary value on them. There’s more to say here, but let’s move on.
In the 1970s, with the big museum shows of quilts going on in New York and around the world, the “Are quilts art?” discussion began.
Some quilts were seen as art. Others weren’t. Well, okay, but who decided that? Fancy Art People decided. Fancy Museum People decided. And it was sort of good for quilts that they were in fancy museums, but it was also sort of bad, because a lot of Fancy Museum People are men, and the vast majority of quilts made in America are/were made by women. So, like, how come quilts are worthy, now, guys—and how the heck do you know about quilts? Important questions to ask no matter how you answer.
Around the same time, so-called Second Wave feminism* was gaining ground in America and many women were looking for opportunities for empowerment, looking for evidence of the under-appreciation of women. By finally appreciating women, they felt, they could make the world a better place. Think about it from a feminist perspective: What object more perfectly embodies the undervalued work of women than quilts made by “Anonymous?” The quilt was suddenly held up (some would say “appropriated”) as an inherently feminist object by people who wanted to use the quilt for their political cause.
But…what if you were a quilter who didn’t identify as “feminist?” What if you just liked making quilts for pleasure? For your family? How come a traditional quilter—ah-ha! a quilter in that third camp—had to be a feminist all of a sudden, and what did that even mean?
And, while we’re at it, how come we have to argue all day about whether quilts are Art-with a capital “A??” Like, duh! Yes, quilts are art! But also not! They’re quilts! They’re better than all of that and they don’t even fit into your stupid discussions! Agh! I’m going into my sewing room! EVERYONE LEAVE ME ALONE!!! says a million traditional quilters everywhere, for a long time.
Thanks to Bernick, I saw (and hopefully you can now see), that this is all really, really complicated. And it’s pretty uncomfortable for many of us. I don’t know what “feminism” means; I don’t know that I ever did. It’s a strange term. Nor do I know how to answer the “Are quilts art?” question, either.
Which women? Together where? A lot of people don’t like the term “feminism” to begin with, so making quilts “feminist” is really tricky. Sorry, Gloria! Photo by Gage Skidmore/WikiCommons.
I’ve grappled with it for years. The reason why most of you probably identify with me on both those things, says my new hero Susan Bernick, is that starting about 50 years ago, some people,—but not all people—took quilts off beds and stuck them on the wall, while other people—but not all people—ran off with quilts so they could hold them up as proof of beauty made in spite of male oppression. Quilts never asked for all that attention, but they sure got it.
This, cherished reader, is why quilters don’t talk about feminism. Any questions?
*Most of the “wave” that helped women get equal pay, etc., really only helped upper middle-class white women, so many folks who study this stuff believe it’s important to say “so-called.” A lot of economically-disadvantaged people and people of color weren’t included in that wave, you know? Don’t shoot the messenger!!