04 May 10

Sewing the dominant paradigm

There are many different types of feminists. Eco-feminists, womanists, trans-feminists, latina-feminists, academic-feminists, and so many more. There are just as many types of crafters. Knitters, sewers, quilters, beaders, etc. I don’t think this statement would be disagreed on by anyone who is a feminist or a crafter.

There are a number of different ways that feminists express their feminist ideals. There are feminists like Gloria Steinem who make a career out of writing books, being a professional speaker/fundraiser. There are feminists like Gloria Feldt who now also write books but who worked their way up through one or various non-profit organizations to lead them. There are feminists like Nancy Pelosi who use a feminist platform to get them elected to highly influential political positions. There are feminists like Sonia Sotomayor who work diligently to get appointed to highly influential judicial positions. There are feminists like Meg Whitman who get hired to turn a smallish company named eBay with 30 employees into a multi-million-dollar corporation with worldwide influence. There are many, many more women like them.

These are all women who deserve to be acknowledged for their success, for the effect they have had on the world at large, and for the trailblazing they’ve done to make it easier for other women to follow in their footsteps. I support them all and recognize how small that list above really is. But I recognize how if we focus on these women, then we end up ignoring the women like Samhita Mukhopadhyay who edit websites that are unable to support themselves, their other editors, and all of their writers with the advertising they receive, but who have exponential effects among their peer-groups and are recognized by feminism at large for continuing to push for things like economic independence and reproductive rights. And it also doesn’t take into account women like Marianne Schnall who run websites like Feminist.com while supporting themselves by writing about celebrities and running an environmental directory of eco-friendly products and services like EcoMail.com. But even though she doesn’t have a necessarily feminist income-stream, few feminists would criticize her as hurting feminism, or hindering economic independence and reproductive rights of other women. They, we, recognize that she is using her skills and her tools to further the abilities of individual women to support themselves as well as assisting feminists as a group.

So, imagine my surprise, when I read an article on BigThink.com by Lindsay Beyerstein titled “Chickens, Cross-Stitch, Burlesque and Women’s Liberation. She essentially says in this article that there are many women who decide to create a small garden, raise a few chickens, perform in burlesque troupes, or create craft and these women may be feeling better about themselves because of these actions, but these actions are not only not advancing any feminist ideals, they’re keeping women from advancing feminism.

Embracing the feminine and/or the farm isn’t going to unseat male dominance. We can’t allow the subjective psychological work to distract us from more pressing objective issues like equal pay and reproductive rights. That said, objective and subjective liberation are mutually reinforcing. When you feel good about yourself, you’re more likely to insist that other people treat you with the respect you deserve.

And there was a little bit of an exchange on Twitter where a few articles about this topic were mentioned. This December, 2009 article on The New York Times website interviews many women who are trying to support themselves via Etsy.com. And Beyerstein points out that “The subject of this story works >13hrs a day in the domestic equivalent of a piecework sweat shop.” [quote via Twitter] And she’s right. The subject of the article does work far more than a 40-hour work week to support herself. And that isn’t a sustainable lifestyle. However, she ignores mention of Caroline Colom Vasquez of Paloma’s Nest who made $120,000 in 2008 and around $250,000 in 2009 after she hired three employees because she and her husband could no longer manage the business on their own. This doesn’t mean that this woman is going to take over the world, but her business is supporting her family, and employing 3 other people as well. That seems like a pretty feminist action to me. And it seems like it goes against what Beyerstein claims. In this case, Vasquez using her creativity and business sense means she is financially independent and making a reasonable living in the process. Vasquez is benefiting from the work of our feminist fore-mothers who worked to make it possible for us to open a business in our name, navigate local bureacracy so we could open a bank account or a credit card in our own names. Whether Vasquez considers herself a feminist is moot, because she has achieved the great American dream and become a self-supporting entrepreneur.

So I dare Beyerstein any other feminist who makes their living as a feminist spokesperson or writer to say that that the “subjective psychological work” Vasquez and the creative women like her do, distracts them from issues like equal pay or reproductive justice. Not only does this statement assume that if a woman is trying to start, run, or grow a business based on handmade items, she isn’t doing anything else related to feminism, it assumes that she is working incredibly hard in a way that grows patriarchy instead of taking away from the effects of patriarchy.

This is incredibly insulting to the many women who do run their own crafts-related business. It essentially tells them that even though they’ve been running their business successfully for a short time, their economic impact on the world is unimportant. I bet their families would beg to differ that their economic impact doesn’t matter. I bet the families of their employees would beg to differ. I bet the vendors they procure their raw materials from would beg to differ. These women are creating something physical that does have an impact on the market at large.

A pretty significant one, which is why groups like the Craft and Hobby Association are starting to freak out. There are many women creating craft supplies and selling them on Etsy. These independent makers of craft supplies are taking a chunk of income from the companies that stock shelves at Michael’s and HobbyLobby and Wal-Mart. CHA is finally trying to court the independent DIY-style crafter as customers. Kathy Cane-Murillo and Vickie Howell are great examples of this. Cane-Murillo’s glittery line of craft supplies came out last year to quite a bit of online fanfare. She and her husband support their family with their craft and their art. Kathy’s success (over a decade of it, in effect) would make her sort of the crafty version of Gloria Steinem. Howell hosted a DIY Network knitting show, has written or edited dozens of knitting books, has designed a line of yarn, and continues to make her living as a crafter, all while toting her cute infant with her. But yet, we’re expected to believe Beyerstein when she says “women are not going to upset the patriarchy by piling on more labor-intensive chores”. I have a hard time believing that Cane-Murillo or Howell would consider their craft business a “labor-intensive chore”. I have no doubt that some of the tasks they need to complete are “chore-like”, and I have no doubt that they would like to work less and earn more. But I don’t think either one of them would give up their “jobs” as self-supported artists/crafters so they could take a more respectable job as one of the few women employed at an insurance or law office. Neither one of them are rich. But they’re getting by, and the work they do enables them to support themselves while maintaining a quality of life and family that is important to them.

Now I full admit that not every crafter is, or has the potential to be, a Vasquez or a Cane-Murillo, nor does every crafter have the ability to support themselves modestly. But I think it is unfair to tell them that they are hindering reproductive rights access or equity pay action by spending their time hand-making items. Just like I would never tell the average feminist blogger who makes very little or no money writing feminist analysis of not contributing to a larger feminist fight.

But this is exactly what I think many feminists do when it comes to craft. They see a woman spending her time hand-making items and selling them (or giving them away) and they see this as anti-feminist or non-feminist actions. And this is ultimately what I have a problem with. I firmly believe that spending time creating is inherently a feminist action. Here is why. Every moment that we spend creating something (whether it is a blog post or a sweater) is time that we are not consumers. Every moment that we are not consumers we are fighting the patriarchy. Now there are costs involved with making a sweater. Yarn isn’t free. But (and here is the aspect that I think many feminists are ignorant about) buying yarn CAN be a feminist action, whether the crafter plans on selling the final product or not.

How can purchasing yarn be a feminist action? There are a variety of ways. If a knitter buys yarn from a local yarn store (or LYS in the online crafter vernacular), they’re most likely buying yarn from an independent store that is very likely owned and run and employs women. They could be buying directly from the yarn producer, especially if that yarn producer is someone like Vera Videnovich of Videnovich Farms. She not only fully supports herself with what she makes on her farm, she does so organically and with eco-friendly processes. She grows flowers and vegetation and turns them into dye. She raises sheep, shears them, spins the yarn, and dyes it. She sells her work on Etsy, at farmers’ markets, on her own website, at craft shows, and more. A crafter could even purchase a sweater from a thrift store or yard sale, unravel it, wash it, and turn it back into fresh yarn ready for another project. Recycling and reusing are eco-feminist responses. There are literally hundreds of companies in other countries that take yarn produced by women in cottage industries and sell it to American crafters. Financially supporting women in other countries by supporting their work is feminist, right?

If you look at many of the loans requests on Kiva you’ll see how many are requests so women can purchase things like sewing machines and spinning wheels. Many feminists love this idea of micro-loans. Organizations like CARE have received huge successes offering micro-loans in the countries they work in. Feminists in America tout their success and love saying what a marked effect these women have had on the lives of their families and their communities. Why can’t we get that same level of respect here in the United States? Why can’t American women save their families and their communities with their own feminized hands?

And I fully admit that I take the words of every feminist who criticizes crafters as being un-feminist or engaging in un-feminist activities personally. I care deeply and significantly about feminism and support many feminist organizations. Because I work a full-time day job in a nearby suburb of Chicago, I grew frustrated because I couldn’t attend after work or lunchtime rallies in downtown Chicago. I could easily petition and write letters to my state and US Congress and did so. I took great care in researching judges and water reclamation district applicants to determine who I should vote for. But that didn’t feel like enough.

I realized that I missed making things with my hands. I enjoy the computer-based work I do, but I like seeing tangible results of my work. My job doesn’t give me that outlet, and my feminist actions didn’t give me that outlet. Even when I wrote a particularly scathing or witty feminist-related blog post that got linked by several people, I didn’t feel fulfilled. Perhaps writing something that could appear in print would have helped, but I didn’t think so. I wanted to create with my hands. And I began doing so and I realized how much happier it made me. And then I realized how fortunate I was to have a full-time job that supported me and provided me with spare time to pursue my feminist whims and to craft. Through the confluence of many things I decided to start a small business. And since I had the security of knowing that even if my small business never made a profit (and it honestly has never made a profit) I could keep it up as long as I felt committed to it, I decided to find a way that my need to craft could intersect with my love of feminist organizations.

I began by making bags that I solely donated to women’s organizations. And then a few people asked me to sell them a copy of a bag I’d donated and because I felt weird taking the money from friends and friends of friends I donated it to organizations I supported emotionally and mentally and politically. And that became the basis for my business. While I would like to make a profit, I’m blessed to not have to. I’m blessed to be able to give about 30% of the proceeds of my business to non-profit organizations. The rest pays to run the business. I’ve never taken money out of Poise.cc for anything that isn’t business or non-profit related. I continue to make bags and donate them and would guess that I give away just as many bags as I sell.

Would I help organizations like the Chicago Abortion Fund if I stopped spending any time crafting and instead spent my time helping them raise funds, write grants, and answer email? Undoubtedly. But at what personal cost? I know myself well enough to know that I would be crushed by every email from a woman that the organization couldn’t help, or they couldn’t help more. I could instead spend my time writing article after article and shopping them around to publications hoping they’d pay me $10 or $25 to print it. But that doesn’t seem more feminist to me.

So, dear feminists who think that craft is un-feminist, anti-feminist, or not feminist enough, stop criticizing something you don’t understand. Learn a little more about the different ways that an entire group of people are feminist before you criticize us and what we do. Even if every crafter isn’t activist-minded, even if they just like pretty soft things, they’re part of a marketplace that has ripple effects into large groups of society. The DIY Craft Movement has pushed the belief that the corporate marketplace does not get to tell us what is fashionable, what is acceptable, what is best for us.

The DIY Craft Movement has pushed the belief that we each get to decide what is fashionable, what is acceptable, what is best for each of us. We don’t need to rely on Corporations in America to create what we need, what we want, what we would like to have. There is a very good chance that we have a neighbor, or a friend, or a friend-of-a-friend who knows someone that can make anything we need to purchase. So my selling a few dozen handmade bags every years isn’t going to have a huge impact on the bottom line of Target. But it does have a small impact on the feminist organizations I’m able to donate money to. It does have a consciousness-raising effect on the women who purchase a bag from me and realize that my bags will last significantly longer than similarly-priced bags they could buy at a chain store. After having more than a dozen suppliers of various materials close their doors because American-based manufacturing is scarce, I know that having Americans buy goods manufactured in America has an effect on more than the DIY Craft Movement community. I’m thrilled by the personal attention I get from suppliers. I’m delighted to see the faces of their employees on their websites. I delight in reading about the family-friendly environments they create. And I love knowing that every order for strapping, or fabric, or interfacing or thread is going to keep another person whose I know, in business.

So hearing that fellow feminists, women whose writing I read and admire, think that I’m wasting my time angers and hurts me. I’m doing neither. I’m supporting my beliefs with my actions. I’m supporting American men and women with my purchases so they can continue to support their families. I’m supporting organizations who are making it possible for more women to create lives where they are able to use their skills to advance their beliefs and goals. I’m not hurting pay equity. I’m sure as hell not hurting reproductive rights. But I am hurting.

Instead of criticizing women like ourselves, how about you include us in discussions about entrepreneurial activities, how about you support our small businesses (even via Etsy) instead of turning to chain-stores and department stores to fill your everyday needs, how about you realize that we are aware of how sexist beliefs affect us. We know that the vast majority of people who receive loans through the Small Business Administration are men instead of women. But we also know that female-owned small businesses are more successful, on average than male-owned small businesses. We also know that the vast majority of small businesses are owned by women. We’re not all women with spare time who like to make things and hope that one day it will magically turn us into self-supporting tycoons. Many of us are women who want financial success of our own choosing, our own doing, but not at the risk of damaging our mental health, physical well-being, or our morals.


  1. Great post, Cinnamon! And I agree with you whole-heartedly.

    What I think is hilarious is that crafts and farmwork have often been done largely by men throughout history. And to me, part of a feminist is being whole. If making things makes me feel whole, and when I CHOOSE to do it while I’m supporting myself (whether working for myself or someone else) I am actively fighting against the patriarchy by making my own decisions on my own terms. It’s the CHOICE that makes it radical and subversive. By choosing to be whole and honest and true to ourselves, we are standing up tall and proud as feminists and creating a legacy where women can wield both a drill and a crochet hook making her own choice, ignoring convention and enjoying life. Because that’s the ultimate win, isn’t it? Living life on your own terms and becoming a role model for future generations of women that refuse to fit in a stereotype or convention and just live. Fighting with love and creativity instead of vitriol and pigeonholes.

    Betsy on May 5, 11:47 pm

  2. Cinnamon, you know I support you and your efforts, so I won’t belabor that point. I’ll just say I completely agree with your sentiments here – especially when you boil it down to this concise point: “stop criticizing something you don’t understand.” It really comes down to that simple point; we could all stand to be a little more educated, and, at times, to practice restraint of pen and tongue.

    Jenni Prokopy on May 6, 10:11 am

  3. Well said!!!!

    Mosaic Queen on May 6, 10:13 am

  4. First time visitor. The tradition of women and survival includes crafts and craft creators.

    That woman spoke out of ignorance of the number of women who knitted one purled two in support of civil rights, education, health care, equal rights or the right to make sure dinner was on the table by selling goods.

    There is room at the table for all types of women.

    Why are some people still locked into discussions on who is and isn’t representing feminism correctly is beyond me.

    Gena on May 6, 08:07 pm

  5. Well said! Have you read “The Subversive Stitch” or “Women’s Work?” Highly recommend them if not.

    Lindsay on May 8, 10:10 am

  6. Fantastic post! I echo your sentiments and applaud the women (and men) who have the courage to live their lives according to their own rules, without resigning themselves to the status quo.
    From a Fellow Etsy seller: Feesk!

    Fiona K (Feesk on etsy) on May 10, 05:36 pm

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