We are once again in an era where women wielding needles and thread come together to make a difference. Sewing, fabric weaving, knitting have all been traditionally considered women’s work. Throughout our US history, women have used that skill to tell stories, to protest and resist, and now to make a humanitarian contribution.
The most iconic image of a woman sewing in American history is the colonial story of Betsy Ross, sewing the first flag of the new republic, the United States of America. This symbolized women’s behind-the-scenes contribution to legitimize the upstart rebels that successfully fomented a revolution against British rule. Although the story is not historically proven, it is part of American culture, and has been romanticized in many paintings.
In the 19th century, enslaved women used their skill with the needle to create story quilts using signs and symbols to convey stories. The most famous of the 19th century story quilts, by Harriot Powers, is in the Smithsonian Museum. Some quilts made by slaves held signs and symbols to help slaves navigate their escape on the Underground Railroad.
During the U.S. Civil War, women on the home front would sew and roll bandages. Just like today, there was a critical shortage of medical supplies. Women cut sheets, curtains, petticoats to the prescribed width and length needed. During the Civil War, the women’s rights activities were halted so the women could help with the war effort, and the women felt certain that after the war, both freed slaves and all women would be given the right to vote.
In the early 20th century, women revived the movement to gain the right to vote. In the book, With Courage and Cloth, one of my favorite books about the history of women’s suffrage in the United States, author Ann Basum states,
Fighters for this cause, instead of taking up guns and swords, armed themselves with courage and cloth. Cloth was a fitting choice. It was a substance all women knew intimately, having woven, sewn, cleaned, and mended it for generations. It was readily available, and everyone knew how to use it. Women turned it into sashes, made it into signs, and sewed it into flags.
The women protested their lack voting rights as ‘silent sentinels’ picketing the White House – letting their fabric banners speak for them. “Mr. President, How Long Must Women Wait for Liberty?” was a popular banner. After the United States entered WWI, many thought the sentinels were unpatriotic, and that they should quit protesting. Women rolling bandages was once again popular. The suffragists, however, persisted, having learned the lessons of the post-civil war period, and they were determined to continue protesting.
In the 1916 protest in St. Louis, MO suffragist women dressed in white, and had sashes that spoke for them, saying “votes for women.” This was dubbed the “walk-less, talk-less parade.” The color white was chosen and became a defacto uniform for the fight for equal rights.
After the 19th amendment passed congress in 1919, the amendment had to be ratified by each of the states, and each time a state ratified, suffrage leader Alice Paul sewed a star on a banner. The sewing of the thirty-sixth star on the banner was a cause for celebration, for women’s right to vote would now be a part of the U.S. Constitution.
Moving into the 21st century, the making of the Pussyhats, for the January 21, 2017 worldwide protest marches were designed to be a sea of bright pink hats, creating what the organizers said was “a powerful statement that we are unapologetically feminine and we unapologetically stand for women’s rights.” According to the organizers, they sought to reclaim two elements that are traditionally associated with femininity and womanhood—and therefore are often ridiculed. “Pink is considered a very female color representing caring, compassion, and love – all qualities that have been derided as weak but are actually STRONG,” according to the organizers of the Pussyhat Project.
How times have changed since 2017 . . .And now, with the global pandemic, millions of people require face masks to protect themselves from the spread of this virus and there is a critical shortage. Women have once again risen to the challenge, sewing masks with determination and a sense of a greater purpose. Women all over the world began sewing masks to protect people in need.
On April 5, a man in Florida wrote this social media post about the production of masks at his home, after 685 masks had been shipped and another 496 were in production, “My wife is exhausted but refuses to stop. . . .I called for my wife and no answer ? She fell asleep at the sewing machine. I asked her to rest a bit. She looked up at me and said I just did. She truly is remarkable. Back to work on masks.”
This woman is one of many women in 2020 that are heroes, once again wielding needle, thread, and fabric with common purpose.
Sew On, My Sister!