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Pussyhats Galore: Taking Washington By Knit And Purl

Knitting hats to wear to the Women's March on Washington, Bloomington women join thousands nationwide who are taking up needles to stand up for their rights.

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    Photo: Yael Ksander

    Dana Duffy Backs sports the pussyhat she knitted and plans to wear to the Women's March on Washington Saturday, January 21, 2017.

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    Photo: https://www.pussyhatproject.com/

    The Pussyhat Project Homepage

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    Photo: Yael Ksander

    Amira Sabbagh admires Kerry Conway, who models her Women's March t-shirt and pink pussyhat.

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    Photo: Yael Ksander

    Linda Boyle creates another in a series of pink pussyhats.

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    Photo: Yael Ksander

    Kerry Conway encourages hat recipients to donate to a women's cause of their choice.

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    Photo: Yael Ksander

    Pussyhats come in all colors and varieties. Faith Hawkins is knitting one from repurposed sari material.

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    Photo: Yael Ksander

    Yarns Unlimited has hosted Tuesday night circles for making pussyhats. More knitters gathered at the Bloomington boutique during the Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Birthday observance.

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    Photo: Yael Ksander

    A pussyhat in the making, at the Tuesday evening session at Yarns Unlimited.

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    Photo: Yael Ksander

    Linda Boyle and Amira Sabbagh power through pussyhats at the Tuesday night knit session.

Once a week a group of women in Bloomington, Indiana gets together to knit.

“We’re all women of a certain age,” explains Kerry Conway, Executive Director of the Area Ten Agency on Aging. “Most of us have jobs or had jobs that were relatively high pressure jobs. And I think having this productive thing for your hands to do just feels wonderful.”

I think of us as modern-day Madame Defarges–in The Tale of Two Cities, she was the knitter, one of the leaders of the French Resistance.

These are women who like to get things done. They’re all pretty engaged in the community. They serve on the public library board. Attend the meetings of the League of Women Voters.

And they knit right through them.

Knitting goes hand-in-hand with social and political engagement, it seems. Valerie Merriam got involved in activism as a Vassar woman in the ‘60s–

“And that was a time of protests and sit-ins, and we were there with our knitting needles.”

Taking up needles in protest is a time-honored tradition, Merriam suggests.

“I think of us as modern-day Madame Defarges–in The Tale of Two Cities, she was the knitter, one of the leaders of the French Resistance.”

The Bloomington knitters have their own causes célèbres–hats for the homeless, blankets for the elderly.  And then, there were the “Knitted Knockers.”

“Exactly what you think they are,” I’m told. The small knitted pads for breast cancer survivors might soothe, or even serve as a prosthetic, in lieu of a silicone implant. “It’s knitted with love by hand, which is kind of one of the things you need, if you’re a breast cancer survivor,” Conway asserts. “And we make them in all different sizes and colors, which is kind of fun.”

It was a short ride from Knitted Knockers to Pussyhats. It wasn’t hard. We had already been halfway there, so what the heck?!

These knitters have a penchant for projects that are playful, socially conscious, and a little risqué–

“So,” Conway continues, “it was a short ride from Knitted Knockers to Pussyhats. It wasn’t hard. We had already been halfway there, so what the heck?!”

The knitting circle has joined forces with many others in the community and across the country in the Pussyhat Project, a grassroots movement of women and men knitting pink hats to wear at or send to those participating in the Women’s March on Washington—or one of the many satellite events–on Saturday, January 21, 2017.

“If I read my Facebook page correctly there are probably quite a a few hundred of us in town,” explains Donna Kinkead, a local elementary school teacher. “A lot are knitting individually.  They’re producing five or six or seven for friends or themselves going. So everybody’s trying to be part of this, even some people who surprise me, whom I’d never guessed.”

“I think it’s important to note that this is a bipartisan group across the country,” notes Merriam.  “It is women, joining together to take back their rights. It knows no party.”

We thankfully have a whole cadre of symbols that we can use to fight back, and the word ‘pussy’ is one of them.

The pattern distributed online is for a simple hat in fuschia pink, with pussycat ears that form at the corners. But the hats the Bloomington knitters are making are as diverse as the women making them, and those who will be wearing them.  There are different shades of pink, and different motifs.

“We also have solidarity hats,” explains Conway, “for those who really don’t like the ‘p-word.’ That’s okay.  This one says ‘resist,’ and it’s just a beanie, but it’s pink, so the visual is still there.”

Conway works with older women, but it turns out they aren’t the only ones who don’t like the word.

“At first I was kind of repulsed by that word,” admits Amira Sabbagh, an actress who has also been knitting pussyhats. “‘Pussy.’ Really? I hate it; I shrink when I hear other people use it.”

“I felt the same way you did,” agrees Linda Boyle, who long co-owned a knitting shop in town. “And I feel like I’m a pretty liberal old lady, but it was just like, ugh, off-putting.”

You know, I understand, people are embarrassed–that’s their background,” says Kinkead.  “My mother would die if she knew I was saying that word in public.”

It’s an okay word. I’m taking it back just like African-American kids have taken back the the ‘n-word,’ and my LGBT friends have taken back the ‘queer’ word.

“My mom is making a pussyhat–she’s 82,” offers librarian Dana Duffy Backs.  “You know, 25, 30 years ago, I don’t think she would have been okay with the word, but seeing that women are fighting back–that’s what she’s more happy about than any word. So if young women are going to use the word and make a point, by God she’s going to follow right along with them.”

“I was at a bar, knitting my hat,” recalls Sabbagh, ‘”and someone looked over and asked, ‘What are you doing?’ and I said, ‘Oh, it’s a cat hat,’ and my friend nudged me and said, ‘Say it, use the term,’ and I said, ‘Well, it’s a pussy hat.’ And she had no problem with it at all. So, there’s a part of me that doesn’t want to offend anyone, and I don’t want to be nasty, but…”

“If you don’t want to use the word, don’t use it,” suggests Duffy Backs. “But the reason that the hat has the name, the reason that people are using the word, is to take the sting out of it.”

“It’s an okay word,” laughs Kinkead.  “I’m taking it back just like African-American kids have taken back the the ‘n-word,’ and my LGBT friends have taken back the ‘queer’ word.’

If you’re talking about women’s health care, you need to use these terms.

“When I talked to my daughter about it I said, ‘It’s alright that you’re offended by this word, and when it was used it was not used in a context of respect,’” explains Duffy Backs, “‘So you should be offended by that, but you gotta do something with that.’ And we thankfully have a whole cadre of symbols that we can use to fight back, and the word ‘pussy’ is one of them.”

Language is everything in this movement, agrees Conway–

Now, I don’t know why they can’t name their first house comfortably, but try to get a man to say ‘uterus’ out loud sometime. It’s so medieval. That’s where the Periods for Pence and Tampons for Trump [movements] on Facebook have really started upping the game as far as language is concerned. If you’re talking about women’s health care, you need to use these terms. The women’s breast cancer movement–now we can say ‘breast’ out loud. We need to be able to say things like ‘menstruation’ and ‘vagina’. We have to say all that stuff out loud, if we’re going to talk about women’s health care. You can’t use euphemisms.

Speaking openly about women’s bodies is just one form of expression these activists are using. Demonstrating in yarn is another way of using women’s language to lead, Conway asserts–

You know using the word ‘pussy,’ using the color pink, using the craft knitting, which is viewed as a women’s craft…one of the things that happened when the women’s movement started up in the 60s is that we made concessions in terms of how we would live in a man’s world. We started wearing suits. We took classes in how to be more manlike in meetings. We became men in heels in the boardroom. And women are different from men. We are different biologically. We do things differently. And we act differently and we approach situations differently, and we gave that up in the early days of the women’s movement. And we are now taking that back. What we’re saying is, ‘Yeah we wanna be pink, we wanna be knitters, and we are women. We don’t have to act like you. You still need to listen to us and we’re going to use our language and our metaphors and our culture and be proud of it.’  And this demonstration in DC and the marches across the country are basically an opportunity for men to learn our language.

What we’re saying is, ‘Yeah we wanna be pink, we wanna be knitters, and we are women. We don’t have to act like you. You still need to listen to us and we’re going to use our language and our metaphors and our culture and be proud of it.’

“If some parts of the media are uncomfortable talking about the pink pussyhats.” posits activist knitter Faith Hawkins, “and yet were not uncomfortable talking about what is really much more offensive–which was Donald Trump’s language and treatment of women–to me that would be very telling. So I love claiming it as a positive thing. And also being a little bit provocative, to say, ‘You don’t get to define us by that. But if you’re going to be in our face about it, we’re going to be in your face.’”

“I mean, they are pussy hats,” shrugs Conway.  “Get over it. You know?”

As provocative as the Pussyhat Project is, it also speaks in a more understated timbre that’s a natural extension of the movement’s origins in the knitting circle. While I’ve been interviewing the pussyhat makers, they’ve taken out their needles and are knitting away. Each time someone comments, her needles stop clacking. When you’re counting stitches, it’s hard to talk.

“When you’re knitting you have to listen,” Conway states. “Think about that for a minute.”

When you’re knitting, you have to listen.

“If you notice,” Kinkead says, “one of the reasons I like having a knitting group is because we do all sit around and you can listen.

It’s one of the reasons she teaches knitting to her elementary students

“We’re much better listeners when we have something in our hands,” she continues. “And I use that in my classroom too.”

“Getting to know people doesn’t take long in a knitting circle,” Conway notes, continuing–

I knit with a group–it’s men and women, actually–and I think the average age is probably 86. It’s a very interesting and diverse group, and the one thing they all have in common is fiber arts of some kind or another. They’re mostly knitters;  one guy cross-stitches; there’s a quilter in the group.  And we all get together on Mondays for an hour. And you talk about diversity of approach, of opinion, of taste, of class, of income level! And just to come together with that common bond and sort of see how that conversation goes and listen to it. You can learn a lot!

Merriam has had the same experience knitting in a group–

“You realize that you’re starting from commonality,” she says, “and then you’re talking about differences.”

 You know, a thousand-mile-journey begins with a single step, so maybe we begin with a single stitch.

But the metaphor, Hawkins suggests, does have its limits–

“Maybe knitting can bring us together, but I’m not that naïve. I think that the differences and the anger and the despair are probably going to take a long time. But you know, a thousand-mile-journey begins with a single step, so maybe we begin with a single stitch. And hundreds of thousands of pussy caps. I don’t know. I’d love to see that happen.”

Yaël Ksander

WFIU's Arts Desk Editor, Yaël seeks out and shepherds the stories of artists, musicians, writers, and other creative people. In addition, Yaël co-hosts A Moment of Science, writes essays for A Moment of Indiana History, produces Speak Your Mind (WFIU's guest editorial segment), hosts music and news hours throughout the week, and lends her voice to everything from accounting courses to nature documentaries. Yaël holds a MFA in painting from Indiana University, an MA in art history from Columbia University, and a BA from the University of Virginia, where she studied languages and literature.

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