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Pussyhat as a mediating technology of organization

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter retraces the organizational capacity of the pussyhat. How did this object interrelate with other media and technologies in the making of the Women’s March? And how does it continue to do so as the Women’s March transforms itself from a singular event to a social movement? In answering these questions, emphasis is placed on the material quality of the pussyhat as a knitted object. As a social technology, knitting marks identity, establishes collective bonds, and offers opportunities for social change. The chapter explores the interweaving of these three socio-technical functions in charging the pussyhat with affective organizational force.

Keywords: pussyhat, knitting, Women’s March, social movement, feminist organizing, affective force

On 8 November 2016, the day Donald Trump was elected president, a woman from Hawaii posted a note in a Facebook forum, suggesting a march on Washington in response to the election. On 21 January 2017, the day after Trump’s inauguration, almost half a million people participated in the Women’s March on Washington (Figure 33.1), with millions more joining across the United States—and worldwide. In total, an estimated five million people took to the streets, and many of them wore pink knitted hats with characteristic pointy ears, so-called ‘pussyhats’. In just under three months what began as a social media post had arguably turned into a social movement, and the pussyhat had become one of the central organizing objects of this process.

The Women’s March on Washington was a spectacular sea of people dotted in pink, and the iconic pussyhat was worn by many protesters around the world as well. However, in Copenhagen, where I joined the march, it was not nearly as ubiquitous as in the march on Washington. Thus, it was only as images of the march and commentary on the hat began circulating in both traditional news media and on social media platforms that I became fully aware of the central role the hat had played in the organization of the march. Intrigued by its apparent affective force, I decided to follow the pussyhat’s pattern, literally and figuratively. Thus, I have knitted a pussyhat at the same time as I have explored the socio-cultural significance of knitting and knitwear, using both my practical experience with the specific knitted object and my encounter with the broader social trajectory of knitting as inroads to explaining the organizational force of the pussyhat in relation to the Women’s March.

This chapter retraces the organizational force of the pussyhat. How did this object interrelate with other media and technologies in the making of the Women’s March? And how does it continue to do so as the Women’s March transforms itself from a (p. 369) singular event to a social movement? In answering these questions, I will focus on the material quality of the pussyhat as a knitted object.1

Knitting as a Social Technology

Both knitted objects and the process of knitting are steeped in culture (Turney, 2009). First, knitted objects, e.g., sweaters, hats and scarves, are markers of social identity. Second, the activity of knitting offers occasions for social gathering and communion (Prigoda and McKenzie, 2007). Third, both the process and objects of knitting have been reappropriated for various purposes, e.g. social criticism and resistance, instigating a veritable ‘knitting revolution’ (Groeneveld, 2010). Fourth, the varying meanings of knitting are intimately connected with developments in and reconfigurations of the broader socio-cultural landscape of media and technologies. Most notably, the recent (p. 370) repurposing of knitting as a tool for social change would have been impossible without the advent of online communication, broadly speaking, and social media, more specifically (Pentney, 2008).

As an object, the pussyhat clearly draws its meaning potential from the third cultural dimension of knitting/knitwear, and as the centre of a social activity its organizing force is greatly enhanced by digital technology. Thus, these two features will form the core of my analytical engagement with the pussyhat, but I will briefly introduce all four.

Knitted Objects as Markers of Social Identity

Today, knitwear is often associated with tradition; hand-crafted objects made from patterns and using techniques that pertain to particular places and peoples. Such associations, however, are examples of the manufacture of culture: although knitting does have a long and intricate, albeit fragmented history (Wills, 2007: 6–7), most of the patterns and designs that we now think of as cultural icons are of fairly recent invention—they are prime exemplars of ‘the invention of tradition’ (Hobsbawm, 2012).

An extreme case in point is the Icelandic sweater, which dates back to the mid-twentieth century and was explicitly invented as a marker of social identity (Helgadottir, 2011). While popular from the outset, the sweater’s status as a national icon only became dyed-in-the-wool in the aftermath of the financial crisis (Helgadottir, 2011). Simultaneously, the sweater’s international repute has grown greatly as a side-effect of the rise of ‘Nordic noir’, with Sarah Lund, the be-sweatered protagonist of the hugely popular drama The Killing (Stougaard-Nielsen, 2016), as a main ambassador. Strictly speaking, Lund’s sweater is not even Icelandic, but a mix of various patterns with similar histories. Even so, it draws on and contributes to a broader narrative of ‘nostalgia for times and practices (knitting, family, warmth, neighbourliness, truth) which remain in the past, nearly lost and in need of revival’ (Turney, 2014: 29). Within this narrative, the Icelandic sweater (in a generalized Nordic sense) exists outside chronological time and, instead, is central to the mythology of life in a cold climate.

While some ‘traditional’ knitted objects can be traced further back than the Icelandic sweater, they do tend to be traceable. That is, rather than being ancient pieces of handicraft whose origins are lost in the fog of history, iconic knitted objects tend to be patterned socio-cultural fabrications. The Aran sweater is another case in point as is the British gansey (Gordon, 2010; Carden, 2017). In each instance, narratives of belonging are knitted into these objects with every stitch.

Knitting as a Social Activity

Just as the process of establishing associations between knitted objects and social identities is, in many cases, of quite recent design, so the currently dominant connotations of knitting as a social activity were not established as far back in time as one might think. This is, of course, not to say that knitting and knitwear were ever free of socio-cultural (p. 371) significance, but rather that the prevailing interpretation of them is a projection of present needs and desires onto the past: ‘As a craft, and specifically an ordinary or domestic craft, knitting communicates a tradition that is not only gendered but is also vernacular, providing evidence of peoples and places that appear distant to the industrial or post-industrial urban contemporary world’ (Turney, 2009: 45).

Today, then, the social activity of knitting is often perceived as traditional and traditionally feminine, as well as folksy. This perception, however, has emerged and gained force in step with the industrialization of knitting. That is, only when knitting was standardized and automated, did hand knitting move out of the sphere of practical necessity and into that of cultural symbolism. As the knitting industry was established around factories and/or distribution centres (Porac et al., 1989; Lazerson, 1993), hand knitting was put out of the practical loop—and became reconfigured as a harmless, but trivial way of keeping women occupied (McDonald, 1988).

When identified as a feminine and domestic activity (Turney, 2009: 11), knitting enters into a ‘violent hierarchy’ (Derrida, 1981: 41) with masculinity and the public sphere and, hence, is barred from the privileged domains of modernity (see Zundel, this volume). While such positioning may serve to marginalize knitting and knitters, it may also prove useful to those who want to provide an alternative to the currently dominant social order—whether in the form of a nostalgic return to/construction of tradition, as discussed in the previous section, or as a means of advocating social change, as will be discussed below.

Pussyhat as a mediating technology of organization

Figure 33.2 Knitting

(Photo by author)

Never a talented knitter, I had not laid hand on yarn and needles for more than twenty-five years when I decided to embark on the pussyhat project (Figure 33.2). Fortunately, there are plenty of patterns of the hat out there, complete with YouTube video instructions, and I thought knitting would prove to be like biking once I got the needles going. This assumption proved partially right, but only after I had overcome an initial obstacle; the current American way of casting on and looping the stitches turned out to be rather different from the one I learned in Denmark as a child. Faced with this fact, and unable to decipher the American codes no matter how pedagogically delivered, I had no other (p. 372) option than to ask my mother for help. An enthusiastic knitter herself, Mom was more than happy to help me get my knitting in gear. Even if she was a bit puzzled by the concept of a pussyhat (she had not heard of it before I made my request), she was thrilled that I was taking up knitting again. And, as it turned out, my hands did remember the old loops even as my mind was still in some sort of denial of the memory. With some hesitance, then, I settled into the process of knitting the pussyhat.

Knitting and Knitted Objects as Technologies of Change

Feminists have variously viewed knitting as an oppressive technology aimed at keeping women out of the loops of economic and political power, an expression of genuine feminine identity and sociality that offers an alternative to and reprieve from the bustling world, and as a subversive tool for criticizing and altering social norms and structures (Turney, 2009: 9–11). The first of these positions lashes out at the social activity of knitting, as established above, while the second seeks to recuperate and revalue this activity. The third, which will be unfolded in this section, both sees positive value in knitting and criticizes those who espouse its ‘traditional’ feminine values (Dirix, 2014; Kelly, 2014). Here, knitting becomes a technology of change by engaging creatively with and offering playful alternatives to dominant interpretations of the objects and practices of knitting rather than being either directly opposed to or engaged in positive revaluations of these (Groeneveld, 2010; Myzelev, 2009).

The use of knitting and knitted objects as technologies of change has thrived alongside a popular cultural revival of knitting that goes beyond the nostalgic turn to an imagined past to also posit knitting as a hip or trendy thing to do as, for instance, evidenced by the phenomenon of ‘celebrity knitting’ (Parkins, 2004). Thus, knitting is becoming a multifaceted practice as it is both reinterpreted within mainstream social contexts and reappropriated by individuals and organizations who seek to challenge social norms. Examples of the latter include explicitly third-wave feminist groups and projects that seek to unravel and reshape social norms by using dominant markers, e.g., knitting, in creative and productive ways: ‘Reclamation in this arena does not simply recreate these traditional art forms but rather uses historically undervalued means of artistic expression to discuss very contemporary issues in fresh new ways’ (Chansky, 2010: 682).

Similarly, men have taken up knitting as a means of challenging gender stereotypes (Kelly, 2014: 135). While this can be a personal project for the individual male knitter, it can also be an explicitly activist public practice as is the case of the ‘hombres tejedores’ of Chile—a group of men who take to knitting in public places so as to advocate a more inclusive and tolerant society (Ventas, 2016). In the same vein, some groups that organize knit-ins or define themselves as knitting circles have moved beyond playfully messing about with the social norms and codes of knitting in order to reclaim it as a more radical, perhaps outright revolutionary, technology of social change. In this latter regard, ‘where knitting succeeds is in crossing boundaries of age, gender, ethnicity, class and politics. Its fluidity and its community nature, its encouragement of interpersonal (p. 373) connection and conversation are all the basis of a quiet, slow, revolutionary movement’ (Robertson, 2007: 220).

While some focus on a—more or less radical—reinterpretation of the social activity of knitting, others use knitted objects to make political statements. Most conspicuously, this latter practice takes the form of yarn bombing; i.e., knitted interventions in public places, e.g. covering trees, buildings, bridges, and so on in knitwear. Yarn bombing is sometimes explicitly political, e.g. forming part of protests and other interventions, but more often than not this use of knitwear is deviously playful and conspicuously open-ended; aimed, first and foremost, at re-enchanting the mundane and only secondarily at promoting one specific message or another (Goggin, 2015).

Other activist uses of knitted objects include the making of blankets, scarves, and other items to mark particular occasions, forward specific messages, and/or as gifts for those in need of clothing and comfort (Newmeyer, 2008; O’Donald et al., 2010). Further, some activists seek to combine the processes and products of knitting for maximum impact (Robertson, 2007; Stops, 2014). Whether focused on the knitted object or including the process of knitting as well, such activist initiatives offer more specific and specifically readable messages than the more spectacular, but also less easily decipherable displays of yarn bombing (but see Baldini and Pietrucci, 2016 for an example of how yarn bombing can also be used for specific activist purposes). What unites all these recent activities and objects, however, is how digital technologies of communication are used to bring knitters together and to circulate knitting in and to broader publics.

Interweaving Knitting and Other Social Technologies

Just as the industrial revolution relegated hand knitting to the realm of domestic leisure (Wills, 2007: 9), so the digital revolution is instrumental to the rediscovery and repurposing of knitting and knitwear. Web 2.0 technologies enhance the visibility of activities that were previously relegated to the private realm, thereby promoting and reshaping the sociality and practice of knitting and other material crafts (Orton-Johnson, 2014). For instance, knitting circles need no longer meet in specific physical locations, but can be entirely virtual places of gathering. And even when there is an offline dimension to the new knitting communities, social media facilitate the organization of these—as is particularly important when moving beyond small and close-knit groups. New communication technologies, then, have enabled a reinvigoration of knitting communities, but they have also patterned the many other ways in which knitters are now putting their craft to activist use (Pentney, 2008).

Further, new media technologies not only help organize knitters—whether for politically activist or purely social purposes. Knitted objects are also receiving increased attention as they circulate online. While new technological affordances have facilitated a renaissance of knitting that is ‘truly unprecedented and remarkably different’ (Wills, 2007: 5), knitting (and other traditional crafts) has also proven to be truly versatile and to interconnect remarkably well with broader social trends and transformations. Thus, knitting has become an integral part of the wild and messy weave of emergent (p. 374) forms of political activism, characterized by playful repurposing, intertextual references, memetic circulation, and performed ‘by any media necessary’ (Jenkins et al., 2016).

The Organizing Force of the Pussyhat

The Pussyhat Project was launched in late November 2016 with the express purpose of creating a ‘sea of pink’ at the Women’s March. The founders of the project present the hat as ‘a symbol of support for women’s rights and resistance’ (Pussyhat Project, n.d.). The symbolism combines three elements—the colour pink, the term ‘pussy’, and the craft of knitting—each of which is reclaimed and repurposed in order to endow the acts of knitting and wearing the hat with power. First, ‘pink is considered a very female colour representing caring, compassion, and love—all qualities that have been derided as weak, but which are actually STRONG’ (Pussyhat Project, 2016, capitals in original). Second, the satirical reference to Donald Trump’s infamous comment about being able to ‘grab them by the pussy’, aims to ‘reclaim the term [pussy] as a means of empowerment’ (Pussyhat Project, 2016). Third, the project celebrates ‘women’s crafts’; and, more particularly, seeks to recast knitting circles as ‘powerful gatherings of women, a safe space to talk, a place where women support women’ (Pussyhat Project, 2016). The project, then, is explicitly feminine, but also explicitly feminist in its strategy of turning dominant, stereotypical, and/or denigratory understandings of ‘the feminine’ upside down so as to empower women. Further, the project relies on the affordances of social media to establish communities and circulate messages. More specifically, a community of knitters and wearers of the hat was created; here, the former provided the latter with the material means of representing them at the march. Of course, some knitted and wore the hat, but many knitters who could not themselves attend the march ensured that non-knitters had hats to wear—and the Pussyhat Project provided the impetus and infrastructure for this exchange (Pussyhat Project, n.d.).

Thus, the Pussyhat Project draws directly on a Web 2.0-facilitated recasting of knitting as a feminist project, as presented above, in order to establish both the making and wearing of the hat as powerful acts of resistance. In the context of the Women’s March this proved to be an effective organizing strategy as the sheer number of pussyhats worn at the march indicates, and as is evident from the amount of attention given to the hat both before and after the march. As knitters around the world joined forces to ensure that everyone who wanted to wear a pussyhat at the Women’s March might do so, the project established itself as ‘a global group of loose-knit activists’ (BBC, 2016). And it has subsequently sought to apply the affective force of the moment to the construction of a more stable organizational base for the women’s rights movement.

Pussyhat as a mediating technology of organization

Figure 33.3 Pussyhat

(Photo by author)

While knitting the pussyhat, two strands of thought got entangled in my mind. One was: ‘I really don’t like knitting’. The other: ‘How strange to be a part of this’. Of course, my engagement with the Pussyhat Project was a reconstruction, removed in space and time (p. 375) from the Women’s March and, hence, what I felt in the process of knitting may not reflect the feelings of any other knitters of the object. Yet I did, even as I sat alone with my knitting, feel the pull of community, the desire to take part. I wondered what those thousands of women felt as they prepared for the march, knitting hats for themselves and for others, putting them on and taking to the streets. A great sense of solidarity must have swelled and surged through the crowds that day. As, indeed, it did in Copenhagen with not nearly as many pussyhats in the mix. Here, those of us not wearing pussyhats smiled appreciatively at those who did. My retrospective knitting, however, gave more pause for reflection and concern than opportunity to relive those exuberant moments. The making of the hat was accompanied by readings on not only the Women’s March, but also on activist knitting, and in the process, I become ever more convinced of the activist potential of crafting, but also more and more aware of the limitations of the pussyhat for organizing a feminist movement. As I put the finishing stitches to my pussyhat (Figure 33.3), I knew I would not continue the intimate association with this object that making it had been—I will neither wear it nor give it away.

From March to Movement?

There is widespread recognition of the role of the pussyhat in organizing the Women’s March; indeed, it became a central symbol or ‘totem’ around which the march gathered momentum (Davis, 2017). Further, the hat may be part of the continued organization of a social movement. Indeed, the 8 February 2016 issue of Time Magazine suggests as much; here, the cover story that ran under the headline of ‘The Resistance Rises’, (p. 376) illustrated with a picture of a single pink pussyhat casting a long shadow on a blank white background, queried the very issue of ‘how a march becomes a movement’.

The organizers of the Pussyhat Project also espouse the continued role of their invention. Claiming that the hat has ‘grown into a symbol of support and solidarity for women’s rights around the globe’ (Pussyhat Project, n.d.), they encourage people to keep knitting and wearing it—both as acts of everyday resistance and for special occasions like International Women’s Day. In this respect, social media continue to be used as a means of not only joining knitters and wearers together, but also—and increasingly—of spreading the image and, hence, the message of the pussyhat.

This very message, however, is not uncontested. To the contrary, the hat has received severe criticism—and the harshest critique has been raised from within the movement that the Pussyhat Project has helped organize. Here, the main issue is the interpellation of the hat; identifying women with their genitalia may have been an effective ploy in the specific context of Trump resistance, but as an organizing force it interpellates a certain subject position from which some people are excluded (not all women have pussies, not all pussies are pink) and into which other people are included against their will (not all people with pussies are women). In short, the pussyhat has been called out as a symbol of transphobia and racism (Kozol, 2017; Rachel, 2017). And even if one does not want to take this argument all the way, the essentialism of the Pussyhat Project’s notions of femininity and solidarity may still be questioned (Livingstone, 2017).

In sum, the organizing force of the pussyhat springs from the tensions between the object itself and the movement it purports to represent. Being an affective force, the power of the pussyhat is neither fully articulated nor articulable, but grips everyone it touches (Pedwell, 2014; Pullen et al., 2017). As such, the ‘sea of pink’ at the Women’s March was truly spectacular; moving participants and onlookers alike. But the pussyhat may turn out to have been more of the moment than the movement. Insofar as its meaning stabilizes, it also loses affective momentum. Thus, the hat now more clearly demarcates a particular position within the broader movement—it is becoming an object that draws boundaries rather than a boundary object (Star, 2010). One indication of the unravelling of the organizing force of the pussyhat is that while Women’s March organizers and activists were coming together under the label of ‘intersectional feminism’ in preparation for the US midterm elections in 2018 (Women’s Convention, n.d.), pussyhats were being solicited for art projects and put in museums (Pussyhat Project n.d.; Brooks, 2017; Jones, 2017).

The relation between the pussyhat and the Women’s March, then, may be said to have moved from an unspecified affective flow to a more specific emotional bond. Whereas the hat was definitely central to the initial success of the march, it is now a divisive sign that some women may identify with, but which others feel alienated by. Going forward, advocates of intersectional feminism may seek to detach the pussyhat from the broader social movement they aim to build.

Nevertheless, the story of the pussyhat remains interesting for what it may teach us of the use of symbolism within feminist organizing and social movements and as an illustration of the interlinkages between ‘old’ and ‘new’ technologies and social formations. (p. 377) The pussyhat connects back to identities and activities traditionally associated with knitting and women’s crafts, in general, but also links up with current affairs and new media. It is, in this sense, one specific element in a dynamic socio-technical assemblage, and we may only begin to understand the configuration of the whole by studying the movements and relations of each part (Pierides and Woodman, 2012; Müller, 2015).

Thus, one methodological implication of seeking to understand the organizing force of the pussyhat is that we should pay attention to how craft and crafting matter for organizations—we should turn to objects in use (Gajjala, 2013). A further implication, and one more closely related to the specific materiality of the hat, is that we should focus more on the making of objects (Jungnickel and Hjorth, 2014). Finally, the interrelations of traditional crafts and new technologies provide alternative avenues for research (McLean et al., 2017). In the case of the pussyhat, this object came to signify and organize in various ways because of how it related to other objects, technologies, and forces, but in following these trajectories we should not lose sight of its specifics as a hand-knitted object; one that demands time and effort on the part of its maker—and one that invites alternative research methodologies (Rippin, 2017).

In this chapter, I have juxtaposed the practical process of knitting the hat with the intellectual endeavour of understanding knitting as a social technology, thereby seeking to feel and grasp the affective force of the pussyhat for organizing the moment and the movement of the Women’s March. Other—and more radical—methodologies are surely needed if we are to engage more deeply with organizing ‘in the making’.

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                                                                                          Notes:

                                                                                          (1) Some pussyhats are crocheted and others, indeed, sewn from woven materials, but I focus on knitting as the most common practice and take it to be (at least partially) representative of the pussyhat’s other modalities.