Crafting Womanhood

As a women’s and gender studies professor, I am especially aware of my privilege in not having to think constantly about my gender. Because I fit most of the criteria of a typical white American woman, I never get questioned or called out on my gender expression, and so I’m free to focus on other aspects of my life, leaving this area relatively unexamined. There have been two times in my life when I thought consciously about my gender identity: the first time I had sex (“this is how it’s done?”) and when I gave birth to my first child (“this is what women do?”). With both of those experiences, I remember thinking to myself, “I’ve never really felt like a WOMAN, whatever that’s supposed to feel like, but many women do this, and so I guess I’m one of them.” And that was the end of that. Since both of these events, many years ago, I’ve been able to put the question of my “womanliness” on the back burner and instead teach about the history and politics of gender in the United States.

So you can imagine how my world was rocked last week when I unexpectedly had one of these “questioning my gender” moments. Never have I felt as unwomanly as I did when I stepped into a Jo-Ann’s Fabric and Craft Store for the first time. The bolts of brightly colored material; the rows of sequins and buttons; the piles of pattern books; it was as if every aisle screamed out at me: “You are an inadequate woman because you’ve never made a successful craft project in your life! In fact, you HATE crafts! What kind of a woman are you?”

A "sit-upon." (Shelby L. Phillips)
A “sit-upon.” (Shelby L. Phillips)

It’s true. I’ve avoided not only going into a fabric and crafts store, but I’ve also managed to escape making a single craft project since I bungled my sit-upon back in 2nd grade Brownies. Halloween took its toll on my children. I had two rules: don’t involve me in any costume that you make on your own, and I won’t spend money on a bought costume that won’t even fit you next year. I did consent, however, to buy them a prop, if needed. My lack of craftiness made them quite resourceful.

Princess pirate, 1994

One year my daughter pieced together this and that and went trick-or-treating as a “Princess Pirate.” She wore a dress with a fancy necklace, a tiara, a self-fashioned wand, a hook from a pirate game, and I completed her outfit by buying her an eye patch. We all agreed it was perfection. My son once went as a “Got Milk?” commercial: it involved a St. Louis Cardinals windbreaker that he already owned, a cardboard sign around his neck asking, “Got Milk?”, and I bought him some white face paint to make a “milk” mustache.


I’m not particularly proud of having no competency in this arena. I just wasn’t naturally inclined to it, nor did I have the time (or patience) to learn how to do any of it. I was busy being a college professor. I was writing articles and books. In fact, that’s what I used to tell my daughter when she complained that I wasn’t like so-and-so’s mother — one of those admirably womanly women who could whip up a Thomas the Tank Engine costume by hand at a moment’s notice.

So what in the world brought me to Jo-Ann’s after all these years? It was women’s suffrage that did it. I recently participated in a seminar called Reacting to the Past, an interactive and immersive approach to learning developed at Barnard College. Designed for the college classroom, each student receives a role that they stay in for several weeks, debating and playing out the logic and implications of critical episodes in the past, based on primary sources from the actual participants. This particular weekend seminar, meant to introduce and teach college professors how to use these simulations in their own classrooms, was all about Greenwich Village in 1913, and the debate revolved around women getting the vote. My character was a Vassar graduate and ardent suffragist. Wanting to get into the game (and receive extra points!) prompted me to go to Jo-Ann’s to get material to make a sash that said “Votes for Women.”

"Votes for Women"
“Votes for Women”

Sounds easy enough, right? But I became unnerved in the aisles: where was the satin? How was I going to figure out how much fabric to buy? How should I make the letters? And could I make sure that there was no actual sewing involved? Luckily there were plenty of “real” women at Jo-Ann’s that day. I explained my problem, and in no time, several master crafters were giving me advice on how to cut the satin so that it lay properly, how to keep the edges from fraying, and how to keep the Sharpie from bleeding. They couldn’t grasp entirely that this project was not all that important, though I tried to explain that after the weekend I was never going to need this sash again. By the time I left the store, I had a bit more confidence that I could do it.

Feminism. (Cross-stitch ninja/Flickr CC BY-NC-ND)
Feminism. (Cross-stitch ninja/Flickr CC BY-NC-ND)

It occurred to me driving home that the suffragists’ success in getting the vote for women was responsible both for bringing me into Jo-Ann’s and, ironically, for giving me the wherewithal not to have to rely on my needlecraft skills (as so many women worldwide must do) and to pursue my other talents. These activists accomplished remarkable feats, not only through their creative tactics in advancing suffrage, but also in supporting working-class women (like my own grandmother, for instance) forced by circumstance to sew piecework in horrible sweatshop conditions. But ultimately, these feminist forebears have given us options to move beyond the “separate spheres” of yesteryear; indeed, to question our gender identities and to push the “woman” envelope beyond what even they could have imagined.

Featured image: “Erdoğan Düğme” (Jorge Franganillo/Flickr Licensed CC BY)

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mami panzona

Great read. Thank you. Reminds me of sitting in church listening to the priest’s homily and twice he reinforced gender stereotype. The first comment slips my memory but the second comment went kinda like this: “Ask your mothers how hard it is to keep the house clean”. How does one blast a priest for encouraging gender insensitivity?


I think you’ve really nailed it when you talk about having a choice of whether or not to engage with traditional women’s crafts. I actually love many traditional crafts, but it’s only stuff I do because I feel like it. Many of us who enjoy shopping at Joanne’s know that we spend far more money buying appealing materials than we could possibly hope to save making things ourselves, even if we put zero value on the time we spent doing it. Another really interesting thing, to me, about doing some traditional crafts alongside some stereotypically “masculine” activities is that the spheres overlap a whole lot more than anyone has been letting on. How many people realize that crochet patterns are, in fact, code? When I first learned Basic, I thought, “ah, just like in the crochet books — follow this instruction until the asterisk, repeat until n=8, etc.” There might be a lot more coding grandmas around if we didn’t just assume that sewing and coding are entirely different. Another example: I coached my son’s robotics team this year, and in the check-boxes on the questionnaire at the beginning of the semester, it appeared I had no relevant STEM experience. Turns out, though, that if you have hands-on experience making and building stuff, even if it’s out of wood and fabric, you know a lot about construction. Will something balance? Will it hold together? Is that arm going to fall off? How much can you leverage with that amount of reinforcement? It would be ideal if women could choose crochet and/or coding, robotics and/or homemade Halloween costumes, and feel recognized and supported in all of those choices.

Sean Mary Ann Saunders

Did you know that the first coders were women? The task was at first understood to be little more than a clerical task that you could train your typists and secretaries to do. I just learned this recently.

Elizabeth Reis

Thanks, Lara. That’s a great analogy, and yes, I agree with you wholeheartedly about choice and respect!

Sean Mary Ann Saunders

I really enjoyed reading this, Elizabeth. As a trans woman who sews and who used to wonder a lot about what it felt like to know one was a woman or to know what it feels like to be a woman, this gave me some things to think about.

First, sewing: many years ago, when I was (being) a man, my partner used to tell me that I would be good at sewing because I was good at simple carpentry. She reasoned that, since I was a precise worker who measured and cut carefully, sewing would come easily. One day, then, she brought home her mother’s cast-off sewing machine for me, and it turned out she was absolutely right. I was good at sewing and I loved doing it. In ways that I could not possibly have imagined in advance, and which I won’t describe because it would take up too much space here, sewing led me to examine my gender identity much more deeply I had in the past (although I had always experienced gender dysphoria). This was part of what led me towards gender transition, although it certainly wasn’t the only factor. One of the best things anyone has ever said to me came from the wonderful psychologist who gave me my official “diagnosis”: “Well, you’re the first of my clients who sewed their own gender identity.”

As for knowing/feeling like one is a woman, I struggled with this for a long time. I knew I wasn’t a man, but didn’t feel like I could claim to be a woman either because I didn’t feel I had any objective way of knowing what that felt like. For a time, early in my gender transition, I identified myself as having a femme non-binary gender. Then, one day I had a realization consistent with your observations in your opening paragraph (which is why I’m writing all of this! 😉 ). For years, I had found it unbearable to be seen as a man, to be called a man, and be grouped with “the men,” etc. I eventually reached a point where I dreaded each day because I would be faced with all this. Just leaving the house required a supreme act of will. So I knew what it felt like to _hate_ belonging to a gender. By contrast, when I started presenting in a way that felt comfortable, and felt like myself, all the anxiety I had experienced around going out disappeared. Although I hadn’t officially claimed the status of “woman,” people would call me a woman, use feminine pronouns for me, etc. and my women friends would tell me that they were pretty sure I was a woman, whatever my misgivings might be. I was very comfortable with this, in ways that I had not felt even slightly comfortable being referred to in masculine terms. So my realization came in the form of some questions: “Is this what it feels like to belong to a gender? I certainly know what it feels like to NOT belong to a gender, and that feeling was awful. But this just feels comfortable, feels normal. Is that it? Is that all there is to it?” Of course, I started asking my women friends about this, and they more or less corroborated what I was thinking. After a few days of chewing this over I thought, yes, I must be woman. And that has made perfect sense to me even since.

Well, this was long. Thanks for a wonderful post.

Elizabeth Reis

Thank you so much for your thoughts, Sean Mary Ann Saunders. I teach a class on Transgender Issues, and I’d love to have my students read your comments. What you say makes perfect sense to me. Oh, and I also love the line by the psychologist about sewing your gender identity. It’s so apt!

Sean Mary Ann Saunders

If my comments are useful to you and your students, I’m very happy for you to share them. (I’m a university lecturer myself and, unsurprisingly, teach trans materials.)


I am a crafter at heart, so imagine my surprise when my recent craft project (making holiday wreaths with friends) left me with similar feeling of inadequacy.

This happened earlier this week, while debating the preferred arrangement of berries and craft bows on a wreath. As I twisted up a bow, using the first tutorial on YouTube I could find, the instructor said “if you follow me, you know I can’t stand bows, but you all keep asking for them…” Yes! I feel the same.

And for the first time ever, I completely understood the perspective of women that don’t like to craft. It is definitely charged with gender and inadequacy. I also don’t care for housework and prefer eating takeout over making meals. Thanks for the thoughts and the post!

Elizabeth Reis

OMG, your outfit puts my pathetic sash to shame! Thanks for sharing!

Stephanie Richmond

I stumbled across this courtesy of Knitting Clio, and I read it between grading papers with a half-knit sweater on my lap…so you know I come to this as a crafty academic. I’m working on a book chapter which examines charity bazaars and handcrafts as a facet of women’s reform efforts in the mid-nineteenth century and one of the things that has struck me while writing it is the shifting position of “crafts” in women’s lives depending on their social class and the developing idea of “leisure time” in western society. That many professional women either have rejected crafts (as you have), or hidden them as being frivolous, or indulge in them as a show of ostentatious display of wealth (both through expensive supplies and through the allocation of time) parallels the debates nineteenth century women had over the role of needlepoint, knitting and other crafts taught to young girls and carried out by middle-class and elite women as hobbies and working class women as a means of making money (I’m specifically thinking of Harriet Martineau and her transition from a dressmaker to a writer and created of embroidered goods for the antislavery movement as one example of how class affected the role of craft in women’s lives.) The shift in the current day to crafts being clearly divided by social class (there are very clear lines between different “types” of crafters by class status, even if the enjoy the same hobby), and the emphasis within the modern crafty/DIY movement on conspicuous consumption hidden behind a narrative of thriftiness (ever notice how all the DIY tutorials assume you have a well-stocked supply of power tools, glue guns and other craft supplies?) harkens back to the shift of textile production from a household necessity to a hobby pursued by women of leisure and the cultural debate around the morality of partaking in those hobbies.
Sorry for the book, thanks for the great blog post!

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