Crafting Womanhood

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)

Elizabeth Reis is a professor of gender and bioethics at the Macaulay Honors College at the City University of New York. She is the author of Bodies in Doubt: An American History of Intersex, which was recently published in a 2nd edition, and Damned Women: Sinners and Witches in Puritan New England. She is also the editor of American Sexual Histories: A Social and Cultural History Reader.