Pink Cat-Ear Hats, Knitted Solidarity, and Women’s Rights

By Meaghan Charlton

Pink, cat-ear hats emerged as the symbol of the Women’s March on Washington through the Pussyhat Project.  In response, some have suggested that the pink hats might be a goofy distraction to the women’s rights movement or a visual that problematically reduces femininity to biological characteristics. However, approaching the pink hat initiative from this angle neglects to recognize knitting’s long-standing deployment as a social movement and solidarity-building tactic, , its inclusivity of disabled, caretaker, and LGBTQ populations, and the reclaiming function the pink hat project embodies.

My fieldwork in yarn stores and with knitters, along with long-standing scholarship on social movements and collective crafting (“craftivism”), reveal how the pink hat initiative may broaden an emergent social movement beyond traditional modes of participation. Social movements literature has largely focused upon public action. Scholars have argued that the structure and opportunities, as well as the framing of public social movements matter (McAdam, McCarthy, Zald 1996; Goffman 1974; Simmons 2016). Perhaps unknowingly, these scholars reinforce an Arendtian understanding that public action (praxis) is the way of living a political life (Arendt 1958). Such scholarship examines ruptural action, including lobbying, court proceedings, sit-ins, and street protests. By only researching public participation, scholars reinforce the idea that politics requires visible performance. What one does in private then is not considered political.

However, by retaining this Arendtian binary between the public and private, the political and non-political, social movements scholars overlook participation that is indeed political and contentious, yet invisible. If scholars understand social movements as political performances and seek to understand what structures political movements, then aspects of the Pussyhat movement suggest that political science must also look at personal activities as political forms of action. Following Roger Petersen (2002), participation lies on a spectrum, with varying levels of involvement. Individuals switch between these levels based upon their fluid preferences, complex emotions, and identifications. For the women’s rights movement, knitting is one form of invisible participation, while a non-knitting protester is a mode of visible participation. Evaluating multiple levels, we see that private initiatives also provide resources to movements. Although often invisible, personal contributions are also forms of contentious participation, and even provide the backbone for public performances.

My initial fieldwork has found that the Pussyhat campaign’s focus on individual-level crafting allows those who cannot physically attend marches to participate. Participants cite multiple reasons for partaking, including immigration status, illness, disabilities, family and work obligations, distance, or personality type. For these individuals, knitting fulfills the desperation to participate in some form, at some level.

The Project’s inclusive mission runs counter to critiques claiming it is exclusionary of the LGBTQ community. The co-founders in fact adopted the tactic because it allows anyone to participate at different levels and affords individuals a low-cost, low-risk outlet. The hats as a symbol do actively work to reclaim the term “pussy” from its usage by the President-elect, and in so doing introduce an embedded linguistic activism. However, the knitting campaign does not actively center a biological understanding of women. Communal knitting is a site of unifying individuals of all identifications. Project organizers encourage participants to use their pattern as a blueprint, but afford individuals liberty over their creativity and the symbolism their hat embodies. Each hat is shipped with a label on which the crafter writes an “issue they care about.” Amongst this individuality, the grassroots movement is nonetheless able to find unity around human rights.

Because the craft is accessible and has an existing global base, knitting as a tactical choice accelerated the movement’s momentum. Launching only the day after Thanksgiving out of L.A., the grassroots project relied heavily upon social media to spread the word with the hashtag #pussyhatproject. The Project capitalized upon the millennial generation’s use of social media and return to crafts once performed by older generations as a means to an end. Once taught in home economics class, knitting can now be leisurely learned online. E-craft shops like Etsy, local yarn shops, and social media outlets like Instagram provide otherwise detached individuals with outlets for inspiration and collaboration.

Inspired to participate, individuals flocked to local yarn shops for pink yarn, and groups nationwide held “knit-alongs” and “stitch n’ bitches.” While knitting groups have been decried as gossip circles, interpersonal connections between knitters actually facilitated information sharing and produced movement solidarity. Some shops even partnered with the Project as distribution sites. As people knitted and posted their hats online, the Project transnationally mobilized knitters into a political base within a two-month period.

Since there is already a global knitting network, and the craft is easily taught and learned, it becomes clear why the women’s movement embraced knitting as a political tactic: knitting is easily reproducible and sustainable transnationally. The initiative intersects with a history of humanitarian knitting campaigns and thus, for some, knitting was already a familiar mode of participation. Knitting groups that previously contributed to knitting drives for refugees and homeless populations also shipped hats to the Project.

As a mode of participation, knitting does not require physical protest. However, it nonetheless fulfills individuals’ desire to participate while having low start-up costs and associated risks. Scholars must afford more attention to everyday practices and individual-level activities that precede and outlive ruptural acts. These practices also help structure and reproduce emergent social movements.

 

Meaghan Charlton is a third-year PhD Candidate in Political Science at Johns Hopkins University, working with Dr. Sarah Parkinson and Dr. Erin Chung. Her research focuses on transnational grassroots movements, organizations, and networks, and pays special attention to refugee-aid and far-right organizations in Europe. She can be reached via email at mcharlt2@jhu.edu.

 

Works Cited

Arendt, Hannah. The human condition. University of Chicago Press, 2013.

Goffman, Erving. Frame analysis: An essay on the organization of experience. Harvard          University Press, 1974.

Malkki, Liisa H. The need to help: the domestic arts of international humanitarianism. Duke University Press, 2015.

McAdam, Doug, John D. McCarthy, and Mayer N. Zald. Comparative perspectives on social           movements: Political opportunities, mobilizing structures, and cultural framings. Cambridge University Press, 1996.

Petersen, Roger D. Resistance and Rebellion, Lessons from Eastern Europe. Cambridge:                  Cambridge University Press, 2001.

Petersen, Roger D. Understanding Ethnic Violence, Fear, Hatred, and Resentment in                           Twentieth-Century Eastern Europe. Cambridge: Cambridge, Cambridge University                   Press, 2002.

Simmons, Erica S. Meaningful Resistance: Market Reforms and the Roots of Social Protest in Latin America. Cambridge University Press, 2016.

#APSA2016 Twitter Analysis

By Eric C. Vorst

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The 2016 American Political Science Association annual meeting in Philadelphia was a great place to highlight new research, to learn from our peers, and to make new professional connections. It also provided an exciting opportunity to gain new insight into how networks of discussion evolve in real time over the duration of a major academic conference. Data mining software, content analysis, and social network visualization tools were used to observe how communities of discussion evolved as the conference unfolded, to identify the emergence of key themes, and to map the extent to which these themes reached different communities within the network.  Ultimately, this project helps to provide a unique insight into what political scientists talk about during a political science convention.

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Empathy as a Method for Understanding Why 53% of White Women Voters Voted for Trump

By William J. Kelleher

Several recent news articles, including one from The New York Times and The Atlantic, offer up an explanation for why 53% of white women voters voted for Donald Trump, despite the disrespect he has shown for women, particularly white women. For example, The New York Times article presents political scientist Kathleen Dolan’s explanation of this political behavior. That explanation can be stated in the form of this syllogism:

Empirical studies show that

  • A) voters generally tend to vote according to their party identification, and that
  • B) a majority of white women identify with the Republican Party;
  • C) therefore, a majority of white women voted for Trump rather than Clinton.

This “explanation” has the virtue of being relatively straight forward insofar as it consists of explicit inferences drawn from accepted facts. But I’m not satisfied with the explanation given. The implication that party ID caused the voting results seems overly mechanistic, shallow, and insufficient. I still want to know why so many white women voters voted for Donald Trump.

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Civil Rights Advocacy and Unsupportive White Attitudes: Lessons from World War II

By Steven White

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Civil rights advocates frequently work in the context of unfavorable public opinion among white Americans. For example, attitudes towards the Black Lives Matter movement remain strikingly racially polarized, with whites generally much less supportive of the movement than African Americans, even in the presence of video evidence of police misconduct. Such attitudes can be difficult to change. What, then, does it take to radically alter white racial attitudes? And what might civil rights advocates do if negative white attitudes toward the Black Lives Matter movement remain unchanged?

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Rejecting ‘Nationality Swapping’ and ‘Imposter-Children’ in Refugee Politics

By Stephanie J. Silverman

This month saw France violently demolish the migrant settlement known as The Jungle. Situated on the shores of Calais, facing the Cliffs of Dover, the camp had become home to between 7,000 – 10,000 mostly African, Middle Eastern, and Southern Asian people, including men, women, families, and unaccompanied children. Despite its being physically wiped away, The Jungle remains a symbol of Europe’s failure to deal humanely with African and Middle Eastern asylum seekers.

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“The Emperor Has No Balls”: Virility, Masculinity, and the American Presidency

By Meredith Conroy and Caroline Heldman

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Two weeks ago, the guerilla art collective Indecline unveiled a series of statues featuring a naked Donald Trump in New York City, Cleveland, San Francisco, Los Angeles, and Seattle. Indecline entitled the installation “The Emperor Has No Balls” in reference to Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Emperor’s New Clothes.” Andersen’s parable is about a vain emperor who is duped into parading around naked by two weavers who convince the leader his suit is only invisible to those who are incompetent or unfit for their positions. No one dares to call out the naked emperor until a child cries out that he has no clothes.

A multitude of meanings could be drawn from the statue, and many have already criticized the Indecline installation for being fat shaming and transphobic. Our critique lies in the most obvious of Indecline’s statements—an assault on Trump’s masculinity. The artist created statues with no balls and a very small penis; a trimming of Trump’s “manhood.”

The problem with this seemingly radical installation is the underlying theme that feminized men are less fit to lead. That Trump is without his balls unwittingly elevates masculinity in the presidential contest at the expense of femininity. This is certainly not the first time this message has circulated in presidential politics, and these messages incentivize both men and women to take on more masculine behaviors and positions, which limit political diversity and representation.

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Unruly bodies: My life as an academic with disabilities

The fourth post in this series, curated by the WPSA Committee on the Status of Women in the Profession, is a window into how personal health issues and disabilities influence the understanding of, and approaches to, academic success and failure. Other posts in this series are listed below.  If these topics are of interest to you the short course on this topic, Unlocking Success with Failure, at the APSA conference in Philadelphia is underway. If you are interested in contributing to analyzing successes and failures in the academy, we invite you to propose a roundtable, paper, or session to the Critical Perspectives on the Academy section of the WPSA conference, which will be from April 13-15 in Vancouver, British Columbia. Participation requests are due September 18th.

By Ellen Ann Andersen

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Based on some commonly used markers, I am an academic success story. I have a tenured position at a university I am pleased to call home and I live in an area of the country I adore. I’ve made a name for myself in my areas of research; my teaching is closely aligned with my research interests. My wife and I teach at the same university and have done so for nearly twenty years. I have also been able to secure academic positions at universities with extraordinary medical facilities and excellent health plans. I’m extremely aware of how lucky I am in all these respects.

At the same time, as my university has increasingly come to define success primarily via scholarly output—which necessarily devalues teaching and service—the temptation to see myself as a failure is all but overwhelming. You see, my capacity to engage in sustained research and writing waxes and wanes with the vagaries of my health, and my health has a wicked sense of humor. I am what might be termed a medically complicated person. My body is like a Russian-nesting doll: health problems layered on top of health problems. I came to graduate school with a mobility impairment and a progressive neuromuscular disease. Working around my body’s limitations was fairly easy at that point. And, in fact, the professoriate can be a terrific place to work for someone with either (or both) of those conditions. Our work isn’t physically strenuous; we work with our minds far more than our muscles.

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