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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
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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.
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