Knitting for Power

Pink Pussyhats as women’s activism

Women’s March, Wash. D.C., January 2017

It didn’t take too long after the second Women’s March in January 2018 for critics to repeat the claim that the pink knitted hats worn by marchers were racist and/or transphobic.

Starting from the assumption that the hats were literal symbols of female genitalia — not all of which are pink in color — critics viewed the marchers’ mass adoption of the hats as a sign that the word “women” (in “Women’s March”) really meant “only white, biological females.”

They also claimed that the organization of women’s activism around such a symbol intentionally excludes transwomen who, by definition, are not born with female-typical genitals. Infighting among Progressives is like catnip for conservatives, and their websites reveled in boosting these critiques. This alone should have raised suspicions about the veracity of naysayers’ claims.

Some background: in October 2016, the Washington Post reported the existence of a hot-mic recording of Donald Trump bragging about groping women, saying his celebrity status enabled him to “grab ’em by the pussy.”

In other words, he bragged about sexually assaulting women with impunity.

There was strong and immediate blow-back across the political spectrum. Women started sharing personal experiences of rape and sexual assault on social media. The hashtag #PussyGrabsBack emerged on Twitter to rally female voters to vote for Hillary Clinton in the November 2016 presidential election. Almost immediately, that hashtag was accompanied by the image of a snarling cat, which was then reproduced on hats, posters, and t-shirts.

Pussy Grabs Back Twitter meme

Presumably, this reclamation of the word “pussy” (as slang for felines) explains the shape of the hats worn at the first Women’s March in January 2017 — a hot-pink, knitted beanie with two pointed ears. Thankfully, we don’t have to guess.

The Pussyhat Project’s website describes the original intent of the pink Pussyhats: to create a collective visual statement by wearing hats of a similar color; to provide those who could not attend an opportunity to be present (by knitting a hat for marchers); to allow for individual creativity within a mass action; and, finally, through wordplay, to reclaim the word “pussy” as a term of women’s empowerment.

Homepage, Pussyhat Project

Despite critics’ claims, from its conception the Pussyhat was never intended as a literal representation or symbol of female genitalia — a vulva or vagina. (That position would seem to be supported by the hats’ material form: in my admittedly inexpert experience, vulvas and vaginas tend not to have two pointed ears…)

Personally, I find the Pussyhats to be a brilliant, multi-layered example of material culture in the service of social justice activism. From their name, to their color, material, and method of manufacture, Pussyhats take things that have been historically denigrated as cute, feminine, or “less than” and transform them into powerful sartorial symbols of women’s agency and political power.

They are part of a long history of women’s textile arts as political activism: American colonial women ramping up homespun linen production during the Revolution; antebellum women raising money for abolitionist work through the sale of handcrafts; early-twentieth century suffragists embroidering parade banners; and feminist fiber arts of the 1960s and 70s.

Image for post
Image for post
Needlework sampler, ca. 1820–1855. Colonial Williamsburg (acc. #1990–222)

The Pussyhats’ use of (an eye-watering shade of) pink, in the context of women’s political activism, undermines that color’s association with passive femininity and highlights the arbitrariness of these kinds of gender stereotypes: the color pink didn’t become associated with femininity until the early 20th century. (Previously it was associated with masculinity.)

And while the needle arts have been dismissed as mere “craft” (not “art”), knitting, sewing, crocheting, and quilting groups have long offered a space for girls and women to build solidarity, share knowledge, provide support, and empower others. They were simultaneously industrial, social, and political spaces.

I’m particularly impressed by the Pussyhats’ clever exploitation of the word “pussy.” Although cats can be playful and cuddly, felines (of all kinds) are apex predators who nap comfortably at the top of their respective food chains. From the vantage point of their prey, these kinds of “pussies” are dangerous and terrifying killing machines. When the word “pussy” is re-appropriated by women activists, it promises certain retribution to politicians who casually brag about sexual assault.

Felines are apex predators at the top of their respective food chains.

But, ultimately, the pink Pussyhat is not singular but multiple. Photos from the Women’s Marches show the Pussyhat taking many forms — a very few literally representing female genitalia; most very clearly feline in shape. And, like all cultural artifacts, the meaning of the Pussyhats is subject to interpretation. Different people will view them differently.

The Pussyhat Project does not get to determine how we should view them. And some people of color do find them racist and some transgender people do see them as transphobic. Neither their creators, wearers, or observers will exhaust the “meaning” of the Pussyhat. That’s how culture (and cultural interpretation) works.

But, while everyone is entitled to their own interpretation, not all interpretations are equally supported by the facts.

If critics’ claims about the Pussyhats are correct, then their ubiquity at the two Women’s Marches indicates a collective expression of racism and transphobia. And that’s difficult to believe, given the Marches’ geographically- and organizationally-decentralized nature, and the number of people of color and transgender people who attended. Racism and transphobia are real problems; I’m just not sure the Pussyhats are the most egregious offenders. The Pussyhat Project founders, for their part, seem to have taken criticism to heart and addressed it.

As George Lakoff is fond of reminding us, symbols and metaphors matter in politics, perhaps even more than words. And the Pussyhat (as a popular political symbol) deserves due consideration. But the current U.S. president and his minions are engaged in a concerted effort to rollback a generation of civil rights gains in areas of law, education, healthcare, the military, and employment.

Many of these efforts specifically target transgender people and people of color. Likely connected to these efforts are a massive increase in reports of violence against LGBT people since Trump’s inauguration and, for the first time, a decline in public acceptance of LGBT people.

I wonder, just now, if we don’t have bigger problems than well-intended (if imperfect) pink knitted hats?

Women’s March-er wearing knitted pink pussyhat

If you liked this story, please share it on Twitter or Facebook! It means the world to writers to know their work’s being read!

Michael J. Murphy, PhD, is Associate Professor of Gender & Sexuality Studies at the University of Illinois Springfield. He is the author of many book chapters, and encyclopedia and journal articles. Most recently, he edited Living Out Loud: An Introduction to LGBTQ History, Society, and Culture (New York: Routledge, 2019). He tweets @emjaymurphee.

Professional homosexual. Professor. Writer. Scholar. Activist. Husband.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store