Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Writing and Sewing - Women's work then and now

In her beautiful work, Pens and Needles: Women's Textualities in Early Modern England, Susan Frye writes about the instabilities of gender constructions and how women in early modern England created much of their own identity as they worked with textiles and with text. Some of her book re-evaluates some of the misconceptions held by many today. She writes,

“The first misconception is that only women were associated with the needle and only men with the pen—a misconception held despite repeated attempts to complicate this binary by scholars as well as by early modern people themselves. The second misconception is that the needle was only associated with drudgery, while the pen was only associated with intellectual work.
To a certain extent the needle represented women’s obedience to a rigid insistence on sexual difference, but it is an unstable signifier and, as an object, it is small but phallic, penetrating as well as penetrable, conveying activity, even violence as well as creativity. The needle conveys the potential for active, thinking feminine, without precluding women’s use of the pen in paintings like Alice Barnham and her Sons Martin and Steven” (16).

She then discusses this remarkable painting and the stories it can tell about women's agency with a pen as well as with the more traditionally accepted needle, and it strikes me that this semester Linden and I are sewing and creating work with our hands, but also writing. We get to use these two expressions of feminized power together, to put on a play. And tonight as I'm typing up quotations for a social history paper, all this seems beautiful and serendipitous, and much like a gift.   

For more on the painting:

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