The feminist movement has a problem but pink hats aren’t it

Abigail Gray Swartz' art for The New Yorker cover February 6 2017 honours "Rosie the Riveter", intersectional feminism, and the Pussyhat Project.
Abigail Gray Swartz’ art for The New Yorker cover February 6 2017 honours “Rosie the Riveter”, intersectional feminism, and the Pussyhat Project.

The Women’s March on Washington on January 21st and its hundreds of sister marches around the world broke all precedent, engaging between 3 and 5 million protestors of all ages and gender identities in marches on every continent including Antarctica. In the buildup to the event and even more so in its wake, critics have challenged the words and actions of participants and the goals and attitudes of its leaders and of the movements it represents.

Most of these challenges concern attention to intersectionality and accessibility, which the challengers found inadequate. Accusations levelled include (but are not limited to) genital-based essentialism and exclusion of trans, genderqueer, and nonbinary people; prioritizing white voices and concerns, sidelining or silencing women of colour and erasing or appropriating their achievements; neglecting to consider the needs of disabled people and endorsing both ableist and fat-shaming language and narratives; and throwing sex workers under the bus. There was also argument over whether anti-choice groups should be allowed to demonstrate.

These challenges are valid. They’re important. They’re something anyone who wants compassion to succeed should listen to. And I agree with most of them, for whatever that’s worth.

My admittedly incidental quibble is the way some challengers have used the Pussyhat Project as evidence to support arguments against the marches. I’m not suggesting that people who denounce the hats are wrong, exactly, because I can see how they reached these conclusions and if people are hurt by the hats that should be addressed going forward. I also won’t say hat opponents are partypoopers or need to lighten up because that’s worse than just hecking rude. The only point I want to make is that many of the problems people have with the hats are only problems if you take the hats literally (or rather, the problems are real but the hats aren’t relevant).

The pussyhat phenomenon started with one knitter, Krista Suh, who needed a hat to keep warm in the Washington winter and gave it cat ears as a retort to Thing 45’s now-infamous “grab her by the pussy” remark, and her friend Jayna Zweiman, who was unable to join Suh in Washington but wanted to do something to support the march in absentia. The resulting Project engaged knitters and other crafters to create a powerful visual statement (the phrase “sea of pink” was popular in media coverage), but that wasn’t its only function. The collection and distribution system they set up connected hat makers worldwide with wearers in Washington and with other crafters online and in their local communities, and provided a means of participation to those unable to march either in Washington or at all. Makers also found comfort in taking concrete, if largely cosmetic, action by making something real with their hands, and wearers had tangible proof of support.

The Pussyhat Project's "sea of pink" in Washington.
The Pussyhat Project’s “sea of pink” in Washington.

People argue about the Project’s effectiveness, with the pro-hat stance that the hats succeeded in their attention-getting and community-building goals beyond any expectation and anti-hatters dismissing them as frivolous, a waste of energy, a distraction from the “real” issues (whatever they personally believe those to be), or even harmful to the cause because they’ll stop the enemy (the Thing 45 administration or scum more generally) from taking us seriously (they never did). At least one Tennessean LYS owner was so offended by the hats’ “vulgarity, vile [sic] and evilness” that she refused to sell to crafters participating in the project—after the fact. Other critiques, the ones I take more seriously, see the hats as both proving and perpetuating the existence of problems within contemporary feminism, namely the prioritizing of a particular kind of woman (white, cisgendered, enabled, etc.) at the expense of others (as signs at various marches reminded us, the majority of white women voted for this disaster). Whatever your position, the hats are a fascinating chapter in the histories of craftivism and political fashion (both topics this blog will return to in future).

Protesters at the Women's March on Washington came out for many different reasons.
Protesters at the Women’s March on Washington came out for many different reasons.

Most complaints refer to the hats’ name and colour scheme individually or in combination, demonstrating layered significance in an otherwise simple object. The hats are pink, the western world’s “girl colour” only since the 1940s (a century earlier all small children wore bleachable white dresses and in the interim retailers offered conflicting advice on matching pastels with privates, e.g., one source’s declaration of the “generally accepted rule” that “pink, being a more decided and stronger color, is more suitable for the boy”), currently used to identify products such as razors, pens, even guns as being “for” girls and women and untouchable by men and boys. They’re soft, warm, and made by hand by knitting, crochet, or sewing—”women’s work” since the Industrial Revolution took large-scale production out of the hands of male-run guilds and turned hand-crafting into something poor women did to clothe their families and supplement household income and middle- and upper-class women did to pass the hours while kids were in school and husbands at work (this was never the whole picture of real practice but it is the cultural narrative). The kitty ears and use of the word “pussy” also have an angle of softness, cuteness, safety, and innocence while at the same time “pussy” as an epithet for vagina/vulva invokes hetero- and cis-normative conflation of gender with genitals, the objectifying reduction of women to holes waiting to be filled, and the pernicious devaluing of anything coded as feminine (e.g., saying “pussy” when you mean “coward”).

Hat-haters object to pinkness on the grounds that it plays into stereotypes of girliness and reinforces colour-marked gender divisions while defenders embrace it as reclaiming and subverting those same things to defy our society’s ubiquitous anti-femininity. Some shy away from the name because it’s vulgar, “unladylike” and inappropriate for (or would prompt uncomfortable conversations with) children, or because it retreads the problematic anti-feminine and genital essentialist “pussy = woman = pussy” logic, while others see an opportunity to destigmatize female biological functions, find power in something we’re trained to view as weakness, and remind us in a snarky-playful way that change won’t come from waiting politely and “well-behaved women seldom make history”. The hats join signs and chants declaring “pussy grabs back” in reacting to a specific egregious but hardly unique piece of ideological violence from the So-Called Ruler of the United States.

A protester calls for inclusion and recognition of trans women in the women’s movement.

More complicated arguments hinge on the interpretation of the pink pussyhats as an icon representing actual vulvas. Setting aside reactions like “that’s disgusting, why would anyone want to wear a vulva on their head”1, taking “pussyhats signify literal pussies” as foundation supports assumptions about the beliefs of people who make and wear them. One such assumption is “pussyhat people believe pussies should be pink and don’t support people whose pussies aren’t”—the implication, ignoring hairsplitting about which part of the architecture you’re talking about, is that pink pussies = white bodies, though in reality the correlation between vulva and non-vulva skin colour is about as loose as a well-exercised vagina is not. Another is “pussyhat people believe all and ONLY people with pussies are women and don’t support women who weren’t born with pussies or non-women who were”.

If masculinity incarnate Nick Offerman can rock the pussyhat, you can too.
If masculinity incarnate Nick Offerman can rock the pussyhat, you can too.

I personally never saw or heard anybody who was in favour of them say that the colour of the hats (which weren’t standardized to a particular shade or even strictly required to be pink) was chosen because pussies are “supposed to be” pink—there’s actually no historical evidence that pink becoming “the girl colour” had anything to do with body parts so resemblance to actual labia, living or dead, is purely coincidental—or threatening to strip search anyone to confirm anatomical “eligibility” for wearing one. To me, the hats were a labelling device for a feminist identity based not on anatomy but on collective dissatisfaction, frustration, even rage, as well as of the energizing force of taking part in something bigger than yourself. They signified a complicated jumble of ideas about what it means to be a girl, woman, or feminist—many of which, such as reproductive rights and sexual practice, do involve anatomy, but the signific relationship was symbolic, not imitative. Remember that red maple leaves don’t fall in every part of Canada and very few queer people are actually made of rainbows.

As tempting as it is to make jokes (“if you think pussyhats look like vulvas you haven’t looked closely at either one or the other”), telling people the hats rankle to lighten up isn’t actually constructive. The literal interpretation isn’t baseless—it’s easy enough to track how people get there—it’s just not obvious to everyone, especially those of us who might not have the ingrained expectation that pussyhat people, as representatives of historically white supremacist and trans exclusionary mainstream feminism, will hold those beliefs because we haven’t experienced that lack of support or outright exclusion over and over.

Viral photo of Angela Peoples' pointed message at the Women's March on Washington.
Viral photo of Angela Peoples’ pointed message at the Women’s March on Washington.

I don’t doubt that there were people at some marches saying vicious things about black women or trans women or any other group too frequently left out of the mainstream feminist program, and many more who were simply oblivious to the transphobic, racist, ableist, heteronormative, and otherwise insensitive implications of their words and actions. I don’t question the pain these women and others felt watching white women wake up to what women of colour already knew and get hyped to protest conditions that most of their demographic actually voted for (especially given blunders around naming the incipient event, for example) or hearing “pussy this, pussy that” and seeing visual representations of uteri and vulvas conflated with womanhood at marches and in the media. I also don’t believe the inventors of the pussyhat nor the majority of people who made and wore them intended to exclude anybody from the marches or even realized they had that power, but innocent intentions don’t absolve responsibility for impact now that it’s been pointed out.

Marginalized women have been screaming for years that only intersectional feminism, feminism that realizes that nobody is just a woman but that we each exist at the intersection of multiple axes of privilege and oppression (race, sexuality, religion, geography, language, age, immigration status, education, occupation, size, the list goes on and on), can improve the lives of all women, of all people, rather than just white cis women (and not even all of them). Feminism is not working if it benefits those with the most privilege at the expense of those with less. Privilege is permission to be ignorant, and ignorance might not be bliss but it is a lot more comfortable. It’s the responsibility of those closer to the top to make room for those history has deposited us above, not trample them in the kind of selfish, short-sighted stampede that leads to things like the election of a spoiled corrupt white supremacist fascist dictatorial liar who brags about sexual assault. Only intersectional feminism, that recognizes that we never will or should be identical, can help us reach the feminist goal of being equal.

Canadians demonstrating solidarity with American peers attending the March in Washington.
Canadians demonstrating solidarity with American peers attending the March in Washington.

It’s not pointing out flaws in actions like the Women’s March that fractures the movement, it’s whining that people are being mean to you instead of trying to fix the problem. Being called out is a favour, a reminder to do better, and an assurance that the caller-out hasn’t quite given up on you just yet. How can you repair a tear in something if you don’t know where it is? And while there’s some merit to the concern that focus and clarity of message will suffer in a more holistic activist platform (diffusion by inclusion, as it were), you cannot expect the groups you obtusely accuse of demanding “special treatment” to stand behind you silently while you selfishly refuse to stand up for them. With due credit to Flavia Dzodan: my solidarity will be reciprocal or it will be bullshit.

This is a crisis to which pink hats are not irrelevant but tangential, not the cause of but an afterthought to a deeper discord. They’re not a perfect emblem and they may well be replaced, but for now they’ve done the job they set out to: they grabbed (back) attention, they kept people warm, and they provided a tangible focus for global community-building. It’s unfortunate that factors like the catchy “sea of pink” have lead media to downplay the aesthetic diversity of the handmade hats (especially in contrast to mass-produced red MAGA caps); imposing the idea of uniform construction implies a monolithic attitude and agenda that wasn’t apparent from the ground. I’m warmed by the stories of people who expected to feel ostracized by the bubblegum phalanx and instead found empathy and encouragement but I don’t blame anyone who stayed away for not giving us the benefit of the doubt.

Marchers in pussyhats (these ones are crocheted) listen to speakers in Washington.

I adore this piece by Mary Sue contributor Jessica Lachenal, describing her misgivings about the marches and pleasant surprise at the welcome she received in Oakland and San Francisco, but I get the sense Jessica’s not a knitter:

“It [intersectional feminism] takes disparate threads of experience and it weaves them together, much like how your knit pussy hat was made. And as anybody knows, the tighter the knit, the stronger the bond. The stronger the bond, the longer your creation will last—and we want feminism to last, don’t we?”

The spirit of the quote is right on the money for me but the details are a little off. Knitting doesn’t weave together disparate threads (weaving does); knitting uses interlocking loops to build on what’s gone before and transform a straight and simple line into something more complicated, resilient, and flexible. The tighter the knit the stiffer and more impermeable the fabric, which is great if you’re keeping out the cold winds of hatred and shame but not if it blocks other ideas and perspectives.2 A tidier metaphor, and one more inclusive to other textile crafts, might be found in spinning: plying together numerous strands that twist in different directions on their own balances inequalities in the contributing plies, corrects bias, and produces a significantly stronger yarn.


1. An extension of Rule 34: anything you can think of, somebody somewhere gets off to it.
2. Nazi perspectives do not count and should be repelled like moths using eco-friendly deterrents like a fist to the face.

Written by Claire Dalmyn.

Photo/art credits:
The New Yorker cover: art by Abigail Gray Swartz, via The New Yorker (see also The Huffington Post)
“Sea of pink”: Meg Kelly, NPR
Protesters in pussyhats: Shannon Stapleton, via CBC News
“Support your sisters” sign: Twitter user @tmhzjm
Angela Peoples with sign: Kevin Banatte, via The Root
Canadians in Washington: Meagan Fitzpatrick, CBC News
Nick Offerman at march in Park City, Utah (Sundance Film Festival): Twitter @Nick_Offerman
Marchers in crocheted pussyhats: Meg Kelly, NPR