In a world full of functional manufactured objects, handmade quilts embody the memories and sentiment of both the maker and the user. Although quilting is often viewed as a too-traditional, frivolous hobby, it is an incredibly important creative outlet for women who quilt. Contemporary quilting is a way for women to bring pleasure into their lives through both the cultivation of an aesthetic point of view and the physicality of a process that does not cater to patriarchal values of work and personal achievement. Quilting instead emphasizes values of memory, functionality, and community. In this context, this series of posts examines three aspects of quilting: as a space for women to express themselves independently, as method of cultivating an aesthetic point of view, and as a connection to process.
Quilting as a Safe Space
In our male-dominated society, perceived feminine interests and pursuits that value community, everyday life, and memory are routinely dismissed as unimportant and frivolous. Patriarchal society values professional work, dominance, hierarchies, and personal achievement. Essentialist feminist philosopher Mary Daly describes these value sets as “foreground” and “background” culture. Daly sets up these cultures as based inherently in gender, asserting that these traits are hard wired in biology. I take issue with this essentialism or fixed idea of male and female characteristics, but these terms are nevertheless useful in describing the traditional sets of values society applies to men and women. In fact, there are no inherent traits in any gender, and both gender and sex are social constructions; in no way will every individual subscribe to the traits society assigns to their gender. However, the concept of two cultures can be helpful in understanding what values are assigned to socially acceptable gender roles.
Quilts fall into the category of background culture: they are domestic, building on tradition, and have connection to the everyday and the body. Women quilters are working within the gendered social norms that constrain the female to the domestic. However, there are benefits to working within gender norms. In quilting, this creates spaces dominated by women. Where the majority of the world is male-dominated and women are criticized for stepping out of female gender roles, quilting is a space where women can build a community based on background culture. With some degree of confidence, they can feel safe that their choices will not be criticized. Through these communities, women exchange techniques and build traditions. Organizations like The Modern Quilt Guild set up local chapters that organize workshops and lectures that bring quilters together to exchange ideas. Quilting is a small relief from the unending critique of women by the patriarchal world and it allows self-expression and a connection to the world around us.
Unfortunately, there is still criticism of quilting by men and “feminists” alike. Because of the topsy-turvy patriarchal values of our society, women are told to keep their interests in the domestic sphere, while simultaneously being told that these pursuits are unimportant and frivolous. While I think there is good cause for each woman individually to reflect on the patriarchy’s effect on her interests and actions, I believe that is for the individual to figure out. We should respect each woman’s choices, whether they choose to break out of societal expectations or to do something traditionally feminine, like quilting.
Resources for this post:
Image from “Why Quilts Matter” Episode 7.
Gyn/ecology: The Metaethics of Racial Feminism, Mary Daly, 1978.
About the MQG – The Modern Quilt Guild.
Crafted Lives: Stories and Studies of African American Quilters, Patricia A. Turner, 2009.
Women and Their Quilts: A Washington State Centennial Tribute, Nancyann Johanson Twelker, 1988.