During my college experience in North Carolina—in the early 1990s—I was trying to fulfill some of the course requirements for a degree in Religious Studies, and I ended-up in a class in Feminist Studies taught by Mary K. Wakeman, author of God's Battle with the Monster: A Study in Biblical Imagery ( Leiden: Brill, 1973) and a feminist activist during the early years of the movement in the 1970s.
…and everything changed.
Suddenly my perceptions of minority status were expanded, and not only that, but I recognized things in myself, made connections, felt recognizable affinities with the women’s movement and its struggle with identity and purpose. It was one of the steps in my coming out process to understand the social and cultural American paradigm within which I lived and tried to successfully exist. Feminism helped me identify, understand, and cope with the role I was dealt, the identity I needed to embrace, and the effort that would be necessary to survive—and maybe even help shape—the world I lived in.
Suddenly all the literature and course studies that were presented to me—no matter what department or area of study in my liberal arts education—took on a different shadow, a different meaning, a different interpretation. Learning about feminist perspective shaped the way that I perceived my world, politics, social justice…every facet of public and social life. It also created a lot of tumult. Circumstances related to that understanding and “knowing” changed the course of my life. The reason that I was obtaining a Religious Studies degree was a precursor to entering the Catholic seminary and a life of theological inquiry. That very same year, however—1992—was the year that Pope John Paul II, under the influence of Josef Cardinal Ratzinger, Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, issued a document banning gay men from entering seminary studies or from taking priestly orders. World. Turned. Upside. Down… Not only was I timidly coming to an understanding of my true sexual identification, but the life of stability and joyfulness that I had set course for was suddenly upended and denied to me as a member of a minority class I was just coming to understand and feel for.
This story sounds dramatic…and it was…particularly for someone who didn’t want or have the propensity for such drama in his life. And the situation was full of ironies… the irony of Jesus serving the poor, the downtrodden, and the disenfranchised… while the Church condemned, abandoned, and disassociated its self from those same people. The irony of my coming to a broader and more loving acceptance of minorities and those who suffer persecution…and being denied the opportunity to serve in the capacity of a compassionate advocate of the Church because of affiliation with those minority identifications. It is something I have never really gotten over, moved past, or successfully placed to bed. The hurt of exclusion is a wound that doesn’t heal easily…or possibly ever.
I did a decent job of moving onward…of allowing that seismic shift to color the way that I faced the world. Feeling that the academic world might be a balm, I invested heavily into researching the fairly young academic curriculum of Women’s Studies around the country. I visited the departments of those higher education institutions that early-adopted graduate studies in the field—The University of Arizona at Tucson, The University of Washington in Seattle. But life and expenses prevailed at forcing me into making a living otherwise. Ultimately, perhaps inevitably, I fell into human rights work…for the LGBT community. Perhaps the pain of exclusion and demoralization is easier to cope with when you are able to protest and work to ameliorate those things with others who have also felt the pain of exclusion and demoralization.
The process of changing the social paradigm of discrimination and demonization of a whole class of people…can be slow. Patience is required. Defeatism must be tempered. Victories must be remembered. Diligence must be a mantra. And all along the way, minor virtues can be exercised that emulate the things which we wish to see in the world—compassion, empathy, listening, storytelling, and storytelling, and storytelling some more, understanding the stranger, embracing the stranger, challenging the dominant social order and culture, celebrating commonalities, celebrating differences, and telling stories, telling more stories, and telling more stories.
Telling our stories is a way to reach out and create empathy, a way to connect with others, a way to explain to those who can’t see through the haze of their own paradigm in order to understand the plight of someone not like themselves. It’s a way to recount history; it’s a way not to forget; it’s a way to cast the net into the pool of common experience and then be able to sing in harmony with one’s neighbor to the beat of the rippling waves crashing on the shore. There are as many stories in the world as there are people, as there are lives that have been lived on this planet. But the wonderful things about all those disparate stories is that they all have threads that bind us together…even if the only things common among them is our DNA marker for the genus Homo sapiens. It’s that thread that fascinates us and that we have to cling to and necessitate sometimes ignoring the conditioned differences we claim to have.
The women (and men) who will be marching in Washington on the day following Donald Trump's inauguration all have different reasons for traveling their vast distances to be at the nation’s capitol… but it is the commonality of purpose (itself) and a striving for Justice that make them unified.
Here’s another thing that has unified a large contingent of marchers: The Pussyhat Project.
As a token craft of making and creation, knitting is a sort of perfect rhetorical embodiment for women’s sense of empowerment. There are all sorts of mythologizations that can be attributed to this craft of spinning, weaving, knitting—necessary to clothe the naked. One of the most potent is that of the Fates, also known by several other monikers in several other ancient cultures, the Moirai were the incarnations of destiny. Almost always in a fixed count of three women: Clotho (spinner), Lachesis (allotter) and Atropos (unturnable). They controlled the metaphorical thread of life of every mortal from birth to death. It seems appropriate to me that as spinners (and knitters and crochet hookers) of Fate, women have turned their craft into a massive spell-weaving conglomerate in protest against the disrespectful, objectification and demoralization of the female species by the incoming president elect. It thrills me that on his first day in office, Donald Trump will be faced by hundreds of thousands of women making judgment against his administration and his disrespect for women (and humanity in general) and against his reign in the highest office of the country. (May impeachment loom on his horizon...)
The Pussyhat Project seeks to crown as many marchers at the Washington DC Women’s March as possible with pink pussycat-earred knit or sewn or handcrafted hats, creating a visual statement that formulates itself into a sea of pink for viewers of the monument[al] plaza. The name of the project and the shape of the hat is intentional. It’s a kind of double entendre. It’s a means of protesting, as well as re-possessing, transforming, and empowering the skanky locker-room language used by Trump in his infamous hot-miked Access Hollywood interview with Billy Bush aboard a bus.
I have definitely heard some offense taken by some women at the notion. And if we were in a different time in history, the project would’ve definitely been taboo (and possibly even resulted in arrests for breaking decency laws!). I have made over a dozen pussyhats that I am having friends take with them to Washington. Originally I was going to ask a neighbor-friend to do the honors, but when we read a Facebook posting wherein she noted her distain and offense at the objects, I quickly reassessed and asked another marcher from my hometown to take them. And I get it—in a lot of ways we’ve been desensitized to a lot of vulgarity in our contemporary American culture. Here is a passage from an article about the pussyhat phenomenon in our local newspaper:
“…[One yarn shop owner] did have some reservations about use of the P-word in a political context... I don’t know how I feel about that. The word itself is kind of meaningless,” she said. “What I have found enchanting about it is, it’s made people feel better about a seemingly hopeless situation. It’s a way for, not only, their voices to be heard, but their voices to be seen in a blatant and graphic way.”
In my view, it’s not the women marchers who started the vulgarity…it was Donald Trump. And this project is a way to visually educate—if only through the humongously ocular, vulgar spectacle of hundreds of thousands of women wearing pink metonymic substitutions of their genitalia on their heads. Is there truly any more forceful and succinct way to state one’s displeasure at inappropriate discourse than to “swamp” the offender with his own churlish language?
The closest comparable example I can think of is other offensive monikers that have been re-possessed by their objectified communities and used as inter-community expressions of empowerment. An example would be the term “queer.” Used as a slang-pejorative against LGBT people, the LGBT community has absorbed the word and now wears it proudly to discern themselves in the hetero-normative world that would sometimes rather not see them or would rather that they were invisible. Another example would be the pink triangle used by the Nazi regime to distinguish gay men in the holocaust prison camps. The symbol was re-purposed by the communities advocating for AIDS awareness, compassion, research funding, and health rights…made famous alongside the “Silence=Death” insignia and by vocal advocates like Larry Kramer in the 1980s. The pink triangle was once a symbol of repression, but later adopters of the symbol changed it into a symbol of hope, defiance, and celebration. One could say that the symbol of the crucifixion cross has gone through a similar alteration—once a tool of death, it now represents the rebirth of life for millions of Christians.
We can only hope, perhaps so, also pussy[hats].
I won’t make it all the way to the Washington DC march, but I hope to make it to my state capitol of Montpelier, Vermont in order to show my solidarity. Hopefully I’ll have made some additional pussyhats by then to share with some other marchers that I meet. If you received one of my hats in Washington DC, give a shout out in the comments below! And enjoy the experience…don’t forget to share your story with the people you meet!
Meanwhile, check out some of the great photos of the project that can be found on Instagram: