‘That's women’s work’ – a phrase that in the 21st century causes many Western women to bristle. Whilst today we might expect and even demand that our husbands share household chores our mothers probably did not, and our grandmothers certainly did not.
My husband, now he is retired, does his fair share of housework but I would never, in a million years, expect him to sew on a button, turn up a hem or make a pair of curtains.
Now why is that when there is a rich history of men sewing in various capacities?
Sailors and soldiers, for example, made and mended their own clothing. On board 18th and 19th century warships they would have had ‘make and mend’ days when sailors repaired their clothing.
The tailor is the classic example of the male who sewed, not only men’s clothing but women's too. The tailor sewed to make a living.
Today many of the top fashion designers are male. We have male stitching friends within the groups and forums we belong to.
So why, in the 21st century, do we think of sewing as "women's work" ? I have been pondering this all weekend.
Whilst I would feel the same sense of satisfaction and pride looking at a rail of perfectly pressed shirts and a beautifully hung pair of curtains, I would have enjoyed making the curtains far more than ironing the shirts.
Is it because we derive so much pleasure from time with our needles that we want to preserve and protect its status as a female tradition?
“Methinks it is a token of healthy and gentle characteristics, when women of high thoughts and accomplishments love to sew; especially as they are never more at home with their own hearts than while so occupied. ~Nathaniel Hawthorne, The Marble Faun, 1859
Maybe we have to look to the past for the answer. Women sewed out of necessity, and sewing, embroidering and knitting were considered as suitable, even necessary, amusement and activity for them - a domestic handicraft.
Should the phrase "domestic handicraft" be considered along with "women's work" as politically incorrect in the 21st century?
I was looking at some judging appointments I have this summer and the show schedules use the term "domestic handicrafts". Wouldn't "arts and crafts" be more appropriate?
Throughout the history of art, domestic handicrafts have been regarded as women’s work, and as such, not considered “high” or fine art. Even post Women’s Liberation needlework is one of the art forms that can still be preconceived to be mainly a feminine tradition.
Quilting, embroidery, needlework, and sewing — none of these have been deemed worthy artistic equivalents to painting and sculpture. There is an age-old aesthetic hierarchy that places certain forms of art over others based on gender associations. This has historically devalued “women’s work” specifically because it was associated with the domestic and the “feminine.”
There is a hierarchy in the arts: decorative art at the bottom, and the human form at the top. Because we are men." — Le Corbusier and Amédée Ozenfant, 1918
That hierarchy was radically challenged in the 1960s in the wake of the Women’s Liberation Movement. Feminist artists sought to resurrect women’s craft and decorative art and to elevate “women’s craft” to the level of “high art.”
The Dinner Party by Judy Chicago, is an important icon of 1970s feminist art and a milestone in twentieth-century art. It is a multi-media work that consists of ceramics, china painting, sewing, needlework, embroidery, and other mediums traditionally associated with “women’s work.”
The Dinner Party comprises of a massive ceremonial banquet, arranged on a triangular table with a total of thirty-nine place settings, each commemorating an important woman from history.
The settings consist of embroidered runners, gold chalices and utensils, and china-painted porcelain plates with raised central motifs that are based on vulvar and butterfly forms and rendered in styles appropriate to the individual women being honored.
The names of another 999 women are inscribed in gold on the white tile floor below the triangular table. This permanent installation is the centrepeice of the Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art, on the 4th Floor of the Brooklyn Museum.
In the meantime as it is Monday morning and my main housework day I had better go and do my "women's work" when really I would prefer to be practicing my "domestic handicrafts" - UMPH !!!
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Images of The Dinner Party are copyright Brooklyn Museum.