24 Apr 20

The power of ‘women’s work’: craftivism


Craftivism subverts expectation. Craft has been described as low art, and involves labour, skill and making things by hand. It has been dismissed as a hobby, a pastime, fancywork. This perception is what makes craft’s marriage with activism effective. The term ‘craftivism’ was conceived in 2003 by sociologist and crafter Betsy Greer. She founded a website and blog with the intent of connecting craftivists to one another so they could share, in a globalised digital world, the craftivist projects they were working on. Greer, with twelve other craftivists, published a ‘Craftivist manifesto’. The manifesto is a series of short, concise and welcoming statements. There is an emphasis on the handmade, on provoking conversations about uncomfortable social issues, on collectivism and community. The manifesto demonstrates how activism, whether by craft or any other means, is actioned by individuals wanting to create a better world. 1 Mary Callahan Baumstark, Ele Carpenter, Joanna Davies, Tamara Gooderham, Betsy Greer, Bridget Harvey, Rebecca Marsh, Manna Marvel, Ari Miller, Iris Nectar, Abi Nielsen, Elin Poppelin & Cat Varvis, Craftivism, ‘Craftivism manifesto’, http://craftivism.com/manifesto, accessed 16 Sept. 2019.

More than 180 years before the existence of a craftivist manifesto, the members of the Female Society for Birmingham were involved in the first large-scale political campaign by middle-class women: the nineteenth-century British anti-slavery campaign. 2 Clare Midgley, Women Against Slavery: The British Campaigns, 1780–1870, Routledge, London and New York, 1995, p. 10. Working within their predetermined domestic status as ‘helpful and inspirational wives, mothers and daughters’, 3 ibid. p. 2. they created hand-sewn work bags, which they filled with anti-slavery literature and sold across Britain. With their profits, the women were empowered to support and influence a more radical change during the anti-slavery movement in the 1820s and 1830s.

Between 1751 and 1807, the British Empire and the United States enslaved more than 1.6 million African people. 4 ibid. p. 9. These people were forced onto ships to make the trip across the Atlantic to the United States and Britain’s West Indian colonies; there they were forced to work for no payment and with no prospect of freedom. 5 The conditions on these trips were horrific. Illustrations of the plans of slave ships, showing the slaves ‘arranged’ like objects were used in the propaganda against the slave trade. See Lynne Walker & Vron Ware, ‘Political pincushions: decorating the abolitionist interior 1787–1865’, in Inga Bryden & Janet Floyd (eds), Domestic Space: Reading the Nineteenth-century Interior, Manchester University Press, Manchester, 1999, pp. 58–83. In 1791, news of a successful slave revolt by the enslaved West African people in Saint-Domingue (now Haiti) reinvigorated abolitionists in the fight to abolish the slave trade. Following years of activism featuring wide-scale petitions, propaganda and boycotts of slave-grown produce, An Act for the Abolition of the Slave Trade was passed by the United Kingdom parliament in 1807. This Act ended the slave trade but did not end slavery in the British Empire. Abolitionists hoped that the end to the slave trade would engender better conditions for the current slaves and result in their eventual emancipation. When it was apparent this was not on the horizon, a new activism began to demand emancipation.

The Female Society for Birmingham 6 They were originally named the Birmingham Ladies Society for the Relief of Negro Slaves. was the first women’s anti-slavery society in Britain and was founded on 8 April 1825. 7 Clare Midgley, ‘Townsend [née Jesse], Lucy (1781–1847), slavery abolitionist’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, 23 Sep. 2004. It was formed at the home of Lucy Townsend (1781–1847) by Townsend and her friend Mary Lloyd (1795–1865), both of whom had been members of the male-led Anti-Slavery Society, formed in 1823. The Anti-Slavery Society had allowed women to join but excluded them from leadership positions. 8 Midgley, Women Against Slavery, p. 154. Townsend and Lloyd, who met at a local Bible Society, were influenced by their Christian values to establish the Female Society for Birmingham. In the first paragraph of their inaugural report they stated that their aim was to promote ‘a deep and lasting compassion, not only for the bodily sufferings of female Slaves, but for their moral degradation … Slavery as that which now exists in our Colonies, should have the prayers of all Christians, and the best exertions of every Briton, united against it’. 9 The First Report of the Female Society for Birmingham, West-Bromwich, Wednesbury, Walsall, and Their Respective Neighbourhoods for the Relief of British Negro Slaves, Office of Richard Peart, Birmingham, 1826, p. 4.

The Society’s members were swift to organise a network of female anti-slavery societies around the country. They distributed anti-slavery pamphlets and literature to interested women and encouraged them to establish their own local associations, and by 1833 there were seventy-three active ladies’ anti-slavery groups across Britain. 10 Midgley, Women Against Slavery, p. 45. Each group was encouraged to craft work bags to use as vessels for anti-slavery literature. A work bag was a common accessory for women in the early nineteenth-century and was used to carry materials for embroidery or needlework. Needlework was a required part of a woman’s education as a wife and was perceived to contribute to the happiness and well-being of the home. As Rozsika Parker discusses in The Subversive Stitch (1984), a woman’s embroidery and vast needlework projects, which could take years to complete, had come to convey their husband’s social and economic standing. 11 Rozsika Parker, The Subversive Stitch: Embroidery and the Making of the Feminine, The Women’s Press, London, 1984, p. 13. With this understanding, it was a shrewd endeavour to then use needlework to craft a feminine accessory for political activism.

Sewing circles were organised in the homes of members of the Society and were an important female-led space for discussion, education and recruitment. One member of the circle may have read aloud the anti-slavery literature while the other members were crafting. For women who may not have been politically inclined or knowledgeable about the anti-slavery movement, this time spent making and conversing would have created a connection to both the bag and the cause they were crafting for. The act of crafting allows for the consideration of complexity as the crafter needs to think about what they are doing with each action, with each stitch.

The work bags were considered, from their materials and design to their contents and distribution. They were made with East India silk, satin and/or cotton – materials that were thought not to be produced from slave labour. 12 Although the Birmingham Society for Women believed that material from East India was not produced using slave labour, this is inaccurate. Slave labour was a practice of the East India Company. The contents card in each work bag proudly declared the materials used and encouraged the reader to boycott slave labour goods.

The design of the bags featured poignant imagery and text. The Society commissioned Samuel Lines (1778–1863) to illustrate the image used on the work bag held in the NGV Collection. In contrast to previous popular anti-slavery imagery, including the ‘Am I Not a Man and a Brother’ used on the Wedgwood Slave Medallion, c. 1787, the Society chose to portray a female slave. The female slave is seen in the role of the mother. She is seated on a rock in an outdoor area with no one else in sight. A baby is lying across her upper legs, with its head cradled in her left forearm. Her other hand reaches to her forehead and the tips of her fingers lightly touch her hairline. Her eyes are looking down, her body is slightly hunched. She looks alone, worried. The text on the other side reads:

Negro Woman, who sittest pining in captivity and weepest over thy sick child: though nooneseeth thee, God seeth thee; though noone pitieth thee, God pitieth thee; raise thy voice forlorn and abandoned one; call upon him from amidst they bonds for assuredly He will hear thee.

The image aims to elicit empathy from women and challenge the contemporaneous stereotype of black women as licentious and lustful troublemakers. 13 Midgley, Women Against Slavery, p. 97. It is important to reflect how, even with good intentions, this type of imagery perpetuates the representation of a helpless black figure, the noble savage, the passive slave. A rhetoric that views people of colour as lacking agency and needing to be ‘saved’.

Inside the work bag was political propaganda. There were pamphlets, extracts from newspapers and a card explaining the purpose of the bags. First-person accounts from the Jamaica Gazette were included to ‘shew from the Planter’s own statements, in their own authentic records, the suffering which our present system produces’. 14 Ladies’ Society for the Relief of Negro Slaves, Card explanatory of the contents of the Society’s work bags, n.p., n.d., Wilson Anti-Slavery Collection, John Rylands Library, University of Manchester. The bags also included the abolitionist poem by Hannah More, ‘Slavery: a poem’ (1788), and a pamphlet on ‘Reasons for substituting East India for West India sugar’. The contents card concluded by reiterating that the aim of the work bags was to circulate information to relieve the ‘neglected and deserted negroes and in promoting the education of British slaves’. 15 ibid.

The work bags were a success, and in 1826 more than 2000 were distributed throughout England, Wales and Ireland. The means of distribution varied. Some women went door to door, visiting middle-class as well as working-class women, selling bags and obtaining monetary subscriptions to the society. 16 Midgley, Women Against Slavery, p. 97. Other bags were sent to anti-slavery bazaars in the United States, and a selection were presented to George IV, Princess Victoria, aristocrats and the wives of prominent politicians.

The profits from these bags gave the women power. No longer passive auxiliaries, they could now choose where their surplus would go. In the first few years, they donated funds to the men’s Anti-Slavery Society, and then, in 1831, unsatisfied with the gradualism of abolition, the Female Society for Birmingham withheld their donation in favour of the more radical subsidiary Agency Committee, which was supporting immediate abolition. 17 Louis Billington & Rosamund Billington, ‘“A burning zeal for righteousness”: women in the British anti-slavery movement, 1820–1860’, in Jane Rendall (ed.), Equal or Different: Women’s Politics 1800–1914, Basil Blackwell, Oxford, 1987, p. 90. The Slavery Abolition Act was passed by the UK Parliament in 1833, though this still held slaves as apprentices to masters for another seven years. Following further activism, full emancipation was granted by law in 1838.

This craft-based activist approach continued into the late nineteenth century and the twentieth century in relation to other causes. The women’s suffrage movement encouraged suffragettes to create handmade banners, badges and sashes. The ongoing AIDS Memorial Quilt project uses scale to demand attention. The quilt was created in 1987 to document the lives of those who had died from AIDS and help people understand the devastating impacts of the disease. Friends, lovers and families have so far commemorated their loved ones on 480,000 individual panels that measure 90.0 × 180.0 centimetres.

Contemporary craftivist projects can permeate the public space. Yarnbombing, or guerrilla knitting, is intentionally visible in urban spaces. Yarnbombing is a form of street art in which knitted or crocheted lengths of material are installed to cover an existing sculpture, pole or object. It may be something as small as a bench or electric pole or as large as a military tank that is concealed by a shroud of carefully constructed yarn. The craftivists behind this initiative want to beautify areas with dramatic and erratic colour and text. The scale, detail and originality encourage the viewer to consider the maker and their reason for this statement.

The NGV Collection includes work by contemporary Australian craftivists Penny Byrne and Michelle Hamer. Both artists use the handmade or hand-altered object to bring attention to social issues in a clever and satirical manner. In Condi was blown away by George’s flashing repartee, 2006, Byrne, a trained ceramics and glass conservator, repurposes found porcelain figures to create an activist object that references two contemporary American politicians: former President George W. Bush and former US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. Byrne has deconstructed the romantic idyll presented in the kitschy Rococo scene, reconstructing it as bloody violence to comment on the Bush administration.

Hamer’s embroideries We’re all gonna die and Can’t, both 2013, use the symbol of the billboard to demand the viewers’ attention. The billboard is ubiquitous in daily life, advertising us products and selling lifestyles, and in these instances Hamer has found and taken photographs of real-life billboards with nihilistic overtones. Can’t was a billboard from the Commonwealth Bank’s ‘Can’ campaign of 2012 (the ‘t’ in ‘Can’t’ was subsequently covered by the bank’s logo in the second phase of the campaign), and We’re all gonna die was a promotional billboard for a single by the band Girls. In isolation and without context, these hand-stitched pixelations tap into an alienating and disturbing undercurrent, reflecting a general malaise or unease in society.

The Female Society for Birmingham’s work bags provide a historical example of craftivism. They were a success because their makers subverted the expectations of craft and women’s work. By using a method acceptable for nineteenth-century middle-class women, they were able to gain influence and demand radical political change. Craftivists today continue this tradition by pushing the boundaries of craft, of the handmade. They elevate the meaning and power of craft, whether it is by constructing, deconstructing, collaborating or protesting. Craft through craftivism continues to defy its outdated status as women’s work.

Notes

1

Mary Callahan Baumstark, Ele Carpenter, Joanna Davies, Tamara Gooderham, Betsy Greer, Bridget Harvey, Rebecca Marsh, Manna Marvel, Ari Miller, Iris Nectar, Abi Nielsen, Elin Poppelin & Cat Varvis, Craftivism, ‘Craftivism manifesto’, http://craftivism.com/manifesto, accessed 16 Sept. 2019.

2

Clare Midgley, Women Against Slavery: The British Campaigns, 1780–1870, Routledge, London and New York, 1995, p. 10

3

ibid. p. 2.

4

ibid. p. 9.

5

‘The conditions on these trips were horrific. Illustrations of the plans of slave ships, showing the slaves ‘arranged’ like objects were used in the propaganda against the slave trade. See Lynne Walker & Vron Ware, ‘Political pincushions: decorating the abolitionist interior 1787-1865’, in Inga Bryden & Janet Floyd (eds), Domestic Space: Reading the Nineteenth-century Interior, Manchester University Press, Manchester, 1999, pp. 58–83.

6

They were originally named the Birmingham Ladies Society for the Relief of Negro Slaves.

7

Clare Midgley, ‘Townsend [née Jesse], Lucy (1781–1847), slavery abolitionist’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, 23 Sep. 2004.

8

Midgley, Women Against Slavery, p. 154

9

The First Report of the Female Society for Birmingham, West-Bromwich, Wednesbury, Walsall, and Their Respective Neighbourhoods for the Relief of British Negro Slaves, Office of Richard Peart, Birmingham, 1826, p. 4.

10

Midgley, Women Against Slavery, p. 45.

11

Rozsika Parker, The Subversive Stitch: Embroidery and the Making of the Feminine, The Women’s Press, London, 1984, p. 13.

12

Although the Birmingham Society for Women believed that material from East India was not produced using slave labour, this is inaccurate. Slave labour was a practice of the East India Company.

13

Midgley, Women Against Slavery, p. 97.

14

Ladies’ Society for the Relief of Negro Slaves, Card explanatory of the contents of the Society’s work bags, n.p., n.d., Wilson Anti-Slavery Collection, John Rylands Library, University of Manchester.

15

ibid.

16

Midgley, Women Against Slavery, p. 97

17

Louis Billington & Rosamund Billington, ‘“A burning zeal for righteousness”: women in the British anti-slavery movement, 1820–1860’, in Jane Rendall (ed.), Equal or Different: Women’s Politics 1800–1914, Basil Blackwell, Oxford, 1987, p. 90.