Most people know that a lot of suffrage discussions took place over tea. The 1848 Seneca Falls Convention was the result of ladies socializing at a tea party (Episode 7). During the 1911 California push for suffrage, suffragists sold “Equality Tea” as a fundraiser. The Pennsylvania Woman Suffrage Association sold “Suffrage Tea in a Special Box” while the British Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) sold “Votes for Women Tea”. There were even custom tea sets like the “Votes for Women” one commissioned by Alva Vanderbilt Belmont.
A far less researched area is how sewing circles furthered the push for equal rights. Aside from a few newspaper clippings here and there about suffrage sewing meetings, there’s not a lot online about how women used the domestic arts of knitting, sewing, and embroidery to send political messages but “craftivism” has always been a powerful tool for women’s protests.
Famous abolitionist, William Lloyd Garrison wrote an article published on December 3, 1847, which states, “Sewing Circles are among the best means for agitating and keeping alive the question of anti-slavery. …. Some one of the members generally reads an anti-slavery book or paper to the others during the meeting, and thus some who don’t get a great deal of anti-slavery at home have an opportunity of hearing of it at the circle.”
In 1908, when the newly elected Prime Minister Herbert Asquith said he needed to see “proof” that British women wanted the vote, the National Union of Women Suffrage Societies used their vast network to organize individual groups to participate in the first suffrage procession in England. Although it was quite extraordinary for women to march in public like that, they rose to the challenge. However, it was the beautiful embroidered and sewn banners that impressed the crowds. Many of the banners were designed by stained glass artist Mary Lowndes. Lowndes was a successful business woman and working artist but could not get a mortgage because she was unmarried. In response, she started the “Artist’s Suffrage League” and became active in the British Suffrage Movement. Her banners are considered works of art and many are still recognized today by the general public.
Generally, middle and upper class women embroidered, sewed, and knit as a leisure art. For the well-to-do, textile arts were often part of charity work such as knitting socks for soldiers. Working class women used the skill as means to make a living. Sojourner Truth herself taught former slaves to knit, sew, and cook. Many anti-suffragists embraced doing domestic tasks like this to show that they were “real women” practicing feminine arts.
Ann Rippin, a researcher who specialized in the role of cloth in society, explains, “Traditionally, women were taught embroidery as a way of learning ‘feminine’ characteristics. It taught them to follow a pattern, to be neat and docile, to be inside the home rather than out in the world. You learned embroidery to advertise your marriageability.” She adds that it gave women an outlet for creativity in an otherwise oppressive society but also cautions that despite this outward appearance of domestic tranquility, “there was no way of controlling what women were actually thinking about while they were stitching”.
Alice Paul choosing to sew stars on the suffrage flag as each state ratified the 19th Amendment was extremely shrewd marketing. Not only was she signalling that suffragists were still “real women” who could excel at domestic arts, she also created a patriotic visual of a modern Betsy Ross.
This week’s song pick:
“I am Woman” by Jordan Sparks with video clip from “Dancing with the Stars” https://youtu.be/72NWx84UWCg
Episode 83 Sources:
Quilting blogs and magazines are great sources to find articles on the history of sewing circles:
https://pennsylvaniapiecemaker.blogspot.com/2019/08/ (Scroll to bottom of this blog page to see newspaper clippings.)
For more about the power of “craftivism”: