“…Has ever been the appropriate occupation of woman”: crafting femininity in American women’s decorative needlework, 1820 to 1920
Gruner, Mariah Rose
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This dissertation examines core themes of the developing women’s movement in the United States from 1820 to 1920—the abolition of slavery, women’s property ownership, education, political identity, motherhood, and the franchise—through the lens of decorative needlework. I read the stitch as a key medium through which women visually and materially articulated their relationship to these concerns. My project has four main aims: first, to examine decorative needlework as a site of gender construction, performance, and contestation; second, to explicate the complex temporal dynamics of this stitched craft; third, to highlight the racialized, classed, and national dynamics of this work; and fourth, to theorize the sedimentary nature of crafted and gendered forms. Analyzing the rise of architectural iconography and feminized depictions of property in schoolgirl samplers, the uses of femininity and representations of Blackness in antislavery needlework, and suffragists’ debates about the political efficacy of needlework, I argue that American women used their needlework both to signal their belonging to normative femininity and to broaden its definition in deeply classed and racialized ways. As they made samplers and other textiles, I contend, stitchers worked to craft useable femininities, gendered positions from which to speak, act, construct themselves, and be remembered. My project seeks to excavate the racialized meanings of this clearly gendered work. I trace the intimate entanglements between white supremacy, colonialism, nativism, and white women’s work to materialize their own authority through textiles. I also probe the needlework strategies employed by Black and indigenous women who both encountered decorative needlework as a coerced form, but also worked to claim public visibility, remembrance, respectability, and remuneration with their stitches, challenging the whiteness of idealized femininity. By studying the ways in which white, Black, and indigenous women used the stitch to materialize gendered and racialized relationships to property, education, citizenship, empire, enslavement, and freedom, this dissertation recaptures the significant contributions that needleworkers made to women’s cultural and political activism and reconsiders gender itself as a crafted form, materially produced in the repetition of the stitch.
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