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The politics of not sewing

After posting about the feminist blog awards the other day, I found myself wondering if there was a defining moment when I became a feminist.

I think it was more of a process than a moment, which was kick-started when my mother re-married and moved us from the city to the country. But the process had its moments.

I was ten years old. My life in Ottawa had revolved largely around swimming. There was nowhere to swim in Kinburn. There was not much of anything to do there.

There was so little to do, in fact, that my mother, an atheist, signed us up for confirmation lessons at the local United church.

Debbie took to it and progressed through the religious hierarchy to eventually become a Sunday School teacher.

I balked. It was boring. It was stupid. I hated it. I railed against it. But no amount of whining or complaining would persuade my mother to let me drop out. She said it was character-building to complete the things you started, even if you hated them and even if they weren’t even your idea in the first place. (Personally, I’ve always believed she just wanted some alone-time with her new husband.)

When the lessons were complete and it was time to get confirmed, I informed the young red-headed minister that I would not be participating in the ceremony. He looked at me like I had sprouted horns.

“Of course you will,” he said.

“No,” I replied, “I won’t.”

“Why not?” he asked.

“Because I don’t believe in God,” I replied.

He looked shocked and horrified, but what could he do? He couldn’t possibly insist I get confirmed after that. He had no choice but to let it go.

And that, mercifully, was the end of my days as a church-goer. It was also pretty much the end of my interactions with the young red-headed minister, much to his relief and mine.

Except for the time he knocked on my door a couple of years later and asked me to sign his anti-abortion petition. I was about 12 or 13. There were no adults home. I refused to sign it. He argued with me. I argued back. Finally he pulled out photographs.

“This,” he said, thrusting a photo in my face, “is a photograph of a green garbage bag full of murdered babies.”

He then told me that these poor babies screamed and cried as their limbs were pulled off during the barbaric procedure.

That’s when I asked him to leave. He turned an angry shade of red and left.

I don’t think I understood the political implications of reproductive choice at the time, so this probably wasn’t a defining feminist-making moment. I just didn’t like the guy, that’s all.

Actually, you know what? This wasn’t even the story I set out to tell you. I got sidetracked.

The story I was going to tell you was about the other thing my mother signed us up for when we moved to Kinburn. It was 4-H. I was quite excited about 4-H. I couldn’t wait to meet my calf and raise it up to be a cow. A calf was worth giving up my friends, city life and swimming for.

So imagine my confusion when I arrived at my first 4H club meeting to discover a table set up with scissors, tape measures, pins, needles, and other sewing supplies.

The leader instructed us all to take a seat, and then she introduced herself and said we were all going to be making pretty dresses over the next 8 weeks.

“Excuse me,” I said, “But I’m here to raise a calf.”

Everybody laughed and laughed.

Well it turned out that girls didn’t raise calves in 4-H, they sewed dresses. Only boys raised calves. There could be absolutely no exceptions to this rule, nor any discussion of it.

And that, I believe, was my first defining moment. It was followed by eight weeks of relentless arguments about discrimination to anybody who would listen and even to those who wouldn’t. My mother had to make the dress because even though I was not permitted to drop out of 4-H, I absolutely refused to sew. Not sewing was my very first political action.

14 comments to The politics of not sewing

  • You have the best stories!
    My first move towards asserting my feminine independence (that I can clearly recall) was when I was about 8 years old. My brother, who is two years older, would go to my Grandpa’s work (a garage) every Saturday to help out. He got $20 for the day, plus lunch, plus money to spend at the arcade… where he spent at least half of the work day. I wanted $20, lunch and arcade money too… and everyone knew I was better at sweeping than my brother (that was his “job” – to sweep the shop). My father firmly told me, “No, the garage isn’t a place for girls” even though I was the one who spent most weekends in our own garage helping my dad. I freaked.. always a drama queen I made him very aware of my feelings for months afterward. He never relented and later I discovered that I wasn’t allowed there for several reasons. One of them was that the “discussions” that went on were inappropriate for a child of my age (and probably should have been inappropriate for my brother too.. but that’s another argument)
    But I laugh now – I know more about working on cars than my brother, a last year, when my father asked us what we would like for Christmas.. I said a drill…. my brother? … a crock pot!

  • future landfill

    As a wee fellow, I spent a good bit of time around calves. They were cute, of course, but dim-witted and none too fastidious in their bathroom habits, pushy also and learning that a good kick in my direction might be a fun activity. I think I understood early on that their fate – wet-nurses for humans, really, or roast-beef sandwiches – didn’t leave a lot of scope for intellectual achievements or grooming, so I’ve long since forgiven them their lack of opposable thumbs and been grateful for a chunk of well-aged cheddar.

    Sewing, on the other hand, seems like an achievement a bit on a par with carpentry. There is structure and utility and elegance of style. I learned the rudiments of sewing as a teenager when I needed to reduce the circumference of my pantlegs to conform to current fashion(ma would have nothing to do with it!), later to add the required fanciful patches and repairs to worn-out bell-bottom jeans and the odd shirt. I’ve no end of respect for those who can whip up a fancy frock from a bolt of fabric (likewise the knitter of sweaters and tea-cozy crocheters). And, of course, sewers were likely to use the machines of Mr. Singer and his ilk, pioneers in the transfer of technology from the sweatshops of New England and Manhatten to the kitchens and spare rooms of the North American housewife.(Best we not linger now on the maquiladoras and Bangladeshi child labour.)

    I’t’s unlikely that many of us will ever again raise our own calves or goats (tho’ I’m lobbying for downtown chicken hatches – bird flu be dammed), and my sewing episodes are now few and far between, the Singer wanting a good servicing. I like to think,tho’, that we can honour the efforts of our predecessors, men and women, calf-keepers and seamsters, and recognize that the roots of feminism lie in understanding that all can contribute equally and the honour is equally bestowed.

  • Deb

    I love how you remind me of our childhood and the events that are just vague memories now. If or when I get Alzheimer’s you will be my “memory keeper”.

  • I can clearly remember my first feminist leaning. It happened in french immersion at age six. We were learning that when talking about a group of people, as long as there is a man included then we refer to the group in the plural masculine, even if the group is mostly women. It could be 99 women and one man, and we’d still use “ils” instead of “elles”. I told the teacher that wasn’t fair and she had to explain that’s just how it is. I guess a first grade teacher on the prairies couldn’t single-handedly change the rules for the entire French-speaking world.

  • Girls get to raise any damned livestock they want now! Nature Girl already plans to raise her own award winning chickens when she’s old enough. I’m hoping we’re in a place she can raise something bigger…and friendlier…and my PERSONAL preference would be fr something WOOLY.

  • I was a feminist in the 60’s and burned my bra with the best of them. I know how to wire and drywall a house. I also know how to sew, knit and cook. I taught my son to knit and cook and he does it better than his wife. I happen to like the things I do and it doesn’t make me any less of a feminist than someone who doesn’t. Women can do anything they want or don’t want but not doing something just because it’s considered a woman’s thing excludes to many possibilities. Just my view…ciao

  • grace

    I left the church at about the same age (13 or 14). We belonged to a tiny Anglican Church where my father was the lay reader and held the service (less Communion) when the minister was at another far-flung location. I loved going to church because I got to hear my Dad do something he loved and because I loved to sing. It was community and comfortable and just a wonderful place to be. Eventually my two brothers and I became the ‘alter boys’ and took turns helping with service. Until the day the Bishop came to our rural church. I was told by the minister that my turn would have to be another day. Just another day in a string of days in an adolescent girl’s life where she learns that she’ll always have a little less than her brothers.

  • Convivialiddell

    I can’t really remember a time when I’ve been forbidden from doing something because I’m a girl, but then again, I might have forgotten them on purpose. But I find that a lot of my life, I’ve been given something because I’m a girl.

    For example, in the fencing league that I’m in for university, we have a medal for the 1st place winner for the mixed gender pool as well as a medal for the 1st place winner for the women’s pool. If a man wins 1st place, he gets a medal, and first woman, no matter if she’s dead last, gets a medal. If a woman wins first, she gets two (one for the mixed gender and one for women’s).

    I’m not really sure if that’s supposed to bother me. I’m not sure if I’m really willing to take these almost consolation prizes, and such. I’m not really sure where I stand on that. I mean, it’s a perk, but it’s not equality.

  • future landfill

    Zoom you’ve raised no end of an issue and for that you deserve an award. Blessed be all the gals who have weighed in and pardon my earlier pontificatin’. I do love a rowdy gal especially if her name is McKeen…

  • Melinda

    I have never been a feminist in the sense of the picture the word conjures up, I’ve just always firmly believed that men are no better than women (except in cases requiring a lot of physical strength that cannot be done without) and if I can do something well, whatever it is, just get out of my way and let me do it thanks muchly. They usually leave me to it because it’s either that, or go up against my bloody-mindedness and you know, the path of least resistance…

    Anyway, I did have to do 4-H sewing and I hated it. My mother used the argument that it is a necessary skill and she was completely right, but I hated it, learned it and then promptly forgot all of it so well that I sometimes wish I could project myself back into 4-H sewing so I could get something done quickly and easily. On the whole though, I still hate sewing and will do much to get out of it. I did like the baking class though. That was nice. Plus, if I’d had the inclination, I could have done cows. I’d had enough of those at home though, so I voluntarily abstained.

    Oh yes, and the sewing lessons were much less painful than the ballet lessons. I’ve recently learned that my bid to destroy all photos of my 7 year old self in a banana yellow leotard with matching tutu has failed, only if because the memory of that photo lives on in the memories of all who ever saw it.

  • Re

    I think I was born a feminist! My Dad grew up in a large rural family where there was no tidy division of “men’s work” and “women’s work”, there was just work and everyone did what they could. As a result my parents raised me without ever limiting me due to my gender.
    Of course, I have benefited from all the women who broke barriers before me. I am grateful to them.

  • Well done. It is always inspiring to see children and young people being forceful with their moral convictions.

  • Melinda

    “Of course, I have benefited from all the women who broke barriers before me. I am grateful to them.” – Quote from Re

    Well said!

  • Valerie, your story reminds me of my ex-sister-in-law’s story. She was responsible for doing all the dishes every day. Her brothers just had to take the garbage out once a week. But if it ever happened that she couldn’t be home, her parents PAID her brothers to do the dishes!!

    Future Landfill, I hope I didn’t give the impression that I was denigrating sewers, because I have nothing against sewing or sewers, only the gender-based lack of choice at the time. (Also, I like to think I would have been equally enraged at the injustice of a boy being forbidden to sew and forced to raise a calf instead.)

    Deb, that’s my favourite comment that you’ve ever left. :)

    Laura, that’s a stellar example!

    Mudmama, I will visit you and your woolly friends.

    Rositta, like I said to Future Landfill, it wasn’t the sewing, it was the lack of choice. One of the things i like best about feminism is how it grows with me, and becomes a second skin over time. I’m no longer trying to figure out how to be a good feminist (as I was in the 70s) – I trust that to happen naturally as long as I’m true to myself.

    Grace, another good story! Thank you.

    Conviviadell, thanks for weighing in. Perks are okay, but I’d rather have equality.

    Future Landfill, Part II – I always love reading your comments, and I wish you had a blog.

    Melinda, please please please post the picture on your blog! If you do, I’ll post the picture of the hot pink hot pants outfit.

    Re, I think for the most part only 2nd generation feminists are born feminists. You’re lucky.

    Thanks Milan.

    Melinda, ditto!

    To everybody – sorry I was so late getting to these comments. I hope you didn’t give up on me.