Quilts and the Women’s Liberation Movement
Last year, I had the occasion to reread Patricia Mainardi’s groundbreaking essay, Quilts: The Great American Art. Mainardi, now a Professor of Art History at City University of New York, originally wrote the piece for The Feminist Art Journal in 1973. It was republished in book form in 1978.
In the essay, Mainardi makes an eloquent case for quilts as being the true artistic legacy of women artists in North America. While giving a reluctant nod to the importance of Jonathan Holstein’s exhibition of quilts at the Whitney Museum in 1971 in recognizing quilts as being more than a one-dimensional craft, she nevertheless angrily decries what she saw as his and the art establishment’s dismissive and condescending view of the quilts and their makers.
In her opinion, they just didn’t get it, stating, “Quilts have been underrated precisely for the same reasons that jazz, the great American music, was also for so long underrated—because the ‘wrong’ people were making it, and because these people, for sexist and racist reasons, have not been allowed to represent or define American culture.”
I read Mainardi’s essay when it was first published, and it had a powerful influence on me. Having grown up around quilts and quilters, with quilts being so much a part of my life that I took them for granted. Mainardi’s words made me consider my family tradition in an entirely different light. I’ve never looked at quilts or quilters the same way since.
Of course, Mainardi wasn’t the only one writing about quilts during what has now come to be known as the “second wave” of feminism in the 1970s. Many others took up the challenge of rediscovering what they believed had been overlooked and ignored or lost altogether.
Among them was Dr. Elaine Hedges (1927-1997), a pioneer in the field of Women’s Studies. She revisited the quilt’s importance to women and art many times, but the first piece of hers I read was Quilts and Women’s Culture, part of an anthology entitled In Her Own Image, Women Working in the Arts, published in 1980.
In it, Hedges made me aware of a darker side of the needlearts, stating, “Before the days of machine-made clothing and blankets, little girls were forced to learn to sew; and learning to sew often took precedence over, or was the female substitute for, learning to read and write…Does one respond with admiration, or dismay, at that quilt of 30,000 pieces?...Our response to quilts as an art form rooted both in meaningful work and in cultural oppression will therefore inevitably be complex: a combination of admiration and awe at limitations overcome and of sorrow and anger at limitations imposed.”
Now, several decades after these and similar ideas were widely expressed by feminist writers, they have come to be more or less accepted tenets of the way we view quilts and quilters.
While many women of the 1970s and ‘80s might not have agreed with all elements of the women’s liberation movement, today the respect with which quilts and quilt artists are regarded owes much to the ideas expressed by Mainardi, Hedges, and others. If you haven’t read their work, or if you haven’t read it in a long time, I urge you to do so. It will make you think—or make you think all over again.
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Column 90: Leitmotif for a Lifelong Love Affair
Column 89: Quilting in The Bahamas
Column 88: Joan of Arc: A Quilter's Inspiration
Column 87: Home Demonstration Clubs and Quilting
Column 86: Linzi Upton and the Quilted Yurt
Column 85: A Bounty of Quilts
Column 84: Desert Trader
Column 83: Quilts and the Women’s Liberation Movement
Column 82: Replicating the Past: Reproduction Fabrics for Today’s Quilts
Column 81: Why So Many Quilt Shops in Bozeman, Montana?
Column 80: Southeastern Quilt and Textile Museum
Column 79: 54 Tons of Quilt
Column 78: Ollie Steele Burden’s Quilt Blocks
Column 77: Quilting with AMD
Column 76: Maverick Quilts and Cowgirls
Column 75: The Modern Quilt Guild—Cyberculture Quilting Ramps Up
Column 74: The Membership Quilt—Czech Quilting in Texas
Column 73: Maximum Security Quilts
Column 72: Author: Terri Thayer
Column 71: The Christmas Quilt
Column 70: New Mexico Centennial Quilt
Column 69: Scrub Quilts
Column 68: “Think Pink” Quilt Raises Funds for Rare Cancer Research
Column 67: Righting Old Wrongs.
Column 66: 100 Years, 100 Quilts - More on the Arizona Centennial.
Column 65: Arizona Centennial Quilt Project
Column 64: Capt. John Files Tom’s Family Tree
Column 63: The Fat Quarters
Column 62: Quilt Fiction Author: Clare O’Donohue
Column 61: Louisiana Bicentennial Quilt
Column 60: The Camo Quilt Project.
Column 59: Thread Wit
Column 58: Ralli Quilts
Column 57: Preschool Quilters
Column 56: The Story Quilt
Column 55: Red and Green Quilts
Column 54: On the Trail
Column 53: Quilt Trail Gathering
Column 52: True Confessions: First Quilt
Column 51: Quilted Pages
Column 50: Doll Quilts
Column 49: More Than a Quilt Shop
Column 48: Las Colchas of the Texas-Mexico Border
Column 47: Literary Gifts
Column 46: A Different Way of Seeing
Column 45: Sampling
Column 44: Hen and Chicks
Column 43: A Star Studied Event
Column 42: Shoo Fly Pattern
Column 41: Awareness Quilts
Column 40: Tivaevae
Column 39: UnOILed UnspOILed Coast Quilt Project
Column 38: Katrina Recovery Quilts
Column 37: Quilted Vermont
Column 36: The Labyrinth Quilt—A Meditative Endeavor
See other archived columns here