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 145: Suzy on Carolyn Mazloomi's Groundbreaking Quilt Exhibit
Column 144: Texas Community Marks Juneteenth Sesquicentennial with History Quilts
Column 143: Maya Embroidered Patchwork
Column 142: Huipil Patchwork Quilts
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Column 130: Chicken Linens
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Column 128: Patchwork Around the World: Yoruba Dance Costumes
Column 127: The Bowers Co-Op Quilts
Column 126: Fon Appliqué and Haitian Voodoo Flags
Column 125: The Quilt Garden at The North Carolina Arboretum
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Column 123: Quilters de Mexico
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Column 120: Soogan—The Cowboy’s Quilt
Column 119: The Ron Swanson Quilt
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Column 117: How WWI Changed the Color of Quilts in the United States
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Column 112: The Family That Quilts Together, Stays Together
Column 111: Two Rivers, Three Sisters
Column 110: Quilters Helping Quilters
Column 109: Community Cookbooks and Fundraiser Quilts—Parallel Histories
Column 108: Quilting to Freedom
Column 107: National Quilting Day
Column 106: The Airing of the Quilts
Column 105: A Call for a National Juneteenth Commemorative Quilt
Column 104: Dominoes
Column 103: 1936 Texas Centennial Bluebonnet Quilt
Column 102: Helen Blackstone, A Texas Quilter
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Column 100: 100th Suzy's Fancy Column!
Column 99: Montana Stockgrowers Anniversary Brand Quilt
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Column 97: Meet the Sisters Who Are State Fair Quilting Queens
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Column 95: Her Mother Pieced Quilts
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See other archived columns here