My gender journey: Sisterhood, femininity and craft.

// 25 April 2011

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I asked my mother and my sister what the word sisterhood meant to them today. The short answer: “Not a lot”. My sister said it reminded her of hippies and my mother said it conjured up images of nuns. ‘Sisterhood’ has always been one of those terms that I’ve regarded with suspicion. Even before I understood the concept of cis privilege (the benefits afforded those whose gender identity is the same as that which they were assigned at birth), it seemed like a special club from which I felt excluded. I don’t identify as trans, but like many people who may on the surface appear cis (and access related privilege) my gender journey has been far from linear.

My concern is that ‘sisterhood’ excludes people of non-binary gender from perceived ‘women-only’ spaces. As a child, I picked up on both the pressure to be stereotypically girly as well as the devaluation of traits that are seen as feminine in much of UK culture. My father always wanted ‘one of each’; to him this meant a girl and a boy and instead he was blessed with two daughters. As the second-born, I felt that his cravings for a son were projected onto me. I was always called a ‘tomboy’, hated pink and wearing dresses, and even now my dad frequently refers to me as ‘Charlie’ or ‘Herbert’. My mum wanted me to be happy, to socialise with girls my age and encouraged me to go along to parties. I’m not criticising their parenting, just the impossible gender socialisation standards that they were attempting to navigate.

One would think that growing up with a sister would instil some sense of sisterhood in me. Instead, I feel like in addition to the typical sibling rivalry, we also had to contend with a society that encourages women to compete rather than to bond. In my early twenties, I began exploring the typically feminine elements of my culture which I had rejected at a young age. Only once I had reached adulthood did I feel secure enough in myself to open up to what I saw as something potentially shameful. Femininity had not just been mocked; in my experience it was also alien and I felt myself stepping into a strange new world.

Despite being romantically involved with women on and off since my late teens, until recently I had never experienced what some might call ‘sisterhood’. I currently struggle with mental illness, and I realised a creative project might lend me the feeling of achievement that I was missing out on by not having a paid job. Since then my love for knitting has spread to other crafts including making my own clothes and hand-quilting. Crafting not only gives me a sense of productivity but I also find the process of sitting quietly and working with my hands to be a therapeutic one.

Historically, needlecrafts have been dominated by women. That is not to say that other genders haven’t played their part in developing the art; I have particularly liked reading about the sock-knitting that allied soldiers did in WWII*. In general, though, the tradition of women and needlecraft dating back generations gives me a feeling that may be termed ‘sisterhood’. The thought of women teaching their daughters crafts to pass on to their daughters makes me feel as though I belong to something bigger than me, as though my creations can mean more than the uses I put them to. When I sit down to knit, I echo the actions of my mother, and her mother before that.

Why does this mean more than simply being part of a crafting tradition to which everyone can belong? I think I have been overwhelmed by a version of history consumed with the achievements of men and lacking in comparable stories about women. Discovering this melting pot of innovation which has mainly been constructed by women gives me vicarious pride and something akin to a feeling of coming home.

Now I’m living in a house with two other women, and we all enjoy crafts. I like to think of our crafting circle as recreating a sort of consciousness-raising group. Just like an X-only space, however, I worry about the exclusion this could cause for those of other genders who would like to take part but experience the same feeling of ‘otherness’ that I have always felt in all-women groups. Perhaps sisterhood to me just means a coming to terms with my own current gender, when this has always previously been more in flux. I had always understood my gender in such fluid terms that the idea of it being more fixed is bound to be frightening.

When I started writing this post I wanted to explore a term that I was uncomfortable with. I would still say I do not favour it, but now I would divide my feeling into two separate camps: Firstly, rare pride at finding a history that I can relate to, and secondly, a comfort with my gender identity that I had not previously reached.

*In Stitch ‘n’ Bitch: The Knitter’s Handbook.

Comments From You

TafT // Posted 26 April 2011 at 10:34 am

I would guess that some element of sisterhood has been lost as women have taken up more rolls outside the home perhaps? In days gone by women would be without men for several hours a day (or perhaps most of the day) and so would only have other women and some younger boys around them. It would not be so strange for a social divide to form such that when the men returned they were seen as somehow separate. This might be similar if many working women were to socialise together and then go join many stay at home wives, mothers and unemployed ladies; the ones who worked and had already socialised together might form one branch of sisterhood while those with a different lifestyle might identify themselves differently.

Anyway thank you for writing an interesting article which has made me think. I suppose I could muse on what a brotherhood means to people today but right now it mostly reminds me that I have not played Command and Conquer for a while.

Mia // Posted 26 April 2011 at 4:04 pm

I’m cynical in that i don’t believe in a ‘sisterhood’ anymore than i believe in a ‘brotherhood one’, the male relationship and compadreship that my brother claims is the male equivilent to the sisterhood.

I personally think people nowadays are so selfish, self absorbed and ‘me me me’ ‘i’ll tread on someones toes’ or ‘i’ll demean soemone elses POV because it’s not my own and i (of course) need to validate mine’, that there isn’t any kind of fabled closenss, that the term ‘sisterhood’ and ‘bro-hood/bromance’ imply. They imply a large amount of people to me, not just a few but a gathering of many all joined together with petty emotion and self absorbtion put aside in respect and compassion for each other.

Sexuality, gender and everything aside, it’s all about personality and society, simply put to me there’s no such thing as sisterhood because everyone’s out for themselves and to have 1 or two good friends (whatever their sex/sexuality or gender) who embody what the word sisterhood should to me(companionship, respect, empathy and civility- a willingness to put in 100% and get that back out) is extremely lucky.

I wish i could say i feel the same sense of pride as you but honestly i think sisterhood is dead, i think it’s all about personality, empathy and a want to meet same minded (whether creatively or emotionally/morally/poilitcally) people and becoming friends. Perhaps it’s because I’ve found too many friend’s have gone to the wayside and I judge them my by own high standards of friendship (putting in mutual amounts, being close, helping etc) that I can’t see any kind of sisterhood. The fact that my closest friends are 2 male and 2 female and I’ve gladly lost many female ‘friends’ along the way also prompts me to think this. Admittedly with the 2 female best friends it is exteremely close and we are ‘like sisters’ in the ‘get on well sibling sense’ but I wouldn’t class us or our relationship as sisterhood since i (personally) feel it’s a bigger collective that the word embodies.

It’s great you’ve found a way to express yourself and more so that you’ve delved into something new and creative and that all this hads led to a deeper cetainty for you. Very cool.

Louise N // Posted 26 April 2011 at 7:13 pm

Being trans I’ve had quite a complicated relationship with sisterhood. In the past I felt opressed by it as I wasn’t allowed to be part of it because of my peceived gender even though I felt that I had so much in common with those groups of women.

Now even though I’m accepted and fit into the women’s spaces I sometimes feel uneasy about the exclusivity of these spaces while at the same time realising that they are the open and safe spaces they are because they exclude cis men.

I don’t know though what the answer is maybe I should be spending more time helping building inclusive spaces which uses something other then a person peceived gender as a way of ensuring that safety.

peace // Posted 26 April 2011 at 8:49 pm

I loved this post because i too enjoy knitting. Not allot of teenagers have as much interest in it so i kinda keep it to myself. My mum taught me and my sister how to knit at a very young age so i have always loved it.

i would have to disagree on the sisterhood thing though. I personally have always found the word ‘sisterhood’ kinda patronising. It reminds me of girl bands with the whole ‘girl power’ thing. I don’t have more empathy or respect towards women than men because i am a woman so i don’t have that connection that you probably have.

All of my best friends are girls and i am extremely close to them but our relationship is not sisterly, even though the bond i have with them is strong it is not the same as the bond i have with my actual sisters. I love them but not in the same way.

MarinaS // Posted 29 April 2011 at 12:04 am

This is really interesting to me; I’ve often struggled with my gender and the expectations placed upon it, and one of the things I rejected out of hand from a very young age was craft. I fought tooth and nail to do carpentry with the boys at school rebelled openly when they made me go to craft classes, can’t sew on a button, and was never tempted to learn knitting.

I’m not really going anywhere with this; just ramblingly reflecting on how interesting it is that different people adopt and reject different aspects of life as a specific gender that they see as iconic or significant…

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