Waking Up to HistoryRoundup
tags: museums, African American history, women history
Margaret Renkl is a contributing opinion writer for The New York Times. She works for Humanities Tennessee, an independent affiliate of the National Endowment for the Humanities, as editor of Chapter 16, a daily web publication that documents the literary life of Tennessee. Her work has appeared in Black Warrior Review, Guernica, Literary Hub, Shenandoah, The Southern Review and other publications. She lives in Nashville.
Like many girls of my generation in the rural South, I learned every form of handwork my grandmother or great-grandmother could teach me: sewing, knitting, crocheting, quilting. I even learned to tat, a kind of handwork done with a tiny shuttle that turns thread into lace. Some of my happiest memories are of sitting on the edge of my great-grandmother’s bed, our heads bent together over a difficult project, as she pulled out my mangled stitches and patiently demonstrated the proper way to do them.
But by the time I’d mastered those skills, I had also lost the heart for them. Why bother to knit when the stores were full of warm sweaters? Why take months to make a quilt when the house had central heat? Of what possible use is tatting, which my great-grandmother sewed to the edges of handmade handkerchiefs, when Kleenex comes in those little purse-size packages?
But my abandonment of the domestic arts wasn’t just pragmatic. By the time I got to college, I had come to the conclusion that handwork was incompatible with my own budding feminism. Wasn’t such work just a form of subjugation? A way to keep women too busy in the home to assert any influence in the larger world? Without even realizing it, I had internalized the message that work traditionally done by men is inherently more valuable than work traditionally done by women.
I came to this unconscious conclusion almost inevitably. When every history class I ever took featured an endless list of battles won and lost by men, of political contests won and lost by men, of technological advances achieved by men, it’s not surprising that the measure of significance seemed to be the yardstick established by men — almost exclusively white men.