March 31, 2022
Embroidery thread on fabric
“To know the history of embroidery is to know the history of women.” – Rozsika Parker, author of The Subversive Stitch.
Until recently I never considered my work to be particularly focused on gender, femininity or women’s issues. That was until I realized that when I set down my brushes and picked up a needle that I was handling an instrument deeply entrenched in the history of women’s oppression.
For centuries, embroidery work was assigned to women under the guise of promoting their femininity (an arbitrary concept on its own). The task was seen as a productive way for women to “occupy their minds” while pushing them on a trajectory limited to the domestic sphere and kept far away from the same intellectual pursuits available to men. And most importantly, away from the rooms and positions where important conversations were held and laws were made, thus adding more bricks to a world built for men that their daughters and granddaughters would inherit.
Today in the United States it is not embroidery that keeps women overworked in the domestic sphere, but is instead the weight of carrying an entire nation’s social safety net on their shoulders. The demanding push towards intensive mothering compounded by lack of access to essential parental leave and affordable childcare leaves mothers feeling powerless to change their own narrative. As if this weren’t enough, the current push to control women’s voices and bodies by legally forcing them to carry out pregnancies without regard for their physical and mental health, or their desire to have children in the first place, adds more and more bricks to a culture where women are not expected to thrive, but merely facilitate a patriarchal society.
I use my needle as a tactile reminder of the oppressive expectations of femininity and motherhood in this country today. They are part of a centuries old misogynistic agenda to limit women’s access to education, hold satisfying employment, accumulate wealth and move through their lives with fully developed voices.
This embroidery depicts an interior courtyard in the Alhambra Palace in Grenada, Spain. It is the beloved birthplace of Katherine of Aragon, first wife of Henry VIII who was famously cast aside for Anne Boleyn. While Henry did not chop of her head, he did imprison her in a convent for the short remainder of her life. A life where she was given embroidery as a way to “occupy her mind.”