Ladies First highlights women and girls who are making the world better for the rest of us.
It might surprise you to learn that the woman behind the now-iconic pussyhat isn’t an expert knitter. In fact, the pink, cat-eared beanie that became the unofficial emblem of the 2017 Women’s March was Pussyhat Project co-founder Krista Suh’s first attempt at knitting a hat.
Suh tells me by phone that the idea to make a hat came the day after Trump was elected president in November 2016. The 2017 Women’s March on Washington DC had been announced, and Suh was immediately on board. But as an LA girl, Suh was concerned about getting chilled during the wintry east coast march. From necessity came invention.
“I thought, oh, I can knit my own hat!” It occurred to Suh that if she, a beginner knitter, could do it, then so could anybody else. Suh enlisted her knitting teacher and friend to help design the pattern.
Now, the screenwriter and activist can add “author” to her list of credentials with a new book, DIY Rules for a WTF World: How to speak up, get creative, and change the world. Suh earnestly believes that creativity is a necessary component of activism; she also knows that, sometimes, speaking up and getting creative can have unintended consequences that launch important conversations of their own.
In the year since the first Women’s March saw cities around the world overtaken in a sea of pink hats, Suh’s pussyhat has fallen out of favor among many. Some see the hat as exclusive of trans women;”pussy” usually refers to vaginas, and not all women have vaginas (also, it’s worth remembering that some men do). Critics also observe that the pink color of the hat is suggestive of white cisgender women’s reproductive anatomy, which excludes women and allies of color.
We wanted to know what Suh had to say about these obeservations, but we also wanted to know how she got to where she is in the first place, as the inventor of a hat that — controversial or not — became the symbol for a new era of the women’s movement. Along the way, she explained why she thinks that making stuff can make the world better.
Brit + Co: Has creativity always been a part of your life?
Krista Suh: No. I think DIY and being creative were exorcised out of my life when I was young. I didn’t really get a chance to use my creative self-expression… I grew up in an Asian-American household where it was always about getting the right grade and pleasing the right people, like my teachers and my parents.
Then, in my 20s, I really explored and embraced my creative side. I became a screenwriter and really immersed myself. That was when I kind of found my people: the DIYers, the artists, the writers, and creatives.
B+C: Broadly speaking, what relationship do you see between creativity and activism?
KS: I’m really into letterpress printing. We stare at flat, digital surfaces all day, so it’s a powerful tactile experience to hold printed words on thick, creamy paper, and feel the impressions of each letter. The pussyhat gives you the same experience; it’s something you can hold in your hand.
In knitting, you can really see and feel your progress as you go along. Each stitch adds to a new row that you can see and feel are getting you closer to your final product. That’s really rare in life and in activism.
Activism can feel like this empty black hole we’re throwing our energy into without much gain. We need something to help us mark our progress, to inspire us again. Doing something like knitting is a reminder that what you do can make a difference. I think that’s why the Pussyhat Project really took off like it did.
B+C: Why knitting instead of, say, letterpress printing?
KS: I wanted to reclaim an activity that’s typically seen as a woman’s craft as a place of power. When men play golf it’s sort of understood that “this is where the real deals happen.” But a knitting circle is where women get together, and big deals happen there too. These womanly things aren’t weak — they’re actually really, really strong.
Knitting comes with a built-in community. It’s a really good roadmap for how political communities can come together. A knitting circle is so welcoming. Members of a DIY group are always so encouraging of each other, and I think in craft we understand that perfection isn’t really a worthy goal. I remember making a mistake in a sweater I was making, and I asked one of the knitters how to fix it, and she was like “well you can pull it out and start over, or just be Amish about it.” The Amish will incorporate imperfections into the design. And really embracing that mentality is helpful to activism too. We’re not pure, flawless people who are leading the charge, but we’re going to hold progress over perfection.
B+C: Since the 2017 Women’s March, there’s been some backlash against the pussyhat, which has been criticized as exclusive of transgender women and women of color. What’s your response?
KS: At first, I was confused because [Pussyhat Project co-founder Jayna Zweiman] and I said from the get-go that the project represents all people, whether cisgender or transgender, and that pink isn’t intended to represent a flesh color. I’m Asian-American; my stuff is definitely not pink. I chose pink because that’s the color our culture uses to represent femininity.
I really do think the word “pussy” is a slur against femininity, not necessarily specific genitalia. If a man shows femininity, another man might call him a “pussy” as a slur. But we all have femininity! And femininity is being attacked. Whether cis or trans, we [women and femmes] have so many common enemies, and I think it’s helpful to talk things out.
(This interview has been edited for length and clarity.)
Do you see a relationship between activism and DIY? Tell us @BritandCo!
(Photo via Rachael Lee Stroud)