Next week is International Women’s Day which has got me thinking. I am a feminist. That means I believe in equality for everyone. I don’t think that’s particularly controversial but for some reason the term seems to be shrouded in confusion and discombobulation (I have never used that word in a sentence before but its seemed to fit nicely with what I wanted to say).
Last week British comedian Jenny Eclair was invited onto BBC Radio 4’s Front Row to debate which piece of “female-generated” work would best mark 100 years since many women got the vote.
She was batting for Tracey Emin’s installation, “My Bed”, while a bright young female writer and performer was championing the Nora Ephron film When Harry Met Sally.
Surprisingly, to both me and Jenny Eclair, more listeners voted on twitter for When Harry Met Sally than “My Bed”. It was a landslide, in fact. What had gone wrong? Had a load of male trolls or even Russian bots voted for When Harry met Sally? Were young people just stupid?
But then I thought about it. Both pieces are about women (Nora Ephron and Meg Ryan in When Harry… and Tracey Emin) openly expressing the reality of their sex lives in a frank way. For Tracey it was as a heavy-drinking, chain-smoking woman falling to pieces in her period-stained bed, for Meg it was about showing that man cannot tell when women are faking an orgasm (with all her clothes on in a deli), as well as exploring the question can men and women ever “just be friends?” Perhaps, more importantly it demonstrated that for modern women friendship and emotional equality, not just sex, is at the heart at the most rewarding relationships, in a Hollywood, fluffy way.
I would say, however, that Jenny Eclair, missed a trick when she offered up Tracey Emin’s “My Bed” to Front Row audiences. She would have done better with Emin’s “tent” Everyone I Have Ever Slept With 1963–1995. Her reinvention use of a traditionally female craft – quilt-making and what it nowadays termed “craftivism” – was particularly radical and exciting. This was a craft usually associated with old ladies,turned on its head and made positively offensive and downright controversial. She turned a craft into art.
Yet, women have always been able to turn this genteel craft to political purposes. In the early decades of the 19th century ordinary people were keen to show their support for Wilberforce’s anti-slavery campaign. Thousands took part in a sugar boycott, bought and wore anti-slavery pins, plates and badges.
Some made their own embroidery pieces. Later the suffragists and suffragettes made their own banners, belts and slashes. This craft also helped give women some financial independence. My great-aunt, Janet, who never married but lived all her life with her mother in Cardiff, sold her designs to embroidery magazines.
Craftivisim still has resonance two decades later. In last years’ Women’s March in the USA thousands of woman wore pink “pussy” hats. These pink hats weren’t mass produced in China – they were handcrafted by women through a grassroots effort. Over 80 patterns for pussy hats were published on social media.
And then again, maybe, Tracey’s embroidery and the history of women’s political action in the last 200 years or so just would not have won over the twitterarti because When Harry Met Sally is a lot funnier!