Knitting protesters grab back at Trump with pink cat hats
A pantsuit was not going to cut it this time. Neither was the “Nasty Woman” T-shirt made in homage to the woman who almost became the first female president, then didn’t.
The day after Donald Trump is inaugurated president, the signature fashion statement of women marching in protest will be this: a handmade pink “pussy hat” with cat ears tipped directly at Trump and the word he uttered unforgettably on a hot mike. Call it an effort to grab it back.
“When I first saw this project starting, I laughed and I wanted to jump on board and I thought it was just fantastic,” said Aileen Gildea of Arlington, who will be wearing one of the hats — knitted by her husband — to the demonstration. “To own the fact that we have power and we have humor and we’re not going to sit down and shut up,” she said.
Like the Women’s March on Washington, which sprang from vertiginous outrage the day after the election, the hats were created by a few female friends and proliferated online. In Los Angeles, Newton native Jayna Zweiman brainstormed with screenwriter Krista Suh, who was surprised by the grief she felt after Hillary Clinton’s defeat, facing an incoming president she considers “underqualified to the extreme.”
Suh decided she would go to the Washington march and that, rather than merely showing up, she wanted to make a statement.
“I got my art history degree at Barnard College, and I was trying to think almost like a performance artist — how can I express my belief in an impactful way,” said Suh, 29.
Given the weather, something wooly made sense.
Suh began to envision an “amazing sea of pink,” and Zweiman, a 38-year-old Brown graduate with a master’s in architecture from Harvard, began thinking about how to spread the word.
Their knitting instructor, Kat Coyle, a pattern maker who owns a shop in Los Angeles, came up with a pattern easy enough for beginners, as well as the name.
Within six days they had a website and a plan to enlist women around the country to participate in a visual demonstration, regardless of whether they attend a march. Knitters across the country are making and donating hats, often with little notes of well wishes tucked inside, and taking them to drop-off spots where they can be picked up by marchers.
“They’re pink and they’re cute and they’re on people’s heads and they’re hand-knit. They take that traditional domestic women’s role and turn it around on their heads,” said Lauren Duncan, a Smith College psychology professor who teaches a course on the psychology of political activism. “I think it’s brilliant.”
Provocative as it is, the hat inspires strong reactions. Many abhor the word it parodies and view pink hats with kitten ears as the very opposite of empowering.
“[Trump] reduced women to that one part. In some ways, it makes it about that one part,” said Jean Klingler, 53, of Cambridge.
She won’t be wearing one at the D.C. march, but her 16-year-old daughter might.
“It’s reclaiming it,” said her daughter, Lucy Lyman, who called it “third-wave feminism.”
“I guess I’m not third-wave,” her mother said.
In an Arlington fabric store that has been picked clean of pink, the tattooed manager stopped 60-year-old Netta Davis just before she could mention the project she was working on, she recalled.
“He said, ‘Don’t say the name!’ ” said Davis, laughing. “He said, ‘I support the cause, but I can’t stand the name.’ ”
There was no shrinking from the name at First Parish in Concord on Sunday, where marchers bound for Washington received stones as talismans to carry with them — as well as the hats, which they wore outside for a blessing to send them on their way.
In Dorchester, City Councilor Annissa Essaibi-George was initially reluctant to list her yarn and fabric store, Stitch House, as a project participant, for fear of alienating customers.
Until recently, Essaibi-George noted, that word would never have “made it into any sort of regular conversation, never mind any yarn store, which is probably one of the least-threatening environments that a person could ever be in.”
But customers’ interest was so strong in the hats that pink yarn is selling out, and the female-dominated industry is reaping the financial benefits of the movement, she said. The Stitch House now plans open knitting sessions this Tuesday and Thursday night. All sorts of knitters are asking for it.
“It’s a very charged word, but it’s also a word that I think women can take back,” Zweiman said. “Language changes. Fashion changes. We’re all the ones who are changing it.”
Love it or hate it, the hat’s symbolism was fully thought through, said Suh.
“Every part of it is very intentional — between the pink color, the cat ears having a distinctive silhouette, the name,” said Suh. “We are going to protest on our own terms. We don’t have to do it in the way that the patriarchy deems serious or correct.”
While Zweiman calls the color “unapologetically feminine,” pink is so strongly associated with gender-specific baby outfits and breast cancer support that a lot of women find it limiting. Essaibi-George got pushback when she used hot pink on her campaign signs, then painted her City Council office the same shade that brightens the Stitch House — Benjamin Moore’s “Hot Lips.”
“I had a few women that are involved in politics and campaigning concerned with me using such a feminine color,” Essaibi-George said. But “Hot Lips” is nothing if not bold, she argued.
“My response is, it’s not policy, it’s paint,” she said.
As for the hat’s name, many have trouble saying the word. But the president-elect didn’t, Zweiman noted. In “Access Hollywood” footage unearthed before the election, he was caught on microphone using the word to brag about grabbing women’s private parts and getting away with it because of his fame. Thirty-two days later, he was elected president.
Klingler can’t get past it. “The fact that he can say that, that he can do that, means that people knew who he is and it didn’t matter,” she said.
But that was not the only trigger for the march. Aiming to put the next administration on notice that women are watching, the march’s mission statement notes that the rhetoric of the last election cycle “insulted, demonized, and threatened many of us” and the march aims to show a diverse presence “in numbers too great to ignore.”
While some find it troubling that the crowd will be teeming with pink cat ears, Duncan, the Smith College professor, said that in every movement, there’s a subset that believes “if only we do things exactly right, we’ll win this time.”
“I don’t think that’s true and we should just cut each other breaks and people should wear whatever they want,” she said.
“One of the things that became very clear to me through this election cycle,” Duncan added, “is that women are damned if they do and damned if they don’t.”