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Knitting in a Course about Sex and Work (with thanks to Sandy Coleman)

When I taught my Sex and Work course in fall 2012, it caught the attention of Senior Associate Director of Communications and Wheaton Quarterly Editor Sandy Coleman because the U.S. military had recently changed its policy regarding women in combat. I am not a historian of the military though since I teach the history of the United States questions of war and military service are part of my general teaching repertoire.

Because Sandy saw a connection between the news event and my course, we had a couple of conversations, and she brought a photographer to our classroom the day the class visited the FiberSpace. After the second conversation, which included some excellent prompts to help me sound more eloquent, Sandy published her distillation of the conversations here.

I am publishing our initial written interview here as one way into some of the Digital Humanities ideas behind my including the fiber project in the course. I really do sound more eloquent in Sandy’s version, though. And it’s shorter, too.

Sandy Coleman: Describe the class and what you are covering.

Kathryn Tomasek: The course is called “Sex and Work.”

It’s a 300-level course for students in History and Women’s Studies.  We read about a book a week, and the books are all monographs written by historians.  The books cover the “long nineteenth century,” from about the middle of the eighteenth century through the early twentieth century.  A lot of them are about women and needlework, especially variations on sewing as work for which women were paid in various places and at various times in the United States.

SC: How did the idea for the new class come about?

KT: I’ve taught a version of this course for a long time.  But the current iteration grew partly out of a desire to strengthen enrollments and to give students who are interested in U.S. Women’s History a way to fulfill their major requirements in a course that focuses on intersections of race, gender, and class.

The newest part of the course—the Fiber Project—emerged from an opportunity related to the development of Assistant Professor of Computer Science Tom Armstrong’s MakerSpace and the new FiberSpace that he and Library and Information Services Social Sciences Liaison Lauren Slingluff have set up on the main floor of the old Science Center.

SC: How is this related to your field of scholarship?

KT: I’ve always done work at the intersections of disciplines—Women’s Studies, Utopian Studies—and in the past ten years that has meant Digital Humanities, broadly defined.  In my research, I have been working on developing guidelines for the scholarly markup of historical financial records, and I have had students participate in this transcription and markup in various courses.

My goal in bringing Digital Humanities to the classroom has been to help students understand what’s “under the hood” of the digital tools and media that are so omnipresent in our daily lives.  We think of the current generation of college students as “digital natives,” but most of them don’t know much about the computer code that underlies the Internet, the World Wide Web, and the devices that we use to access information.  So I’ve done a lot of different projects with students who are not in the sciences or math or computer sciences, to give them a bit of experience with code and thereby take away some of the mystery behind the screen. I hope that students find this empowering.

The FiberSpace emphasizes the commonalities between mathematics and needlework of various kinds, including knitting, crochet, and sewing.  The crochet coral reef is a great example of a project out in the world that engages these commonalities.

SC: Why do you think it is important to explore this subject at this point in time?

KT: Women have always worked, but the transition to industrial capitalism in the nineteenth century created new ways of valuing work and compensating people for it.  Cash, which people earned for the most part in jobs they did outside their homes and for employers, became necessary to pay for food, shelter, and fuel as more and more people moved away from the rural household economies that had been more typical in earlier periods.  When women worked for cash, they generally were paid less than men because of assumptions about their needs for cash.  Whereas men were seen to be in the workforce for their entire lives because they were considered responsible for supporting their wives and children.

We would like to believe that work opportunities for women have expanded more and more over time, and as you’ve noticed, the armed services in the United States has recently made it possible for women to serve in combat units.  At the same time, women in most economic sectors continue to be paid less than men.  There are, we all recognize now, variations in the differentials between the compensations received by women and men depending on the jobs that they do.

SC: What are you most excited about covering in this class?

KT: I’ve really enjoyed watching the students learn about the realities of the work lives of women in the past, both within their homes and outside them.

SC: You mentioned a fiber project? Tell me about that and how it relates to the subject matter.

KT: We have a lot of cultural metaphors and sometimes even myths about needlework as women’s work, and historians have done a lot of work to discover evidence about the realities behind the metaphors and myths.  At various points in the past—the 1820s for instance—people felt it was important to instruct girls and young women in “traditional women’s work” because they were concerned that needlework skills were being lost.

At this point in time, we tend to think of needlework as a hobby.  Nobody relies on their mom or sister for socks—we just buy them at the local big box store.  And over the past couple of decades, young women—feminists—have taken on needlework as their own.  We might call this the “Stitch ‘n’ Bitch” phenomenon—that was one phrase that caught on a few years back; the Wheaton College knitting club called themselves by that name at one point.

In part because Tom and Lauren created the FiberSpace and in part because I wanted to rethink this course, I decided that adding a fiber project to the course would give the students and me a way to bring together my interests in the history of women’s work with my desire to find new ways for students to engage with simple computer code.

So this semester, students in the course are each making something with fiber.  They are knitting or crocheting something—most of them are making scarves of one kind or another—and finding a way to incorporate the simply circuitry available in the MakerSpace to make the objects interactive.  Our class will have both a poster and an exhibit in the Academic Festival in April.

SC: What do you think of the lifting of the ban on women in combat jobs?

KT: Since we are a nation at war and have been for longer than ever before in our history, I think it is change that is long past due.  For myself, I would rather we were not at war and nobody had to put their lives on the line.

SC: What is the significance of that decision?

KT: Women have wanted to be in combat and have been told not to worry their pretty heads about it.  Having denied them these roles has not prevented their being raped when they serve in war zones.  Perhaps giving their male counterparts the opportunity to see them as equals on the field of battle will have a positive effect with regard to this kind of horrible gender violence within the armed services.

SC: Why do gender divisions in labor persist? And is that good or bad?

KT: We have a lot of cultural baggage about the differences between women and men.  Despite centuries of efforts on the parts of countless women and men to break down gender assumptions in various places at various times, human beings keep positing these differences.  Personally, I resist them because I feel limited by them and I think that they limit our collective accomplishments as human beings.

SC: Do we need to break down all gender divisions in labor or just particular ones?

KT: I would rather see us required to prove the necessity of gender divisions of labor than the opposite.  In my view, a world that begins from “yes” is always better than a world that begins from “no.”

SC: What are you hoping that students get most out of this course?

KT: I hope they learn to value women’s labor and ways to make arguments for that value.

SC: Why do you think the general public should be considering these issues?

KT: Our world continues to open opportunities for people who have previously been limited by “no.”  I would love to see every single human being have the opportunity to achieve their greatest potential.  I think that breaking down barriers to that achievement is one of the most important projects that women and men have undertaken across time and space.



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