“I found my friend demurely seated in her mother’s rocking-chair hemming table linen and towels for her new home … All there was to remind one of the ‘Napoleon of the Suffrage Movement’ was a large escritoire covered with documents in the usual state of disorder.”
- Elizabeth Cady Stanton about Susan B. Anthony, Eighty Years and More (1815-1897): Reminiscences of Elizabeth Cady Stanton (European Publishing Co.: New York, NY, 1898).
An early advocate of women’s rights, Stanton bemoaned needlework, ascribing women’s inferior status to their role in home and factory textile production.
Members of 19th-century social movements used quilts for a variety of purposes, however, and leaders disagreed about the appropriateness of quilts as tools of change. Unlike Stanton, WCTU leader Frances Willard recognized quiltmaking as a uniquely feminine and valid choice.
Since the 1970s, a diverse set of groups have utilized quilts as art, symbol, and craft. Feminist artists and art critics like Miriam Schapiro and Patricia Mainardi took an interest in women’s traditional handicrafts. Between 1975 and 1982, the Artist and the Quilt project paired artists and quiltmakers as a decidedly feminist response to the blurring boundaries between art and craft. Studio artists Jean Ray Laury, Susan Shie, Sue Benner, and Carolyn Mazloomi tie their work closely to feminism.
Feminist groups have used quilts to advance political causes. Activists employed quilts because they were historically women’s work, and were, therefore, considered less abrasive than standard activism. Women throughout the country also made quilts to celebrate the Bicentennial.
Quilts continued to make inroads as historians and material culturists took notice. Julie Silber, Pat Ferrero, and Linda Reuther curated Quilts in Women’s Lives in 1976 and curated the exhibit American Quilts: A Handmade Legacy in 1981 at the Oakland Museum to explore the social and cultural connections of quilts with women’s lives beyond their aesthetic value. Patricia Cooper and Norma Bradley Buferd conducted an oral history project documenting the social and cultural influences of quilts in women’s lives.
Third-wave feminists in the 1990s and 2000s adopted quiltmaking and other handicrafts as part of their ideals of new domesticity, which celebrated domestic work. The new domesticity is closely related to the indie craft movement and contemporary quilt activism.