If you're in the Chicago area or here in Greater Boston, I cannot urge you enough to make your way to one of the free productions of Fannie Lou Hamer, Speak On It! This incredible play by Cheryl L. West illuminates the important role that women have always played in justice, politics and activism. Fannie's story resinates in the Black Lives Matter movement that takes to the street daily here in 2020, but it can also be heard in the sea of pink pussy hats at women's march on Washington. It is joined by a chorus of women's voices that have helped to change history, and with their voices, they bring their handicrafts. In that spirit the next three part series on women, activism and the symbolic role of fiber arts.
Knitting, spinning, sewing, and all other examples of fiber related handicrafts have always been a part of women's day to day lives, and so it should be no surprise that they play a role in their activism. We go back to the french revolution, and "les tricoteuses de la Guillotine" or the knitters of the guillotine.
A group of market women would march on Versailles in October of 1789, driven by hunger with a demand for bread to feed the people, they would succeed in drive King Louis XVI and Marie Antionette out of their opulent and indolent lifestyle and back to their palace in Paris. These market women led by Reine Audu, Agnès Lefevre, Marie Louise Bouju, and Rose Lacombe, would gain notoriety for their actions, and creating fear in their revolutionary male counter parts. Ultimately, they would be banned from any public assembly in May of 1793 and refused entry to their usual gallery seats for the trials that took place during the Reign of Terror from September 1973 to July of the following year.
In response these women would place themselves right at the front of the guillotine executions taking place in the Place de la Révolution. Bringing out their chairs to sit and watch the spectacle, often bellowing and jeering at the accused. Filling the time between with the daily activities of women, gossip and knitting. Tricoteuses comes from the french word tricoter, or "to knit".
The tricoteuses would only gain notoriety for their faithful knitting at the foot of the condemned. They were referenced by Dickens in Tale of Two Cities as well as by Orczy in The Scarlet Pimpernel, embellished so much so that they we often sprayed with the blood of the victims. While, they may not have been covered in the blood of the bourgeois, their knitting did become a symbol of the revolution.
Like their modern knitting counterparts, they most commonly brought with them small knitted projects to the that gruesome square, like stockings or mittens. But, what quickly became the project of their patriotism were soft red conical hats call Phryian or Liberty caps. These caps became the emblem of the revolution and have remained important to French imagery to this day.
We don't know why these women chose to sit at the guillotine and knit, but it is logical to conclude that even in political unrest, time couldn't afford to be wasted watching your oppressors loose their heads. For women any "idle" time would have required a project that would either bring in income or provide for other familiar needs, and that regardless of where the tasks took place social expectation still expected it to be completed.
"Viva La Révolution, et les tricoteuses de la Guillotine!"