Today I start a series of lectures for undergraduate students and the first class is on gender, the body and organisation. I thought it might be a good way into this to think about a gendered occupation and I suddenly remembered two pictures that I have used before. The first is this one of Linford Christie learning embroidery. It was part of a campaign by a Government body, Learning Direct, to encourage us all to acquire new skills for the knowledge economy. I don’t have a note of the date unfortunately, but I do know that it was produced when Christie was at the height of his pomp after his gold medal successes at the Barcelona Olympics. The message seems to me to be, here is this man, champion of the world. the conquering hero, the epitome of masculinity, strength, courage, competitiveness, determination, the fastest man on earth. Even he can learn embroidery. I don’t how much they paid him, but personally, I don’t find Christie convincing. His body language is ill at ease, and his smile seems forced. He clearly finds the embroidery frame a threat to his masculinity. I contrast the machismo of Christie with the following:
This image is possibly even more startling and I wish I knew its provenance. It was given to me after a lecture I used to do on portrayals of women sewing. This is quite extraordinary for a stitcher – what exactly is she making with all that tulle? A set of net curtains? And why exactly is she stark naked? Is this pornographic? Or does the bird cage in the top right-hand corner suggest a feminist subtext? But the association of the feminine with sewing and sewing with the feminine is very clear. It reminds me of Roszika Parker’s great assertion: ‘To know the history of embroidery is to know the history of women’ in The Subversive Stitch. Parker’s thesis is that young women were taught the qualities of femininity – taught how to be women – by being taught embroidery. They were taught quietness, self-containment, composure, to keep their heads down, to be neat, to be diligent, to see things through, to be silent and content with their own company. And to be happy to stay at home. She also states that young women were taught to copy designs and not to be independently creative. Parker suggests that this was so successful that embroidery and femininity became synonymous: embroidery was women’s work, and thus we are set up to find the super man in his glory Christie, funny when he picks up a little cross stitch. The Subversive Stitch has just been republished and is well worth getting hold of. Its title comes from Parker’s theory that women have always used needlework as a way of making statements about their worlds and of challenging societal norms and constraints placed upon them.
I am not sure that my young economists will go for this. But it is always worth a try.