A Backward Glance (with apologies to Edith Wharton) and Looking Forward

A huge thank you to everyone who has taken part in the Transatlantic Literary Women Series this season! Speakers, blog writers, audience members, book club participants, team members past and present: thank you all! Looking back, as we plan our next season, it’s been a busy few months.

We started the new season in September with a first: a collaborative event in Edinburgh at the National Library of Scotland, with an afternoon on “Women and the Archives”. It may have been our first collaborative event with the brilliant NLS team, but we hope it won’t be the last! In a sold-out session, four speakers from both sides of the Atlantic considered the relationship between archives and literary reputations. What is the place of libraries (and other archives) in the recovery of “forgotten women writers”? What is the relationship between a writer’s archive and their literary status? We heard from Jenni Calder on the 1930s Scottish explorer and poet Isobel Wylie Hutchison, from Donna Campbell on Edith Wharton, from Imaobong Umoren on the politics of the archive of Jamaican poet and broadcaster Una Marson, and from A.N. Devers on the underrepresentation of women in the rare book trade, and why she started The Second Shelf, a rare book dealership specialising in works by female authors (@secondshelfbks).

Back in Glasgow, we were delighted to welcome Helen Hanson (University of Exeter) for her eagerly-awaited talk on Daphne du Maurier and Hollywood’s mid-century Adaptation Industry:

And later in the same month, we hosted US speaker Jennifer Haytock for her rich and timely talk, “Writing for France: American Women Writers and the Great War”:

In a collaboration with the Hook Centre for American Studies, we held a Protest and Activism Workshop, with four great ECRs speaking on womanist writers to radical quilters, on student activism, and on children’s books and educational activism. Thank you to Katja May, Kate Ballantyne, and Nick Batho.

Thank you too Katja for a great guest blog:

And thank you to our TLW friend and supporter, Gyorgy “George” Toth, Director of Atlantic Studies at the University of Stirling, for a fascinating guest blog on Native American women’s transatlantic activism:

We’ve been trying to get the brilliant Janine Bradbury as a speaker since the TLW series started, and she definitely did not disappoint, with her talk on racial passing and its transatlantic contexts. There are serious Nella Larsen fans in TLW!

As there are serious Zelda Fitzgerald fans in the group! It was a pleasure to welcome Kate Macdonald, Director of the fabulous Handheld Press to talk about her work, including a much-needed new edition of Save Me the Waltz.

We were delighted to welcome Helena Goodwyn from St Andrews who gave a brilliant talk on Margaret Harkness, W. T. Stead and the Transatlantic Social Gospel Network:

And this year we brought back the TLW book club, kicking things off in style with Dorothy Parker’s short stories, setting the most un-secret of secret passwords to access free copies of the book at the campus bookstore. We followed Parker with Michelle Obama’s memoir, Becoming, which sparked lively discussions from book club members from both sides of the Atlantic. And we were delighted to accept an invitation from US Studies online to help relaunch their online bookhour, with Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence. Wharton resistance in this group is futile.

So, what’s ahead in the next season after the break? Well, we’re starting planning soon, so if you have suggestions – which we always welcome – now’s the time to get in touch with ideas for themes, events (in-person or online), speakers, book club choices. What events would you be interested in attending? As ever, what we can do very largely depends on funding. We would like to say a massive thank you to the British Association of American Studies and the US Embassy in London for ongoing support from their small grants programme. We’re very grateful to BAAS/US Embassy for an award this year to invite three exciting speakers from the United States. Watch this space for updates!

We hope to welcome you at a friendly TLW event next season. If you’ve been to all, or many of, our events, huge thanks for your support, and please keep coming! Or, if you’ve never quite made it to one of our talks, we hope to welcome you next season. The TLW mantra: all events are free and everyone is welcome…


TLW Bookclub: The Custard Heart & Other Stories, Dorothy Parker

TLW Bookclub is back! And we’re back in style with Dorothy Parker’s collection of vibrant Jazz Age short stories.

Join the team on Wednesday 20 February at 5pm in room 203, 4 University Gardens to talk about Penguin Modern’s The Custard Heart, with three brilliant stories from Dorothy Parker; her award-winning ‘Big Blonde’, the iconic ‘You Were Perfectly Fine’ and the story the collection is named after, ‘The Custard Heart’. Whether you’ve spent a lifetime reading Parker or are reading her for the first time, we welcome all for some friendly discussion. Snacks, wine, soft drinks and copies of the book are all free!

There are thirty free copies of the book available from John Smith’s bookshop on campus. Please ask at the front desk and give them the not-so-secret password: martini.

First come, first served. When they’re gone they’re gone!

Helena Goodwyn, “Margaret Harkness, W. T. Stead and the Transatlantic Social Gospel Network”, 5:15pm, Wednesday 27th February, Room 202, 4 University Gardens

Transatlantic Literary Women and the Andrew Hook Centre for American Studies are excited to announce this joint event. We are delighted to be welcoming Dr. Helena Goodwyn to Glasgow to give a paper titled: “Margaret Harkness, W. T. Stead and the Transatlantic Social Gospel Network”. The talk takes place in room 202, 4 University Gardens (University of Glasgow) at 5.15pm on Wednesday 27th February, with drinks and refreshments available from 5 pm. As always, everyone is welcome. Hope to see you there!

Margaret Harkness, W. T. Stead and the Transatlantic Social Gospel Network

To be a journalist in the second half of the nineteenth century was often to be caught between accusations of evangelism and commercialism. For Margaret Harkness and W. T. Stead the desire to reach as wide an audience as possible created a tension between their idealism and popularism that each sought to overcome by marketing their respective social-activist texts as part of a wider, transnational network of reform. This talk, therefore, considers Harkness’s 1889 novel Captain Lobe: A Story of the Salvation Army, reprinted in 1891 as In Darkest London, and Stead’s 1894 socio-religious treatise If Christ Came to Chicago! A Plea for the Union of All Who Love in the Service of All Who Suffer, in light of each author’s attempts to align themselves with a movement of greater significance than their writings could achieve on their own: the transatlantic social gospel network.


Version 2About Helena

Helena Goodwyn is a Lecturer in Literature at the University of St Andrews. Her work has appeared in the THE, Journal of Victorian Culture and Victorian Periodicals Review. Her forthcoming book The Americanization of W. T. Stead will be published with Edinburgh University Press.


A new edition of Zelda Fitzgerald’s Save Me The Waltz will be published on January 14th by Handheld Press. We spoke with founder Kate Macdonald about the publishing process ahead of her talk at the University of Glasgow on the 23rd of January.

Zelda-cover-with-border-300x480 Zelda Fitzgerald is no stranger to being overlooked. Her combined work with F. Scott Fitzgerald, Bits of Paradise (consisting of twenty-three stories written by the couple) would see Zelda’s name erased from many of the titles, and literary agent Harold Ober removed her name from her short story Millionaire’s Girl on publication. Yet, she persisted. Her novel Save Me The Waltz is a masterpiece, documenting a woman’s desire for freedom in her own life set throughout the first half of the twentieth century. Despite recent critical acclaim, the book finds itself in and out of print regularly, and so founder of Handheld Press, Kate Macdonald, knew she had to act.  “When I heard her only novel had gone out of print, it was like a call to arms for me, a lightbulb moment. The neglected woman author is probably my most enduring scholarly interest, and I knew the market would respond well to a new edition of this novel.”

Save Me The Waltz follows Alabama Beggs, a woman who ‘wanted her own way about things’ and is determined to follow her own path. After marrying artist David Knight (the book is widely thought to parallel Zelda’s relationship with F. Scott Fitzgerald), Alabama’s life is a whirlwind tour of the Jazz Age, highlighting the grim realities behind a romanticised time. Eventually, Alabama finds purpose in ballet and begins to pursue the art at the age of twenty-seven. “Alabama’s ballet training, as a contrast to David Knight’s artistic life and production, and the immersion into theatrical consumption in New York and Paris in the 1920s, captivated me,” Kate adds, “as well as Zelda’s narrative style, her gift for description and dialogue and the economy of her narrative.” The ballet training scenes are particularly poignant in this age where success is often seen to be synonymous with youthfulness; Fitzgerald paints a painful picture of Alabama being told she is too old to pursue her passion in her twenties, but the strength and determination exhibited in these pages is enough to ignite inspiration in any reader.

Despite Zelda Fitzgerald experiencing a recent increase in popularity (mostly due to her relationship with her husband – highlighted in the recent Amazon Prime show ‘Z: The Beginning of Everything’), her status as a ‘forgotten’ woman writer still stands. “When I present the novel,” Kate notes, “the response has been along the lines of ‘Oh, I didn’t know she wrote’, and ‘I’ve never heard of her: is she related to F. Scott Fitzgerald?’; but I’ve had a good response from bookshop buyers, readers and scholars which has shown that my instincts to republish Save Me The Waltz were right.”

The new Handheld Press edition has an introduction from Erin E Templeton, providing a fascinating account exploring the parallels between Zelda’s struggles to have a life of her own and Alabama’s struggle to be a dancer. It also features a refreshing cover design by Nadja Guggi (who is responsible for the iconic look of the Handheld Press titles).

If you want to hear more from Kate Macdonald about publishing Save Me The Waltz (as well as Sylvia Townsend Warner’s Kingdoms of Elfin) then join us on the 23rd of January, 5 University Gardens at 5:15pm to hear an in-depth account of the publishing process.

You can purchase Save Me The Waltz here and at John Smith’s Bookshop in the Fraser Building from the 14th of January.


“Editing Zelda Fitzgerald’s ‘Save Me The Waltz’ and Sylvia Townsend Warner’s ‘Kingdoms of Elfin'” with Handheld Press (23rd January)

Wednesday 23rd January, 5:15pm, Room 202 in 4 University Gardens, University of Glasgow


TLW and the University of Glasgow’s English Literature Visiting Speaker Series are excited to announce our first event of 2019! Kate Macdonald, Director of Handheld Press, will be joining us to discuss her independent press and publishing new editions of Zelda Fitzgerald’s Save Me The Waltz and Sylvia Townsend Warner’s Kingdoms of Elfin. Join us on Wednesday 23rd of January as we discuss the publishing process behind the re-issuing of these titles, as well as a bit about these transatlantic and fantastic authors. For those interested in forgotten women writers, women in fantasy, and/or a career in publishing, this is not to be missed.

About Kate:

Kate Macdonald is a literary historian with degrees from the University of Aberdeen and University College London. She has had a thirty-year hopscotch career in publishing and academia, and has taught British literature and cultural studies in many EuropeanK_MacDonald-3 universities. Her most recent books were Novelists Against Social Change: Conservative Popular Fiction 1920-1960 (Palgrave 2015) and (ed.) Rose Macaulay, Gender and Modernity (Routledge 2017). She is now the director of Handheld Press, an independent publishing company that brings out beautiful new editions of fabulous forgotten fiction, riveting research stories and marvellous modern novels. She now lives in Bath where her great-great-grandmother once ran a milliner’s shop.


As with all of our events, this is a free event and open to all!

Guest Blog: Native American Women’s Transatlantic Activism for Sovereignty, Gyorgy “George” Toth (University of Stirling)

Following our Protest and Activism workshop last week, we’re delighted to share a fascinating guest blog from the University of Stirling’s Dr Gyorgy Toth on the topic of Native American women’s transatlantic activism.

Gyorgy “George” Toth holds degrees from Eötvös Loránd University, Budapest, Hungary (M.A. in English Language & Lit and American Studies) and The University of Iowa, Iowa City, Iowa, USA (Ph.D. in American Studies). Since December 2014 George has been serving as Lecturer in post-1945 U.S. History and Transatlantic Relations at the Division of History and Politics at the University of Stirling, Scotland, UK. His book From Wounded Knee to Checkpoint Charlieon the transatlantic alliance for American Indian sovereignty in the Late Cold War was published by SUNY Press in 2016. His research profile is at


In April of 2019, my friend Christine Nobiss, an activist of Canadian Cree-Salteaux and Hungarian heritage, will travel to Glasgow, Scotland, then on to Poznan, Poland, to present a paper at the annual American Indian Workshopconference. Christine is the founder and co-director of the organizations Indigenous Iowaand Seeding Sovereignty. At the conference and in her meetings with European activist groups, Christine will discuss her experience in the resistance to the building of the Dakota Access Pipeline at the Sacred Stones Campin North Dakota, and her various projects to decolonize the environment and landscape of what she calls the land of the Ioway – much of what is now the U.S. Midwest.

With her travels, Christine is not inventing the wheel – in fact, her trip as a Native North American woman activist will only be the latest in an established history of indigenous American female campaigners for sovereignty who toured Europe. Some of the key members of Christine’s mother’s generation of Native women travelled to Europe as part of a transatlantic alliance for causes related to Native American sovereignty. These included campaigns for indigenous reproductive rights, environmentalism and resource sovereignty, anti-nuclear and peace causes, and even Marxist revolutionary projects.

The Movement

The Native American women activists of the 1970s and ‘80s were ‘woke’, tough, and persistent. Their awareness of colonialism and discrimination most often came from their own experience – whether from living on reservations, the crucible of urban life, university workshops, or the social movement struggles of the 1960s. Native women often formed the hard core of the Red Power struggleand the American Indian Movement– they were the ones who put their backs into movement work, including the everyday tasks less glorious than the dramatic demonstrations on Alcatraz in 1969-71, the Trail of Broken Treaties in Washington, D.C. in 1972, or Wounded Knee in 1973. At key junctures, female elders and activists would also provide a crucial pushneeded for these protest events to take place. Native women participated in all such events, sometimes with their whole families, even marrying, giving birth, or burying their community members right there at the protest sites.

After these dramatic and costly confrontations with the United States government, by the mid-1970s Native sovereignty activists had changed strategy. In 1974, the American Indian Movement (AIM) launched a sustained and concentrated organizational effort to pursue the decolonization of Native America by seeking admittance to the United Nations and forging alliances with Central European solidarity groups. AIM representatives travelled to Europe to form and visit solidarity groups, who in turn raised funds, publicized the cause of sovereignty, collected signatures, and sent petitions to U.S. government officials and judges. This strategy put external pressure on the United States government in order to force it to legislate American Indian sovereignty rights. The major organ of this strategy was the International Indian Treaty Council, which attained consultative NGO status at the United Nations in 1977. In September of the same year, the United Nations held their International NGO Conference on Discrimination against Indigenous Populations in the Americasin Geneva – a breakthrough in the transatlantic alliance for Native American sovereignty.

Transatlantic Warrior Women

One of the key activists in the Indian Treaty Council was Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz, a lady of Southern Cheyenne and white Oklahoman heritage. Dunbar-Ortiz had fervently campaigned for some of the most important social causes in the United States and internationally, including women’s liberation and Marxist world revolution. After working with the Wounded Knee Legal Defense / Offence Committee, Dunbar-Ortiz became one of the early leaders of the International Indian Treaty Council. Committed to a Marxist revolutionary project of national liberation, she believed that the Indians of the Americas were part and parcel of the downtrodden working class in each country. Dunbar-Ortiz insisted that national liberation movements should include indigenous populations, and that revolutionary regimes should recognize Indian sovereignty rights.[1]Importantly, this Native perception of Marxism called for a deep commitment and mutual collaboration between sovereignty activists and revolutionary movements and regimes.

As a representative of the Treaty Council, Dunbar-Ortiz crossed the Atlantic for the 1977 conference in Geneva with several other Native American women. Especially notable was Winona LaDuke, an 18-year-old girl of Anishinaabe (Ojibwa) and Jewish heritage, who fearlessly addressed the world gatheringabout the effects of uranium mining on the Navajo nation.

The Native women who went to Geneva did not stay in Geneva. After their conference, the American Indian delegation fanned out across Europe to build alliances. One team featuring Allene Goddard-Cottier of the Oglala Lakota took a trip to the USSR. In Moscow they met the Soviet Peace Council, government officials, educators, and the press. The group toured the Kremlin, and two of them visited the Moscow Ballet. A University of Moscow ethnographer presented them with eagle feathers from Siberia, and they appeared on Soviet TV, broadcast to some 180 million viewers. Next the delegation visited the Soviet Republic of Kazakhstan, where they were explained the Kremlin’s progressive policies for Kazakhs as a minority “of color.” Goddard concluded her trip with a visit to the Soviet Republic of Mongolia.[2]

The daughter of AIM leader Russell Means of the Pine Ridge Oglala Reservation, 15-year-old Sherry Means accompanied her father on a trip across Bulgaria, Yugoslavia, Hungary and East Germany. In Bulgaria, where they were treated as guests of the government, the sovereignty delegation met with members of the country’s Central Committee and the World Peace Council. In East Germany, the Indian visitors learned about the history of the Sorbs, an ethnic minority, whose human rights were now protected under socialism. For Sherry, “that goes to show what a lie the Americans are living” with their anti-Communist propaganda. She concluded that “what I have learned in these countries is that they believe strongly in human rights and for our struggle. They aren’t the people to feel sorry for. They have no poverty or competition with each other, and nobody wants to get rich because they all have equal opportunities.”[3](It can be reasonably assumed that not all Native American activists actually believed Eastern Bloc propaganda, but rather they reported it strategically, in order to bolster their cause back in the U.S.)

The 1977 UN gathering and post-conference tours in Europe were so successful that German solidarity workers planned a new campaign the following year, with another group of Native North American activists. One important new feature of the May 1978 tour was its stronger focus on Native women’s causes than in the previous visit. In addition to Dunbar-Ortiz, the delegation featured three women activists. Phyllis Youngof the Standing Rock Sioux nation had co-founded Women of All Red Nations, an organization that campaigned for Native treaty rights and the elimination of demeaning Indian stereotypes in U.S. culture.[4]Yvonne Wanrow, from the Colville Reservation of the Confederated Tribes of Washington, championed women’s right to self-defence and legal protection in the U.S. courts. Barbara Moorewas the Sicangu Lakota sister of the famous late Mary Moore, whose book Lakota Womanlater documented women’s experience in the American Indian Movement. A victim of the practice herself, Barbara Moore campaigned against involuntary sterilization, which she recognized as a measure of colonialist control of non-white populations in the United States.[5]Several of them strong personalities and veteran activists, these women forcefully foregrounded Native women’s demands and contributions to the sovereignty struggle, and shared their experiences and wisdom about activism with their German audiences and counterparts. Accordingly, the tour’s program also included events such as a mass rally on women’s rights at the Audimax hall of the Technical University of Berlin on May 5, 1978.[6]

‘Sisters’ in Transatlantic Activism

European women were often partners and allies in Native American transatlantic activism for sovereignty. After the 1975 opening of an American Indian Movement office in West Berlin, Regina Mayerserved as a solidarity volunteer, doing public outreach for Native sovereignty across West Germany.[7]In April and May of 1978, Ulla Bäcksin of the Swedish Indian League (Svensk Indianska Förbundet) helped take Eddie Benton Banai and Shirley Blakely of the Federation of Survival Schoolson a “European Speech Tour” to West Germany and Austria.[8]In the 1970s, university professor and popular author Liselotte Welskopf-Henrichwote a fiction pentalogy titled The Blood of Eagles, focusing on current Native American issues.[9]In the mid-1980s, Renate Domnick of the West German NGO Gesellschaft für bedrohte Völker(Society for Endangered Peoples) helped conduct a media campaign to publicize the right of the Sioux nation to the Black Hills of South Dakota.[10]In 1984, the West German Green Party’s founder, nuclear disarmament activist and eco-feminist politicianPetra Kellydemanded that her country’s government lend support to the same land rights case in the United Nations. Kelly raised the issue of German complicity in uranium mining in the Black Hills, and eloquently explained that the Sioux nation were no less sovereign than West Germany, which had become independent from the “trusteeship” of the United States after World War Two.[11]In the same year, Kelly published her book Fighting for Hope, a call for a world free from violence generated by colonialism, gender politics, and humans’ exploitation of the environment.

Stronger with Age, Still Fighting

Kelly’s murder by her partner in 1992 serves as a horrible reminder of the deadliness of domestic violence against women. Yet several of the above members of this great generation of transatlantic activist women remain leaders in their causes to this day. Barbara Moore served as dean of the Crow Dog’s Indian Way School on the Rosebud Reservation of South Dakota, where she was also an educator for Native reproductive rights.[12]Yvonne Wanrow was a champion of traditional Indian lifeways, and a defender of female Native American prisoners. Phyllis Young was a pillar in the struggle against the Dakota Access Pipelinein 2016-2017, and has subsequently helped defend water protectors in the courts. After decades of activism in the United Nations, in Nicaragua and with transnational organizations, Roxanne Dunbar-Ortizkeeps speaking and writing about the relationship between indigenous rights, the left, and women’s liberation. Winona LaDuke’s activism for environmental sovereignty has earned her high prestige in activist communities. Also known as “Thunderbird Woman”, LaDuke has not only promoted local and Native lifeways, faming and dietas a viable alternative to factory farming and consumption. As vice presidential candidate on Ralph Nader’s Green Party ticket, she was theNative American woman who arguably helped upset the U.S. presidential election of 2000-01.[13]

With such elders, my friend Christine can proudly make the trek to Europe in her campaign for environmental sovereignty, which now is a pillar of the movement to turn the tide of climate change. May she find sisters and brothers who will join her in our shared struggle!


[1]Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz, Blood on the Border: A Memoir of the Contra War (Cambridge, Mass.: South End Press, 2005) 17, 20, 51, 261.

[2].“Indian Delegation Visits Soviet Union.” Treaty Council News Nov 1977, 3; Records of the International Indian Treaty Council, San Francisco, California.

[3]“Indian Delegation Visits Soviet Union.” Treaty Council News Nov 1977, 3; Sherry Means, “‘These Countries Believe Strongly in Human Rights.’” Treaty Council News Nov 1977, 4. Original title in quotation marks. Records of the International Indian Treaty Council, San Francisco, California.

[4]Meg Devlin O’Sullivan, “’We Worry About Survival’: American Indian Women, Sovereingty, and the Right to Bear and Raise Children in the 1970s.” 17, 20, 32, 91. Unpublished PhD dissertation. Department of History, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, 2007. Online: Accessed November 7, 2018.

[5]Jael Silliman et al, eds. Undivided Rights: Women of Color Organize for Reproductive Justice. (Cambridge, Mass.: South End Press, 2004), 112. On Barbara Moore, also see Crow Dog and Erdoes, 4, and Brave Bird with Erdoes, 193.

[6]“0132/62-65. Performance Göttingen Delegation ’78. Photo Baugert,” and various other photographs. Photo archive of the Gesellschaft für bedrohte Völker. Undated “Endgültiger Terminplan fur die Indianerdelegation ’78 [Final Schedule of the Indian Delegation in 1978].” April 8, 1978 letter from Society to its members regarding the schedule of Indian delegation. Records of the Gesellschaft für bedrohte Völker, Göttingen, Germany.

[7]Letter to Richard Erdoes from Regina Mayer White Plume, February 13, 1975. Richard Erdoes Papers. Yale Collection of Western Americana, Yale University.

[8]December 17, 1977 letter from AIM Support Group Hamburg to the Society for Endangered Peoples. March 29, 1978 letter from AIM Support Group Hamburg to the Society. Records of the Gesellschaft für bedrohte Völker.

[9]For more on Liselotte Welskopf-Henrich, see Glenn Penny, “Liselotte Welskopf-Henrich and Indian Activist Networks in East and West Germany,” Central European History 41 (2008): 447-476.

[10]Clippings from assorted newspapers published between February and September 1984. Records of the Gesellschaft für bedrohte Völker (Society for Endangered Peoples).

[11]August 31, 1984 letter from Petra K. Kelly to West German Federal Foreign Minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher. Translation by the author. Records of the Gesellschaft für bedrohte Völker (Society for Endangered Peoples).

[12]Jael Silliman et al, eds. Undivided Rights: Women of Color Organize for Reproductive Justice. (Cambridge, Mass.: South End Press, 2004), 119.

[13]In the November 2000 presidential elections of the United States, Democratic presidential contender Al Gore won the popular vote by 0.5% or 543,895 votes; yet George W. Bush won the Electoral College by 1 single electoral vote. The Green Party ticket, with presidential contender Ralph Nader and vice presidential candidate Winona LaDuke, won a total of popular vote of 2.74% or 2,882,955, but did not win an Electoral College vote. In the Electoral College, one elector abstained from voting. In the key state of Florida, which ultimately decided the election, Gore lost to Bush by 537 votes, or by 0.01%; the Green ticket received 97,488 votes, or 1.63% of the vote. “2000 Presidential Electoral and Popular Vote.” Federal Election Commission.

Guest Blog: Stitching Everyday Resistance: Feminist Politics and Practices of Needlework (Katja May)

Ahead of our Protest and Activism workshop we’re delighted to share a guest blog from one of our speakers- Katja May. Katja  is a third-year PhD candidate and Graduate Teaching Assistant at the University of Kent. Her interdisciplinary research project examines practices of needlework as a form of politics within feminist activism. To hear more about her research, please join us on Wednesday 7 November from 2-4.30pm in the Gannochy Seminar Room at the University of Glasgow!


Textiles have always been deeply connected to the Transatlantic. For black slaves shipped to the new world to toil on the cotton plantations of the American South, the passage resembled one of the first (and for many also the last) horrors of slavery. The cotton these slaves and their descendants then planted, harvested and ginned would often also embark on the transatlantic crossing as either raw or processed goods, but also in the form of passengers’ clothes. Likewise, different textile practices, from dressmaking to embroidery and quilting, went back and forth between both sides of the Atlantic as practitioners moved between the two spheres. This is still very much the case today and the process has become heightened through technological developments that allow online exchange between practitioners and those interested in textile arts and practices of needlework. Think, for example, of the pussy hats that were conceptualized in the autumn of 2016 by Kristah Suh and Jayna Zweiman in the United States as a “symbol of support and solidarity for women’s rights and political resistance” (Pussyhat Project). The knitting and crochet pattern travelled across the Atlantic and beyond and became the iconic object of the Women’s Marches that took place in January of 2017 across the world in protest of the inauguration of Donald Trump as President of the United States.

My PhD research is inspired by this ubiquitous nature of textiles that threads it to global politics and economics while also being closely connected to the individual.  My own passion for textiles was inspired during my high school exchange year in the US, which was to mark my first encounter with traditional patchwork quilts. Back in Germany, it took another three years before I learned how to sew and quilt myself, and it didn’t take long for me to become (slightly) obsessed about anything related to quilting and textiles more generally. This was eight years ago, at a time that the so-called modern quilting movement and its attendant aesthetic was gaining in popularity in the US and had also found its way across the Atlantic to Europe. Age-old discourses about the connection between needlework and femininity were revived, reproduced and sometimes reworked as a result of the revival of the craft. Besides the question of active participation in the craft as an act of conformity or subversion to traditional norms of femininity, practices of needlework are repeatedly discussed as alternative forms of production that supposedly counteract mass produced textiles. However, none of these things are as clear-cut as they are often made out to be. For example, one can make a pussyhat out of cheap acrylic wool bought in a Pound store that is likely to employ its employees (many of which are probably women) on no more than minimum wage and in a precarious contract. Likewise, I could wear a pussyhat made from high-end organic wool in combination with an outfit bought from high street retailers well known for unethical and dangerous manufacturing processes in their South Asian clothing factories. How then, can we attempt to disentangle the ways that practices of needlework are closely knit to other areas of everyday life through their historic legacy, modes of production, and connotations with femininity? I think that the key is in moving away from those popular areas of focus because they will always lead to a dead-end or rather some type of standoff between two opposing sides of a binary rather than investigating what it means for practitioners to be involved in a practice with such contested meanings.

My interdisciplinary research project Everyday Textures: Practices of Needlework, Meaning-Making and Social Transformation examines practices of needlework, for example quilting, dressmaking, embroidery and knitting, as a form of politics within feminist anti-racist and anti-capitalist activism. Drawing on the work of Margaret Wetherell and Ann Cvetkovich, I conceptualize these crafts as affective social practices of meaning-makingin order to attend to their texture in the context of their everyday performance. As a result, I hope to gain further insight into the relationship between personal and social transformation, social movements, politics and the role of everyday practices on the level of affect, knowledge and the phenomenology of making. My sample of case studies is necessarily eclectic because neither the everyday nor practices of needlework can be neatly fitted into disciplinary or methodological boundaries as they bridge that which is ordinary but also exceptional, forms of repetition, moments of disorientation and breakdown as well as potentiality. As such, I critically engage with a number of text(ures) from women’s writing to textile artefacts to the works of the US based youth organization the Social Justice Sewing Academy and the Afghan-European embroidery initiative Guldusi to the contemporary craftivism movement. Through this attention to texture on the level of everyday affective social practices of creative making I follow different trajectories of meaning-making across the textured web of everyday life lines situated not in an abstract realm but in concrete material and affective experiences.

Katja May, University of Kent