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    The Women’s Craft Movement and the Celebration of Craftswomen

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    On Veteran’s Day weekend, Nov. 9-11, the Celebration of Craftswomen—the major fundraising event for the SF Women’s Building—will be 35 years old. This seems an appropriate time to revisit the women’s craft movement of the 1970s, which provided many of the initial participants in the Celebration and which is largely unknown and unheralded today in feminist and gay history.

    In the early 1970s, a craft revolution swept the country. It coincided with the burgeoning women’s movement, the gay rights movement, the back-to-land movement, and all the other movements, which were coalescing in the wake of the Vietnam War protests. Handmade work became a path to a kind of freedom that allowed people to drop out of the traditional job market.

    For some feminist women, it seemed necessary to create symbolic objects that helped identify a community of like-minded women. The powerful symbol for female, with the image of a raised fist, symbolized “Sisterhood is Powerful.” Imagery from women’s spirituality, the female body, and women’s history became meaningful to feminists. Symbols defined those who were Wiccans, or who wanted to resurrect the goddess or pay homage to historical matriarchies.

    Lesbian feminists also embraced double women’s symbols, the color lavender, the rainbow, and the pink and black triangles (symbols of Nazi oppression of homosexuals.) Many objects that were created during this period became emblematic, and still are today.

    The feminist craftswomen came from all backgrounds. Some had formal training; some did not. Many had a sense that they were following in the footsteps of the women of previous generations. It was also understood that women who were working with their hands could create objects in media that were non-traditional for women at the time, such as cast bronze, leather, wood, stained glass, etc.

    In the late 1970s, several Bay Area craftswomen had established a small holiday women’s crafts fair in conjunction with Old Wives’ Tales Bookstore on Valencia St. with the intention of benefitting women’s organizations. The San Francisco Women’s Building took over the women’s craft fair in 1980 and grew the event, so that it became the Building’s major annual fundraiser.

    By the beginning of the 1990s, the women’s craft movement was changing. Feminist and gay bookstores went out of business and handcrafted items were marginalized by ambitious entrepreneurs who could make money by jobbing out production to Asia, putting a lot of woman-owned craft businesses out of business. Many craftswomen had also moved on to perfect their craftswomanship and their creative ideas, not necessarily leaving the fold of the women’s movement, but becoming part of the wider population of craftspeople.

    Today, the women’s craft movement has evolved into the women’s arts and crafts movement, encompassing a wide variety of work. The sense of community may not be as pronounced as it was 35 years ago, but it is still proudly represented at the Celebration of Craftswomen.

    Judy Stone and Dotty Calabrese are the Founders of the Celebration of Craftswomen, celebrationofcraftswomen.org/.