Searching for Unseen Metic Labor in the Pussyhat Project
Author(s): Jennifer Lin LeMesurier
Jennifer Lin LeMesurier is an Assistant Professor of Writing and Rhetoric at Colgate University. Her work, found in such journals as College Composition and Communication, POROI, and Rhetoric Review, focuses on the intersection of rhetoric, embodiment, culture, and movement. Currently, she is working on a book manuscript that analyzes the rhetorical forces that racialize certain patterns of consumption, related to food or otherwise, as evidence of an unpalatable embodiment.
Abstract: This essay analyzes the reactions to the Pussyhat Project as a means of redefining the ancient concept of mētis, or wily, embodied intelligence. In the ancient myths that center on mētis, victims of sexual violence enact subversive agency via metic practices of weaving. In contemporary uses of the term, the tendency is to focus on the potential for subversion rather than the systemic, oppressive structures that render metic practices necessary. This article considers ancient myths in relation to the Pussyhat Project as a means of recentering the bodily labor of mētis as that which emerges from precarity. Such a focus on the connection between metic practices and vulnerable positions offers a greater capacity for coalition building amongst varied bodyminds.Tags: bodily labor, coalition building, embodied intelligence, mētis, Pussyhat Project
Contemporary public discourse has been inundated with new attention to the old problem of sexual assault. This attention has prompted more survivors and witnesses to share their testimonies publicly and seek legal consequences. For example, following the start of the #MeToo movement, rape crisis centers were flooded with calls, with weekly reports up an average of 25-50% (Lambert). However, despite this wave of new testimonies, survivors found themselves being told that their stories were not enough evidence to bring their assaulters to justice. As reporter Rebecca Traister writes about being contacted by survivors, “To many of them I must say that their guy isn’t well known enough, that the stories are now so plentiful that offenders must meet a certain bar of notoriety, or power, or villainy, before they’re considered newsworthy” (“Your Reckoning”). Traister’s experience underscores a nagging issue; despite the increased awareness of the high occurrence of sexual harassment and rape, survivors are still automatically disadvantaged, professionally and personally, when speaking against an abuser. Although a notorious abuser will receive more media attention, accusing such an individual also means challenging the broader network of financial and legal resources that such powerful individuals can access. More media attention to the case also means there is a greater threat of the survivor being harassed or even threatened online and in person. To testify to a sexual assault thus means to place one’s self in a doubly compromised position through no fault of one’s own. In the face of these structures, survivors of assault have been performing alternative forms of resistive testimony to sexual abuse through the metic medium of weaving since ancient times.
In this essay, I consider how the Pussyhat Project, the knitting of bright pink hats with cat ears to be worn at the Women’s Marches starting in 2017, demonstrates that mētis, usually defined in terms of bodily wisdom and knowledge, is not just a neutral form of cunning but rather the broader set of ongoing, unseen processes of bodily labor that make vulnerable lives tenable within oppressive structures. The Pussyhat Project is a rhetorical response to the election of Donald Trump as the 45th president, particularly his comments about grabbing women by the “pussy”. While the intent was to create a “bold and powerful visual statement of solidarity” (“About”) at the Marches in support of women’s rights, the Pussyhats have been labeled as exclusionary markers of transphobia and racism, perhaps even to the level of the Confederate flag (Gordon). To address this tension, I entwine ancient Greek myths and this contemporary example of weaving to demonstrate how the rhetorical labor of textile work, such as weaving or knitting, is part of a long lineage of feminist material rhetoric that emerges from the silencing of testimonies about sexual abuse in public discourse. These sorts of metic rhetorical practices are not explicit counter rhetorics but are quieter moments of vulnerable labor that often go unseen.
As contemporary rhetors have wrestled with the applicability of mētis, the concept has been redefined in ways that potentially obscure what is at stake in its deployment. The most common definitions focus on its “complex mode of intelligence” and “wily cunning” (Hawhee 46) that “is first and foremost a bodily intelligence” (Dolmage, “Metis” 5). In applications that take up this focus on bodily cunning as its defining feature, mētis is treated as a strategic tool for meeting resistance (Kopelson) or a reclamation of embodiments that exceed ableist norms (Dolmage, “Metis”). The promise of such rhetorical dexterity as transferable among situations is appealing, as it seems to offer much needed subversive power for the disenfranchised. However, decoupling this concept from the original contexts risks reinforcing the same gendered hierarchies and bodily vulnerabilities that make metic work necessary at all. In reading ancient Greek myths that center on mētis, it becomes clearer how contemporary treatments must recognize that its “wily cunning” is necessarily rooted in specificities of bodily vulnerability that are very often linked to assault and trauma. Specifically, if mētis is often the last resort for feminine bodies under duress, applying the concept to more ordinary situations of problem-solving is a violent flattening of embodied experience that undermines what is at stake when mētis is present.
Survival-focused bodily labor is often difficult to see or understand from the outside, which can result in an overestimating of the importance of the objects that this labor produces. While the physical manifestation of the Pussyhat offers a tangible example of labor that is so often treated as illegitimate, focusing on the objects and their symbolic impact risks missing the related forms of metic labor that are both legitimate forms of rhetorical practice and potential means of forming solidarity beyond normative identity categories. Sarah Hallenbeck and Michelle Smith define feminist labor “a useful alternative to political citizenship as the primary lens for understanding women’s rights and rhetoric” because focusing only on civic engagement can “leave unexamined the shortcomings of civic participation as a guarantor of political agency and visibility” (206). Searching for forms of metic labor means to search for that which falls outside of political viability, for the processes that purposefully avoid tearing or snagging the fabric of everyday life.
The issue of what labor is counted as such should make us question where even liberation-focused rhetorical projects can fall into the same harmful patterns found in debates over who is qualified to be a political actor. Arabella Lyon argues that an oversimplified reading of Kenneth Burke’s theory of identification can mask how “identifications that deny difference thwart meaningful dialogue over located politics” (68). I flip her interpretation of Burke to emphasize how identifications that magnify difference can also thwart needed rhetorical action; without attending to how political agency often trends toward conserving existing structures, focusing on the marginalized can reinforce structural layers of exclusion because of the tendency to treat vulnerable populations as homogenous. Instead of exclusively focusing on highlighting those with marginalized identities, a rhetorical move that can easily slide into tokenism, seeking out and supporting overlooked forms of bodily labor enables fostering a “radical kinship, an interdependent sociality, a politics of care” (Hevda) and “imagining new ways of thinking about identity and new formations for forming coalitions” (Bost 340). Such a focus continues the feminist challenge to patriarchal understandings of rhetorical history and theory (Ede, Glenn, and Lunsford; Glenn; Royster and Hirsch; Shell, Rawson, and Ronald) by centering the bodily, affective experience that is often not visible from within a more “rational” framework.
Mētis Under Duress
In the ancient myths, vulnerable individuals (Mētis, Odysseus, Penelope, Philomela, Arachne, and others) draw on the power of mētis to gain enough rhetorical agency to escape various threatening situations. In the case of the Pussyhat Project, it is not the Pussyhats themselves that are metic but rather the combined physical processes of knitting, walking, wearing, and sharing them that transform the bodies doing these actions. In both cases, the clandestine nature of metic processes means that one’s rhetorical arguments are more vulnerable to contradictory uptakes, which we see in the accusations of Pussyhats as excluding trans women or women of color (Gökarıksel and Smith). We should consider how this polysemic reception is a necessary accompaniment to this deployment of metic agency: “the agency of stylized repetition that has ironic overtones; the citation that appropriates and alters” (Campbell 7). Such octopus-like “blending into the environment” (Hawhee 57) purposefully postpones the moment of identification, meaning the author’s and audience’s relationship is necessarily ambiguous, which can lead to harmful assumptions. Amidst such ambiguity, returning to mythic examples and their dismal outcomes highlights the need to investigate what sorts of structures render metic weaving as a viable rhetorical option in the face of sexual violence, as well as how using mētis is indebted to vulnerable ontological states.
Highlighting how the concept of mētis emerges from embodied vulnerability is no difficult task, as the original myth of the goddess Mētis is rooted in sexual violence. As the story goes, Mētis is Zeus’ first wife, and he originally wins her by raping her. Kathryn Sullivan Kruger euphemizes the encounter: “though Zeus lusted after [Mētis], she tried to elude him by changing into many different shapes. Eventually, however, she was captured and impregnated with a female child (Athena)” (75). The struggle between Zeus and Mētis was not about power in an abstract sense but a forcible takeover of Mētis’ body, yet her struggle is often reduced to “escap[ing] Zeus’ embrace” (Detienne and Vernant 20). In all of these portrayals, female “embodiment [was] the prize” (Bergren 216).
Later, Zeus swallows Mētis to prevent her from bearing children that will overthrow his rule. He coaxes her to a marital couch where he performs sexual cannibalism, swallowing her mid-coitus. In some versions of the myth, Mētis remains sentient and gives Zeus wise counsel from inside of his body. The goddess’ famed transformational skills were most strongly demonstrated and continued under sexual duress and resulted in the erasure of her own corporeality. Once swallowed, Mētis no longer operates through the auspices of her own body and instead becomes absorbed into the body and capacity of Zeus. There are some versions that even deny her role as Athena’s mother and instead grant Zeus credit for the labor; early visual depictions of her birth show only Zeus and “the goddesses of childbirth, the Eileithyiai,” which implies that “Zeus’ own labor produces the birth” (Brown 135). The omitting of Mētis’ role as the mother of a key figure of the Greek pantheon, exemplifies the tendency to not see or pass over the importance and pain of female bodily labor. Reclaiming Mētis/mētis thus requires looking for forms of bodily labor that are often ignored in official documentation.
In the case of Penelope, the wife of Odysseus, the threats to her social position and bodily integrity mean she covers the tracks of her metic work carefully. While Odysseus is away, she faces continuing intimidations to her bodily sovereignty from a houseful of predatory suitors and challenges to her matriarchal power from her son Telemachus. Within these gendered constraints, one of the safest expressions of mētis available to women like Penelope is the craft of weaving, a practice that aligns with expectations for gendered labor and identity but that also allows her to “adopt a transgressive stance” (Salzman-Mitchell 121). She is pressured into weaving a burial shroud for her father-in-law Laertes by the predatory suitors, but she unweaves the shroud at night to postpone this inevitable takeover of her body as property. Penelope cannot choose to strategically take on mētis but rather is forced to be an ongoing metic weaver to circumvent the threat of sexual violence.
Penelope’s scheme of weaving her tapestry during the day and unweaving it at night is a cunning reversal of motion, but it is also an act of resistance that traverses the personal and political. Culturally, there is not room for her to refuse the role of wife once again. She is only able to navigate the tightly crowded passage from Odysseus’ side to that of another with silent subterfuge. In her study on the parallels among weaving, coding, and rhetoric, Emma Cocker points out how Penelope’s example of weaving and unweaving is “a mode of deviation or subversion, of purposefully non-productive labor intent on resisting the pressure of commodity or completion” [emphasis added] (138). Penelope is able, through the futile labor of weaving and unweaving, to both demonstrate adherence to the social dictates for women as well as maintain resistance to the commodification of her own body. This resistance is deeply embodied, dependent on not just the appearance of docility but also the repetitive intersection of her real bodily skill and the ersatz shroud. She must sit at the loom for hours, straining back and arms, and then again under the cover of darkness, undoing her labor of the day. Penelope’s mētis is very hard won, yet her skilled labor must necessarily go unseen and unheralded for her continued survival.
If used effectively, mētis disappears into the background and can even give the appearance of maintaining existing social norms. In the case of weaving, metic power was made available in part because of its non-threatening position vis-à-vis more masculine arts. Weaving was where women “could win fame from the work of their hands without compromising male kleos” (Mueller 2), the glory found in battle. Because of its status as a “lesser” (and therefore less supervised) art form, the “feminine form of transgressive art” (Lev Kenaan 166) that “issues from ambiguity” (Mifsud 32) offers some women agency, however truncated. In Karlyn Kohrs Campbell’s terms, Penelope is inventing and reinventing a quietly resistive personae, a “culturally available subject-position[s]” that is “shifting, not fixed” (4). Rather than accept an agency built on lack, she uses weaving to navigate cultural expectations and her own desires. The woven, metic agency that she exemplifies is “an inventive capacity to act, negotiate, and construct the arrangement, meaning, and use of social and economic space” (Kelly 206).
Yet the metic crafting of personae does not guarantee success as defined by victory or defeat of one’s enemies. In the myths and today, women do not always triumph over the threat of violence. Penelope escapes sexual assault from the suitors, but her handmaidens are hanged upon Odysseus’ return. Because of its protean nature, mētis does not well support the complete toppling of entrenched identity hierarchies but instead supports ongoing survival, however muted, within such oppressive contexts. Those who draw on metic movement are thus in a double-bind where they might be slightly safer for the moment, yet they are also untraceable and therefore more vulnerable. Dolmage points out that unlike “the forward march of logic, mētis is characterized by sideways and backward movement” (Disability 5). Such evasive movement is often necessary for self-protection, but those who use it are rendered less legible by sociopolitical structures that prioritize straightforward, “rational” means of communication. For example, domestic abuse victims often bear intersectional identities that make them especially vulnerable, e.g. both female and an immigrant (ACLU). Rather than call the police and risk being disbelieved or arrested themselves, the victims will search for more underground means of survival, sometimes even to the point of staying within the abusive relationship. This work, although not directly connected to metic weaving, is nonetheless a bodily practice that emerges from conditions similar to those that Penelope faces in terms of ongoing threatened violence and bodily precarity. To enact rhetorical mētis is therefore to engage with contexts in which the body is literally at stake.
The founders of the Pussyhat Project frame their emphasis on crafting as a response to this societal overlooking of both metic labor and the systemic gaps that render it necessary. Metic crafting is centered as both a form of visual solidarity and community building. I now examine the Pussyhat Project with an eye for where the craft-based, behind the scenes labor was overlooked, and I consider how rhetoricians might recognize and support this type of unrewarded metic work in other contexts.
Rhetorically Claiming Bodily Trauma
Besides the sheer number of attendees, the Women’s Marches are notable for the variety of craft-based activism that attracted attention before, during, and after the marches. As Laura Micciche notes, “Social protest is a kind of art making, and there was no shortage on display at the women’s march” (11). There is history to using craft practices as fuel for the subversion of dominant cultural norms. The continued recurrence of craft as subversion (Black 698-700) speaks to the power of crafting as a tool for fostering solidarity. Faith Kurtyka argues that crafting “offers the possibility of creating a new community from the unique configuration of crafters who choose to join” (36), which means there are possibilities to create new alliances based on communal bodily experiences and dialogues, rather than pre-determined identity positions. In order for these new alliances to be possible though, we must develop sensitivities to the forms of labor that tend to go unheralded.
In addition to the posters, pins, scarves, and other objects typically found at a protest, this march (and the ones in 2018 and 2019) was festooned with various shades of pink yarn, thanks to the Pussyhat Project. Started by Krista Suh and Jayna Zweiman, the Project was founded as a craft-based form of visual activism that responded to misogynistic attitudes toward women and women’s bodies, perhaps most horrifyingly captured in Donald Trump’s comments about “grabbing” a woman by the pussy. The project involved the knitting, distribution of, and wearing of pink hats, loosely resembling kitty ears. The goal was to
1. Provide the people of the Women’s March on Washington a means to make a unique collective visual statement (a sea of pink hats) which will help activists be better heard and
2. Provide people who cannot physically march on the National Mall a way to represent themselves and support women’s rights by creating and gifting pussyhats.
In reading the knitter’s voices, they are explicit about the exigency of responding to the physical effort of Trump supporters with an equal measure of bodily labor. When interviewed before the March, Nancy Ricci, a knitting teacher in NYC, states, “We are very anxious and afraid of what is going to happen…We need something to feel better about, and with this project, we can feel like we are doing something” (Krueger). Jessie McGuire, the executive director of strategy at ThoughtMatter, argues that the labor of crafting signs and hats is a direct response to the physical effort that Trump supporters put in pre-election. She states, “I went upstate and saw barns that were painted with Trump signs, and in my mind, I was like, whoever painted this barn took so much effort to paint it for him” (cited in Krueger). One of the founders of the Pussyhat Project, Krista Suh, states, “I wanted to do something more than just show up” (cited in Mehta).
Yet although the intention was to foster community via craft-based labor as well as create a visual statement at the march, much of the media coverage and resulting controversy focused on the visuals of the hats as intentional analogues to solely a cisgender, white female identity. What these responses and tensions demonstrate is how even rhetorical work explicitly aimed at social justice can still end up “hid[ing] the powerful differences of material conditions, suasory practices, semiotic technologies, and discursive structures, all of which lend force to identification as a vehicle for creating outcomes and consensus” (Lyon 60). In other words, competing calls for identification can overlook material inequities and end up reinforcing existing social hierarchies that foster further structures of oppression, ultimately overshadowing the metic labor that is a key driver of grassroots movements. Although the Pussyhat knitters formed community and demonstrated solidarity based on their shared bodily investment in testifying to ongoing sexual abuse, this craft-based solidarity was often overlooked because the symbolic component of the movement succeeded perhaps too well.
Because the Marches were clearly defined goals for the Project participants, the somewhat necessary focus on ‘performing’ at the March itself shifted attention away from the labor of knitting to broader issues of representation and gender. For example, the original choice of color for the hats, an almost neon pink, aligns with mainstream gender expectations for femininity, but it also creates a bold visual statement of unity when worn en masse. On their website, Suh and Zweiman state “Pink is considered a very female color representing caring, compassion, and love—all qualities that have been derided as weak, but are actually strong. Wearing pink together is a powerful statement that we are unapologetically feminine and we unapologetically stand for women’s rights!” (“FAQ”). Here we see an attempt to reject a dominant cultural narrative about the appropriateness of pink, or more specifically, the supposed illegitimacy of this color and its wearers as worthy actors in the political arena. Much of the backlash to the Project concentrated on pink as a synecdoche for an exclusionary feminist identity of cis white women. This shift in focus away from the metic work of crafting the hats and creating community in knitting circles meant the message was easily shunted into conversations about identity more broadly.
Many of the successive conversations focused on how the explicit association of pink with femininity felt too close to supporting a gender binary for some members and allies of the LGBTQ community. Feminist geographers Sydney Boothroyd et. al. argue that “when women use the PussyHat to represent the feminine body, they take up the position of women with vulvae as pure bodies, and those who do not fit into hegemonic notion of femininity are cast as impure bodies” (714). Boothroyd and similar critics interpret wearing a pussyhat as prioritizing certain biological characteristics as a threshold for membership. Because of this, some trans activists chose to knit a pussyhat in direct opposition to the color pink. Rachel Sharp tweeted an image of a striped blue, white, and pink hat with the phrase “Trans pride flag pussy hat: Because we stand with our sisters, not just our cis-ters” (@WrrrdNrrrdGrrrl). Yet even though Sharp’s focus is on disrupting the gender binary, there is still a purposeful use of woven bodily labor as a key part of this effort that offers potential connections with knitters of the pink Pussyhats.
Although the warnings against reinscribing gender binaries need to be carefully attended to, focusing only on a lack of nuance in identity categorization misses how the crafting and wearing of the hats is itself a metic rejection of the binary logics that demand an equation between one’s genitals, one’s gender expression, and one’s worth as a person (as exemplified in President Trump’s comments). The everyday act of wearing a knit hat is conjoined with the surreal wrongness of wearing a pink vagina on one’s head, demonstrating the absurdity of equating gender with anatomy. Such a rhetorical act calls attention to the conflation of biology, sexuality, and femininity in popular discourse and highlights the contradictions and potential vulnerabilities that arise when one attempts to perform the female gender. The message is reinforced by the embodied affordances found in working with yarn that oppose the ideological stance exemplified in President Trump’s statement. Maureen Daly Goggin argues that textile activism, such as “yarn bombing,” is worthy of rhetorical note not only because of its disruption to social norms but also because of the “materialist epistemology” (“Joie” 150) such work holds; the medium itself testifies to the bodily knowledge of working with the material, which stitches work best, experiences with types of yarn, etc. The everyday, soft vulnerability of knitting is a direct counterpoint to the harsh rupture of sexual assault.
Focusing on the traces of metic work that cling to the Pussyhats and other protest materials encourages centering bodily labor and fighting disenfranchisement through collaborative means. As Goggin points out, “making involves a social dimension at various points in the process that connects us with other people—getting the materials, relying on the patterns and/or teachings of others, having questions answered, learning where to display one’s work and so on” (“Threads” 7). Survivor or not, the shared wearing of these hats speaks to the shared temporal, economic, and spatial investment that can be found in their knitting. The knitting and wearing is a bodily investment in community, a walking of survivors not just back to their car in fear but through the streets with pride. Solidarity is found and sustained via the shared rhythms of knit two, purl two and “This is what democracy looks like”.
In the knitting and wearing of a pussyhat, one grabs hold of metic transformative power. The work that goes both into crafting and wearing the Pussyhats exemplifies mētis as a “kind of bodily becoming, insofar as it is transmitted through a blurring of boundaries between bodies” (Hawhee 50). Instead of relying on a biological benchmark for admission into femininity, the founders instead offer these knitted hats as a transformative disguise via the twin strands of creating and wearing the hats or inventing and delivering the hats. The knitters can choose to work with a color that reflects what they wish to proclaim about their gender identity with the donning of the hat. Robert Asen states, “In critiquing the exclusions, inequalities, and injustices of publics, rhetors de-naturalize relationships. Rather than treating relationships as given, rhetors identify how relationships may be remade (300). In the case of the Pussyhats, there is a strategic denaturalizing of common markers of vulnerability and remaking them as collective proclamations of strength.
However, although the intent was to foster entry points for all, much of the mass media representation ignored the connection between knitting a hat and alternative means of participation for those with disabilities or other barriers to access. Rhetoricians invested in investigating the “the complex mechanisms through which some [bodily] traditions become the norm and some are assigned to the margins” (Johnson et al. 40) should consider how the controversies over representation edged out critical discussion of questions of access and bodily labor that prevented certain individuals from attending the Marches at all. In response to the critiques of the Project being representative of “white feminism”, Jayna Zweiman released a statement on the Project’s main blog a few days before the second set of women’s marches in January 2018. In this statement, she responds to the conversations surrounding race and transphobia, and she offers a perspective on the March and the hats that (a) is largely missing from the discourse and (b) resonates with a metic understanding of bodily participation as “mobile and polymorphic” (Detienne and Vernant 273), performed in ways that are not immediately legible to an outside viewer.
I am both a designer and a person with a disability. Four years ago, I sustained a life-altering head and neck injury that changed the way I view and interact with the world. Through my continuing recovery, I learned to crochet. I discovered the incredible knitting community, a community that welcomed me. Because of my disability, I was unable to march last year. And I desperately wanted to participate. I co-created Pussyhat Project (with Krista Suh) as an accessible platform for participation because I was not able to attend a women’s march in person.
The centering of the conversation on the symbolic power of the hats failed to account for the multiplicity of embodied experiences that might inform the desire to make a hat rather than attend the march, as well as the range of reasons why certain bodies might not be visible at the protest. Zweiman’s statement, and the lack of uptake in surrounding discourse, demonstrates how what is typically counted as valid political resistance (walking, marching, shouting) is grounded in assumptions of able bodies as the norm, an assumption that overshadows less obvious forms of metic, embodied labor. In response to these types of assumptions, disability scholar and activist Johanna Hedva asks us to explicitly consider where there are overlaps between those marginalized by disability, gender, race, or sexual expression, and in so doing, she asks us to think deeply on where mētis might necessarily be operating. Hedva points out that during the Black Lives Matter protests, there were probably several people who were unable to join, who “might not be able to be present for the marches because they were imprisoned by a job, the threat of being fired from their job if they marched, or literal incarceration, and of course the threat of violence and police brutality—but also because of illness or disability, or because they were caring for someone with an illness or disability” (“Sick”). Hedva’s list of potential reasons for not attending a march is more than a multiplication of marginalizations. Rather, she clarifies how the unseen, ongoing bodily labor of caring for one’s own or other bodies is a core part of multiple marginalized identities, and we gain more from trying to recognize the shared labor that maintains these vulnerable existences than not. It is in the interstices of overlooked labor that there is rhetorical, coalitional potential.
The controversy surrounding the rhetorical impact of the Pussyhat Project demonstrates how mētis requires careful framing to be more than a rhetorical inside joke. On the one hand, mētis “operates in the realm of what is shifting and unexpected in order the better to reverse situations and overturn hierarchies which appear unassailable” (Detienne and Vernant 108). Her cunning is her threat. Her children hold the power to depose gods. However, because mētis is so indebted to power imbalances and the traumas they can cause, such cunning is the most legible to those who have similar bodily experiences. A metic testimony about trauma often goes unseen.
Developing ways of seeing mētis in action enables greater recognition of the multiple forms of metic labor, not necessarily related to knitting or crafting, that are bound up with overlapping systems of bodily harm and oppression. For example, there is growing awareness of how physical pain and symptoms are treated differently depending on the gender of the patient. In Joe Fassler’s article in The Atlantic, he details the doctors’ failure to treat his wife’s abdominal pain (from what turned out to be a potentially deadly ovarian torsion) with the same seriousness as male patients (Fassler). The bodily labor that it took for his wife to fight the pain and “hold still enough for the CT scan to take a clear shot of her abdomen” was not taken as evidence of her physical state but as a sign of an artificial complaint; “every nurse’s shrug seemed to say, ‘Women cry—what can you do?’” (Fassler). In the recent scholarship that demonstrates “African American women are three to four times more likely to die during or after delivery than are white women” (Roeder), there are multiple mothers’ testimonies of their own bodily experiences being brushed aside as insignificant. Such denunciations of this metic labor are part of the broader tendency to label mētis as “deceptive artifice” (Atwill 56), rather than “wily cunning”, when it is used by vulnerable bodies. Recognizing metic labor as valid, rather than deceptive, thus means resisting dominant definitions of feminine bodies and associated bodily labor as illegitimate.
Because mētis is formed at the margins, validating metic work of vulnerable populations requires actively seeking out these forms of rhetorical labor and thoughtfully engaging with the desires of that community. In searching for these subterranean practices, there is an opportunity to create rhetorical rallying points if the focus is on shared experiences of sustaining bodily labor, rather than solely on broader identity categories. As Arabella Lyon points out, conflict between various populations “need not be destructive; it can generate agency and new positions of resistance and justice” (46) if it is addressed via both explicit recognition of one another’s experiences and ethically responsible reactions. In the case of the Project specifically, the controversy over its meaning demonstrates a need for intersectional bridges that highlight how sexual assault impacts multiple marginalized populations in disparate ways. It is not an either/or situation where one must support the Pussyhat wearers or the critics. Rather, the clash between them demonstrates the lack of attention to where multiple issues, such as disability rights and transgender rights, need to be a larger part of the conversation about gender equality. Centering mētis asks us to consider where coalitional labor already exists and what of our existing rhetorical practices are preventing us from seeing it.
Missing metic labor also means missing out on deeply reparative practices that emerge from the rich experiences of those who survive. “[M]emory and recognition operate in tandem” (LeMesurier 366), which means that metic work, in its indebtedness to the ongoing act of survival, cannot help but approach the world with a full-bodied sensitivity. Drawing on one’s remembered bodily experience is where “felt emotions and impulses may take shape in the sensing of the body, implying reverberations of forgotten or repressed contents as well as forebodings and anticipations of a possible future” [emphasis added] (Fuchs 20). There is thus rhetorical power in crafting practices that bring trauma and wisdom side by side. Doing so is not intended to erase traumatic experiences but to act as a reminder, for the crafter and for witnesses, of the rich and varied capacity of the survivor’s body. Beyond the reparative work for the individual, there is also possibility found in using metic work as a rhetorical proclamation that recognizes bodily experiences at the margins, sexual or otherwise, and seeks to directly address material abuses.
In short, understanding the place of craft-y mētis in relation to feminist rhetorical activism demonstrates the need to not only consider who is represented but what is represented and what is missing. Seeking out and centering seemingly mundane forms of rhetorical labor allows us to better understand how “the intuitive and paralogical, the thinking of the body” (Ede, Glenn, and Lunsford 412) produces legitimate rhetorical work. Everyday labor that seems apolitical at first glance might in fact be deployments of mētis in the face of an unfair system. Therefore, we need to champion vulnerable identities, but we also need to be aware of the complex metic processes that enable the vulnerable to survive amidst such imbalanced societal structures. We should also consider the ethics of ‘outing’ those who draw on mētis and where rhetorical interventions can help without threatening their survival. In the cases of craft-based mētis that produce more overt forms of testimony, there is an inherent responsibility to not fetishize the objects that result at the expense of the metic labor; doing so can retread existing cycles of commodifying the pain of the most vulnerable. In all of this work, rather than treat mētis as a neutral force of cunning, we must recognize and grapple with the material conditions that produce bodies with this skill in the first place.
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