I was given a choice of topics to write about and opted for "Who is your favorite female historical figure? Did she knit?"
I quickly thought of a half-dozen female historical figures that I like, including women like Marie Curie, Abigail Adams and Mary Cassatt. Given the times in which these women lived, I have to assume that they knit at least a little bit. But it's impossible to know for sure how they felt about their knitting: was it simply a necessary chore? did they take satisfaction in it? did it ever spark their creativity or make them feel empowered?
Since this is primarily a knitting-related blog, I decided to look for a historical figure who did have a history of knitting associated with her (Madame Defarge, being fictional, doesn't count), and finally I remembered the story of Molly "Mom" Rinker.
I live outside Philadelphia, where our country's colonial history is interwoven into the landscape. Whether it's seeing Valley Forge park where Washington's troops spent a dreadful winter, or driving on cobblestone roads in Old City near Independence Hall, or chaperoning a field trip to Betsy Ross House, reminders of the Revolutionary War are everywhere. In Fairmount Park, near the Wissahickon Creek, a statute stands on a rocky outlook known as Mom Rinker's Rock. Legend has it that a tavern owner named Molly Rinker, nicknamed "Mom," used to scout out the location of British troops during the Battle of Germantown, taking notes on their movements. She would then write down the information and wrap it inside a ball of yarn. She dropped the yarn down to Revolutionary couriers who were waiting below.
Another version of the story -- penned by YA writer Laurie Halse Anderson -- describes it this way:
American agents spying on the British in Philadelphia smuggled notes to "Mom Rinker" who buried the notes deep in balls of yarn. "Mom" liked to knit in a cliff, where she laid out her linen to bleach in the sun. While knitting, she would let her yarn with the secret notes roll off the cliff to the American soldiers waiting below.
Independent Dames, Laurie Halse Anderson (Simon and Schuster 2008).
It's a fabulous story, and there does seem to be at least some support in the historical record for Mom Rinker's actions as spy; one on-line article notes that American General John Armstrong wrote:
Molly Rinker scaled these impossible cliffs like a ghost in the mist and found out the hideabouts of those red-coated scoundrels. I remain convinced that without this brave women surely we of 300 men strong were doomed that day.
Whether or not it's strictly true, the story of Mom Rinker illustrates an essential truth about women. Even when men try to relegate women to a narrow role in society, strong, smart, persistent women nevertheless find a way to contribute. If a capable and intelligent woman wants to help with the war effort, but gets patted on the head and told "Just knit stockings for the troops," she doesn't let it stop there. While she's sitting there knitting on the top of the cliff, she figures out a way to pass on valuable intelligence to the army to help win the battle. (And she probably ended up knitting a lot of stockings for the troops, too--most smart, strong women I know are consummate multitaskers.)
So today, we celebrate all of the smart, capable, strong and persistent women of history, who refused to be defined by someone else's idea of what they could do. Your knitting may not inspire you to become a spy for your country, but it probably does make you feel capable, productive, and give you a sense of accomplishment -- or maybe it provides a badly-needed break from the stresses of the other things you do in your life. And with every stitch you take, you are following in a long line of women who used two sticks and some string to help clothe their family, create items to sell to help pay the rent, or let their creativity flourish on a palette of knitted fabric.
In celebration of all that knitting does for us, STC is giving away a free E-book copy of the A Knitter's Home Companion by Michelle Edwards. Leave a comment telling how knitting (or other crafts) help empower you and we'll pick a random commenter to win.