Science, Gender, And Needlepoint

As a folklorist, one of the areas of human existence I study is material culture. We talk about material culture as culture made material: literally, the objects created by humans that display facets of culture, belief, and worldview. Sometimes we’re interested in the material culture of the present, ranging from handmade works like pottery to re-purposed mass-made objects like scrapbooks or quilts. Like archaeologists, we look at objects of the past, too.

Folklore intersects with sex in many ways, and material culture is no exception. What people wear reveals a lot about their social status and gender identity, while food customs express any number of things about someone’s relationship status and desires. Objects contain valuable information about their creators and users, though you don’t have to be a specialist to be interested in this kind of thing. Everyday people collect, make, adapt, and talk about cultural objects all the time as well.

This blog post from the Museum of Childhood highlights a particularly fascinating instance of material culture: a nineteenth-century needlepoint project depicting the solar system. As the post’s author points out, “Needlework required patience and concentration, and it kept women at home, focussed on a virtuous domesticity” and most women depicted suitably ladylike subjects like flowers and gardens.

Science was deemed too masculine for women in that era for the most part, so women who wanted to participate in it had to find ways to legitimize their presence: “needlework was a way for this young girl to represent scientific, conventionally masculine ideas, without reproach.” Approaching scientific discoveries from a traditionally feminine craft would have been one way to appear not to threaten established gender roles. In folklore, we call this “coding,” or appearing to send one message (feminine domesticity) while actually sending another (masculine scientific inquiry). Another instance is in the fairy tales of French women writers in the 1690s, which, as Holly Tucker demonstrates in her book Pregnant Fictions, were a way for them to enter into a scientific dialogue about genetics, conception, and childbirth.

The gender gap in science and science education may still be present, but at least women don’t need to hide behind traditionally feminine pursuits to even be a part of the discussion. It makes me curious, though; what will future generations think of our material culture and the story it tells about gender and education?

About Jeana


Jeana Jorgensen, PhD recently completed her doctoral degree in folklore and gender studies at Indiana University. She studies fairy tales and other narratives, dance, body art, feminist theory, digital humanities, and gender identity.