Monday, January 7, 2008

SPINSTERS! China's Silk Weavers: Were they Lesbians, Feminists, or both?

Hi! I'm back; rested, better-read, and ALL FIRED UP!

2008 is going to be amazing, and here we go...

Today's Bitchin' Queer Quote shows just how hidden GLBTQ history can be. I traced this fragment back from a line in a footnote in a book about something completely different...

but it's great.

Get this, the word "SPINSTER" - think of our cultural definition. A woman who never married, older, definitely with a negative connotation.

The etymological definition of "Spinster" talks about a female spinner of thread, often an unmarried women. But let's get into that deeper.

Agnes Smedley was this amazing journalist and open-hearted revolutionary who roamed the globe connecting with the struggles of women, the poor and the down-trodden everywhere. Not much appreciated by the U.S. government, she was a champion of India's struggle for Independence and was huge in the western understanding of China's Communist revolution (she traveled to China in the 1930s and 1940s.) Her books were powerful, personal, and widely read.

Agnes Smedley

From "Portraits of Chinese Women in Revolution" Agnes writes of how the Spinsters of China, the women silk spinners in the south, were so different from the women in the rest of the country.

These were the only places in the whole country where the birth of a baby girl was an occasion for joy, for here girls were the main support of their families. Consciousness of their worth was reflected in their dignified independent bearing. I began to understand the charges that they were Lesbians. They could not but compare the dignity of their positions with the low position of married women. Their independence seemed a personal affront to officialdom.

She wrote of her young male escort to the southern silk industry region:

"His particular hatred seemed to be the thousands of women spinners, and only with difficulty could I learn why. He told me that the women were notorious throughout China as Lesbians. They refused to marry, and if their families forced them, they merely bribed their husbands with a part of their wages and induced them to take concubines. The most such a married girl would do was bear one son; then she would return to the factory, refusing to live with her husband any longer. The Government had just issued a decree forbidden women to escape marriage by bribery, but the women ignored it.

...They had even dared strike for shorter hours and higher wages. Now and then two or three girls would commit suicide together because their families were forcing them to marry."
Agnes describes the women:

Long lines of them, clad in glossy black jackets and trousers, sat before boiling vats of cocoons, their parboiled fingers twinkling among the spinning filaments. Sometimes a remark passed along their lines set a whole mill laughing.
One evening the two of us sat at the entrance of an old family temple in the empty stone halls of which we had pitched our netted camp cots. On the other side of the canal rose the high walls of a filature, which soon began pouring forth black-clad girl workers, each with her tin dinner pail. All wore wooden sandals which were fastened by a single leather strap across the toes and which clattered as they walked. Their glossy black hair was combed back and hung in a heavy braid to the waist. At the nape of the neck the braid was caught in red yarn, making a band two or three inches wide - a lovely splash of color.

As they streamed in long lines over the bridge arching the canal and past the temple entrance, I felt I had never seen more handsome women.

Is "Spinster" maybe a label needing to be re-claimed, like "Crone," into a proud GLBTQ word? One signifying financial and social independence, bucking the patriarchy, and womyn who claim the freedom to love other womyn?

Once again there is the whole issue of independent women who choose not to marry being perceived as lesbians (and some may well be lesbians, but not every woman who wants to be self-determined is a lesbian.) It's an extension of the whole marginalization of women of power - the attitude that they can't be REAL women (who would happily be powerless and subjugated?)

Anyway, for a new year, here's a new way to think about an old word. "Spinster."

Lesbians? (Yes! Some of them I'm sure were womyn-loving-womyn.)

Feminists? (Yes! A rarity in the China of that time!)

"Spinsters" Lesbians. Feminists. Both!

Now, if you're interested in just HOW you get silk from a silkworm, and what those SPINSTERS in China were doing, here's a link to a video of Michael Cook from Texas - a segment he did on HGTV about how he makes silk bookmarks from scratch - it includes how he boils the cocoons and gets the silk, and watching him, you can imagine what those Chinese women in the factory were doing... Interesting stuff.

The original footnote was from pg 311 of "The Spirit And The Flesh: Sexual Diversity in American Indian Culture." Footnote #40

The quotes are from the "Silk Workers" Chapter (pgs. 103-110) of "Portraits of Chinese Women in Revolution" by Agnes Smedley (Old Westbury, NY.: Feminist Press, 1976)

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Hey thanks for this reference! I've read somewhere in the past about the women in China's silk districts and their "anti-marriage sisterhoods" but wasn't really sure where the info. came from. I also had not made the connection with the term "spinster." Great stuff!