Language is important. The words we use to describe ourselves end up defining us.
Last week I saw these photos taken at International Quilt Festival in Houston.
Photos courtesy Bill Volckening.
I was struck by the function of the word “husband” to describe the lounge and reached out to Bob Ruggiero, Director of Publications & Public Information at Quilts, Inc. to find out how it got that name.
He told me that the “husbands’ lounge” has been part of the event for eight years. “After seeing many men spend hours sitting in chairs lined in the hallway during the show and speaking with them, a large number said they wished there was a ‘husband’s area’ where they could be away from the hustle and bustle of the show until their wives were done for the day,” he said. “The response has been nothing but positive from both men and women…it is in no way gender specific or exclusive – any given time of the day there are female Festivalgoers in there as well.”
Ruggiero went on to say, “It’s something we feel is important to provide, because we would never want a potential Festivalgoer to have to miss out on the show because they are unable to travel there alone. And we want to provide a positive experience for those who accompany others to the show, but don’t necessarily have an interest in quilting.”
International Quilt Festival is a physically enormous show and it makes sense to provide a lounge for those who need to rest or just get away from the fray, but I would argue that the word “husbands’” here does more harm than good.
This event is one of the largest and most esteemed quilt shows in the world. More than 50,000 people attend the show and it gets significant press coverage. A “husbands’ lounge” at such a prestigious event sends the message that quilters are a particular sort of person; specifically that they’re heterosexual, married, and female.
Quilt designer Molli Sparkles describes his reaction to the “husbands’ lounge” this way: “When I drag my better half, Mr. Sparkles, to a fabric shop we often joke that he’ll be on the lookout for the ‘boyfriend chair.’ However, to see this same concept institutionalized by a large program such as International Quilt Festival is at once naive and narrow-minded.”
Quilt designer, artist, and author Thomas Knauer feels that the name of the lounge sends a message of exclusion. “It’s a great big sign that says, ‘Thomas, you don’t belong here. You’re not allowed to like these things.’”
Journalist and creative entrepreneur Grace Dobush also feels the term “husband” is exclusionary. “I’m rolling my eyes at that lounge. I understand that it’s trying to be cute, but it’s a joke based on heteronormative standards. They could have branded the lounge as a relaxation haven or quiet zone or sports corner or whatever, but instead they’ve gendered it unnecessarily. What this says is that queer women don’t exist in quilting, which isn’t true. Whether or not it was an intentional jab is irrelevant; this is an everyday case of erasure.”
I realize that not everyone agrees that the word is problematic. For quilter Kay Sorenson, the lounge is definitely a welcoming feature at the show. “I do think this is a great idea,” she says. “There are women who can’t drive and rely on their husbands to drive them. Some men just are not comfortable with a throng of women and are happy to just sit and watch a TV or talk to other likeminded men. If they let everyone in here it would defeat the purpose. It is not sexist, just good business on the part of the show organizers.”
And quilter Barbara Garrett concurs. “There are women who for one of many reasons are unable to drive themselves to quilting events, and depend on their wonderfully supportive husbands to do the driving — that’s why they came — to support their wife’s quilting hobby and be there for her,” Garrett explains. “I think the planners of Festival should be congratulated for providing this…It doesn’t say every husband must sit in here. It doesn’t say or imply that every male attending will want to be in here.”
Still, I would argue that the word “husband” doesn’t serve a positive purpose when describing the lounge. Quilts, Inc. is in the position to lead the way in broadening the definition of who is a quilter and removing this word would be a step in the right direction.
International Quilt Festival isn’t the only venue in the quilting industry that has adopted gendered language for a lounge. Earlier this year Missouri Star Quilt Company opened “Man’s Land,” a storefont lounge in Hamilton, Missouri. Reviving the name of a long-closed clothing and barber shop in town, Man’s Land is furnished with leather recliners, a pool table, and a television.
Again, the idea of a lounge is a good one. Hamilton has become a destination for quilters and Missouri Star now has 11 fabric shops for them to visit. Providing a welcoming place to rest or to relax while your companion shops is wise.
Yet the language used to describe the purpose of the lounge serves to narrowly define quilters. “Behind every woman in a quilt shop is a man carrying 15+ bolts of fabric and begging her to stop buying more!” reads the blog post announcing the opening of Man’s Land in Febraury. “…Man’s Land is warm, rustic and inviting so you’ll feel right at home… and maybe forget about how much money your wife is spending on fabric.” By this narrow definition a quilter is a heterosexual, married woman without an independent income.
Knauer says this description belittles women. “It’s the sitcom trope of shoe shopping, contingent on women going on a frivolous shopping trip that’s tolerated by a benevolent husband,” he explains.
Like Quilts, Inc., Missouri Star’s prominence puts it in the public eye. The company is one of the most well-known quilt shops in the country. It’s been featured in the Wall Street Journal , and last year won the small business of the year award from Federal Small Business Administration. Even if they keep the name for historic reasons, a shift in the language used to describe the purpose of Man’s Land could go a long way.
It’s not just large companies that could benefit from a more conscious use of inclusive language. We as quilters could be more thoughtful, too. I was talking recently with Rose DeBoer, the managing editor of Modern Patchwork Magazine, about one of the most commonly used words in the quilting world: “stash.”
“Stash sounds like a guilty thing,” she said, “but these are your materials. They’re worthy and shouldn’t be hidden. It’s a default, but we need to look at our own default words and examine them.”
“As adult women we should treat our needs and desires seriously. They’re important, not silly,” DeBoer said, suggesting that we search for words that don’t imply a need for secrecy when describing the supplies that fuel our passion.
As DeBoer wisely noted, “Words are so incredibly powerful. It might seem cute or funny, but they can actually perpetuate not treating women as talented individuals.”