HerStory December 2020: Finding Hope

2020 has been… something else. There have been so many challenges this year, and at times, it has felt hopeless. Capping off this difficult year, election season here in the US has been very intense. 

BUT we are choosing hope. We are Finding Hope (which is, coincidentally, our colorway name this month). Because, even though this year has been TOUGH and ROUGH, there has been a lot to inspire us too. And for our final HerStory of 2020, we are using the hope we’ve gotten from the 2020 US elections to fuel our hope for the new year. So, we are sharing a snippet about some of the inspiring women who have busted out glass ceilings and forged new paths this year. These women are all firsts, but they are definitely not lasts. 

Kamala Harris, the first female Vice President. The first Black Vice President. The first South Asian Vice President. AND the first female, Black, Indian Vice President.

Cori Bush, first Black woman to represent Missouri in Congress.

Sarah McBride, the first openly trans state senator in U.S. history after winning her election in Delaware.

Marilyn Strickland, the first Korean American woman ever elected to Congress, and the first Black person to represent Washington State at the federal level.

Ana Irma Rivera Lassén, the first Black, openly lesbian woman to become an elected lawmaker in Puerto Rico.

Deb Haaland, Teresa Leger Fernandez, & Yvette Herrell, whose elections made New Mexico the first state in U.S. history to elect only women of color as members of Congress.

Stephanie Byers, the first openly trans person of color ever elected to a state legislature in the U.S. AND the first openly trans person elected to the Kansas state legislature.

Jenifer Rajkumar & Zohran Mamdani, the first two South Asians voted in to the lower house of the New York state legislature.

Taylor Small, the first openly trans person elected to the Vermont state legislature.

Michele Rayner, the first Black, openly LGBTQ woman elected to the Florida state legislature District 70.

Thanks for joining us as we spent this year celebrating women who were first. Please take some time to learn more about these absolute legends. We hope the whole year, and especially these women we’re showcasing today, have you Finding Hope.

HerStory November 2020: Wilma Mankiller

Wilma Mankiller, the first female Principal Chief of Cherokee Nation, is our November HerStory recipient. She was born into extreme poverty in Oklahoma, the grandchild of displaced Cherokees who were forced to walk the Trail of Tears. Until she was 11, Wilma lived with extended family on land called Mankiller Flats, but her immediate family, believing in the promise of the Indian Relocation Act of 1956, moved to San Francisco looking for greater opportunities. Those opportunities didn’t pan out, and the family continued to struggle throughout her childhood.

Mankiller married at a young age and had two daughters, but she found herself constricted by her husband’s patriarchal views. She enrolled in community college and soon found a place in the activist community protesting the Vietnam War and working for Native rights through AIM, the American Indian Movement. Her activism deepened, and she founded the East Oakland Native American Youth Center and worked with the Urban Indian Resource Center to develop legislation that became the Indian Child Welfare Act.

In 1977, Wilma divorced her husband and, with her mother and children, moved back be with family and tribe in Oklahoma. After a horrific car accident that killed her best friend and left Mankiller facing a long recovery, she began to explore and embrace the Cherokee ideal of “being of good mind” (a beautiful vision of personhood which inspired our colorway name this month). Once back on her feet, Wilma put that ideal into practice, prioritizing service to others and looking to the bright side through all challenges, including some pretty major health problems.

Being of Good Mind

Mankiller eventually moved to a tiny town deep in Cherokee Nation called Bell, where she worked as a community organizer and grant writer. She advocated for safe and affordable housing and clean water, with community involvement as the cornerstone of her work. Her approach became a model for other grant programs around the country, and her generosity and activism inspired many after her and paved the way for her 1983 appointment as Deputy Principal Chief of Cherokee Nation. In that role, she fought against the misogyny that came directly from colonial influence and was elected Principal Chief of Cherokee Nation. She believed that having a female chief was a first step in a return to traditional Cherokee values of balance between the sexes. Her influence can be seen today, in Native American activists’ return to tradition and rejection of the colonial mentality that has caused so much damage to their communities. It can be seen in the advancement of Native American women and girls, and in the deep community-building that occurs in Native American communities. We could all learn a thing or two by embracing the ideals that Being of Good Mind reflect, and of thinking of community first and foremost. Thank you, Wilma Mankiller, for being of such good mind and offering this inspiration to us all.

HerStory October 2020: Cristeta Comerford

Our October HerStory recipient, Cristeta Comerford, is a really good cook. So good, in fact, that she became the first woman AND the first person of Asian decent to hold the title of White House Executive Chef in 2005.

Born in 1962 in Sampaloc, Manila, in the Philippines, Comerford studied food technology at the University of the Philippines, but left to emigrate to the US before finishing college. She worked her way up through the ranks of chefdom, and impressed everyone she worked with with both her strong work ethic and her intuitive cooking style, which she credits to her mother. Comerford has been the White House Executive Chef since 2005, first appointed by Barbara Bush, after serving as a sous chef in the White House for ten years. 

The world of the professional chef is still one that’s dominated by men, even though women are traditionally the ones cooking in their own homes. Comerford realizes what an inspiration her story is to many up-and-coming chefs, and shares her wisdom and knowledge freely. She doesn’t believe she’s reached the pinnacle of what she can achieve, because, as she says, “once you’ve accepted the fact that this is the pinnacle…what is the next step? You go down right? So I think in life, you should never take anything to be the pinnacle. Everything you [achieve should] just be a stepping stone to a better thing.”

Growing up in a large Filipino family, Comerford learned at the knee of a matriarch who effortlessly provided tasty food to her large brood. She learned to navigate small spaces with lots of people, to create foods that appeal to a broad range of palettes, to incorporate seemingly disparate culinary influences into appealing dishes. But she also learned that her family and her interpersonal relationships are what truly feed her, and she both relies on and works to nourish those relationships. On cooking at home, she and her husband are of one mind: if it takes more than 10 minutes, it’s a lot of work. 

Our October colorway, Para su Chef, is one created for this chef, this immigrant who really does get the job done, who has shattered glass ceilings, and keeps on cooking. 

HerStory September 2020: Yalitza Arapacio

Representation matters. No one understands that more than our September HerStory honoree, Yalitza Aparicio. She is a Mexican actress who made her film debut in 2018’s Roma, which centers the Indigenous experience in Mexico. The film tells the story of a live-in housekeeper of Indigenous descent, who code-switches between the family she serves (with whom she speaks Spanish) and her co-worker, who is also Mixtec and with whom she speaks Mixteca. The film was critically acclaimed, not only for the beautiful story it told, but also for shining a light on the plight of the Indigenous community in Mexico. It inspired more focus and attention on Indigenous peoples, and a deeper commitment to activism for Aparicio.

Like much of the world, Mexico is currently experiencing a reckoning in regards to race and class, and particularly in the way Indigenous peoples have been treated. Roma helped to start lots of conversations about the struggles Indigenous people face, and the discrimination against them that is inherent in Mexican society. Colorism is a big problem in Mexico, and it’s long been perpetuated by Mexican media: dark-skinned people with Indigenous features are often relegated to the lower rungs of a society that is deeply classist, and are not represented in much of popular culture.

When people don’t have access to things like the cinema, they don’t pursue careers in things like the cinema, and therefore are not represented in things like the cinema. Aparicio works with organizations that aim to expand access to movie theaters, therefore exposing Indigenous folk to the possibilities, not only inherent in the stories that are told, but in the telling of the stories. Aparicio’s parents are both Indigenous; her father is Mixtec and her mother is Trique. Her casting in Roma was very deliberate: director Alfonso Cuarón wanted an recognizably Indigenous woman to play this role. This in itself was a revolutionary act, as lighter skin is held to a higher regard throughout Mexico.

Our Indigenous Excellence colorway celebrates the indigenous heritage of Yalitza Aparicio; each skein is a blending of the traditional regalia. We hope you’ll take some time to learn more about the indigenous people of your home country as you work with your September HerStory yarn, and maybe rent Roma while you’re at it.

HerStory August 2020: Madam C.J. Walker

Sarah Breedlove, aka Madam C.J. Walker, was the first female self-made millionaire in America. She was the sixth child in her family, and the first one born into freedom. (The rest were enslaved at birth in Louisiana, as were her parents.) Both parents died before Sarah turned 8; she moved in with her older sister in Mississippi shortly after and worked as a domestic servant from a very young age. Sarah had all of three months of formal education in her whole life. 

To escape her abusive brother-in-law, Sarah married her first husband at age 14. (PUKE!!!) She had her daughter A’Lelia at 17, and after her first husband died 2 years later, the pair moved to St. Louis, where Sarah worked as a laundress, determined to give her daughter a chance at a formal education. Both of her brothers were barbers, and, suffering from scalp and hair problems that were rampant in the Black community in her time, Sarah began selling hair-care products marketed toward Black women while developing her own hair and scalp care products in response to her own hair loss. After getting married for the 3rd time (her second marriage was a blip in her history, and doesn’t seem worth mentioning), to a mister Charles Walker, from which she gleaned her professional moniker of Madame C.J. Walker, the family moved from one coast to another, and everywhere in between, as they began to invest in Sarah’s burgeoning door-to-door business. The business expanded throughout the country and the Caribbean, and Walker opened a beauty school to instruct other Black women in the proper ways to apply and market her product. She ran business seminars, teaching Black woman how to budget and run their own businesses, opening doors for them to control their financial destinies. She hosted local business clubs throughout the country for her beauty consultants, and through her organization, National Beauty Culturists and Benevolent Association of Madam C.J. Walker Agents, convened a national conference in Philadelphia in 1917 that was one of the first national gatherings of female entrepreneurs. Somewhere in there, she divorced Charles, but kept his name, and A’Lelia and Sarah continued to build the heck out their business. 

Walker became more overtly political after her semi-retirement, using her influence and growing financial privilege to advocate for change. She supported other Black entrepreneurs and took part in the Harlem Renaissance. She devoted large parts of her fortune to supporting and founding charities advocating for the Black community. When she died at age 51 from hypertension, her legacy was already powerful and her daughter A’Lelia continued that legacy. Many Black women were empowered and inspired by the legacy Walker left. Our August colorway, Beauty Culture, pays colorful homage to Madam C.J. Walker’s legacy.

HerStory July 2020: Susan La Flesche Picotte

July’s HerStory recipient is Dr. Susan La Flesche Picotte, the first Native American woman in the US to receive a medical degree.

Inspired by witnessing the tragic death of a Native American woman because a white doctor refused to treat her, Dr. La Flesche Picotte pursued her education aggressively. Her childhood was, in a word, complicated. Both parents straddled the worlds of European and Native American ancestry, and the resulting struggle between cultural pride and a belief in assimilation-for-survival surely affected and inspired much of what Picotte accomplished. Her father became Chief of the Omaha tribe, but his leadership pushed the tribe toward white acceptance. Picotte was not given an Omaha name, and even though her mother in particular spoke Omaha exclusively, Picotte was encouraged to speak English. This seems to be a fitting metaphor for what the First Nations people as a whole were struggling with at the time (mid-to-late 1800s, but also, honestly, now too): the balancing act between honoring their culture and traditions, while making themselves “safe” for and from the white colonizers. 

Picotte was able to navigate this tight-rope well; in applying for grants to attend medical school, she made sure to indicate that she’d teach hygiene to her fellow American Indians, as well as treating them medically. You see, the mission statement of the Women’s National Indian Association included “civilizing” the “Indians” by teaching them about cleanliness and godliness. (Excuse us while we vomit into our knitting bags). She graduated from medical school, not only the first Native American woman to do so, but also the first person, period, to receive federal aid for professional education. She returned home and provided medical care to all who needed it, working diligently on the reservation both as a doctor and as an advocate for Native American’s rights. She pushed for prohibition, as she saw alcohol abuse as a huge problem in her community, used primarily by the colonizers to take advantage of her people and keep them down. She helped to found the first hospital on a reservation, and inspired many Native American women to pursue medicine. She worked tirelessly for her community, fighting her way through the convoluted land-ownership laws and policies, so the Omaha people could gain more autonomy in their ownership of and inheritances of properties. She aspired to and achieved great things in her short 50 years on the planet, and has earned her place in HerStory. 

Our Omaha colorway is our homage to her persistence and hard work. Her legacy is long-reaching, and we are honored to be honoring her this month.

HerStory June 2020: Sophie Blanchard

“Up, up, and away, in my beautiful balloon…” So goes the Fifth Dimension song from the mid-1960s. Adreamy song for a dreamy diversion, floating along in the basket beneath a hot air balloon. This month, we are honoring the first female aeronaut, Sophie Blanchard, who made a name for herself
floating across France before her untimely death at 41 with our Up, Up, and Away colorway. She had the distinction of being both the first female to pilot her own balloon AND the first woman to die in a balloon accident.

Madame Blanchard, as she was known, was the aeronaut of choice for two world leaders; NapoleonBonaparte named her “Aeronaut of the Official Festivals”, and, upon the restoration of the monarchy in1814, after performing for Louis XVIII, she was named his “Official Aeronaut of the Restoration”.

She married professional balloonist Jean-Pierre Blanchard in the late 1700s (who was by all accounts kind of an asshole who left his first wife and children to suffer in poverty so he could gallivant around Europe ballooning), and learned the profession from him. After he passed away in 1808, she continued in the family profession, working to erase the debts her husband had left her, and attempting even more daring feats of derring-do. The basket she used was tiny (seriously, the thought of standing in it
floating under a hot air balloon sends our heart a skittering), and she was a true performer, utilizing pyrotechnics and trick-flying, often at quite a cost. She passed out on at least 2 occasions due to the extreme altitudes at which she flew, and experienced very scary take-offs and landings on other occasions. She gained a huge following, and lots of support and enthusiasm, and her flights were always heavy on the wow factor, a fact that surely contributed to her demise.

Blanchard’s final flight was to be a night-flight, one of her favorites. Against the advice of many, the flight included a pyrotechnic display, as she floated in Tivoli Gardens in Paris. The fireworks caused an actual fire to start in her balloon, and, in trying to guide herself to safety, she became entangled in her ropes and fell out of the afore-mentioned teensy basket and to her death. She was 41 years old.

Madame Blanchard’s death was indicative of the danger that ballooning represented, and the public nature of her death helped to usher in the beginning of the end of this golden age of aeronauts. Her legacy, however, lives on to this day. She and her fellow female aeronauts paved the way for women in all fields of aviation, and her fearless determination inspired young women in the early 1800s to realize there was a world outside of that which seemed to be prescribed for them. She was brave and shewas strong and she proved that women can fly high as a bird, up, up, and away, in a beautifulballoon… We hope you have dreams of floating in the clouds (in a safe and secure way, of course) as you knit with the balloon-inspired skein of Up, Up, and Away.

HerStory May 2020: Janet Guthrie

Check out our May colorway, Vroom Vroom! Named so because we are zooming around the racetrack for our May HerStory. May is the month when the Indianapolis 500 typically takes place (although in very atypical 2020, it has been rescheduled for August…we planned this all out waaay before there was even a hint of a global pandemic, so there you go ;)). Vroom Vroom is racecar green, with speckles representing sponsorship stickers sprinkled all over. 

This month, we are honoring Janet Guthrie, a woman who chalked up a lot of firsts in American auto racing. She was the first woman to compete in the Indianapolis 500. She was the first woman to compete in the Daytona 500. And, she was the first woman to lead a lap in the NASCAR Winston Cup Series. 

Janet Guthrie was always interested in moving fast and taking risks. Her parents (both airplane pilots) encouraged her fearlessness, and, with hopes of becoming an astronaut, she studied engineering in college. The astronaut thing didn’t pan out, but she worked as an aerospace engineer for a time, and was both a pilot and a flight instructor. Feeling restless, in the 1960s, Guthrie set her sights on auto racing.

If you think auto racing now is a big ole sausage-fest, you should have seen it in the mid-1960s. All men, as far as the eye could see, and very little institutional interest in widening that gap. Guthrie didn’t let that deter her, however; for 10 long years, she worked hard, built her own cars, and even slept in her car when at the race track. Finally, in 1977, she gained sponsorship and was able to fully compete with her racing peers as a fully supported driver. Of course, she continued to face bucketloads of sexism and misogyny, but she kept competing, as long as the sponsorship held out (auto racing is prohibitively expensive without sponsorship). Her racing career didn’t last very long, but her legacy continues to this day. She inspired women like Lyn St. James, Sarah Fisher, and Danica Patrick to take up the mantle of Indycar racing. In 2019, she became the 5th woman inducted into the Automotive Hall of Fame, which is awesome and also proves there is a long way yet to go in achieving equality in the auto racing world (the Automotive Hall of Fame was founded in the 1930s and has over 800 worldwide honorees).

In an ESPN special focusing on her life, Guthrie stated: “You can go back to antiquity to find women doing extraordinary things, but their history is forgotten. Or denied to have ever existed. So women keep reinventing the wheel. Women have always done these things, and they always will.”

HerStory April 2020: Zahida Kazmi

Our April colorway, Paxi, is inspired by the story of the first female taxi driver in Pakistan and the legacy that her courage has left. 

In 1992, as a newly-widowed mother of 6, Zahida Kazmi took advantage of a government assistance program to purchase a yellow cab, and began ferrying people from the airport to their homes all over Islamabad. Although Pakistan was more moderate then than it is now, jobs like driving taxis were reserved for men and men alone. She fought against not only the societal misogyny that surely followed her throughout her career, but the ingrained misogyny carried by her family members. At first, she covered up as much as possible, wearing first burkas and then hijabs, but as her business and her presence became more established, she stopped covering her head. Over the years, Kazmi gained the respect of her fellow taxi drivers, as well as her customers, and eventually became the chairperson of Pakistan’s Yellow Cab Association. 

In 2017, as a response to a study published by the International Labor Organization which identified a lack of safe transportation as a major contributor to the low number of Pakistani women participating in the workforce, Paxi was formed. Paxi is a fleet of pink taxis whose purpose is to provide a safe route to work for women. Public transportation in Pakistan can be unsafe for women, many of whom face sexual harassment or worse while just trying to get to work. Paxi offers transportation specifically for women, aiming to create a safe environment and remove the transportation barrier to women’s ability to work. It’s not perfect (it’s much more expensive than even regular taxi service, which means many lower-income women are totally priced out of it), but it’s a definite step forward in safety and an attempt to support women who want to/need to work. So, as you cast on your Paxi socks, spend some time and send some good energy to those women who break barriers out of necessity and pave the way for more equity in our world. Thank you, Zahida Kazmi, for doing what you needed to do for your family, and thus helping other women to have a bit more autonomy and safety.

HerStory March 2020: Libby Riddles

Every year in early March, teams of people and dogs race across the Alaskan landscape for upwards of 1,000 miles, each trying to best the other in the annual Iditarod Dog Sled Race. It began in 1967 as a short race, and was a commemoration of the emergency dog sledding treks to Nome to help battle a diptheria outbreak in 1925. In 1973, the race that has evolved into the current-day Iditarod was first run. Teams consist of a musher (driver) and 12-16 dogs, and, depending on weather and other factors, the Iditarod can take 10-20 days to complete.  

In 1985, Libby Riddles, a 28-year old Alaskan originally from Wisconsin, became the first woman to win the Iditarod, pushing herself and her dogs to drive through absolutely awful conditions to triumph. While many of her fellow mushers hunkered down at a checkpoint to wait out the worst of a massive storm, Libby set out on her trail to victory, and kept up her lead throughout the rest of the race. Her win was so inspiring, not only because she was the first woman to do so, but because she came out on top by being the most courageous musher on the field. Her win catapulted dog sled racing into the mainstream, and inspired countless young women to pursue dreams in the once-typically-male domain. 

Not only a consummate musher, Libby is also an animal-rights activist in the dog-sledding circuit. She won Humanitarian Awards for Best Treatment of Dogs in the Iditarod, the Kusko 300, and the John Beargrease Races (three big dog sled races). She continues to raise and train dogs (her kennel is called Blazing Kennels, and hosts 20-40 dogs at any one time), and she’s written three books about her career: one memoir and two children’s books. She is a public/motivational speaker, and continues to inspire young women with her story of strength and perseverance. 

Our Mush colorway is inspired by the varied colors of the coats on the dogs that pulled Libby to victory all those years ago. Working as a seamless team, musher and dogs traverse unforgiving landscapes over the course of a long and lonely 2-3 weeks. This skein is an homage to those dogs and the woman who pushed them to victory, paving the way for more equity in the sport. We hope you give the sweet doggos in your life behind-the-ear scritches as you knit your Mush socks, and think about the perseverance it took for this brave team of pups and their fearless leader, Libby Riddles, to ride through the storm and win that race.