Recently I discovered that my cousin Margaret and I have matching quilts made by our mother’s sisters, Bettie and Hilda. These quilts were made in the 1930’s and the discovery that there are two of them prompted me to post information on my “Peggy’s Quilts” web site about the quilts and how Margaret and I each came to inherit them. Go to the web site to read the story of the quilts and see photos of them
This discovery has highlighted an important “lesson” for all women in this critical period of history when women’s rights are at the same time so threatened, and so much stronger than ever before. Our current situation, particularly the situation surrounding reproductive rights, is grounded in a history that is approximately parallel to the “life” of the quilts that Margaret and I inherited. Margaret Sanger established the American Birth Control League, which later became Planned Parenthood. In 1929, probably about the time that our aunts started planning and constructing our quilts, she established the National Committee on Federal Legislation for Birth Control. Today, we have a significant collection of documents that provide a “picture” of Sanger’s work, and the many dimensions of her beliefs and commitments that shaped her activism. But we do not know, and will never know, the stories of the dozens of women who supported this work.
The quilts illustrate this point. Neither of the quilts has a label – the only signifier that quilters have to document that they are the creator of the quilt. Margaret and I both have the verbal accounts that our aunts passed on to us about the quilts but when we acquired them, we did not think to ask many questions about the quilts that now seem quite important .. the exact dates, what inspired them to make them, what was the context (were they engaged to be married, or hoping to marry?) Was this a happy time? What was going on in the family? What were our mothers (their sisters) doing when these quilts were made? Who were their friends? What were they concerned about? Were they aware of the struggle that was going on in terms of women’s rights to have accessible birth control? Since they came of age shortly after women won the right to vote, did they vote, and what political values did they hold? In short — who were these women who invested hours of time and energy into making these beautiful works of art?
These and many other question surround women’s history. While we cannot retrieve what we do not have from the past, we can make a commitment to participate in making our own histories — histories of ideas and values that shape our lives, and the actions, large and small, that shape the world in which we live.