Across the country, sewers are attempting to fill the vast, yawning gaps in our national pandemic preparedness. Some in the fashion industry, including designer Christian Siriano and Brooks Brothers, have turned at least part of their operations over to the effort, producing protective masks for hospitals. But there’s also a flood of hobbyists and crafters who are organizing themselves, digging into their fabric stashes and whipping together masks for their local hospitals and other essential workers. Online fabric shops are sharing instructions and precut kits sold at a discount or donated; Facebook groups are organizing community-wide efforts.
It’s a poignant image. On the one hand, it’s an inspiring story of a group, largely women, rising to meet a vital need, recalling the triumphant wartime imagery of Rosie the Riveter that’s had such a long afterlife in popular feminism.
It stands in a long tradition of sewing circles and knitting efforts as war work for women, who’ve produced everything from flags to bandages to parachutes. But it’s also a grim reminder of how people on the front lines are lacking in the most basic supplies. Essential workers, including nurses, doctors, home health aides, delivery workers, and the grocery store cashiers who are keeping America fed—again, many of whom are women—are being criminally under-supported in this national emergency. That reality makes the homemade masks look more tragic than triumphant.
That reality makes the homemade masks look more tragic than triumphant.
The shortfall has been clear for weeks: Despite the fact that public health authorities have been warning about the importance of pandemic preparedness for years, there just aren’t enough masks. There aren’t enough N95 masks, which are higher grade and more specialized equipment, but there aren’t enough basic surgical masks, either. The national stockpile is running low—and some of those supplies were unusable in the first place—and the crisis has disrupted supply chains. Guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention suggested that, in a dire situation, medical workers could even turn to bandanas in hopes of providing some protection—although nothing will be as good as proper PPE.
Sewers have stepped into the breach. “We’re made for this time,” Denise Voss of the American Sewing Guild told the New York Times. “We’re happy to stay home and sew. And we all have stashes of fabric.” Sewing has traditionally been seen as the province of women; once a vital life skill, its public perception has transformed over the last century into a feminized (and therefore frequently trivialized) hobby. But the emergency has transformed sewing back into a critical ability, as mask-making efforts have sprung up across the country. Dr. Nicole Seminara at NYU Langone organized Masks4Medicine, explaining to the Times that such efforts “[free] up the surgical masks for the people who are the highest risk.” The need is only more urgent now that the CDC has recommended masks for Americans who do go out as a preventative measure.
The readily available labor of women is presumed to be an abundant, natural national resource, there to bridge any gaps created by piss-poor planning and chronic underinvestment. Disposable surgical masks cost something like 75 cents, and yet America, with its supposed greatest healthcare system on Earth, is running out, despite months of advance warning. Sewers themselves are aware that it’s ridiculous they even have to step forward. “It should have never come to this,” Michele Hoaglund told the Times. “We’re doing what the federal government should be doing.”
These volunteers are plugging into a rhetorical tradition that goes back to World War II, with article after article that explicitly reference Rosie the Riveter and the iconic “We Can Do It” poster. Sewers themselves have embraced the comparison, the latest in a long line of women who’ve claimed the iconography for their own over the decades. It’s part of a broader comparison between America’s massive, nationwide World War II mobilization (one common across the pond, as well). “It’s a war effort,” a man who has donated fabric to the cause told the Wall Street Journal. “This is all of us fighting against a common foe.” In fact, Surgeon General Jerome Adams invoked Rosie in a press conference April 5, putting the onus on Americans: “We want everyone to understand you’ve got to be Rosie the Riveter. You’ve got to do your part.”
But the narrative of women stitching for America is even older; over the centuries, our national mythology has made sewing out to be a woman’s national duty. It’s the iconic image of feminine patriotism, going all the way back to the beginning of the nation. The classic schoolbook image of a woman’s contribution to the American Revolution is Betsy Ross sewing that flag—patriotism in the form of needle and thread. As the country plunged into World War I, the American Red Cross organized a nationwide campaign urging women to knit for “Sammy,” then a nickname for American soldiers, helping outfit soldiers at the front (who weren’t issued gloves, sweaters, or hats), and the organization mounted a similar nationwide effort for World War II. And while popular memory often pictures the woman who clocked in for the wartime mobilization effort doing heavy industry work—putting rivets on bombers—often they were at sewing machines, and the wartime propaganda efforts that produced the Rosie iconography often made use of this image of acceptably traditional feminine labor
Rosie the Riveter and woman on the “We Can Do It!” poster—who have collapsed into one another, despite the fact that they were unconnected at the time, and the poster itself was only displayed for a couple of weeks in Westinghouse factories during the war—have been repurposed again and again over the last 80 years as symbols of women’s empowerment. But the legacy of women’s wartime work is more complicated, especially in the context of coronavirus.
The promotion of women’s defense industry work came with caveats and a built-in expiration date; the task of all those posters was to encourage middle-class women to pitch in during the war and then return to their homes when it was over. Many of the women involved in those iconic efforts were working class and needed to bring in a paycheck—thus war work was an opportunity. Rosie the Riveter, in other words, often had heavily subsidized (but controversial) childcare and she made decent money. The war demonstrated that, when push came to shove, better working conditions were, in fact, possible—but then, of course, the war ended.
Many of the people on the front lines of this battle, be it healthcare workers or women delivering groceries to people in quarantine, are fighting for the most basic protections and fair treatment from their employers. Women’s war work at the time was controversial, but supported out of necessity; decades later, workers on the front lines can’t even get that much. Mask makers are covering the gaps in our system without compensation. America’s persistent refusal to value social welfare over profit motive has worsened this crisis every step of the way, in every possible manner, and nothing demonstrates that quite like the conflicted image of can-do, make-do Rosie.
Nevertheless, I, too, eventually succumbed to the lure of the homemade mask. After weeks of reading debates about whether masks were effective, I hauled out the sewing machine I received as a gift years ago—from my mother, an experienced nurse who is much, much too close to the front lines for my comfort, and there’s absolutely nothing I can do to help her. I sat down with an online pattern and began making masks for any family members who wanted them, simply to give myself something, anything to do at a time when I but can’t stand to sit quietly with my thoughts, either. Methodically feeding fabric through a thundering needle late at night, after putting the toddler to bed, has a consuming, lulling, meditative quality; at least it drowns out the occasional helicopter overhead or distant siren. It feels nothing like the posters.