Pricking the Male Ego: Pins and Needles in Flaubert, Maupassant, and Zola.(Critical Essay)

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Associated with women as tools of the seamstress, as fasteners or as sartorial accessories, pins have elicited commentary since the sixth century BCE, when a group of Athenian women pulled out the prodigiously long pins that held their garments together and stabbed to death the soldier who came to inform them that their husbands had been killed in battle. Needles, also gendered through their use in various forms of stitchery, from sewing to knitting, have an equally colorful history, although the non-gender-specific association of hypodermic needles with violence tends to be a phenomenon of the twentieth century, where the notion of"sharing needles" does not evoke the sewing club of yore.

An investigation of the role played by pins and needles in cultural history necessarily leads to the seamstress, a figure of domesticity who is often represented in art as young and docile, perhaps eager to be subjugated by the male. This is especially true in nineteenth-century France, and one has only to consider the many portraits of solitary young seamstresses by Millet, Renoir, Pissarro, Cassatt, Caillebotte and others to find evidence of this association. In these portraits, the characteristic posture of the seamstress evokes at the same time modesty and submission to a domestic ideal: a young woman is generally seated, her hands occupied with the needlework, her head bowed in silent concentration. Examining these portraits, one is reminded of John Taylor's "In Praise of the Needle," in which the seventeenth-century poet urges women "to use their tongues less and their needles more" (Parker 86). The suggestion that needlework keeps women compliant and subservient was a commonplace of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries as well, and as Barbara Cooper points out in another context, such activity also limits their mobility, "as if they are tied to their hand work, that is, to the world of domestic occupations, by the very threads they are manipulating" (146). These notions were reflected in theories of "domestic education" for young women. Jean-Jacques Rousseau believed that embroidery came naturally to women, and he emphasized the importance of teaching various forms of needlework to girls in the schools, since "presque toutes les petites rilles apprennent avec repugnance a lire et a ecrire; mais quant tenir l'aiguille, c'est ce qu'elles apprennent toujours volontiers" (444). Rousseau's plan for separate curricula for boys and girls, laid out in Emile, was of course not unique, and even after the educational reforms of the 1880s, sewing courses continued to be mandatory for girls (Shaffer 179-200). (1) This is no doubt unsurprising: the nineteenth century was, after all, an era when tertiary education for women was virtually unknown, an era during which the word "etudiante" meant "jeune femme de moeurs legeres qui frequente les etudiants." (2) Nevertheless, the persistent emphasis on the importance of handiwork for girls is illogical, given the fact that the Industrial Revolution made this emphasis somewhat anachronistic. It was not that women didn't continue to sew and knit and embroider and crochet, only that they no longer needed to do so unless they were at the bottom of the socio-economic scale. Singer's sewing machine, exhibited in France in 1855, was in wide use by the 1860s (Vanier 165); the mechanization of lacemaking and embroidery took place during the same period, a period that also saw the immense growth in the textile industry, the development of the department store, and the birth of ready-to-wear clothes (Ashelford 196, 259-60). Such innovations made the conjunction of needlework and domesticity questionable as well: by mid-century, fifty percent of the women driven to work by the Industrial Revolution in Paris were involved in the needle trades (Steele 9). Underpaid and overworked, these women became symbolic of occupational misery and oppression. …


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