Local Women Thread Activism with Fashion

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When Margaret Atwood released The Handmaid’s Tale in 1985, she couldn’t have foreseen the cultural ripple effect the dystopian and unsettling novel would have on society even in 2018.

Or, maybe she did?

“The control of women and babies has been a part of every repressive regime in history,” she said in an April 2017 interview with Time, right before the Hulu adaptation of the book began streaming. “This has been happening all along. … But The Handmaid’s Tale is always relevant, just in different ways in different political contexts. Not that much has changed.”


Women have certainly found ways to bring the oppressive tactics of The Handmaid’s Tale fictional setting of Gilead to the forefront, as many have donned the signature red cloaks and white bonnets while protesting various pieces of legislation targeted toward women.

A protester in a Handmaid’s during Vice President Mike Pence’s visit to Philadelphia. | Photo provided

In March 2017, a group of women in Texas marched to the state’s Capitol sporting the scarlet robes in protest of various anti-abortion measures being considered by the state Senate.

The following May, robe-clad women in Missouri marched to their Capitol as lawmakers were “debating a budget provision that could prevent uninsured women from choosing to get family planning services from any health center, hospital or doctor who refers for abortions,” per the Kansas City Star.

Countless others across the country and even internationally have followed suit.

As discussions arise around the potential overturning of Roe v. Wade following President Trump’s decision to nominate Brett Kavanaugh for Supreme Court, the conversation around women’s reproductive rights has only grown louder.

And the robes are not being hung up anytime soon.

Vice President Mike Pence was greeted by a large swath of protesters when he visited Philadelphia July 23 to stump for Republican Senate hopeful Lou Barletta. Among those gathered outside of the Union League where Pence was headed were about 100 women clad in the red robes.

Photos of these women soon flooded social media, capturing the attention of local and national news outlets — and even Atwood herself, who tweeted a story written about them with a picture.

Suzan Hirsch was excited to see Atwood — whose novel Hirsch considers her favorite — share photos of the women in robes.

After all, she made some of them.

“We couldn’t believe it,” she said. “We could not believe it because this has been done in other cities, this wasn’t the first.”

Over two days, Congregation Beth Or members Hirsch and Robin Levenberg joined with another friend and about 70 yards of fabric to make 40 of the protesters’ cloaks, which were distributed by an organizer.

“We knew the red cloaks would make a strong visual statement and, if you look at the photos, it really does,” Hirsch said. “And it speaks to our politics. We are fearful for women that are coming of age.”

Hirsch, 65, and Levenberg, 67, are no stranger to putting their sewing machines to use politically. They made several hundred of the “p—y hats” that flooded the Women’s Marches across the country, including Philadelphia.

The women who made hundreds of p—y hats for the Women’s March. Front left: Robin Levenberg and Suzan Hirsch; back left: Martha Klein, Judy Bergman, Sandi Myer and Judy Fleigelman. | Photo provided

While Hirsch did not attend either the protest against Pence’s visit or either Women’s March, creating visual pieces like the hats and cloaks allowed her to voice her opinion.

Levenberg, who also could not attend the marches and rallies due to a medical disability, echoed that feeling.

“I really never thought about it playing a role in activism,” she said, “but obviously these two things — the p—y hat, the cloak — they’re making a political statement against something that’s happening and it’s probably no different than years ago when women took off their bras and were burning it, or when they finally pulled their dresses up above their knee. That was a statement that they were here and staying around and they had a voice.”

Hirsch and Levenberg both grew up with a love of sewing. Hirsch recalled growing up at “the knees of [her] grandparents” who owned a tailoring shop in Germantown. Levenberg took her love of fabrics for a degree in textiles from what was then the Philadelphia Textile Institute.

There is also a certain Jewish element to sewing and making a statement via apparel, Hirsch noted, pointing to Jews’ history with textiles and fabrics, such as the deeply Jewish history on Philly’s Fabric Row.  

“Be it a yellow star, a Nazi uniform, there’s many examples of apparel, clothing that makes a statement — good or bad,” she said. “And we wanted to make a statement for good.”

The two are also part of a group of eight Jewish women who sew pillowcases for Ryan’s Case for Smiles, a nonprofit helping children cope with treatment for cancer and serious illnesses.

For them, it’s easy to do these kinds of things because as sewing enthusiasts, it’s a way to give back, Levenberg said.

“I thought that was a terrific statement,” she said of the cloaks. “It’s something we can do that’s easy. It’s a way that while I physically can’t get out and go to a protest, certainly I can enable it by creating these things.”

“It is so visual,” added Hirsch. “It’s like the sea of p—y hats. When you looked out and you saw that, you realized that women were united.

“That was the point of these robes,” she said, “to show our strength over adversity.” 

mstern@jewishexponent.com; 215-832-0740

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