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In the outpouring of sorrow and grief at the death of a truly great American, Ruth Bader Ginsberg, I have noticed that the symbol of her lace collar has shown up in many online posts, encouraging people to take courage, to vote, to remember. How wonderful that this remarkable attorney and jurist, who devoted her life to championing the rights of women and other disenfranchised people, should choose such a dainty and prototypically feminine symbol, lace. You can be sure that the choice was not accidental.

The production of textiles, in pre-industrial times a matter of survival, of clothing ones’ family and earning a few pennies, was enormously time consuming, requiring hard physical labor to raise the wool, flax or cotton, and long, long hours to clean, card, spin and then weave those materials into useable cloth. Some occupations, such as weaving, were dominated by men who were protected by powerful trade guilds. But hand-made lace, a completely unnecessary article, sought after by kings and princes of the church, a luxury item so valuable it was listed in the wills of the wealthy, came from the hands of women, usually poor women working in the most modest of circumstances. The work came at a high cost to its makers. Whether the lace was made of fine linen thread and a needle, such as Alençon lace from France, or on a pillow with bobbins, as in Bruges, or with many other combinations of netting, needle and hook in other parts of Europe, it was slow, painstaking, and detailed labor, requiring endless months of close work, often in dim light. Women making needle lace often went blind, and even today in France, the few dentellières who carry the knowledge of what UNESCO deems an “intangible cultural heritage,” are required by law to limit their work time to protect their eyesight. No such laws existed in the past, and whether working in convents or singly in small cottages, the women were paid very little for their highly prized work.

With the rise of industrialization and the invention of machines that could make lace, crude and synthetic approximations of the hand-made variety, lacemaking as an occupation died out and only hobbyists remain. And fashions have changed. While lace is still associated with christening gowns and weddings, how many times have I heard people say that lace reminds them of their grandmothers? It is a shame but not a surprise that this quintessentially feminine, very slow product should be dismissed as fusty and old-fashioned.

Justice Ginsberg lived her life honoring and fighting for the work of women. She could have worn power suits approximating the armor of modern oligarchs and titans of industry. That she chose to wear lace collars, at once reminding everyone that she was a woman, while steadfastly fighting with the strength and endurance of the bravest warrior, says something about her vision of the equality of the sexes. I know someone who had the privilege of visiting Justice Ginsberg in her chambers, and she was shown an armoire filled with lace collars, all sorts, some purchased, some gifts. Justice Ginsberg enjoyed them and sent messages when she wore them, about stereotypes and power and courage.

Subtlety is neither weak nor fragile. I too am grieved this week, and afraid. But I look to the Justice and her lifelong commitment to me and my community. The steadfast and patient work of the lacemakers, honored by Justice Ginsberg, can stand an as example for us as we continue the fight in the months and years ahead.

©Melody S. Owens, Poets Sinews, 2020. Reuse with permission.

Linen collar, point d’Alençon, 19th century
Museé des Beaux-arts et de la Dentelle, Alençon