On Feb. 15, students and professors, heads adorned in different shades of pink, flooded into the Event Oval of the Diana Center. The pussyhats clashed with the Event Oval’s elegant mahogany—they were as pink as Pepto-Bismol, teacup pigs, pencil erasers, intestines, or bubble gum.
They were adorable.
Krista Suh, an alumna of Barnard College class of 2009 and founder of the Pussyhat Project, was returning to her alma mater to discuss her brainchild bookended in pink—her pumps were a bright fuchsia, and her long, black hair was crowned with a massive pussyhat.
Even among a sea of pussyhatted women, Suh stood out.
The Pussyhat Project is a hat-knitting initiative that was founded just in time for the Women’s March on Washington, which took place on Jan. 21, 2017—the day after President Donald Trump’s inauguration. In its initial form, the project intended to create a “sea of pink” in Washington, D.C. and other major cities hosting concurrent marches. Suh, a Los Angeles-based screenwriter, chose to wear her own pussyhat as a means of resistance against the Trump administration and, of course, to stay warm. (D.C.’s temperature wasn’t too cold that day—it hovered around the upper 40s—but Suh is a California girl.)
Around the time of the Women’s March, Suh’s work for the Pussyhat Project received widespread media coverage. Since then, the project has shifted gears: On March 8, for International Women’s Day, it hosted the Pussyhat Global Virtual March, in which thousands of people posted images of themselves wearing pussyhats on social media.
But despite its viral surge to popularity, the Pussyhat Project is by no means perfect. Since its launch, it has been criticized for its alleged lack of trans-inclusive language and for implying that all “pussies” (i.e., labia) are pink. These were valid criticisms, and ones that I couldn’t forget as I, a woman of color, sat through that Feb. 15 event.
Still, I knew these criticisms weren’t entirely airtight. Suh is Asian-American, and while that doesn’t necessarily excuse her missteps, it does complicate the “white feminism” critique often lobbed at the Pussyhat Project.
During the talk at the Event Oval, Suh was as animated, articulate, and memorable as any good spokesperson for a high-profile brand should be. But she spoke largely on behalf of the Pussyhat Project brand, not on behalf of Krista Suh. At times, it seemed that Suh’s pussyhat wore her, as opposed to the other way around.
The event came to a close. I, newly aware of how boring my plain, non-pussyhatted outfit was, couldn’t help but wonder who Suh had been before the Pussyhat Project exploded.
When Suh attended Barnard, she walked to class on the same wobbly bricks and cobblestones as I do. I think about my Barnard professors, classes, and peers every day. The same is true for Suh: Her Barnard experience was instrumental to a movement that has since gone global.
A few days after the talk in the Event Oval, I sit down to chat with Suh in a Gramercy apartment—borrowed from a family member who lives in the area, she explains. Suh sits down next to me on the couch, criss-cross-applesauce, holding a ceramic bowl of Sour Patch Kids. She clutches it for the entirety of the interview, occasionally picking up a Kid to chew on between questions.
Some people are open books: Ask them any question, and they’ll answer. But Suh takes it to another level: She’s an open book written entirely in a pleasing, large-print font, with lots of colorful illustrations and photographs. It took just a few questions to get under Suh’s proverbial pussyhat and reveal the woman underneath.
Suh is the Korean-Chinese daughter of a Barnard mother and a Columbia father. (Her parents, Suh clarifies, are “sort of like Asian tiger parents, but, like, Jedi tiger parents.”) Suh grew up in Rowland Heights, California, and chose Barnard over Berkeley when she was a senior in high school at the recommendation of her Aunt Winnie, a family friend who had attended both institutions.
While at Barnard, Suh course-corrected her medical school plans in favor of pursuing a degree in art history. She wrote her senior thesis about her theory that restaurants are art pieces in and of themselves. Suh also served as editor in chief of the Barnard Bulletin, where she “brought back horoscopes” and helped the magazine transition to cover pages in full color.
The lion-bear parental unit. The bachelor’s degree in art history. The Barnard Bulletin. Holy shit, I think to myself. Suh is so Barnard.
But although Barnard has made a lasting impact on Suh’s feminism, the Pussyhat Project was spawned far, far away from Morningside Heights.
Suh tells me that she came up with the visual of a “sea of pink” in the car while on a road trip with her parents. “Looking back, I get my best ideas in the car,” she reflects. The Women’s March was her first protest, and she wanted to make a statement.
“I really was willing to strip naked for this,” Suh declares. “I just wanted it to have meaning.”
As soon as Suh returned from her family’s road trip, she visited her friend Kat Coyle at the Little Knittery, a knitting store located in Los Angeles, on Glendale Boulevard. She recalls walking slowly through the store, touching skeins of colorful yarn as she moved. After a while, she finally broached the topic: “Hey, Kat?” At this point in the story, her voice grows higher, quieter, like even she can’t believe the genius of her idea. “Hey, Kat? Do you wanna make a pattern?”
As I’m writing this, I’m on a road trip myself. I haven’t come up with a new symbol for a massive feminist movement just yet. But I’m working on it.
As an institution, Barnard has proudly claimed Suh as one of its own. Suh was the only alumna mentioned by name in the March 4 farewell email sent to the entire student body by Barnard’s former president, Debora Spar (Spar lauded Suh as the creator of the “iconic pink hats” that appeared at women’s marches worldwide). The Barnard art history department and the Barnard Center for Research on Women also hosted the Pussyhat Project event that Suh headlined in February.
But the Barnard that Krista inhabited from 2006 to 2009, I learn, was radically different from the Barnard I know, as a member of the class of 2017.
The Diana Center, for example, didn’t exist for the vast majority of Suh’s time at Barnard. Instead, there was the McIntosh Center. She also experienced the transition from Judith Shapiro’s presidency to Debora Spar’s—two female leaders who have since left the college.
As the child of Barnard and Columbia alums, however, Suh seems more accustomed to embracing that which has stayed the same, as opposed to the big changes. After all, as a Barnard-Columbia legacy, she grew up sharing College Walk, Butler Library, and Barnard Hall with her parents.
While Suh was an undergraduate, she was mentored by Joan Snitzer, senior lecturer in art history and director of Barnard’s visual arts program, who has taught at Barnard since 1986. As a Barnard student, Suh cultivated a close relationship with Snitzer; she even tutored Snitzer’s daughter as she prepared for the SAT. (Snitzer’s daughter performed well on the SAT and was ultimately accepted into Barnard, naturally.)
Snitzer was also the reason Suh returned to Barnard to speak in the first place. “[Snitzer] knew about the Pussyhat project before she knew I had started it,” Suh explains. Eventually, someone in Snitzer’s class mentioned that a Barnard woman had founded the project—a Krista “Soo.”
She clarifies, “It’s pronounced Suh, but anyway.” I laugh, thinking up a rhyme: Duh, it’s pronounced “Suh.”
Suh knows how to knit, but she also spins a good yarn. As Suh speaks, her voices crescendos, ritardandos, for the big reveal. “Joan was like, ‘Oh my God! I know her.’ And she was telling the class, that woman was in this class that you are in right now.”
At Barnard, Snitzer teaches several painting classes as well as a course called Imagery and Form in the Arts, all of which are guided by the concept of a visual language in which visual symbols communicate meaning. Suh returns to Snitzer whenever I ask her about the relationship between her Barnard experience and the Pussyhat Project. “[Snitzer] lines you up in her class, in her studio, and yells at you,” Suh explains. “She’s like, marching up and down: ‘You must be visually literate!’”
As a person who is visually illiterate, I am lost.
Thankfully, Suh soon employs her visual literacy to explain the familiar design of the pussyhat itself. People know the pussyhat for its hot pink hue—and its ability to create a “sea of pink” at a protest—but this level of analysis neglects to take its cat-eared shape into account. “I think the simplest way to stand out isn’t with changing the print or changing the color even,” Suh explains. “It’s not the detailing—it’s silhouette.”
By Suh’s logic, a dress-wearing woman in a crowd of trouser-wearing business professionals stands out not because she is wearing something feminine, but because of her silhouette. I buy it.
Snitzer, it seems, had left such a lasting impression on Suh that when she was invited to speak at Barnard, she also requested to go to Snitzer’s class for an unofficial, intimate discussion.
Margaux Charmey, a senior at Barnard and student in Snitzer’s painting class, sat in on the discussion with Suh. Charmey is from Paris and attended a Women’s March there. The pussyhats (chathats peut-être?) had made their way across the Atlantic Ocean to the City of Light.
“Since realizing that she was a Barnard student, I felt even more Barnard pride,” Charmey explains. “When I go back [to Paris], they don’t even know how to say Barnard correctly.”
Suh’s arrival also inspired the students in Snitzer’s class to collaborate on their own Pussyhat Project of sorts. They describe brainstorming a “thousand ideas” to celebrate Suh’s return. Sara Larner, a junior at Barnard and the teaching assistant for Snitzer’s Painting II and IV classes, recalls plans to bake a huge, three-dimensional pussyhat cake, an idea that was scrapped due to technical limitations.
(Cake would have been the move, I think to myself. I’ve always wanted to eat pussy.)
Ultimately, Snitzer’s class gifted Suh with a stuffed Barnard bear wearing a tiny pussyhat. Larner and Snitzer arranged for the design of Barnard-themed pussyhat stickers (there’s one on my water bottle now—I love free swag.)
Suh has a penchant for projects, for big ideas. Soon after graduating from Barnard, she penned a screenplay about star-crossed Greek lovers—fraternity brothers and sorority sisters, that is—allegedly based upon her time at Barnard and Columbia. She’s found success as a screenwriter in Los Angeles. And now, she has the Pussyhat Project.
But for all the ballyhoo about pussyhats, my conversations with Suh, Snitzer, Larner, and Charmey make me realize that the richest conversations I’d had about the Pussyhat Project weren’t really centered on the hats themselves. The conversations always made their way back to Barnard, and to the sense of feminist fondness and kinship that accompanies the Barnard experience.
This is reassuring, the notion that the modern feminist movement is about more than adorable hats. And, despite what the name of the Pussyhat Project might suggest, it’s not even about just pussies. It’s about coming together, about knitting and crafting as acts of resistance.
Think about it: The term “knitting circle” conjures up images of sweet old ladies sitting in rocking chairs as they gossip and crochet tea cozies for their estranged sons and daughters. The Pussyhat Project transforms knitting circles into blatantly political spaces. It sharpens knitting needles into tools of resistance against the patriarchy. Barnard accomplishes much of the same, just in the context of the classroom.
After our talk, Suh walks me to the lobby of the apartment building and gives me a hug, to boot. I notice that she had put on a pair of sneakers on her feet for the short walk down.
The shoes are pink, just like a proper pussyhat.
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