Over a dozen quilters gathered to build financial literacy, close the Wage Gap and pin down sultry skivvies after a wintry mix settled over Tribeca NYC on Tuesday March 5, 2019. Lead by social justice enthusiast and special projects director for Democracy at Work Institute, Anh-Thu Nguyen initiated a conversation about the history, present and future challenges to equal pay for all Americans.
As Director of Special Projects, Anh-Thu leads and supports market development initiatives, innovations, and strategic partnerships for worker cooperative creation, scale and growth. She supports DAWI’s NYC work through the NYC Council-funded Worker Cooperative Business Development Initiative, providing consulting, education and technical assistance to emerging worker cooperatives and developers. Her work has encompassed international human rights, social enterprise, and sustainable fashion. She began her career with the UN Assistance to the Khmer Rouge Trials (UNAKRT), and has launched and consulted on several conscious beauty and fashion brands, including being on the founding team of MAKE Beauty. She studied Classics and Government at Georgetown University and received her JD from the University of Texas School of Law. We were honored to have her encyclopedic knowledge and visionary action as a source of inspiration during the skill and knowledge share exercise.
Beginning by snacking and laying out the Underwear Audit palette, participants gathered over a pristine Queen sized bedsheet-cum-tablecloth to examine our collective ideas on pay parity across marginalized groups. Anh-Thu provided insightful breakdowns of equity versus income statististics and ways to make the invisible economic forces that are structurally stacked against us apparent. A document with links including resources for economic development in NYC as well as articles expanding on her talking points is available here.
Breaking down the barriers to economic information, Anh-Thu covered the history of redlining and pinklining from FDR’s HOA and housing policies to current trends in top banks that prevent minorities from getting loans- not to mention period poverty. Predatory lending, Unbanked Americans and de-banking big business into credit unions were discussed. More surprising than the short falls in income disparity is the equity disparity. The historical and structural barriers to entry in owning a home for example, are linked not only to the recent laws passed that allow women to have property in their name in the US, but also women’s proclivity to pay debt and be more financially responsible. This proclivity makes us higher targets to predatory lending, as well as heavier consumers of educational debt which has skyrocketed in our generation. It is no surprise then, that lacking financial independence or pay parity in the workplace; women are slower in achieving the “American Dream” or the Myth of independent homeownership- especially in dense, expensive cities where jobs are more likely to be occupied by women. This despite being the largest representation of domestic workers and care-takers.
Notwithstanding the large scale historical and political challenges of electing women to higher office in order to improve the financial barriers, there has been progress where policies at state and government scale come as a result of a more diverse local government cabinet. This underscores the urgency to vote in local elections- no matter the state’s democratic or republican leaning. Challenges remain, as was intimately felt in preparation for Stitch n Bitch Gap$ when 6 out of 7 invited speakers dropped out. Two had last minute obligations for other engagements, while the remaining 4 were either censored by their compliance officers or self-censored to avoid castigation from their high-powered careers in finance. While self-censorship is a common, understandable tactic in order for women to remain in upwardly mobile positions of financial power, it is most insidious when compliance officers censor these women from sharing basic economic literacy tools with their community. Moreover, it is a chilling illustration of how income disparity is increasing, and access to social services is decreasing for the most vulnerable populations. In 2019 it is more taboo for women in finance to explain the definition of a 401k to her comrades, than a man of the highest power to threaten sexual violence against women on a national stage. The bravery #MeToo women have demonstrated in risking their careers is a vibrant transformation of our culture, but comes at a cost.
Taking stock of their own experiences and tools for improving conditions in their community, the quilters began pitching images across the table that depict the struggle. The quarterly question arose as to whether an image expressing critique or hope should be prioritized. After consolidating ideas into one powerful symbol, the group debated and settled on an image. A man bolstered high by a dollar sign parallels a woman held low by a cent sign, is divided by a red to pink ombre measuring line: representing not only the problem of pay parity, but also historical equity with red and pink-lining. In further detail the group concluded the colors representing clothing for each gender sign would be neutral so as not to exclude other gender identities, and that the man’s head would be a pale skin tone while the woman’s would be a dark brown. The ultimate test of image clarity and power will be judged on the street, by the wider public at an upcoming protest.
Pinning the worn out women’s underwear into the late evening, participants eagerly put finishing touches on the panty portrait. A final shake test revealed white gaps in an otherwise colorful image, which were quickly filled by the remaining supporters. With a last heave and sway of the queen sized bedsheet, the 10th Cunt Quilt was born at 9:30pm March 5, 2019.