“Becoming a ‘Christian’ Woman” examines girls’ needlework in eighteenth-century Virginia. Winner argues that needlework aided girls in their social and religious formation. Needle work became popular among elite colonial Americans by the 1720s. Girls’ embroidered as a means of social and economic display, and as a tool for learning. Pedagogues argued over the value of women’s education, but most often they recognized embroidery as integral to women’s education. Needlework was particularly important for eighteenth-century Virginia girls because it taught them lesson about their social status. Virginia girls were taught that needlework was a necessary tool because one day they would oversee and evaluate their slaves’ needlework. Pictures of the Sacrifice of Isaac taught girls lessons about their obedience to God and parents, and the hierarchy of obedience among masters and slaves. The act of embroidery also disciplined women’s bodies in ways pedagogues deemed appropriate. According to Winner, “Embroidery may be read as a map of the social and religious values parents sought to inculcate in their daughters, and girls’ practice of making such needlework may be read as a religious act, a domestic, embodied catechesis” (60). Needlework was recognized as religious in two ways. First, the content of embroidery was often religious in the sense that needlework pictures imaged Bible stories, like the Sacrifice of Isaac. Winner also argues that “working embroidery itself may be seen as a religious practice, a contemplative act” (64). Needlework helped girls conform “to an ideal type of Christian femininity” (78).
Winner is one of the first historians to suggest that colonial American embroidery was a religious act for girls and women. Winner emphasizes the embodied nature of embroidering that worked to reinforce lessons about society, religion, and women’s bodies.