“Stick to your knitting.” Reaction to this phrase can be mixed — and it completely depends on the context in which it is used.
For example, using it in a business meeting to indicate that employees should play to their strengths while allowing others to do the same is a commonly acceptable use of the phrase. “Stick to the knitting” when used by a professional colleague to describe an incredibly accomplished woman who has her foot in all aspects of her craft can come across as derogatory, sexist, and downright rude.
Toronto Deputy Mayor Denzil Minnan-Wong is being accused of sexism for using the phrase in relation to outgoing Chief Planner Jennifer Keesmaat in an interview with the Toronto Sun last week. Minnan Wong said this in response to Keesmaat’s use of Twitter and how she debates municipal affairs publicly on the platform.
The history of “stick to your knitting” is a bit obscure, but the phrase has been used widespread in the business community since the mid 1800s. Many business professionals use this phrase when giving advice to young entrepreneurs. Stick to what you know and let others stick to what they know. That way you have the benefit of different experience instead of pretending to be an expert in all fields.
And yet, many politicians get in trouble for using this common phrase — and it’s all because of the context. Especially considering most of the time it’s used to describe women.
Despite its history, the phrase in itself is slightly derogatory. The person who uses it is telling their co-worker they don’t value their opinions. As a woman, this is especially offensive because women fight hard to be heard in the first place. In the case of Keesmaat, she has expertise in city building and most of her tweeting revolves around different aspects of this field. To say she shouldn’t have an opinion on how the City of Toronto is run and/or built is a bit farfetched and, frankly, sexist.
There is also the democracy angle that makes the use of this phrase even more strange. Minnan-Wong decided that posting discussion on city affairs on Twitter was not appropriate, but isn’t public discussion a foundation of democracy? Keesmaat has previously told Women’s Post that defending her planning choices and discussing them with the public was a critical step for accountability. In that case, her activity on social media is an extension of her role as city planner and an active citizen.
“If you have planners gone wild you could end up in a totalitarian type of environment, so the due diligence that comes from the vigour of being questioned by councillors and by the public is an essential part of the planning process from my perspective,” she said.
Why shouldn’t Keesmaat, or any person for that matter, use social media as a platform for public discussion? If everyone on Twitter was told to stick to their knitting, then it would be a pretty boring place. The whole purpose of social media is to allow people to share information and opinions.
And then there is the final point — why would Minnan-Wong care about the social media habits of a city staff member who is leaving their position in a month’s time? The only reason to use this phrase is to remind them that once they leave city hall, their opinions shouldn’t matter. Well, what does that mean for the rest of us? I hope Minnan-Wong’s constituents don’t have any opinions they want to share or ideas they want to suggest, because it appears like he won’t be listening to them.
Ultimately, Minnan-Wong made the same mistake many politicians make — trying to create a sound bite using clichés, hyperbole, and commonly used phrases in order to capture the attention of the media and the public.
Looks like he did — just not in the way he expected.
What do you think? Let us know in the comments below!