Note: Jo Freeman was one of the pioneers of second wave feminism and
edited the first national women's liberation newsletter. She is also
a tireless button collector as this article from Ms
magazine demonstrates. Jo is a contributor of the Herstory Project.)
in Ms. magazine, August 1974, pp. 48-53, 75.
been collecting buttons since 1964 when my local pusher enticed me with
freebies until I was hooked. My passion has waxed and waned with time,
so I now have somewhere between 5,000 and 10,000 different buttons --
a paltry number to the serious collector, who usually loses count at
20,000. And I have never quite reached the fervor of some devotees,
who have given up a whole room of their house to store their buttons,
and who have also given up all their spare time and change to collect
them. Like most collectors, however, once I reached the moment of truth
-- the realization that I couldn't collect every button ever printed
-- I had to become a specialist. Since I am a feminist, it was natural
that my ambition would be to have the world's largest feminist button
collection. I now have somewhere between 200 and 250 different feminist
buttons. You might think that with so many, I would feel secure. No
way. Every collection I see, no matter how small, usually contains at
least one button I don't own -- and spasms of unfulfilled desire surge
through my bloodstream.
One of the great
appeals of button collecting -- aesthetics and historical significance
aside -- is the opportunity it gives to pursue impulses one normally
has to repress. It can do this for one simple reason: buttons are, after
all, intrinsically worthless. They are made to be given away in order
to be worn by the greatest number of people. Thus, if you talk someone
into a good (for you) trade, or lift a few buttons from the opposition
campaign headquarters under false pretenses, you're not depriving anyone
of something essential for their existence. Just as contact sports permit
you to physically batter people you barely know, button collecting permits
you to psychologically outwit your colleagues-with the assurance that
it's all in good fun.
does have its rules -- the violation of which can lead to ostracism
and disrepute. The greatest sin of all is to counterfeit a button. Noncollectors
see nothing wrong at all in reproducing an old button, and commercial
establishments often reproduce, old Presidential campaign items as advertising
gimmicks. This compels the American Political Items Collectors, the
oldest organization of button collectors, to regularly send out lists
of "brummagem" -- copies of buttons. The Association for the
Preservation of Political Americana, formed almost two years ago, has
pushed to end the creation of buttons purely for private sale to collectors.
Their efforts have been supported by Public Law 93-167, the Hobby Protection
Law, which requires a reproduction of any political item to have the
year of duplication printed on it, thereby distinguishing a copy from
an original item.
Buttons first appeared
widely during the Presidential campaign of 1896 and have been a campaign
staple ever since. Celluloid
buttons -- using a thin, transparent plastic-like covering to wrap paper
with the printed image on it around a metal, plate -- have become the
most popular. Lithographed buttons -- punched out of a large sheet of
metal upon which mass copies of the button are printed -- are more economical
to produce if done in quantities over 10,000. However, they are less
favored by collectors because few colors are used, designs are simple,
and they easily scratch.
The Women's Liberation
Movement began during the height of the contemporary button craze. Consequently,
buttons reflect the Movement's history and development with greater
consistency than its political tracts. The first new feminist buttons
showed the civil rights origins of the Women's Liberation Movement.
At the 1967 National Organization for Women national board meeting Betty
Farians, then of Bridgeport, Connecticut, appeared wearing a red-on-green
button declaring BAN DISCRIMINATION BASED ON RACE-CREED-COLOR OR SEX.
The sex provision of Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act was still
being ignored by the Equal Employment Opportunities Commission and virtually
every nonfeminist. Tired of constantly reminding people that discrimination
in employment on the basis of sex was as prohibited as that based on
race, creed, and color, Betty Farians decided to say it with a button.
This was as individual an action as that of Ti-Grace Atkinson, whose
FREEDOM FOR WOMEN button was produced in the winter of 1968. Although
Atkinson was then president of New York NOW, the organization was reluctant
to commit itself to a button. So she took the initiative.
The next feminist
button that came to my attention arrived in the mail early in January,
1969. Serving both as editor and as mailing address for "Voice
of the Women's Liberation Movement" (the only national Women's
Liberation newsletter publishing at that time), I was a logical recipient
for news of almost anything that was happening in the Movement. Blue
on white, this button urged that UPPITY WOMEN UNITE. It was produced
for her class by Kimberly Snow, a graduate teaching assistant in a women
and literature course at the University of North Dakota in Grand Forks.
She sent me the extras she had, and I mailed them to feminists around
the country. I ostentatiously wore UPPITY WOMEN UNITE so I could offhandedly
inform people that our "chapter" in Grand Forks, North Dakota,
was distributing them. In early 1969, there were only a dozen or so
other cities -- all of them major metropolises -- known to have functioning
feminist groups, so it sounded as though the Women's Movement were making
headway. UPPITY WOMEN UNITE has since become one of the most popular
slogans in the Movement. Dr. Bernice Sandier, of the American Association
of Colleges, carries large quantities of these buttons, which she scatters
around the country like a modern-day Johnny Appleseed. Many other groups
sell them to raise funds.
a necessary part of any social movement; it provides a quick, convenient
way of proclaiming one's views to the world. At the first (and so far
only) national conference of young Women's Liberation groups, held outside
Chicago over Thanksgiving in 1968, an oft-repeated question was: can
we devise an appropriate symbol for a new Women's Movement? What informally
emerged from that gathering was an idea to use a double X in a circle
-- representing the double-X chromosome. No decision-making structure
existed to sanction or even promote this symbol, but the following spring
a group from Nashville who had attended the conference put out a double-X
button surrounded by the words WOMEN'S LIBERATION. It flopped, but another
symbol quickly replaced it-one that caught the popular imagination.
The feminist button
depicting a clenched fist inside the biological female symbol was produced
by Robin Morgan for the second Miss America Pageant demonstration, in
1969. Unlike the double X, it combined the elements of defiance and
revolution with that of femaleness. The original version was a dark
red on a white
background. It has undergone some regional changes -- Boston's button
is outlined, Chicago's has narrow lines, New Haven's fist crashes through
the top of the female symbol-- but the basic design is the same.
Morgan worried over the choice of a red button for this particular demonstration.
Ever conscious that major corporations like to co-opt incipient protest
movements, she imagined that the cosmetic firm sponsoring the pageant
might respond by manufacturing a matching lipstick named "Liberation
Red." Therefore, if we were asked about the button, we were instructed
to reply that the color was "Menstrual Red." No one would
name a lipstick that.
Cindy Cisler (architect, activist, bibliographer) was creating the equality
pin for the First Congress to Unite Women in New York City in November,
1969. Its simple design -- an equal sign inside a female symbol -- was
inspired by the CORE equality pin and was chosen because it required
no artistic ability to scribble on walls or other convenient surfaces.
It was, therefore, a good guerrilla weapon. The first such pin was a
one-inch white on rust. The colors and size were chosen to match those
of the alpha-symbol button Cisler had already designed for the National
Association for the Repeal of Abortion Laws. The alpha-for-abortion
idea was borrowed from the British abortion-law reform group and soon
became the primary symbol of the American repeal movement. The alpha
and equality pins, like the fist, were permuted into endless colors,
designs, and combinations.
In 1969 and 1970,
new buttons popped up everywhere. This was the springtime of the Movement
and each new button and each new group gave us hope that we were strong
and growing. New York's Redstockings printed the first SISTERHOOD IS
POWERFUL pin; Seattle Radical Women surrounded a photo of a Vietcong
liberation fighter with the words WOMEN'S LIBERATION; Los Angeles drew
a Statue, of Liberty design with a clenched fist; and San Francisco
used a silhouetted standing figure, which eventually became the logo
of the Women's History Library in Berkeley.
The first official
NOW buttons -- declaring EQUALITY FOR WOMEN -- were included in packets
distributed to those attending the March, 1970, national conference
in Chicago. NOW buttons, like fist buttons, have also multiplied over
the years. There is an official logo button in black-on-white and white-on-black,
designed by Ivy Bottini, and a variety of equality, fist, and male and
female symbol combinations.
As the Movement
surfaced in 1970, it began to mark its events with buttons. Chicago
women celebrated International Women's Day on March 8, 1970, with a
striking button that reflected the Third World solidarity concerns of
the anticapitalist, anti-imperialist Chicago Women's Liberation Union.
The Women's Bureau of the Department of Labor put out a button on its
fiftieth anniversary in June of that year. Several buttons were distributed
for the Women's Strike for Equality on August 26, 1970. Expecting a
small turnout, the organizers failed to print enough buttons to meet
the demand of the people who participated in that memorable commemoration
of the fiftieth anniversary of women's suffrage. This forced many groups
to print their own to mark the date.
became more impressive than the events they hailed. A striking red-and-yellow
pin was produced as a fund-raiser for a group of women who took over
an unoccupied New York City. building (Fifth Street Women's Building)
to turn it into a women's center. When they got the heat and lights
working two months later, they were forcibly evicted. The Women's National
Abortion Action Coalition printed a multisymbolic button for its grand
march of November 20, 1971. Unfortunately, the button was bigger than
the turnout. Another unsuccessful occasion supported by a magnificent
button was the April, 1971, meeting in Toronto with North Vietnamese
women and several left-wing women's groups. Designed by Kathy Tackney
and Sharon Rose to raise money for the Washington, D.C., Anti-Imperialist
Women's Collective, the button superimposed the female symbol over the
Vietcong flag in the NLF's official colors.
The August 26,
1970, Strike for Equality marked the takeoff point of the Women's Liberation
Movement. For the first time, the potential power of the Movement became
publicly apparent as crowds of women spontaneously poured into the streets
of several cities. Afterwards, membership rolls of feminist groups swelled
as much as 50 to 70 percent. And the numbers and varieties of buttons
exponentially, so that even this buttonmaniac couldn't keep track of
them all. It seemed as though every new organization and new issue had
to make its stamp on button history.
Those who think
feminism is only about equal pay should look at even the limited number
of issue's displayed here: advertising, religion, publishing, abortion,
child care, terms of address, rape, sports, employment, marriage, divorce,
And if anybody
still believes that the Movement appeal's only to a select few, the
wide variety of women's organizational buttons graphically illustrates
how the Movement has spread into almost all corners of American life.
The early ones identified national organizations with lengthy name's
and short acronyms -- the Women's Equity Action League (WEAL), Federally
Employed Women (FEW) Professional Women's Caucus (PWC). Later ones show
how women have organized in traditional female areas -- among nurses,
telephone workers, and airline flight attendants -- and in untraditional
ones -- judo, trade unions, and politics. Special interests within the
Movement -- particularly older women, black women, and gay women --have
also formed their own groups. In buttons, perhaps better than anywhere
else, one can see how these organizations did not erupt overnight but
were the results of years of thinking. Both the National Black Feminist
Organization (NBFO) and the Lesbian Feminist Liberation (LFL) organized
and put out their official button's in 1973. But as early as 1970, a
student at Carleton College in Minnesota had BLACK SISTERS UNITE printed,
and gay women in New York declared that if uppity women should unite,
lesbians should ignite.
Sometimes the future
comes a little too slowly and our own presumptuousness, or thwarted
hope, is also captured in buttons. In 1969, Jean Witter of Pittsburgh
NOW tried to persuade a reluctant national board, even though it had
endorsed the Equal Rights Amendment, to push for its passage. As part
of her campaign, she distributed an extra large three-color button --
RIGHTS FOR WOMEN 26TH AMENDMENT NOW. Unfortunately, time passed her
by. The 18-year-old vote became the 26th Amendment -- and we're still
hoping the ERA will be the 27th.
Despite the lack
of enthusiasm for a fight on the ERA in the late sixties, it has now
become not only one of the most talked-about issues, but also one of
the most buttoned. Many states have put out their own special buttons
for their own ratification campaigns.
How a button can
become a mini-advertising poster and a great fund-raiser is best illustrated
by one particular ERA button. At the January, 1973, National NOW Board
meeting, Nikki Beare of Florida reported that her state's Women's Political
Caucus was giving their blood to raise money for the ERA. Sensing a
good gimmick, Jo Ann Evans Gardner of Pittsburgh, who had already canonized
WE TRY HARDER AND GET PAID LESS, proposed a national blood drive for
the ERA. She and Toni Carabillo of Los Angeles coordinated a drive for
which 1,500 buttons, designed by Joan Nicholson of New York, were printed.
Stating that I GAVE MY BLOOD FOR THE EQUAL RIGHTS AMENDMENT, each was
available at $10, normally the going price for a pint of blood. At the
end of the year fewer than 100 buttons were left.
serves many purposes. The most obvious is that it gives one an opportunity
to make a public statement about strongly felt issues. Letters to the
editor are rarely printed and the chance to make public speeches is
available to only a few, but anyone can wear a button. It's a good way
to start a conversation if you're in the mood to talk and to recruit
if you want to proselytize.
It's also a good
way to psych people out. I threatened for years to wear a button to
my Ph.D. orals declaring that I AM A CASTRATING BITCH. The time finally
came when I had to put up or shut up, so with some trepidation, I shelled
out for a private button. Wearing it rather timorously on my collar,
I was absolutely amazed at the amount of positive response I got from
other women-especially women who had not previously indicated much sympathy
for the Movement. I was clearly not the only castrating bitch around.
This button, like many others, was not only a statement but a signaling
device. Like an ad in the newspaper, it attracted the attention of those
who were thinking along the same wavelengths.
Some of the issues
being wrapped under celluloid are quite complex. WIN WITH WOMEN, designed
by Pepper Petersen for the National Women's Political Caucus (NWPC),
symbolizes a concerted effort to elect more women to public office in
1974. Pat Korbet's SISTER button expresses the solidarity essential
for real changes to be made. Naomi Weisstein's I AM FURIOUS FEMALE and
Betty Farians's MAKE WAR [Women's American Revolution], NOT LOVE bluntly
state some of the inner rage of women toward their status. You can say
things on a button that you often can't confront people with directly.
You can also say
things repeatedly without being repetitive. Flo Kennedy's urgent plea
to DEFEAT FETUS FETISHISTS can be stuck into casual conversation once,
but you can wear it into almost any gathering where it will at least
be read if not agreed with.
If you don't want
to wear someone else's aphorisms, you can easily wear your own. The
next time you think of the perfect squelch five minutes after it was
needed, don't sigh and forget it, button it down. Manufacturers are
listed in the yellow pages under "Badges."