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SAY IT WITH BUTTONS
By Jo Freeman

Published in Ms. magazine, August 1974, pp. 48-53, 75.


I've 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.
Nonetheless, collecting 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 Sandler, 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.
Symbol-making is 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.
Initially, Robin 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.
 
Simultaneously, 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.
Sometimes buttons 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 expanded 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, education.
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 -- EQUAL 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.
Button wearing 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."

Copyright (1974) by Jo Freeman

 
 

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