- “Another Nun for ERA”Buttons, Banners, and Other Ratification Campaign Ephemera
Objects, even small ones, can tell big stories. They can bring immediacy to topics that may seem complex, dry, or even abstract. The ten-year campaign to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment after its passage by Congress in 1972 produced innumerable three-dimensional objects—buttons, banners, T-shirts, board games, jewelry, scarves, aprons—that proclaimed support for or opposition to the ERA. The creation and survival of these artifacts offer a tangible record of the public nature of the ERA ratification campaign.
The Schlesinger Library on the History of Women in America of the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study holds vast quantities of memorabilia and ephemera about the Equal Rights Amendment. These objects, which are found in many different collections, reveal the intersection of political action and personal struggle. The library aims to “preserve the past for the present and the future”; to that end we collect diaries, letters, writings, scrapbooks, films, organizational records, photographs, etc., that document lives of American women. The library’s founding collection documented the activity of suffrage activists and organizations; documenting women’s political engagement continues to be one of its goals. Just as the library’s suffrage-era sashes and metal bluebirds provide insight into how their bearers wished to enter and remake the public sphere, so the ERA ratification materials show the ways activists shaped their public identities around their support for or opposition to constitutional equal rights for women.
Rallies and marches were crucial to the national scope of both the “Yes” and the “No” campaigns. Spreading the message depended in part on striking images and slogans—advertising through supporters’ bodies. The bright green “ERA YES” stickers and the red octagonal stop sign– shaped logo of the “STOP ERA” campaign were eye-catching and easy to understand.
The kinds of messages reflected in these artifacts—mostly buttons and bumper stickers—vary. There are nationally focused messages (“ERA Let’s [End Page 41] make it the American way”), slogans germane only to the amendment’s passage in a particular state (“ERA for Me.”; “Equality an Iowa tradition,”), and items that identify the wearer as a member of a particular group (Republicans, children, people of faith: “I am an ERA Catholic”). There are puns (“ERAse Reagan”) and jokes (“Yes Virginia, there is an ERA”; “All I want for Christmas is the ERA”). Anti-ERA messages include “Equality Yes, ERA No”; “ERA is NOT the way”; “You Can’t Fool Mother Nature: Stop ERA.” A bumper sticker from this time period suggests “Ski ratified snow.” Most of the material falls between 1972 and 1982—the decade when activists across the country were working for state ratification, and those opposed were trying to stop the ratification process.
Other buttons in our collections include “My daughter deserves equality. Ratify ERA”; “I gave my blood for the Equal Rights Amendment”; “Catholics want ERA”; “ERA No Time Limit on Equality”; “Kentucky’s OK with ERA”; “Season’s Greetings to all and to all Equal Rights”; “Give Mom equal rights for Mother’s Day Chicago 1980”; “Economists for ERA”; “Florida Parade for ERA”; “ERA is not an ‘exercise in futility’”; “Labor united for ERA, AFL-CIO ERA”; “Women are in chains without ERA”; and my own personal favorite, “Archivists for ERA.”
Several games attest to the creativity and humor of activists. “ERAGO” is a reimagining of Bingo created by West Virginia NOW. Cards have images of famous women from history and contemporary activists, and eighty-two dominoes were painted white with corresponding names as well as letters painted on them. If the caller chose “Susan B. Anthony in the G column” and you had it, you could place the domino (or another piece) on your card. “Which Way ERA?” is a complex card game in which players answer multiple choice questions about the ERA. The backs of the question cards are printed with parts of brightly colored images; answering correctly allows the player to create a scene with the images that map out the way toward ratification.
The fact that so many women wore, collected, created, kept, and then donated this material shows the importance of...