I keep them with my other objects from my past, my memory drawer. I don’t like to call them souvenirs, which suggests the gaudy, the mass-produced, the unearned. For a long time, they lived in a plastic bag, their rusting pins poking through, making searching through the drawer a small but persistent risk. Looking for my mother’s cocktail napkin, or the dollhouse furniture my father made, I would always be poked by one or more of a set of political buttons bought or exchanged at a series of protests from about 1975 to 1984, from the year I started college to the year I got my PhD.
I have sometimes taken them out to look at or to show my children or my students. One day I brought them to a class on the 1960s even though, of course, they date from a later decade, as the slogans on them make clear. “ERA: No Time Limit on Equality.” “No More Harrisburgs,” ‘Support Nicaraguan Reconstruction.” “Don’t Sleep with J.P. Stevens.” The cleverer they were, the more opaque to my current audience. I had to explain that “No More Harrisburgs,” and the related “We All Live in Harrisburg” reference the nuclear explosion at Three Mile Island—my children in particular were puzzled because their father’s family does, indeed, live in Harrisburg and when they were little I think they sometimes wished they could too. “Don’t Sleep with J.P. Stevens” recalls a boycott of the textile company for their anti-union practices; I remember that we all checked our sheets to see if we were breaking the boycott. In most cases, a cause was represented by one or two buttons. Obviously, my self-archiving involved some sort of editing—I have no idea what I threw away or more likely lost. I am surprised that I have so few explicitly feminist buttons in the collection, since I went to so many feminist protests in those years.
One cause, however, involves three identical small buttons, obviously handmade. Little orange circles, with black lettering, sometimes a tad off-center. “PRINCETON DIVEST” they say, in all caps. These buttons are for me an instant conduit to the past, to the last two years of college, when every day, rain or shine, a group of 10-200 students met to protest Princeton’s holdings in South Africa. Although the verb, I think, was “protest,” the noun was “demo”– as in “are you going to the demo today?” or “meet you at the demo.” The daily demo was so much part of our lives, I remember some people came with books to do class reading. In my memory, I went to the demo every single day for two years. This surely cannot be possible—sometimes, I assume, I had an appointment with a professor, a bad cold, was too lazy to go? But my memory places me relentlessly in a short or long line of protesters, circling in front of the administration building, or sometimes another location.
The protests were organized by the somewhat immodestly named campus group, The People’s Front for the Liberation of South Africa. There was no formal membership required. Although there must have been an acronym involved, all I remember is calling it “the Front” and claiming it as an important identity. What was remarkable about the Front was its leadership: there were some white students who were clearly informal leaders, but the energy and the efficient organization came out of what was then called the Third World Center; it was renamed in 2002 “The Carl A. Fields Center for Equality and Cultural Understanding, after Princeton’s first an African American administrator, hired in 1964, who, according to Princeton’s website, “implemented policies and practices that increased enrollment and retention of students of color.” It was the TWC that organized the 1978 Nassau Hall sit in over divestment. I have never, before or since, seen a better organized sit-in with hot meals made and carried in from (mostly the women, alas) of the TWC. We organized for weeks in small groups or cells that proceeded in an orderly way into the building, to be assigned topics and questions to discuss as the sit in unfolded.
One of the things the daily protests taught me was to step forward. Another—and this was a lesson that has needed to be repeated throughout my life—was to hold back. Every lunchtime protest featured one or more speakers; the math tells me there must have been hundreds of these, although some spoke many times. I never spoke—and for complex reasons. Shyness, certainly—in these same years, as many white and some Black feminists did, I took “assertiveness training” classes. But there was also something about lending my voice (as in chants) without centering my voice (as in making speeches) that appealed to me in this context. The shyness in front of people is now gone after years of teaching, lecturing, and giving papers, so the struggle to hold back is actually more difficult.
During those years, as the buttons indicate, I went to many other protests—nuclear disarmament, reproductive rights (which in these days included a platform against sterilization abuse of women of color, something returning to the fore after almost 50 years). These were exciting events for many reasons, one of them what I used to call “progressive shopping.” My friends and I bought buttons at almost every protest, in part because t-shirts were expensive and tended not to fit female bodies. I had one friend, Sally Frank, famous for successfully litigating sexual discrimination in the three exclusive Princeton eating clubs, who wore five or six buttons every day, switching them out to a pattern I do not remember. They were so much a part of her persona that when I saw her in the pool, so to speak unbuttoned, I did not recognize her. The newspaper story I read about Sally’s final victory, years after she graduated and became a lawyer, features a picture with her signature buttons.
All the often-linked causes, imperfectly embodied in my collection, would, I think not have meant as much to me without the dailiness of the divestment protests, without the knowledge that protests about race could and should be led by people of color. The buttons I am most drawn to are the glowing, imperfect buttons memorializing the “lunchtime demo,” without cute slogans or pictures.