Before the age of social media, one of the best ways to share your political preferences was a campaign button.
Buttons and pins date all the way back to the days of George Washington, but it wasn’t until the mid-20th century that female candidates entered the political fray and buttons emblazoned with their names were mass produced.
Catherine Crohan, coordinator of library instruction at Siena, started collecting buttons with female candidates about four years ago. She travels to political collectibles shows – where she says she is often one of very few women in attendance – to find buttons for national races as well as local and state races in New York and New England. She also scours antique and vintage shops, as well as the occasional estate sale.
Not so much a political junkie – “I just like old things” – as a fan of memorabilia from days gone by, she says she’s enjoying this “slow hobby.”
“I’m not an expert. I’m just enjoying this and learning as I go. The process of collecting them has increased what I know about some women I already admired,” said Crohan. “My first buttons were several Shirley Chisholm for President buttons discovered in a Rhode Island antique store. Since then I have read two biographies of Chisholm. Also, biographies of Ella Grasso, Margaret Chase Smith, Bella Abzug, and Nancy Pelosi, among others. I have also discovered some regional politicians that were previously unknown to me. This hobby is teaching me a lot.”
Out of a collection of several dozen, her oldest button is for Smith, the first woman nominated by a major party for president. The Republican senator from Maine was placed in nomination at the 1964 Republican convention. (Barry Goldwater eventually ended up at the top of the ticket.) She was also known for standing up to Sen. Joseph McCarthy during the Communist witch hunts of the 1950s.
“It might not be the rarest button, but it’s the most important one in my collection.”
She also has campaign swag from Gov. Ella Grasso (Connecticut, 1970s), U.S. Rep. Liz Holtzman (New York, 1970s); Sarah Palin (vice presidential candidate, 2008); U.S. Senator and San Francisco Mayor Dianne Feinstein (California, 1970s-present); Gov. Ann Richards (Texas, 1990s); Amy Klobuchar and Tulsi Gabbard (presidential candidates, 2020) and many others. There are also buttons supporting U.S. Rep. Bella Abzug (NY), including one that simply features a silhouette of her profile sporting her trademark felt hat.
As with the biographies on Chisholm that she read after collecting her campaign buttons, Crohan also read up on many of the other politicians represented in her growing collection. She keeps a notebook with details about buttons she wants to find.
American women received the vote in 1920, but a few more decades would pass before females would start appearing on ballots with any regularity.
“Some buttons I seek out for personal reasons. For example, it took me quite a while to find a button for Margaret Heckler. She was a Massachusetts Republican congresswoman who served several terms, and was first elected when I was ten years old. Through my teen years she was one of the few women elected officials I saw.”