Now and Then
Two collectors find joy in suffrage.
While Hillary Clinton's hard-fought campaign didn't land her the Democratic presidential nomination, she will go down in history as the first woman to make a legitimate run for the White House. So you'll find her campaign buttons hanging proudly alongside hundreds of others in the Midtown bungalow of Susan Mackenzie and Virginia Stallworth. Political activists in their own right, the couple have spent a lifetime assembling an impressive collection of women's suffrage and campaign memorabilia that reflects how far women have come in political life.
Both Mackenzie, an attorney, and Stallworth, associate director of the Memphis Child Advocacy Center, started collecting buttons in their early 20s. Each one served as a colorful reminder of the marches and demonstrations they attended as budding feminists with the National Organization for Women (NOW). Mackenzie's collection grew to include memorabilia about women in politics, like Geraldine Ferraro, the first female vice-presidential candidate (she shared the ticket with Democratic nominee Walter Mondale during the 1986 election), and Shirley Chisholm, the first African-American woman elected to Congress.
But it was a NOW political action meeting in 1996 that sparked their interest in women's suffrage mementos. During a fund-raising auction, an anti-suffrage pamphlet came to the auction block and Mackenzie found herself in a bidding war with NOW president Patricia Ireland. Mackenzie came out on top, paying $150 for the flier, which now hangs in the couple's hallway. It's part of a larger ensemble of magazine covers, postcards, and buttons that chronicle the early years of the women's movement, from the first women's rights convention in 1848 to the ratification of the 19th Amendment in 1920, giving women the right to vote.
Since newspapers and magazines were the sole forms of mass media at that time, suffrage supporters had to think creatively in order to get the word out. Anything that could be used to effectively trumpet the cause was fair game — from postcards and nickel-sized lapel buttons to playing cards and sheet music.
Some pieces are humorous. There's a cartoon lampooning the movement, with an image of Uncle Sam dressed in bloomers and a petticoat. Others are more patriotic, such as Life magazine's cover in October 1920 following the ratification, with its drawing of Lady Liberty holding a ballot and shaking hands with an ordinary woman.
The couple find the suffrage material inspiring and say it reflects their personal journeys. "What we've done is important in its own way," observes Stallworth, referring to their long involvement with NOW, "but what those women went through is extraordinary. It's something to hold up and cherish."
The two say they aren't quite sure how much material they've amassed. They've found items in antique stores, on eBay, and have even been given things by friends such as Congressman Steve Cohen, also an avid collector of political buttons.
Their most prized possessions, including an elegant poster of suffragist Inez Milholland Boissevain, a Vassar graduate who traveled the country speaking passionately for ratification before dying suddenly at age 30 (she had pernicious anemia), are artfully displayed in handsome frames or shadowboxes, lending an air of importance to even the tiniest pins and playing cards.
But as with all collectors, a few items still elude them. Their Holy Grail? "The Woman Suffrage Cook Book," says Mackenzie, "without question." The charity cookbook, with recipes donated by women active in the movement, was published in Boston in 1886 and became a popular, and often copied, fund-raising tool.
For now, it remains out of reach. But good things come to those who wait, whether it's finding a cookbook — or electing a woman to the White House.