I Traced Generations of Feminist History Through A Family Belt Buckle

Cecilia Nowell

It started with a belt buckle.

Sometime during my junior year of high school, I decided to start calling myself a feminist. If I remember correctly, I discovered Ms. Magazine on the shelves of my high school library while working there one summer. Pretending to still be working, I hid in the shelves and fell into the pages of feminist news. When my mother realized my newfound obsession, she had the perfect surprise to pass on to me — a women’s liberation belt buckle.

With the words “American Equality” and “Women’s Liberation” emblazoned in bold letters, and the phrases “Votes for Women” and “Free Speech” scrawled alongside an image of an eagle enfolding a nude woman, the buckle looked like the most perfect piece of feminist statement jewelry I could ever imagine. I took it to school one day to show off to my friends, and remember getting some weird looks. No one called themselves a feminist in high school (that would come later; our college years still awaited us), so my buckle received far less appreciation than expected. Yet, I still carried it in my backpack with pride as a symbol of my feminist awakening.

Six years later, I have chopped off a foot of my hair, graduated from a women’s college, and still keep my belt buckle nearby as a memory of that journey. But, it’s only within the last few weeks that I began to wonder: Where did the buckle come from?

So I launched an investigation that took me through feminist history stretching from my grandmother’s generation to my mother’s to my own.

Taking my lead from the buckle’s “Votes for Women” slogan, I began my search with Suffrage-era jewelry. Much to my surprise, there is a treasure trove of suffrage jewelry research out there — much of it accessible from the internet. As I soon discovered, jewelry had been popular among suffragettes as a subtle and feminine form of protest. Because every woman who has ever stood up for herself is in danger of being called “a shrill bitch,” suffragettes tried to preserve their feminine and docile appearance by doing their hair, dressing in fashionable clothing, and accessorizing with high-quality jewelry. If that jewelry happened to have a secret meaning, well that was just a coincidence.

Following the mantra “Give Votes to Women,” women wore green, violet, and white jewelry to subtly convey their sympathy for the suffrage movement. Emeralds, pearls, and amethyst were especially popular. As Mrs. Pethick-Lawrene of the weekly Votes for Women newspaper wrote in 1908, “Purple as everyone knows is the royal colour [sic]. It stands for the royal blood that flows in the veins of every suffragette, the instinct of freedom and dignity; white stands for purity in private and public life; green is the colour of hope and the emblem of spring.”

Women's suffrage ribbons date back to as early as 1867 when they gained their traditional yellow color as a reference to an Kansas political campaign and the state's official flower. Photo credit: http://womansuffragememorabilia.com.
Women’s suffrage ribbons date back to as early as 1867 when they gained their traditional yellow color as a reference to a Kansas political campaign and the state’s official flower. Photo credit: http://womansuffragememorabilia.com.

Today, the Museum of London maintains a large collection of suffrage-era jewelry ranging from Holloway brooches to Votes for Women stockings. But, if London is out of your travel range as it was mine, there are plenty of digital suffrage jewelry collections. One such site is Woman Suffrage Memorabilia: A Site Devoted to Such Artifacts as Buttons, Post Cards, Ribbons, Sheet Music, and Ceramics. Run by Kenneth Florey, author of American Woman Suffrage Postcards: A Study and Catalog and Women’s Suffrage Memorabilia: An Illustrated Historical Study, the website includes historical descriptions of women’s political ribbons, buttons and badges, ballot boxes, and pamphlets. Many of the buttons and ribbons featured on the site were designed for campaigns or elections, and were a step more political than traditional suffrage jewelry. These were the accessories of active suffragettes rather than quiet sympathizers.

Despite the abundance of information about suffrage jewelry, I couldn’t find anything that even pointed toward the origins of my belt buckle. That’s when I had my “aha” moment. The belt buckle had distracted me with “Votes for Women” and I had almost completely missed its most central statement: “Women’s Liberation.” What I was looking at wasn’t a suffrage-era buckle, but an artifact of the 1970s women’s liberation movement.

A quick Google search for “women’s liberation belt buckle” will bring up dozens of images of the belt my mother passed down to me. Apparently, what I had wasn’t as rare as I had thought. In fact, many similar buckles were available on eBay for between twenty and thirty dollars — so apparently it wasn’t as valuable either. It didn’t take much more looking to discover that the buckle had been manufactured during the 1970s — but it took more than a Google search to track down where it had been made.

Women sported buttons with slogans like 'Votes for Women' and 'Suffrage First' to support local campaigns and the suffrage movement at large. Photo credit: womansuffragememorabilia.com.
Women sported buttons with slogans like ‘Votes for Women’ and ‘Suffrage First’ to support local campaigns and the suffrage movement at large. Photo credit: womansuffragememorabilia.com.

Small letters along the bottom edge of my buckle read “Manf. by U.S. Women’s Liberation Movement H.Q. N.Y.”

That seemed like a good clue to go off of, but online searches only yielded information about the women’s lib movement, not its headquarters or offices. I was learning more about first and second wave feminism, but little about women’s lib jewelry. I might have continued to stumble about the internet if not for the digital archive of The New York Times. Thanks to some very good luck and archival practices, I happened upon an article printed on July 1, 1970 that the Times just happened to post online. “Women’s Lib Headquarters” by Marylin Bender set the scene I had been looking for — a women’s liberation movement office in New York City that might have manufactured belt buckles during the 1970s. So, I read on:

“There is no sign, just a symbol and a bell at the side of the entrance to the loft building at 36 West 22d Street. The motif — the palm of a hand with four fingers raised within a circle and cross peace symbol — is the mark of the women’s liberation movement, whose communications center is housed on the second floor.”

The article continues:

“Bulletin boards are encrusted with notices and messages. Karate lessons and a speech by Aileen Hernandez, president of NOW, the National Organization for Women; abortion counseling and child‐care picketing; a contact for women with drug problems; “Up From Under” is going to talk to women in housing projects; a mother of a 10‐month‐old baby just left by husband needs crib, playpen and stroller; the Radical Lesbians are having a dance and ‘Bitch’ (the new women’s lib organization that recently staged man‐ogling sessions on Wall Street and midtown) is having a meeting.”

This looked like a possibility to me, and even if it wasn’t the home of my buckle, it still looked cool enough to learn more. With a name and address in hand, I continued my search to learn more about the Women’s Liberation Center of New York.

February 1972 copy of the Women's Liberation Center of New York's monthly newsletter. Photo credit: Kalamazoo College.
February 1972 copy of the Women’s Liberation Center of New York’s monthly newsletter. Photo credit: Kalamazoo College.

It just so happens that once you have a name, searches become much easier. And so, I found Kalamazoo College’s Cache Digital Archive of the Women’s Liberation Center and fell into the world of 1970s New York feminism. Kalamazoo’s archive is a treasure trove of 1970s feminist newsletters with gems like monthly event calendars, abortion legislation, daycare, divorce and separation counseling, and women offering to support other women. In the April 1972 newsletter, the Center explains its purpose:

“There is no public place for women to meet each other, “hang out”, drop in on their world informally — nothing, in short, that compares with the neighborhood bar for men or the school yard for children. Our “women’ s center” is a step toward filling this need in the community of women.”

Monthly events at the Center ranged from a Male Chauvinism Panel at the Barnard College Gym and a Mid-Western Lesbian Conference over a long weekend. But where the newsletters came in use for me, was when they mentioned crafts or sales events. In the December 1970 newsletter the center refers to a “Sisters of the Craft Co-Op” meeting and the March 1972 newsletter mentions a “Literature Collective” meeting where books, buttons, and stickers will be available for purchase. Could this have included belt buckles? The April 1971 newsletter opens with a section titled “Women’s Skills and Services” where women advertise their craft skills and offer each other workshop or technical support — could the buckle have been made by one of them?

These seemed like reasonable leads to me, so I decided to reach out to the New York Women’s Liberation Center. Unfortunately, it no longer exists. But people who attended it do.

A large part of my own feminist journey came in the form of my four years at a women’s college. The thing they tell you about women’s colleges during your first week, is that the experience lasts far beyond your university years. I graduated almost a year ago, but my time as a women’s college student has anything but ended. I have entered a community of alumnae much larger than my university’s student body. I now communicate regularly with hundreds of alums through Facebook pages and email groups. So, when I decided I needed to reach out to a former member of the Women’s Liberation Center, I knew exactly who to ask. After all, if anyone had been active in the 1970s women’s lib movement, wouldn’t it be a women’s college graduate?

I posted a brief message to my college’s alumnae Facebook page detailing my research and asking for advice, and within eight minutes I had a response. A fellow alum (who just so happened to be Facebook friends with my best friend’s mother — all graduates of the same women’s college) said she knew some people who had been active in the New York women’s liberation movement during those years. That’s what I like to call the magic of women’s colleges.

While I waited to hear back from those women, I decided to investigate a different side of the buckle’s history. Instead of searching for the women’s liberation group that commissioned the buckle, maybe I could find the foundry that had made the buckle. My buckle only had the small letters “HPC” engraved on its back, but other similar buckles on eBay and Etsy had company names branded onto them. A few of the buckles mentioned a Bergamot Brass Company, so I reached out to the Wisconsin-based foundry and they asked me to send a photograph so they could tell me what they knew. Their customer service agent, Kathy, explained to me over email: “This buckle appears to be brass plated alloy. It is not ours. It is a copy of the original done by Deane & Adams in England. The original was produced in the ’60s and was die struck bronze.”

Okay, Deane & Adams, 1960s, England. I could work with that.

A belt and pewter buckle from the suffrage era. The buckle depicts a woman haunting the Houses of Parliament, a popular 1907 design called 'The Haunted House.' Photo credit: the-saleroom.com
A belt and pewter buckle from the suffrage era. The buckle depicts a woman haunting the Houses of Parliament, a popular 1907 design called ‘The Haunted House.’ Photo credit: the-saleroom.com.

Here’s the thing though: When you search “Deane & Adams London,” nothing really shows up. Sure, plenty of people are selling belt buckles on eBay made by Deane & Adams, but there’s no foundry advertising its wares or historian documenting 1960s belt buckle history. My first instinct was to have a look at the buckles for sale online and see if there was any unifying characteristic. What I discovered was first a belt buckle supposedly designed by Salvador Dali and made by the Deane & Adams Mint in London selling for nearly $1,000, then a “Renfroe Valley Barn Dance” buckle with a “Dean and Adams Mint” sticker on its back (note the spelling differences here), and lastly an “America’s Heroes” firefighter buckle with a “Deane Adams Mint” engraving on its backside. Call me cynical, but those variations seemed suspicious to me.

More research only confirmed my suspicions. In “Blade’s Guide to Knives and Their Values” (yes, I did just reference a book about knives), Steve Shackleford explains the history of Deane & Adams:

“Deane & Adams was once the name of a respectable London gun merchant. However, in England — and, to a certain extent, the United States — it is easy to buy up old names and trademarks and then do anything one pleases with them. Back in the 1960s and 1970s, Deane & Adams was used as the front name for a large purveyor of fake and imaginary collector items.”

Shackleford goes on to write about the “thick and heavily illustrated mail-order catalog” that Deane & Adams would distribute with images of their counterfeit products. Among the many products available in the Deane & Adams catalogs, Shackleford describes the front half of the catalog as completely filled with, wait for it, belt buckles.

“Featured in the front half of the catalog are all the dozens of styles of ‘Wells Fargo’ belt buckles, and other assorted imaginary brass buckles and belt plates, many marked ‘Tiffany & Co.’ on the back. Deane & Adams was the principal source for the ingenious but entirely fraudulent imaginary buckles.”

Confirming Shackleford’s research, the antiques website RealPro wrote about the “Well Planned Hoax” of the fake Tiffany Belt Buckle:

“The most complete record of new buckles ACRN [Antiques & Collectors Reproduction News] was able to locate was a catalog published by Deane & Adams, 75 Upper Street, Islington, London, England (no date given, ca. 1970). In the catalog, numerous buckle designs are attributed specifically to Louis Comfort Tiffany and the credit line ‘Buckle photographs by kind permission of Tiffany & Company, London’ appears on the catalog’s copyright page. Whether Deane & Adams were the source of the new buckles or only sold them is unclear.”

Now, Antiques Roadshow certainly hasn’t been asking me to come join the team, but I like to think I have good common sense. I finally knew what I had been looking at — a fake.

At the same time that I discovered this news about the Deane & Adams Mint, I heard back from Wellesley College Women’s and Gender Studies Professor Susan Reverby. She, and a whole host of other women active in the New York City women’s liberation movement, confirmed that there had never been such a place as the “Women’s Liberation H.Q. N.Y.” Rather, they emphasized, offices were simply called “Women’s Centers” and not “Women’s Liberation Headquarters.” They were more like the Women’s Liberation Center of New York — places for women to gather and organize, but certainly not sites of mass belt buckle production.

It makes no sense that a mysterious New York Women’s Liberation Headquarters would have commissioned an English retailer to produce Wells Fargo-style buckles for their cause. What does make sense is that a belt buckle manufacturer may have wanted to capitalize on the women’s lib movement by selling imaginary items that daring American women might wear. I was both disappointed and excited: I had reached a conclusion, but it seemed like my belt buckle was worthless.

I had to take a moment to appreciate the buckle’s significance to me, and all that it had taught me, before completely disregarding it. It might not have played a grand role in women’s suffrage or even the women’s liberation movement, but it had played a grand role in my own development as a feminist. Maybe, after all, the value of things isn’t in where they’ve been, but where they are and what they mean to us now. Fake or not, that belt buckle still means something to me.

I know that I’m planning on wearing my belt buckle for years to come. I might start matching it with my women’s college t-shirts on days that I really want to make a statement, or remember the women who’ve come before me. I might even wear it this year when I go to the polls to elect this country’s first female president, in honor of women who will come after me. If you ask me, that’s one hell of a vote for women.

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