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Women's badges of honour

Don't call me a girl I am a woman".

The badges on show at Glasgow Women's Library provoke, amuse and empower. Photograph: Colin Mearns
The badges on show at Glasgow Women's Library provoke, amuse and empower. Photograph: Colin Mearns

"Uppity women unite". "A woman without a man is like a fish without a bicycle". Not the kind of badges you would wear? How about a retro number with the slogan "Women together are strong" across its rounded front? Personally I like "Housework", a plain white badge with a drawing of a pinafore-clad woman pegged by her hands to a washing line. It makes me laugh. Plus the wee frown on the woman's face reminds me of my own vexation at having to vacuum the house.

Then again, perhaps you would prefer something more political. An anti-nuclear badge, or one that calls for us to save the NHS? Or maybe you'd rather wear something with a cultural bent: a badge inspired by jazz, or one promoting a club? The Dumbarton Women's History Group, for instance.

At the Glasgow Women's Library (GWL) you could have your pick of them all. Only you can't technically have them - these badges are not for sale. They're part of a exhibition called Badges Of Honour, celebrating the role of the humble badge in empowering women through the generations. The exhibition, which runs until May 30 at GWL's new building in Bridgeton, explores the history of badges in women's lives from the subtle purple, green and white brooches worn by the suffragettes at the beginning of the last century to the male-bashing feminist badges of the 1970s. There are also pro-abortion badges, dancing medals and domestic violence awareness badges. The one thing they have in common? They've all been worn by a woman and, at one time, defined her life in some way.

Life defining they may be, but up close these badges - some no bigger than an inch in diameter - are humble items. Their slogans (some funny, some innocuous, some shocking) are designed to be provocative, but the physical product is at first glance underwhelming. It's just a badge, after all. How could these little pieces of printed metal and plastic have had such an important role in women's history? "They've been brilliant for feminism and brilliant for all the major equalities movements: Gay Pride, peace campaigns, suffragettes," explains Dr Adele Patrick, lifelong learning and creative development manager at the GWL and proud badge owner.

Patrick, today sporting her own Yoko Ono Imagine Peace badge, a gift from her mother a few years ago, is a great believer in the power of badges. A badge can kick-start conversations and provoke debates, she says before adding "it doesn't describe exactly [what you think], but it's a start off for a discussion". More than that, though, Patrick believes badges are tiny provocative symbols that can challenge public opinion.

"It's premium advertising space and it's about what you want to promote on your body," says Glasgow artist Ellie Harrison, a regular badge wearer who has donated a number of her own badges for the exhibition. "So many people mindlessly walk around with corporate brand names emblazoned across their chest like Adidas or Puma, and I decided quite a few years ago that I wasn't going to do that any more: be a walking billboard for a big multinational corporation. Badges are about wearing your heart on your sleeve and about 'what do I care about?' and 'what do I want to share with people?'"

What indeed. Judging by the array of metal brooches in the exhibition, women have used badges to share everything from their sexual preference to their opinions on equal pay. Arranged neatly on tables or pinned in clusters to vintage garments, including a First World War jacket and a 1970s hippy dress, there appears to be a badge for everything. Some of Harrison's badges are among them, including one promoting the virtues of British Rail and a nursing medal which belonged to her great aunt. "My great auntie, she died and she didn't have any kids, and me and my mum found the badge in her house," says Harrison. "She'd been awarded it after doing her nurse training during the Second World War and we thought it would be a good thing for the library to have in its collection."

Harrison's family badge is just one of many exhibits. Numerous women (and one man, collector Peter Gilpin, whose estate donated thousands of women's badges) have given GWL their collections of pin badges, some as personal as Brownie badges they earned as a child. Violet McGuire, a 91-year-old from Dalmuir, donated her most prized badge - a metal Scotland USSR Society badge she was presented with when she joined the organisation. It's a badge that has come to symbolise many memories for McGuire: time spent in Russia in the 1970s and suppers and public events in Scotland. "It brings back very happy memories," says McGuire of the red, blue and silver metal trinket.

McGuire remembers it was watching footage of the Siege of Leningrad in the 1940s that sparked her interest in Russia. She joined the Scotland USSR Society in 1947 and finally visited Russia in 1970. "It was the 100th anniversary of Lenin's birth so it was a very important time," she adds, before going on to explain that through the society she went on to travel to Russia several times, to visit schools, public events and even help host some unusual Burns suppers. "You had to take them [turnips and potatoes] because the ground was so hard in Russia at the time," she reminisces. "We all brought a bottle of whisky, and that was really necessary."

Although McGuire's badge isn't about a female-specific issue, it does represent a significant part of her life story. And that, says Patrick, is exactly what the Badges of Honour exhibition is about. "The badges aren't that valuable themselves," she says, "but they are to a particular woman and so they are to us, because there is a woman's story behind it."

Which brings us neatly to one of the most interesting things about the exhibition: the nature of badges. They are inherently cheap, throwaway items, so you could argue they are the kind of collectables that were never meant to end up in a museum, let alone be the sole focus of an exhibition. Badges are small things; tiny personal accessories. Most of us have worn them, some of us might even have collected a few as a child (I have memories of plastic bags full of RNLI and road safety badges) but few of us have, if we're honest, imbued them with deep significance or meaning.

It's also fair to say that fewer and fewer of us are wearing badges. At their most popular in the 1970s and 1980s, they have fallen out of fashion in recent years. Why? Maybe we're less willing to be politically active now (with the notable exception of the Yes campaign supporters, who appear to be enthusiastic badge wearers. Although there are Better Together badges, you see them less often) or badges are no longer considered cool. Certainly it's more common to wear ribbons and bracelets to support causes, rather than classic metal badges.

Yet the exhibition has tapped into the one thing about badges most of us would probably overlook: their unique perspective on history. In this case women's history. Badges can give us a glimpse into the past, they can tell us what women thought (even if only briefly), what they believed in and what issues affected their lives at different periods in time. Voting, equal pay, domestic abuse, war, nuclear arms, abortion, sexuality, even housework; all have riled women enough to wear their hearts on their sleeves, or in this case their opinions on their lapels.

Badges can also be a source of inspiration, as Patrick and her team have discovered. One donor told them about her Free Nelson Mandela badge. "It's my favourite story," says Patrick, before telling me the tale of the woman and the unsuspecting hamster. "This woman was talking about a visit to a pal of hers and this pal had a hamster, and a Free Nelson Mandela badge attached to its cage. It was in the late 1970s, early 1980s, and she said: 'Is that the name of the hamster [Nelson Mandela]?' and her friend sat her down for a chat. That badge triggered a conversation about apartheid and the anti-apartheid movement and was a trigger for her own campaigning history that went on for 30 or 40 years."

For Harrison, an artist who has made badges as part of her work, badges are both pieces of history and items to be worn in the here and now. Wearing a badge, she explains, can give you "a really nice unspoken connection with other people that are wearing badges". A bit like being in a club - a statement-making, trinket-wearing club. "You can identify like-minded souls on the street by seeing a badge they're wearing. I like the idea of a badge being a conversation starter or a way of meeting people; I wish that would happen more."

Patrick sees her collection as something to be treasured. Along with that Imagine Peace badge gifted by her mother, the collection contains more Yoko Ono creations, including a few Patrick admits she rarely has the courage to wear. Badge-wearing requires courage? Apparently so, especially if the badge in question is large and covered with an image of a nipple. "I don't think I feel bold enough to wear it," admits Patrick. "I think it was from a series called My Mummy Is Beautiful. But it's a big badge and you have to be in the right frame of mind to wear it."

The topic of badge wearing courage comes up in the exhibition. Many of the badges on display, though perhaps inoffensive by contemporary standards, would have been considered shocking in the time they were produced. From suffragette brooches which had the audacity to ask for votes for women, to the pro-lesbian badges which were designed to shock the conservative views of society, wearing these provocative emblems once took courage. Some might say wearing them still does.

Certainly Harrison would argue that you still require a certain amount of pluck to pin on a badge. "Badge wearing really depends on what sort of mood you're in," she says. "If you're not in a shouty mood and you don't want to draw attention to yourself, or you're going to a place where you feel more vulnerable, or you don't feel comfortable, then you might not want to wear a badge. If I'm not in the mood to have a conversation with somebody, or a big debate, I might take the badge off."

Back at the library, a few of us are huddled round one fabric-covered pin board reading the badges on display. We laugh at some and cringe at others. Some, despite being more than 40 years old, still seem relevant, the anti-war and equal pay badges being the most obvious examples. Patrick mentions she inherited her mother's badge collection not long ago - nothing particularly rare or museum-worthy, simply a collection of personal keepsakes from festivals and punk concerts.

Piles of old badges as an inheritance? Some might see that as a disappointment. Not Patrick. "My mother knew they meant a lot to me," she says and besides, unlike many of us who would place high value on items like well-worn family furniture, Patrick says she'd "rather have badges than a grandfather clock".

An unorthodox choice perhaps, but think of it this way - a grandfather clock tells the time. Patrick's badges tell her all about her mother's life. "It's like having a mini history of her," she says. History, women and badges - they're inextricably linked. n

Badges Of Honour is at Glasgow Women's Library, 23 Landressy Street, until May 30. Visit womenslibrary.org.uk.

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