by Anna Smol
If you’ve walked along the fifth floor of Seton or through the tunnel linking Evaristus and Rosaria, you might have noticed a series of posters called “Pieces of Activist History: Betty Peterson Protest Buttons.” Produced by students in English 2242 (Themes in Women’s Writing), these posters are the result of a collaborative process in which students in this Winter 2014 course learned something about a remarkable Nova Scotian activist while practising their research and communication skills.
Frankly, I did not know what to expect when I assigned this group project. The theme of our course was “protest and polemics” and some of the reading material, such as Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique, focused our attention on Second Wave feminism. I knew that the Mount Library had received a donation of protest buttons from Betty Peterson, a well-known activist who has been involved in feminist, peace, civil rights and aboriginal rights issues from the time she lived in the States in the 1950s to her years of residence in Nova Scotia from 1975 to the present. Because the buttons represented many of the issues that we would be reading about, I took a chance that we as a class could find a meeting point between our texts and Betty’s buttons. At the very least I was certain that the example of Betty Peterson’s activities and achievements would demonstrate the movement of women into activism in the Second Wave and the intersections of gender, class, and race in the issues that many feminists espoused.
It’s quite likely that most of my students were also wondering how this project would connect to the more conventional English literature syllabus that they were used to. Sarah Vallis remembers that at first, “The idea of the buttons serving as a catalyst for research…seemed so abstract to me; I’ve become very accustomed to researching for essays based on questions provided either by myself or a professor. This project seemed to have a lot of room for both creativity and error. “ I have to admit that the same thoughts were running through my head.
So, with none of us really knowing what to expect, early in the term we went to the library to look at the protest buttons. Roger Gillis, the Mount archivist, laid out most of this large, fascinating collection for us to browse through. I asked students to pick two or three buttons that they found interesting because of their slogans and/or their designs and to note down which ones they’d chosen. Cell phones were soon pulled out as people clicked pictures of their favorite buttons. After a brief research workshop with a librarian, students were asked to spend the next few weeks finding out whatever they could about what their buttons represented. To help answer their questions about Betty Peterson and how she could have amassed all these buttons, students were given links to an article about Betty Peterson on the Women Social Activists of Atlantic Canada website and to an interview on the Nova Scotia Voice of Women site. I also provided a link to Jo Freeman’s website, which has a section on protest buttons and specifically, feminist buttons.
After several weeks of research time, students presented to the class what they had discovered about one or two of their selections, along with an annotated bibliography of their sources. We learned a few things at that time, such as how many registered midwives were practicing in Nova Scotia; who was the Mi’kmaq activist Anna Mae Aquash; what percentage of Canadian women hold policy-making positions today; and where did our “take back the night” marches originate.
(Click on the posters for a slightly clearer view.)
Our next task was to decide how to communicate some of this to the Mount community. I suggested some possibilities: create a brochure, design a poster, develop a learning kit. The class, which was quite small, quickly came to a consensus that they would all design a series of posters. Originally, we wanted to create and provide a link to a webpage, possibly on Pinterest, but we had to cut back on this plan as time was tight (students were also working on a major research essay during the same period and we were falling behind in our syllabus). Instead, Roger Gillis provided some information on the Betty Peterson Protest Button Collection page.
To give students some guidance on visual design principles, I directed them to the Purdue Online Writing Lab’s section on visual rhetoric. Using a portion of class time and in some discussions outside of class, students designed rough drafts of their posters and then presented them. We discussed the strong points in each unique poster draft, putting into practice some of the visual design principles we had looked at. Although some of the drafts were very professional looking, we needed one template that each group or individual could use, so we created a collaborative design, selecting strong elements from each draft such as the poster logo, the title, the font choices, and the coloured bands.
In the end, some of the buttons research connected explicitly with our readings; for example, research on reproductive rights, midwifery, and “take back the night” protests found its way into discussions of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale. But even if the button choices did not specifically relate to our readings or essay topics, some students were able to see a more general applicability. For example, Kaitlyn Bowdridge pointed out, “While my paper does not have to do explicitly with my protest button … it does deal with the agency of women, which was ultimately the underlying goal of the button” while Sarah Vallis identified “empowerment through knowledge” as another theme and commented that the “question authority” button was widely applicable to our readings.
The class was certainly impressed by the collection and the collector. Cassadie Day wrote, “I had no idea we had such a fascinating piece of history tucked away in our library.” Most of the class felt that they had learned a lot about the specific issues that they had researched. More generally, Jacqueline Duggan found the activism of Betty Peterson inspirational for her future career goals, and Cassadie Day said that after doing her buttons research and learning about Betty Peterson, she realized “There are so many possibilities as to what I can choose to do, or that women in general can do.” Amanda Thurber expressed the sentiments of the class when she wrote that Betty Peterson “is truly a remarkable woman.”
I wasn’t sure how my students would react to a public project, but they seemed to enjoy the idea of showing their work to others. As Sarah Vallis put it, “Perhaps what I like most about this project is the fact that it has a practical application outside of class. The posters will be seen by MSVU students, unlike essays, which are usually only read by professors. It is rewarding to work towards something in class that will actually be seen by other people.” A few students, such as Duaa Chamsi Basha, commented on how they enjoyed the creativity and the teamwork that the project called for. As one student in the class put it: “With the buttons project, I have begun to think more creatively again, and to express myself more confidently.”
This is the first time the buttons collection has been used in a class project, although a few years ago, then-English-student Laura de Palma did some work helping to document the collection and studying some of the issues it raised. I believe the collection has great potential for student projects in many disciplines. Roger Gillis, who was a great help in our project through all of its stages, would be happy to talk to faculty, students, and other researchers about their ideas for working with the collection.
Finally, our class would like to thank Betty Peterson for her valuable donation to the Mount Archives and for her personal example of courage and commitment to issues of social justice. We are pleased to note that in 2000 the Mount awarded her an honorary doctorate, one of the well-deserved awards she has garnered in her lifetime. She is truly an inspirational example to all of us.
For further reading:
“Betty Peterson, a.k.a. Kukuminash.” Women Social Activists of Atlantic Canada: Profiles of Wisdom.
Betty Peterson Protest Button Collection. Mount Saint Vincent University Archives.
“Nova Scotia Voice of Women: A Walk Down Memory Lane. An Interview with Muriel Duckworth and Betty Peterson.” Linda MacDonald and Jeanne Sarson. 3 July 2008. [pdf]
For a general account of the Voice of Women in Nova Scotia, you can read Sarah Morgan’s M.A. thesis (in Women & Gender Studies) on “How women take up political space: Through the eyes of the women in the peace movement.” Mount Saint Vincent e-Commons.