Kitty Cone died just a bit under two years ago. Why didn’t most Americans know of her death, given her central role in changing American life and democracy for the better? Good question. Kitty Cone was a disability-rights and pro-democracy activist. She fought for racial and gender rights and along with that, she fought like a kickass warrior for the rights of the disabled. She made this tshirt in 1977 — it’s now at the Smithsonian — and she wore this hand-lettered tshirt as she led an occupation of a federal building in San Francisco. The Occupation, which lasted 26 days (just imagine those federal workers having to cross those paths) and forced — not with polite requests but with angry, righteous demands — passage of Section 504, the first disability-rights legislation.
Kitty was a woman who made things happen.
To learn more about her, you can read the obituary notice “Celebrating Kitty Cone” from DREDF. But seriously, this woman is someone who should be in the pantheon of major feminist and civil rights leaders — and I think she will be in a decade or so.
Cone’s choice of a tshirt with a slogan fits with the clothing choices of many, many protesters in the late 1950s to today. Tshirts — relatively cheap, easy-fitting, easily printed — are the dress of protest.
The curators at the Smithsonian know this, and like many curators around the country, actively collect protest ephemera (ephemera is stuff that no one thought would be worth saving, like menus, flyers, and tshirts with logos about parades) including the standby, standard protest printed tshirt. This grouping from the Smithsonian reflect the ongoing, persistent efforts for disability rights.
An image from a early 1970s gay rights protest gives a sense of the variety of garb. “Anita Sucks Fruit Juice” is a brilliant and complicated play on Anita Bryant, a fervent anti-gay crusader of the time period who, along with her anti-gay efforts, was the “spokesmodel” for Florida oranges; “fruit” was a derogatory slang term for gay men. So in the context of the times, this slogan ranks up there as a triple joke about Bryant, sucking…., and fruits. Ha! Other tshirts make an appearance but most people are dressed in a “casual” style very early 1970s, with polyester knits, plaid blazers, and sandals on the feet.
Two other images show a similar mix of sensible shoes, tight pants on men, tshirts and some dressier styles in the mix. And again, how smart and sharp is that “Hi Mom Guess What!” sign. Bratty and humanizing at the same time.
Here a large gathering for the Equal Rights Amendment, voted on by the Senate in 1972. Printed protest tshirts galore, some cardigans, tank tops, and on the kids, garanimal-style tshirts with striped socks. The hidden caption for this image showed as “radical bra burners2” — uh, gee, sorry but I see a crowd of white middle-class families and couples sitting around. A reminder that including children in protests is a long tradition in this country.
A final image of the fashions of protest. There’s Colonial Lady (we are just a few years before the 1976 Bicentennial), reminding us of the historic roots of this all. Sadly, that clown sign would fit right in today. Of interest are the fashions on parade: A maxi floral jumpsuit behind the clown sign, a floral dress, a mini-dress, some denim overalls worn with leather sandals, and Calico Lady. Serious women, serious cause.