Whereas: Stories from the People’s House

Kitchen Table Campaigning

About 30 years after the 19th Amendment was ratified in 1920, political campaigns increasingly targeted women for votes. Political appeals to women were by no means a new idea. However, women’s relatively recent victory in winning the right to vote, coupled with postwar sexism, added modern twists to old traditions of looking for women’s political support.

Gerald Rudolph Ford Jr. Potholder/tiles/non-collection/1/11-5-campaign-ford_potholder_2007_107_003-002.xml Collection of the U.S. House of Representatives
About this object
After World War II, politicians used objects like thimbles, sewing kits, and potholders to appeal to women voters.
From the republic’s early days, politicians sought the influential endorsement of a certain class of women—although not, of course, as voters. The concept of “republican motherhood”—which bestowed on women the responsibility “to raise and educate good citizens . . . nurturing civic responsibility and love of country” from their position “as the center of the home and family,” as historian Edith Mayo wrote—encouraged some women to engage with politics. Campaign objects for women—including glassware, hair ornaments, stationery, printed textiles, and sewing boxes—were handed out through the 19th century. Women supported candidates through peripheral activities like letter writing campaigns, attending rallies, and organizing fundraisers.

The practice of targeting women with particular campaign materials ebbed and flowed—and campaign paraphernalia of any description ebbed between the World Wars. However, a distinct change occurred during the post–World War II years. By this point, women were finally voting in proportion to their share of the eligible population, making them a large, attractive group to cultivate. Although Democratic Party strategy decided against addressing women as a separate interest group, the Republican party purposefully leaned into appealing to women voters, and focused particularly on women leaving the workforce after World War II and the idea of the home as a defense against communism. It was a Cold War version of the old “republican motherhood” idea, keeping women’s political life anchored to their homes, and focusing on women’s role in shaping their children and running their households in defense of capitalism and democracy. Only now, women could cast votes, too. The home-centric objects intended for women voters also hearkened to the 19th century, with candidate-emblazoned sewing tools and kitchen items.

Thimbles

Richard Milhous Nixon Thimble/tiles/non-collection/1/11-5-campaign-nixon_thimble_2007_109_000-composite.xml Three views of the Richard Nixon thimble, Collection of the U.S. House of Representatives
About this object
Richard Nixon’s first campaign for the U.S. House of Representatives was an early adopter of the trend to court women’s votes, but he put his heavy-handed twist on the delivery. The slogan emblazoned on this thimble from his 1946 campaign, “Put the needle in the P.A.C.,” refers to Nixon’s groundless accusations that his Democratic opponent, Representative Jerry Voorhis, received support from the allegedly communist-affiliated Congress of Industrial Organizations Political Action Committee. A true innovator, Nixon’s campaign not only forged the path of targeting women voters in their role as traditional homemakers, it also tied that role to anti-communism. His defeat of Voorhis was an early victory for red-baiting tactics.

Most other domestic campaign objects, however, did not specifically stoke fears of communism, but focused on keeping the candidate’s name—and sometimes face—in front of women voters.

Dalip Singh (Judge) Saund Thimble/tiles/non-collection/1/11-5-campaign-saund_thimble_2007_294_000-1.xml
Cecil Murray Harden Thimble/tiles/non-collection/1/11-5-campaign-harden_thimble2008_035_000-11.xml
Dalip Singh (Judge) Saund thimble
Collection of the U.S. House of Representatives
About this object
Item 1/2
Cecil Murray Harden thimble
Collection of the U.S. House of Representatives
About this object
Item 2/2
Sewing accessories were a mainstay category of campaign handouts. Thimbles frequently appeared—like these examples from the 1950s promoting Dalip Saund of California, the first Asian American elected to serve as a Representative, and Cecil Harden of Indiana. Although Republican candidates produced more domestic campaign swag, Democrats like Saund also participated in the mid-century trend. During the postwar period, the Democratic Party tended to use fewer traditionally gender-specific campaign giveaways, focusing less on a separate sphere of women’s influence.

Sewing Kits

John Bonifas Bennett Sewing Kit/tiles/non-collection/1/11-5-campaign-bennett_sewing_kit_2018_149_000-composite.xml
Elford Albin Cederberg Needle Threader/tiles/non-collection/1/11-5-campaign-cederberg_threader_2019_068_001-composite.xml
John Bonifas Bennett sewing kit, exterior and interior
Collection of the U.S. House of Representatives
Item 1/2
Elford Albin Cederberg needle threader, front and reverse
Collection of the U.S. House of Representatives
About this object
Item 2/2
Sewing kits were not dissimilar to matchbooks, an exceedingly common handout that targeted men, with easily customizable packaging with standardized contents. John Bonifas Bennett—a Michigan Representative best known for his role in conflict-of-interest probes during the 1950s—added his image to a standard repair kit, which included thread and “stop-run sticks” to halt hosiery catastrophes. Representative Elford “Al” Cederberg added a simple but direct message to a needle threader, a typical component of a woman’s sewing basket often used as a campaign promotion.

Glassware

Chester Earl Merrow Drinking Glass/tiles/non-collection/1/11-5-campaign-merrow_glass_2007_015_000-composite.xml Two views of the Chester Merrow glass, Collection of the U.S. House of Representatives
About this object
The traditional glassware category from the 19th century met modern production techniques in this Representative Chester Merrow glass. Transferred halftone images of the Congressman and the Capitol decorate this giveaway. It declared Merrow “Orator, Statesman, Leader,” a reference to his long interest in foreign affairs and international aid.

Potholders

Gerald Rudolph Ford Jr. Potholders in Green, Blue, and Red/tiles/non-collection/1/11-5-campaign-ford-potholders_2007_107-composite.xml Gerald Ford potholders in green, blue and red, Collection of the U.S. House of Representatives
About the green potholder
Representative Gerald Ford also veered toward the useful with his campaign potholders. Like Merrow, he kept his message simple and positive, framed in cheery green gingham. He also handed out versions with blue and red gingham borders, increasing the chances that one of the three coordinated with a voter’s kitchen décor. This willingness to please squared with Ford’s reputation for geniality, integrity, and collaboration across the aisle.

In the second half of the 20th century, gender-targeted campaign objects became more bipartisan and less focused on women’s domestic responsibilities. Women continued to be an attractive demographic category for politicians, but the idea of their special interests shifted toward women’s rights and other substantive issues, and away from the immediate postwar focus on middle class homemakers.

Sources: Edith Mayo, “Be a Party Girl: Campaign Appeals to Women,” in Hail to the Candidate, Presidential Campaigns from Banners to Broadcasts, ed. Keith Melder (Smithsonian Institution Press, Washington and London, 1992); History, Art & Archives, U.S. House of Representatives, Women in Congress, 1917–2020 (Washington, DC: U.S. Government Publishing Office, 2020).