On September 7th, 2015, 20 women stood in Chicago’s Daley Plaza methodically folding 1,200 hospital gowns as if they were American flags honoring fallen soldiers. The gowns were hand-printed, cut and sewn, collectively comprising 1,560 yards of fabric, 2,000 yards of trim and hundreds of hours spent laboring over a sewing machine in a third-floor studio, with no air conditioning, in the sweltering Chicago summer.
That morning, the gowns were loaded into a U-Haul and driven through the cacophony of the city streets to Daley Plaza, where threats of rain and online trolls were chased away by sunshine and the women who volunteered their Labor Day afternoons to folding gown after gown after gown. Each gown represented one of the 1,200 women who die from childbirth every year in the U.S.
This performance, called Mother’s Right, is the work of Michelle Hartney, an artist whose work focuses on women’s health—and more specifically, on the injustices women face when they give birth.
The U.S. has the highest maternal mortality rate among developed countries and is the only one where the death rates are climbing—since 1995, America’s maternal mortality rate has increased by 160 percent. Hartney conceived of Mother’s Right as both an indictment of a healthcare system in which so many women needlessly die and as a tribute to those women.
“So few people know how high our maternal mortality rate actually is, and I felt like this needed more attention,” Hartney told Ms. “I came up with the visual idea to make 1,200 gowns and print them with the plant derivatives of drugs that are used on laboring women. But the actual folding—appropriating the flag folding ceremony—that was the most powerful part. It really let you know that this was about death and trauma.”
Hartney comes from a long line of women who sew and began sewing when she was five years old. She grew up in southern Chicago and earned her master’s degree in art therapy from the Art Institute of Chicago. She practiced as an art therapist and made jewelry, but after giving birth to her daughter in 2011, decided to start making art full time.
“I had this totally insane fantasy that babies nap all day and I’d have all this time to make art,” Hartney said. “I started doing what I could, a lot of embroidery and beadwork, and I had all these ideas swirling around in my head about pregnancy and childbirth after my own experiences.”
As Hartney neared her due date, she went to what she thought was a standard exam with her obstetrician. The doctor stripped her membranes—a technique used to induce labor—without asking for Hartney’s consent, or even informing her about the procedure. When Hartney stood up after the exam, she started to gush blood. She went into labor that night.
“I had no idea what was happening,” she said. “I think my body was not ready to go into labor yet, and it ended up being a 36 hour labor. If the doctor just let things be, I wonder what would have happened? It’s my body and it should have been my choice.”
Then with the birth of her son in 2013, Hartney endured another labor where neither her wishes nor her consent were granted. Her obstetrician could not be present at her birth, so she was assigned a resident who had never seen a natural childbirth before. During delivery, Hartney was laying on her side and wanted to stay that way, but the doctors and nurses tried to force her on her back—despite Hartney’s physical and verbal resistance that she did not want to and could not move.
While stressful, Hartney recognized that her experiences were tame compared to what many women go through. She dug more deeply into childbirth in America and realized just how pervasive the absence of informed consent can be, how common it is for women to be under-informed about their options and rights and how frequently their voices are ignored.
“My birth experience wasn’t horrible, but things were said to me that were ridiculous and upsetting,” Hartney said. “I was mad that I had to be fighting. It shouldn’t have been like that, but it really gave me fuel to do artwork about childbirth and verbal and physical abuse.”
During her research, Hartney came across an organization called Improving Birth with a campaign called Break The Silence, which prompts women to share their stories of abuse and trauma in maternity care. Reading these stories, Hartney was inspired to create Birth Words, a series of canvasses with quotes from Break The Silence. She sewed the quotes in varsity lettering on canvasses that were covered with hospital gown fabric (a concept she used again in Mother’s Right). Hartney chose varsity lettering because she said many of the quotes sounded like words a rapist would say to their victim. The first canvas she made said, “Lie on your back.”
“Rape culture is so widespread in college and high school, and varsity lettering can be such a symbol of female oppression,” Hartney said.
As her work has evolved, Hartney has grown more interested in interactive, performance pieces. She is currently working on a project called MOM$ that asks women to share the insurance bills they received after giving birth in a hospital. The objective is to expose a national epidemic of arbitrary and inflated hospital costs.
“The activist component really gets the fire burning in me and makes me super passionate. It would be hard for me to do work that does not have that,” Hartney said. “My goal is to get these messages out there, and I don’t think I can do that alone in my studio. Creating a community is a big part of my vision.”
The desire to create community is part of what led Hartney, who says she is acutely uncomfortable with attention, to create a performance piece in a highly public place, as she did with Mother’s Right. However, the attention quickly turned nasty once word got out that she was appropriating the flag folding ceremony.
“I was using the sensitive ritual of the flag folding ceremony as a symbol of respect—The fact is that women are coming out of childbirth with the same symptoms as men and women who come back from wars,” Hartney said. “For this, I got severely trolled on the internet, to the point where I came close to canceling the whole thing. I was scared. There were men who said they were going to come to the performance and ‘put me in my place.’”
Hartney took the Facebook page down, but went ahead with the performance. She was worried, but the combination of the security guards at Daley Plaza and the enthusiasm of the participants quelled these fears and the performance went smoothly. For two hours, pairs of women quietly folded the gowns and laid them on rectangular white boxes on the ground. A table in front of the performance shared information about maternal mortality for people who walked by.
“I didn’t want to do performance, but there was no other way to do it,” Hartney said. “I didn’t want to let shyness or being fearful affect my work. Seeing other moms and my friends and midwives and doulas coming together, all women, felt so good. The more women interact with each other, and the more compassion we have for each other—only good can come out of it.”