Abortion Bans, Feminism and Sexism Fuel Sally Edelstein’s Art: “Whatever We’re Exposed to Has An Impact On Us”

“Politics and art are one,” said Edelstein. “Nothing I do is without social content. That’s my interest.” (Courtesy of Sally Edelstein)

Award-winning collage artist and blogger Sally Edelstein calls herself a “visual anthropologist” and describes her intricate works as ”nostalgia-based.”

But don’t be fooled by the reminiscence, she warns—for despite imagery going back to both World Wars, she wants viewers to connect past to present and be attentive to the many ways that we are consciously and subliminally manipulated by advertising and social and other media. 

Her themes include gender, race, environmental degradation, militarism, gun violence and aging, and her work is overtly progressive.

“Politics and art are one,” said Edelstein. “Nothing I do is without social content. That’s my interest.”

Woman’s Lib: A Storm’s Approaching collage. (Courtesy of Sally Edelstein)

It’s an interest that started early. As a 13 year-old, Edelstein volunteered on the 1968 presidential campaign of Robert F. Kennedy.

“My mom would drive me to the headquarters near our home in West Hempstead, New York, and I’d stuff envelopes or make phone calls to voters after school and on weekends,” she said. “Bobby had compassion; he spent time with farmworkers and the poor in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn. I believe that he cared deeply.”

This immersion in grassroots activism kick-started Edelstein’s passion for political engagement. In addition, family trips to Brooklyn, where her mother had spent her early childhood, were equally impactful.

“My mom was nostalgic about where she was raised and she was an incredible saver. She held onto everything, every scrap of paper. She had drawings I’d made as a two-year-old. After she died I found cartons with each item preciously wrapped,” Edelstein said.

Unlike her mom, Edelstein calls herself a collector—focused on particular areas of interest—rather than a saver, and she emphasizes the distinction.

“My mom and grandmother were sentimental and wanted to maintain a repository for future generations,” she said. “They taught me to respect paper ephemera as a record of time. The receipt for the $10 deposit my parents paid on our house, for example, was not just a piece of paper to her. It was the buying of a post-war dream.”

That dream continues to goad Edelstein. Her work juxtaposes the mixed messages we continually imbibe about everything from suburban homeownership to sexual propriety to health and wellness. Her collages include both words and pictures, most of them amassed from antique stories or estate, yard and tag sales and her basement is stacked with hundreds of well-labeled boxes: ads, labeled by year; magazines; textbooks and workbooks; comics; and newspapers spanning the past century. 

“My mom and grandmother were sentimental and … taught me to respect paper ephemera as a record of time,” said Edelstein.

The collecting began early, as did the parsing of messages. “When I was in fifth grade, I was given a pamphlet about being female. It talked about menstruation and stressed that sex was something you did in marriage. Then, when I reached puberty everything changed. The sexual revolution began. Roe v. Wade was decided, and we had the pill and abortion access.” 

Nonetheless, she continues, the media made it seem as if the choice was between being a feminist or being feminine and footage of women marching for equal rights was met with commentary about “women’s libbers” being unattractive, man-hating and irrationally angry.

This conflicting messaging frustrated Edelstein and in 1985, after a decade working as an illustrator at a New York City advertising agency, she quit to write a book called This Year’s Girl. The book, published by Doubleday, documented the changes women had experienced between 1950 and 1980.

“We’d become so fragmented,” Edelstein said. “There were all these roles women and girls were expected to play, capable worker and wife, mother, chef and housekeeper. Not long after the book was released, I started to make collages. It was a way for me to tell a story from the fractured place we were in.”

One of the pieces in Sally Edelstein’s Sally Edelstein collage series called “Media Made Women.” (Courtesy of Sally Edelstein)

The collages, many of them four-by-eight feet in size, explore what Edelstein calls “social fictions” and address the push and pull of social change. One piece celebrates the U.S. sending a man to the moon and includes a number of laudatory photos and articles. Next to them are ads from 1969. One, for a cleaning solution called Lestoil, tells viewers that “women of the future will make the moon a cleaner place to live”—as if the idea of females doing anything beyond scrubbing and scouring was too ludicrous to mention. 

Similarly, other collages pair images of civil rights activists with the promotion of products like Rinso laundry soap, which promised a “whiter, brighter” future for consumers.

Another collage, called Foodland, presents Ronald MacDonald, photos of Nestle’s chocolate and strawberry Quik, and a cascade of multicolored candies alongside ads for diet products and appetite suppressants—which were exclusively marketed to women and girls.

Newer pieces and blog posts address Texas’s S.B. 8 anti-abortion law, the denial of climate change and the confirmation of Brett Kavanaugh and Amy Coney Barrett for seats on the Supreme Court. Edelstein will have a recently-completed collage in a show, Agency: Feminist Art and Power, opening at the Museum of Sonoma County California on January 22, 2022. 

“My piece is called How Old is Old?” Edelstein said. “As a child, every image I saw of older women presented them as dowdy, uninteresting, sedentary and overweight. It’s heartbreaking, but this is what my generation took in. I position these stereotypical images against ads about staying youthful, including one from Ivory Soap that asked a horrible question: ‘Can you compete with your daughter’s Little Girl Look?’ as if we’d want to.”

Another new work, still in the development stage, will center on a 1954 book called The Wonderful World: The Adventure of the Earth We Live On by James Fisher.

“The book talks about how the U.S. has tamed, conquered, Mother Nature—as if the earth is just another woman to be controlled,” Edelstein said. “I will pair this with Army and Air Force recruitment materials that assume that the U.S. should be the world’s police force.” 

(Courtesy of Sally Edelstein)

Each collage, she continues, is extremely labor-intensive.

“I use a tiny scissors or X-Acto knife and wear a jeweler’s headpiece to magnify each image. I cut everything by hand from really high-quality copies that I reduce or enlarge. I never use originals and never use anything computer-generated. I also color the edges of each piece so the effect is seamless and smooth.”

But while aesthetics are valued, Edelstein says that she also wants her work to be intellectually provocative.

“I want people who see my collages to question everything. When I was growing up, we read 17 Magazine. Now kids growing up see TikTok and Instagram—but whatever we’re exposed to has an impact on us as we come of age. I want people to think about the messages they’re taking in. ”

Indeed, the post World War II promise of prosperity that many in Edelstein’s Boomer generation received—particularly those who were white and middle-class—framed many of her assumptions about the possibilities open to women. And even though these ideas collided with an overtly anti-feminist and reactionary backlash, it led Edelstein to wonder how and why women went from Riveting Rosies to what she calls the “frilly and silly” airheads of the 1950s and early ’60s.

“I’ve collected a historical treasure trove,” she said, “to answer some of my questions; put together the right way, the images and words tell a story that is cohesive. I draw from the past, yes—but the past informs us and connects us to the present and provides us with the tools to create a better future.”   

See all of Edelstein’s collages here.

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Eleanor J. Bader is a freelance journalist from Brooklyn, N.Y., who writes for Truthout, Lilith, the LA Review of Books, RainTaxi, The Indypendent, New Pages, and The Progressive. She tweets at @eleanorjbader1 .