UNPLANNED PARENTHOOD: Inside the Art Installation Using Historical Testimony to Call for a Feminist Future

“I want to tell the stories of the women who suffered because of laws that once prohibited so many from accessing information and care, and reckon with the fact that the attacks we’re seeing now on reproductive care hurt women at the intersections the most.”

—Michelle Hartney, artist and activist

UNPLANNED PARENTHOOD, launching on Wednesday, #ThxBirthControl Day, uses historical testimony to call for reproductive justice.

Michelle Hartney’s work has a clear throughline: Most of her pieces lay bare the injustices women have faced, and continue to face, often in attempting to control their reproductive and maternal health and choices.

One shined a light on the mistreatment of pregnant women in immigrant detention centers run by ICE; another called out the costs of giving birth in a for-profit healthcare system. Two have attempted to correct the record on Dr. Marion J. Sims, the notoriously racist man often called the “father of gynecology”; while many others have provided a contemporary corollary in calling out medical sexism and telling stories about obstetric violence, birth trauma, and the epidemic facing women of color in the U.S. of maternal death and postpartum PTSD.

Hartney’s next project adds to that dialogue: On Wednesday, the feminist artist launched UNPLANNED PARENTHOOD—a collaborative, textile-based piece exploring historical attacks on reproductive health access and calling for intersectional reproductive justice. The project is launching in honor of Power to Decide’s #ThxBirthControl Day—”because fighting to protect the gains we’ve won,” Hartney wrote on Instagram, “is the best way to celebrate them. “

Hartney’s practice is to weave the political into the fiber of her art practice. The former Albert Schweitzer Fellow at the Art Institute of Chicago even founded the Women’s Health Collective in 2016, an art collective dedicated to linking artists, writers, musicians and activists advancing change.

“Fighting for feminist issues is important to me,” Michelle Hartney told Ms., “because I have a daughter and a non-binary child—and I want to do as much as I can to make the world a better place for both of them.”

To complete UNPLANNED PARENTHOOD, Hartney will work with volunteers from across the country to tell the stories of more than 250,000 women who penned desperate letters in the 1920’s asking for help ending and preventing pregnancies. Some of the women wrote that they would rather die than be pregnant again. Many were on the verge of suicide. 

Each letter, hand-written by a volunteer and then embroidered by Hartney onto antique wedding dress fabric, serves as a reminder of the danger of losing reproductive freedoms. But the installation will also reckon with the context of their experiences—and the racism that continues to persist in attacks on, and the movement for, reproductive rights.

Volunteers from across the country are invited to be part of Hartney’s installation—hand-writing the letters women sent to Margaret Sanger in the 1920’s in order to amplify their testimony and reckon with Sanger’s legacy. Hartney will then embroider their writing onto antique wedding dress fabric dyed with dandelion. (Courtesy of the artist)

The letters come from Motherhood in Bondage, a collection published by Margaret Sanger in 1928 of the correspondence she received when any information about contraception was deemed “obscene,” and disseminating it was punishable by law. Although this rare archive of women’s testimony from that time is the foundation of UNPLANNED PARENTHOOD, Sanger herself is de-centered in Hartney’s project—the women whose stories comprise the book are instead the focus, as is building a broad coalition of volunteers to participate.

That’s purposeful: Sanger has a racist history of her own, including associations with white supremacist groups, and Hartney doesn’t want to put her on a pedestal as attacks on hard-won reproductive rights escalate nationwide—and hurt women of color the most.

Hartney once went rogue and put up her own wall labels at the Met, informing art lovers of the misogyny their favorite male artists espoused; and once produced an alternative audio tour of an exhibit on Asian art that failed to note the violence faced by the women subjects in each piece. Now, she seeks to use context to issue both a warning and a call to action with UNPLANNED PARENTHOOD.

“The only way for us to ensure reproductive justice for all is to not only confront the attacks that come from outside this movement, but reckon with the racism within it,” Hartney said. “Knowing our history can help us do and be better in our future-building.”

Hartney is committed to never letting Sanger off the hook as the installation takes shape: She speaks plainly about confronting Sanger’s legacy in the project materials, and she’s eager to forge partnerships—much like the ones she built with Improving Birth and Birth Monopoly for her other pieces—with intersectional organizations advancing reproductive justice. When the project is exhibited, she will provide educational wall labels and other materials for viewers that tell a more complete story about Sanger’s work, and inspire those in the same fight for equality one century later to do better.

Hartney’s work echoes and is inspired by the spirit of an op-ed Planned Parenthood President Alexis McGill-Johnson wrote earlier this year in the New York Times. “We don’t know what was in Sanger’s heart, and we don’t need to in order to condemn her harmful choices,” McGill-Johnson wrote. What we have is a history of focusing on white womanhood relentlessly. Whether our founder was a racist is not a simple yes or no question. Our reckoning is understanding her full legacy, and its impact. Our reckoning is the work that comes next.”

The work that comes next, for Hartney, is calling on feminists to become part of an intersectional reproductive justice movement that confronts, rather than ignores, the failures of their foremothers.

Click here to join Michelle at The Jane Club Wednesday, November 17, at 5:30 ET for a fireside chat about UNPLANNED PARENTHOOD.

Click here to learn more about the installation and volunteer to hand-write a letter—from home or during a forthcoming write-in with Michelle in Chicago.

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Carmen Rios is a self-proclaimed feminist superstar and the former digital editor at Ms. Her writing on queerness, gender, race and class has been published in print and online by outlets including BuzzFeed, Bitch, Bust, CityLab, DAME, ElixHER, Feministing, Feminist Formations, GirlBoss, GrokNation, MEL, Mic, the National Women’s History Museum, SIGNS and the Women’s Media Center; and she is a co-founder of Webby-nominated Argot Magazine. @carmenriosss|carmenfuckingrios.com