Artist Michelle Hartney invites the public to embroider messages from women asking for help with unwanted pregnancies
At a time when the United States Supreme Court is set to overturn Roe v. Wade and take a giant leap backwards when it comes to women’s reproductive rights, an artist invites audiences to reflect on women’s harrowing experiences before abortion was legalized.
In 1928, Margaret Sanger, the founder of Planned Parenthood, published Motherhood in bondage, a collection of letters that women across the United States had written to him requesting information about contraception. They were helpless and scared, their lives an endless cycle of pregnancy and childbirth, miscarriages and infant mortality.
“These letters are so important because it’s easy to dismiss women’s stories,” Chicago artist michelle hartney told Artnet News.
In December, she began inviting the public to handwrite copies of these poignant letters for her play. Unplanned parenthooda project that is perhaps equal parts educational and therapeutic.
“A lot of the work that I do, it helps me vent my anger, my sadness and my rage at the different injustices that I see happening in the world,” Hartney said. “A lot of it was just to deal with my sadness and my anger.”
The handwritten letters will then be hand-embroidered onto pieces of dyed vintage wedding dresses with dandelion, a flower that was once picked for bouquets and is now considered a weed, symbolizing how drastically things can change. over a lifetime.
The stories these letters tell are hard to read. Many writers faced extreme poverty. They are often very aware of the risks to their physical and mental health, and that of their children, who often die very young.
A 43-year-old woman with 19 children wrote that she “would rather die than give birth to another child”. Another, who was just 14 when she got married, was pregnant for the 17th time. “I’m only 39 and everything is worn out,” she wrote.
“There were women who described trying to stay away from their husbands, and their husbands getting mad at them for refusing sex,” Hartney said. “The ones that really broke my heart are the women who describe ‘being on edge.’ It was postpartum depression, but they didn’t have the words for it, and they didn’t know what they were were crossing.
When the letters were written, Comstock laws prohibited the sale, distribution or possession of “obscene” publications, which contained information about contraception. This meant Sanger’s 1914 pamphlet, Family restriction, was illegal. Yet more than 250,000 women have heard of her expertise and have written letters asking for help.
“That’s one of the ways people found out Sanger had information about birth control, which sparked the letters,” Hartney said.
Hartney plans to present the work as an installation that will also challenge Sanger’s promotion of eugenics, a form of scientific racism studying arranged reproduction. She hopes the final work will educate viewers both about Sanger’s racism and the ongoing struggle for women’s reproductive freedom in the United States.
Hartney will create porcelain armatures on which to hang each embroidered letter, in part a reference to the role of fine china as a traditional wedding gift. Each will be hand painted with dyes made from flowers that have historically been used to induce miscarriage.
To carry out this time-consuming project, Hartney is looking for volunteers to embroider the letters. She will send them kits with fabric and yarn.
“I was just going to make 20 letters and sew them myself, but I realized it would be a much better project if it was collaborative — and it takes forever to sew every word,” Hartney said.
“As long as it’s readable, then I’m happy,” she added. “And if you don’t have the time or the energy to finish it, send it back and someone else will come get it.”
Hartney is already soliciting volunteers on the project’s website and will be hosting in-person sewing and writing events at 21 C. Museum Hotelswhich have locations in 11 cities across the South and Midwest.
“It’s almost like they’re strategically placed in states that are going to lose access to abortion, so we’re not just preaching to the choir,” Hartney said.
Unfortunately, she sees Unplanned parenthood as a harbinger of things to come. Twenty-six states have “trigger” laws in place to ban abortion by the time the Supreme Court strikes down Roe and those nearly century-old letters will soon have 21st-century equivalents.
“We need to collect the stories that are already coming out of places like Texas where there’s basically an abortion ban,” Hartney said. “It’s really important to collect the stories now.”
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