News & Politics

The Women Who Came Before Roe

Artist-activist Andrea Bowers honors the pre-Roe v. Wade pioneers who fought for women's rights during a time when abortions consistently happened in back alleys and border towns.
The handwritten letters are wrenching.

-- I took my 15-year-old daughter to a doctor last Wednesday and found out that she was seven and a half weeks pregnant. ... The doctor said she could never go through this mentally, and neither can I.

-- Due to circumstances and my strong belief against forced marriage, I am unable to bear the child and give it a name.

-- I am almost two months pregnant and I don't know what to do. ... It is really disgraceful that in our great country it is illegal to do a five-minute operation under completely healthy conditions.


The letters filled two walls of the REDCAT art exhibition space in downtown Los Angeles last summer, displayed as photo blowups between squares of brightly patterned wallpaper. On a video screen in the gallery, various women and men, seated next to incongruously beautiful flower arrangements, recited the pleading missives -- bringing to life words written some 40 years ago by people desperate to locate doctors who could perform safe abortions.

All of the letters requested "The List" -- names of abortion providers in Puerto Rico, Japan and Mexican border towns -- compiled and distributed by activists Pat Maginnis, Rowena Gurner and Lana Clarke Phelan. At the time, in the mid-1960s, Roe v. Wade had not yet been decided, so U.S. abortions were either illegal or highly restricted, difficult to obtain, prohibitively expensive for many and often dangerous. The California activists -- later dubbed the Army of Three -- were so appalled by the situation that they risked imprisonment in order to educate women about their options, even teaching a method for self-inducing an abortion.

"It was pretty lonely out there. There was no one else," says Maginnis, 78, one of the two surviving Army members.

When artist Andrea Bowers, who created the exhibition (now at Artpace in San Antonio through January 28, then at the Contemporary Art Museum in St. Louis, April 27 through August 7, 2007) learned about the Army of Three, she felt compelled to honor their work through hers. "I realized I knew very little about Roe v. Wade," says Bowers, 41, an art professor at the University of California, Irvine, "so I bought every used book I could find on the subject. [I realized] we've taken for granted our freedoms."

She then began a meticulous creation of images that would not only be artistically sophisticated but communicate her passion for the subject matter. She decided to present the images in several ways -- collage, a bound book, video, drawings -- so that viewers could read, listen or both.

Bowers is a welcome throwback to 1970s feminist artists, who weren't above melding formalist technique with social justice concerns. "A lot of earlier feminist artists, and artists of color, have created space so that artists like Andrea can talk about content," says Eungie Joo, director and curator of REDCAT gallery, housed in a corner of L.A.'s iconic Disney Concert Hall. "The reason [art viewers] are afraid of what they deem as political is because they're afraid to be told what to think. When people encounter Andrea's work, they feel free to think what they already think -- but to think about it more."

Bowers grew up in Huron, Ohio, a small farm town west of Cleveland. As a kid, "I was loud and outspoken and had positions that I and people of color should be treated fairly," she says.

The infamous 1970 shooting of students by National Guardsmen at Kent State occurred near her Ohio home, but Bowers says few of her peers talked about what happened there. "I'm from the generation of nihilism -- extensive partying, a sense of hopelessness that no individual person can change anything," she says.

She began to believe otherwise at the first college she attended, Bowling Green State. There, a slide librarian, recognizing her feminist promise, gave her Judy Chicago's 1975 memoir Through The Flower. Then, at CalArts, she absorbed the influence of art school dean Catherine Lord, a lesbian-feminist writer who hired a number of other women as professors. Bowers always craved more than theory, however.

"I always felt that what feminist academics do is really great, but it is completely removed from activism," she says. When she suggested to a CalArts feminist class that the students should undertake actions, only three volunteered to join her. "We need to look outside, too," Bowers felt.

For Pat Maginnis, Bowers' work has been a welcome use for the hundreds of letters she saved. "That someone is able to take these things and make a physical presentation is terribly important," she says. "I'm endlessly grateful to Andrea for having that insight."

And for Bowers, discovering the work of pioneers such as Maginnis is both personally and artistically inspiring. "I'm always looking for moments in history -- individuals doing great things and making big changes," she says. "I'm looking back to provide a model for now -- or maybe to find what's missing." A catalog of the Bowers show is available from [email protected]

For the full text and a sampling of Bowers' art, visit www.msmagazine.com.
Michele Kort is senior editor of Ms.
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