Growing up, 39-year-old activist artist Heather Ault never imagined that people had been trying to control their fertility for more than 4000 years. The Grosse Pointe, Michigan native says that she simply assumed that contraception was a recent phenomenon and that prior to Roe v. Wade, abortion in the United States had been a back-alley secret, full of subterfuge and unsavory practitioners.
Similarly, she'd rarely thought about social issues, whether women's rights or community empowerment. “I'd gone to a very focused technical art school as an undergraduate — the College for Creative Studies in Detroit — that did not offer feminist studies classes,” she says. “I voted, but politics was really not part of my life until I graduated and moved to San Francisco in 1997. San Francisco is a place that pulls you into local politics and I found that I loved this type of engagement. I'd originally moved west for a job in the dotcom industry but I found it unsatisfying.” Looking for something more meaningful Ault answered an ad in a local newspaper and soon became a canvasser for the Women's Choice Clinic in Oakland. She went door to door to raise money for a now-defunct independent feminist abortion provider for a year,and then worked as a fundraiser for NARAL Pro-Choice America.
A failed romance caused Ault to leave the Bay Area in 2000 and, after a few months of post-breakup backpacking, she moved to Humboldt County, five hours north of San Francisco. “Everyone in Humboldt is involved in politics in one way or other,” she says. She soon became active in a group called Democracy Unlimited and also enrolled in an Intro to Women's Studies class at the university. “The teacher showed a film, a history of the US women's movement, that mentioned that abortion had been legal before it became illegal. That blew my mind,” she laughs. Despite having worked for both a clinic and NARAL, she says that she and her coworkers never spoke about reproductive history; instead, they focused on the fundraising tasks at hand, highlighting the horrors of back-alley abortion in the decades immediately before Roe. After seeing the film — Ault no longer recalls what it was called — her curiosity was peaked. She quickly went online and began researching the history of abortion and contraception and later trekked to the library for Linda Gordon's 2002 book, The Moral Property of Women, and hungrily read the 464-page tome. Then, prodded by Gordon's fact-finding, Ault started her own investigation.
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“I'd assumed that prior to the Roe decision in 1973, there was just illegal abortion, that women had never been at the center of any reproductive practice. As I dug,” she continues, “I found a lot of information, along with illustrations, about birth control and abortifacient products going very far back in American, and world, history. I was shocked to see these practices, some advertised on the back covers of women's magazines throughout the 1800s and others dating as far back as the ancient Egyptians.”
Ault admits that her interest in reproduction increased after her own 2001 abortion, and says that “the idea of controlling pregnancy was, for some reason, something I really needed to understand. I wanted to know where the desire to control fertility came from, not so much from a theoretical or feminist perspective, but from a more primal place that is deeper than politics or policy. I felt driven to understand where this choice originated when I realized how meaningful my own journey through an unwanted pregnancy had become.”
As Ault's research unfolded, her desire to share her knowledge magnified. Finding the best outlet for her burgeoning data collection was easy. “I put 20 or 25 images on transparency paper and showed them to my women's studies class,” she says. “As I talked, I linked what I said to the images I'd collected.” She also asked the students to respond to two questions: When did they think contraception had been invented and who had invented it? The largely female class was of one mind: Contraception was a 20th century invention developed by men.
“This confirmed that no one knew the real history,” Ault says. Over time, she brought her research to other women's studies classes and continued to collect images that she subsequently included in a Power Point presentation. “After a while it dawned on me that the project could be the basis of an Masters' thesis,” she chuckles.
Ault moved to Illinois to attend the state university at Urbana-Champaign in 2007. Under the tutelage of Dr. Leslie Reagan — a protégé of Linda Gordon's — Ault continued to probe reproductive history. But since she was an art student, not an historian, she needed to figure out a way to develop a graphic installation rather than a lecture series or book to document the intense need to control fertility that has motivated 4000-plus years of reproductive history.
She pursued many different ideas — including the creation of a red tent in which message-laden pieces of female lingerie would be hung — but eventually took her cue from Josh MacPhee and the Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania-based Just Seeds Poster Collective. As Ault perused the Collective's publicly displayed artwork — most of it wheat-pasted onto urban walls — she began making large, vivid wall hangings of her own. People loved them.
Translating Words to Graphics
Her first display, at an Ann Arbor, Michigan gallery — four posters depicting the history of the condom and showcasing herbal abortifacients like silphium — sold almost as soon as they hit the walls. “I also got great feedback from the curator,” Ault says, “and concluded that posters were the best medium for the project because they were so easy to reproduce.”
Since that first foray, Ault has created 50 brightly colored posters, all of which seek to educate viewers about timeworn efforts to control reproduction. Called 4000 Years for Choice, the posters introduce a raft of little-known information. For example, did you know that in 1500 BCE, the Egyptians used a contraceptive plug made from an acacia plant, honey, and lint? Or that ancient Roman physicians wrote about using wild cucumbers to end unwanted pregnancies? Or that, throughout the 1960s, Californian Patricia Maginnis stood on San Francisco street corners and handed out information on how to obtain safe, affordable, albeit illegal, abortions? Ault's paean to Maginnis — a bright red likeness on a peach background — calls her the “first abortion rights activist in history” and lauds her1961 creation of the Society for Humane Abortion.
Ault acknowledges that she is fixated on messaging — and carefully scrutinizes the words and images that are used to convey ideas. “During the Obama campaign, I saw the huge role that Shepard Fairey played. His posters included just one word – hope — and they made everyone feel hopeful,” she says. This power was reinforced when, in January 2009 Ault attended both the Obama inauguration and the annual anti-abortion March for Life. “It was the first prolife event I'd ever been to and it raised a lot of questions for me about how we can empower and affirm our movement more than we do,” she reports. “We use terms like fight, defend, and struggle and use the coat hanger as our symbol. I think we can use something better than the metal hanger, which suggests death and desperation, not empowerment. Once I got back to Illinois, I redesigned my posters so there's one large word on each one — words like affirm, cherish, discover, love, unite — to note our history and invoke victory. I also use bright, lollypop colors so that the posters are cheerful and inviting.”
Debra Sweet, executive director of World Can't Wait, a national, feminist, antiwar and anti-imperialist group, calls the posters inspiring. “Their presence doesn't preach,” she says. “The images just show how much women have searched and acted, with what they had at hand, to control their reproductive lives.”
Dr. Susan Wicklund, owner of the Mountain Country Women's Clinic in Livingston, Montana, has posted Ault's artwork throughout her clinic. “Patients stop and read them,” she wrote in an email. “Putting choice in a historical perspective is enlightening and comforting.”
Ault completed her Master of Fine Arts degree in 2010 and presently works as a graphic designer at the Office of Online and Continuing Education at the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign. In addition, she makes sure to allot time for prochoice support work and poster making. In early August Ault helped defend Dr. LeRoy Carhart, who works at a Germantown, Maryland clinic that was targeted by protesters. She notes that when she first arrived in Germantown, she was appalled by the absence of visible prochoice visuals. Knowing the importance of signs and pictures, she immediately went out, bought materials, and got to work painting enormous banners: Trust Women, Good Women Have Abortions, and We HEART Dr. Carhart, among them. “The latter slogan became the icon of the event,” she boasts.
“I feel like the most important thing we can do to defend clinics is to show up with big, bold, positive messages that say 'we're here to celebrate choice,'” Ault concludes. What's more, she has a strategy to undo some of the stigma that currently surrounds the abortion procedure and the clinics that provide them. “I'd like to see prochoice activists come to clinics for events, celebrations and parties, to create something positive between the health center and the community,” she says. “The prochoice movement needs to do more than merely react to anti-choice activity.”
Charting New Strategies
Ault is further eager to engage the movement in strategizing about better ways to get the prochoice message out. “Despite decades of historical research, compiled by feminist scholars, the history of abortion and contraception has remained largely unknown because it has not been translated into visual culture,” she says. “We live in a time where the narratives of our lives are formed largely by media. The anti-choice movement realized this early on and capitalized on the fetus as their symbol for life. The feminist movement has been less effective in crafting equally compelling visual symbols to articulate the values or freedom, autonomy, and rights.”
“I believe art has the ability to encapsulate consciousness-raising ideas in formats that are widely accessible,” she adds. Whether in print, on film or online, Ault has seen art change perceptions and reach people beyond the community of reproductive health activists.
“Many people have expressed profound gratitude after seeing my work,” she wrote in an email. “At the U.S. Social Forum, I talked to hundreds of people, all of whom were deeply moved by my exhibit. In clinics where my posters are hung for patients and staff to enjoy, I have been told that the atmosphere has been transformed into one with more positive energy and casual conversations about abortion. A visiting law professor at the University of Illinois who was a former lawyer for Planned Parenthood in Washington D.C. commented that in our one-hour conversation, her entire understanding of the social and political context for abortion had dramatically shifted.”
Ault's enthusiasm— and her fire — are hard to resist. Nonetheless, the challenge remains: How can the prochoice movement create better visuals to champion abortion, contraception and sexuality? And how can we shine a brighter spotlight on the proud history of our fore-parents?