Eyes wide shut

Rickie Solinger braces her audience of wide-eyed students, university faculty and assorted others for the hard-core ideology behind her collaborative installation piece, Wake Up Little Susie: Pregnancy and Power Before Roe v. Wade.

But she prefaces her zinger by assuring us that it’s the most “out-there” idea she’s going to drop all night. I’m half-expecting to hear a reference to space aliens — but instead, her premise hits the nail square on the head.

Solinger declares: “All of these struggles [represented in the installation] reveal that women’s bodies and their fertility provide rich political opportunities … to preserve male supremacy.”

To say that Wake Up Little Susie’s primary theme concerns abortion is to miss a large part of the point. Abortion does play a major role, of course — but it’s only one player alongside thicker themes such as gender power struggles, racial and social injustices, entrenched bigotry, and cultural reactions to unexpected pregnancies — all in the context of pre-1973 (read: pre-Roe v. Wade) America.

The exhibit is modeled after two of Solinger’s books. The first, published by Routledge in 1994, shares its name with the installation; the second book — The Abortionist: A Woman Against the Law (Free Press, 1995) — reveals “what happens when state and other authorities take the power to decide who is a mother, and when is a woman a mother,” says Solinger, adding, “This exhibition is about race and how this experience is different for white women and African-American women. It’s about abortion, unwed motherhood, and all these issues that feed into the question ‘Who gets to decide who’s a mother?’. And that’s an issue that lots of women relate to.”

It’s also one that especially resonated with photographer Kay Obering and installation artists Kathy Hutton and Cathleen Meadows. The three met in 1991 at the Rocky Mountain Women’s Institute — a small, nonprofit entity based in Denver which involves women from a range of disciplines. Amid the creative discussions, Obering found herself craving more than dialogue.

She wanted action.

At her instigation, the collaboration was formed: The three artists decided to base the project on Solinger’s work, because of its feminist and historical nature. Obering then proposed her idea of the chessboard as a metaphor for the power arena that houses the fight over women’s bodies.

Next, the team navigated the board’s iconography, assigning positions based on authority and power. And, thus, we find the unwed and pregnant women as pawns — the weakest of players. Other representations include the judge as queen, the “all-American white male” as king, psychiatrists and clergy as bishops, and the press and maternity-home matrons as knights. Art critic Alice Tallmadge of The Eugene Weekly emphasizes that “the castle pieces are the most evocative in showing the difference in how African-American and white pregnant women were viewed by society and political makers. The white ‘castle’ — restrictive, isolated, unthreatening — symbolizes the maternity home, the destination of most unwed, white females during these decades. The black ‘castle,’ however [titled ‘The Black Ghetto, A Population Time Bomb’] is a menacing, four-tiered, black box stuffed with plastic babies, painted black.”

Pieces are constructed of wire — evoking the loaded image of the coat hanger — and they rest on an oversized chessboard. Intertwined with individual figures is an array of timely artifacts that further elucidate their respective personas. Each piece is also explained by a wall placard. These two-dimensional collages offer cultural and social references, as well as textual excerpts — including a selection of moving letters from desperate pregnant women of the time.

“It’s important to show these racial differences. There’s a lot of us who don’t know that history very well, and that’s one of the fascinating things about this installation — showing the extreme discrepancy between how white women were dealt with and how black women were told to deal with it,” notes UNCA Professor (and gallery director) Robert Tynes.

“For me, what this work really gets at is how biology isn’t what predicts the course of a woman’s life. Pregnancy has a socially constructed outcome, because if you were white in this era, an entirely different thing happened to you than if you were black,” concludes Solinger.

The exhibit also explores the misconception that the primary threat to these women was that of the illegal abortionist, or “back-alley butcher.” Solinger addresses this issue in The Abortionist, chronicling the life of Portland abortionist Ruth Barnett — who worked from the ’20s through the ’60s, without a single fatality among her 40,000 patients.

Standing in the middle of the chessboard, the viewer cannot help being painfully aware of the hovering omnipresence of the surrounding figures and their various agendas. In denying women control of their bodies, we realize, it was actually lawmakers — not abortionists — who posed the most serious danger.

Amazingly enough, Solinger reveals that the nationally traveling installation (which makes its 45th campus appearance at UNCA’s University Gallery) has avoided any violent opposition. She humorously observes: “I take the perspective that people who are violently or very dedicatedly anti-abortion-rights people don’t generally hang out in university art galleries.”

So whom would she envision as the show’s ideal audience?

“The people whom I want to see this show are the young people who are uncertain about what to think about women being able to control their own bodies,” she reveals. The author notes that, in our culture, crucial lessons from history are constantly submerged in favor of more pressing contemporary concerns. And it doesn’t have to be that way.

“I’ve found young people to be receptive and open — once you put history in their face,” Solinger concludes.

Wake Up Little Susie: Pregnancy and Power Before Roe v. Wade is on display at UNCA’s University Gallery through Feb. 22. Regular gallery hours are 9 a.m.-6 p.m., Monday through Friday. Exhibited alongside Wake Up Little Susie are a series of computer photomontages by artist Lisa Link, collectively titled Warnings. Using mostly two-dimensional images and quotes, Link probes the agendas, propaganda techniques and violent tendencies of Germany’s Nazi party, as well as modern anti-choice groups.

For more info about these exhibits, call 251-6559.

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