Birthing Reproductive Justice

A Conversation with Alexandra Minna Stern and Julie Herrada

Alexandra Minna Stern and Julie Herrada, members of the exhibit planning team for the Birthing Reproductive Justice collection, talk to Choice about the Birthing Reproductive Justice: 150 Years of Images and Ideas online exhibit provided by the University of Michigan libraries, which documents the history of reproductive justice through visual mediums.

Alexandra Stern is a professor of American culture, women’s studies, history, and obstetrics & gynecology at the University of Michigan. She also serves as the director of the Sterilization and Social Justice Lab, which focuses its research on the history of sterilization in the United States. Her research centers on the history of eugenics, genetics, society, and justice in the United States and Latin America, looking at these topics through a lens that explores the dynamics of gender, sexuality, ethnicity, disability, social difference, and reproductive politics.

How would you describe the collection to a perfect stranger?

This online collection was created to capture for posterity an exhibit we mounted in the Hatcher Graduate Library (at the University of Michigan) in conjunction with a major international conference, titled Reproductive Justice: Activists, Advocates, and Academics, that took place in Ann Arbor in May 2013. Our aim was to provide a thematic and historical introduction to reproductive justice, to highlight salient aspects of the struggle for reproductive and sexual freedom, and to showcase images and materials from our amazing network of libraries and archives at the University of Michigan.

Who is the intended audience for the Reproductive Justice exhibit? How do you envision undergraduates using the collection?

We envision the audience to be anyone with an interest in reproductive health issues and the history of feminism. As a resource based at a university library, we hope that undergraduates can easily locate this collection and use it to inform their general knowledge or specific interests. Ideally, some students might use the exhibit as a launching pad to delve more deeply into different dimensions of reproductive justice, such as racial and social inequities related to birthing and maternal health. For example, the Women’s Studies department at Michigan offers one of the only gender and health majors in the country, and this exhibit can familiarize them with reproductive justice, ideally inspiring new research questions. The exhibit includes only individual images, not full-length articles or PDFs, but the easily accessible citation information makes it possible for users to request sources or learn where to find them in our archival collections on campus.

I understand that this collection began in conjunction with a reproductive justice conference in 2013 and has materials from health sciences, law, women and gender studies, and more. Why was it so vital to examine this subject with an interdisciplinary approach?

By definition, reproductive justice is interdisciplinary as it brings health and society together, viewed through feminist intersectional frameworks. One of the reasons I think the exhibit works well is that it was conceived collectively by an interdisciplinary group that included scholars, practitioners, archivists, and other specialists, based in the medical school, humanities, law, and social sciences. This meant that we could think about changing abortion laws, for example, from legal, medical, and critical perspectives. In addition to being interdisciplinary in a scholarly sense, this collection reflects the powerful interplay of activism and scholarship when it comes to women’s health.

This online exhibit feels very much like actually going to a museum and walking through different rooms due to its organization by specific topics (Reproductive Bodies, Knowledge, Birthing Practices, and Reproductive Justice Today). What was the curating process like? Why was the exhibit organized by topic, instead of using a general timeline?

A timeline seemed too linear and flattening for an exhibit that seeks to show the many facets of reproductive justice. Our materials cohered into topics as we considered key themes to highlight and located materials in our library collections. Thus, it was through an iterative, team-based process that we settled on the four organizing topics for the exhibit. We also wanted each topic to contain a similar number of images and accompanying text.

Sterilization petition of Janine Pacosz, 1933.

In American history, we often like to whitewash or sweep under the rug certain facts about historical figures or events. Your collection refuses to do this by addressing the racist and discriminatory pasts of several women who helped spearhead the reproductive movement. Why was it so important to show the differences in representation and equality within this movement? What is the harm of representing this movement as an equal fight?

It is imperative to recognize that reproductive justice is a term and movement launched by African American women who wanted to expand understandings of and possibilities for women’s reproductive freedom in the United States. As the CARASA poster shows, early reproductive justice advocates were concerned with protecting and advancing abortion rights, but not with exclusion of the other two components of reproductive justice— the right to not have a child and the right to raise a child in a healthy and supportive environment. It is these guiding tenets that make reproductive justice a more over-arching approach that considers racial, social, and economic in/equalities in American society. Taking this more nuanced approach means that an examination of the early-20th-century birth control movement and an activist like Margaret Sanger should both appreciate her contributions to women’s bodily autonomy and acknowledge that she indulged in eugenic and racist ideas about who was fit to reproduce.

In the introduction to this exhibit, you explain how Reproductive Justice is a movement that encapsulates all facets of reproduction, not only abortion. However, even today, much of the discussion around reproductive rights leads back to the pro-choice/pro-life stance. What is the purpose of an exhibit that represents all forms of reproductive rights, not just abortion rights?

This exhibit is but one small, humble contribution to broader attempts to shift the conversation beyond the pro/anti-choice dichotomy to thinking about reproductive liberty in more holistic and expansive ways. Unfortunately, the acrimony around abortion tends to drown out opportunities for more wide-ranging conversations around reproductive rights.

This collection houses many books, pamphlets, photos, and more. What was the selection process like? Is there a physical exhibit as well? Do you have a favorite artifact?

I do think Julie should add some content here, but from my perspective, the selection process was team-based, with members of the exhibit group drawing on their knowledge and expertise in different libraries and collections. We gathered many more images and materials than we ended up including in the end, and working together, we finalized the content. In some cases, we needed to consider the digitization quality of a particular document and how it would appear on the Omeka platform. There is no longer a physical exhibit although I have one of the panels in my faculty office! I like so many artifacts from this exhibit, but one of my top two is probably the “Stop Forced Sterilization” image, which we used as the logo for the conference. It captures the multiracial coalition that fought against sterilization abuse in the United States in the 1970s, and is a simple yet powerful woodblock poster. I also think the image of the book burning on the central campus square (the “diag”) is so provocative, as it captures a clash between paternalistic medical knowledge and feminist health activists so close to home.

Julie Herrada received her library and archival training from Wayne State University and is the curator of the Joseph A. Labadie Collection in the Special Collections department of the University of Michigan Library. Formerly the assistant curator beginning in 1994, she was promoted to curator in 2000. Some of her responsibilities in this role include collection development and management, answering research inquiries, and management of digitization projects and the collection website.

Julie Herrada: Although there are too many items to choose only one as my favorite, I am partial to the pregnant Nixon one. It’s an iconic image in which the original pictured an anonymous man, indicating that if men could get pregnant, there would be no argument about abortion; it would be freely available. The image in the exhibit replaces the anonymous male with that of Richard Nixon, who was president during Roe v. Wade. Nixon favored abortion in cases of rape, but also in cases of mixed-race babies, as if no one would want them. Both images make a point, but one is targeting an identifiable person, making it clear that an actual person, a policy maker, has the power do something that clearly impacts women’s lives, rather than just a person who was lucky enough to be born a male and therefore can’t get pregnant.

Recently, Alabama and Georgia passed some of the most restrictive abortion laws in years. Much of the objection to these laws has to do with misinformation or a lack of understanding about women’s bodies and pregnancy. A significant part of your exhibit is how factual information about reproduction untouched by sexist ideals has spread through pamphlets, college newspapers, and sex education. Why did you devote a large part of your exhibit to this issue? Why is this still such a problem today?

This is such a big question I am not sure how to answer it, but in an era of deepfakes and alternative facts, it is more important than ever to have accurate information and to acknowledge that reliable knowledge about bodies and identities comes from both experts and lay people.

Links to Additional Photos:

Birth Control Review: Voluntary Motherhood

Sex Education Presentation

The Practicing Midwife

Learn more about the Birthing Reproductive Justice collection at: https://www.lib.umich.edu/online-exhibits/exhibits/show/reproductive-justice.

This interview was conducted by Grace Lemon. She is a junior at Northwestern University and an editorial intern at Choice.