Heather Ault: Visualizing 4000 Years of Choice

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Adapted from Sunday 20 November 2011 Interview By Eleanor J. Bader published online in  On The Issues Magazine | Op-Ed
Heather Ault holds a Master of Fine Arts and her current position is as a graphic designer at the Office of Online and Continuing Education at the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign. She uses her art as a medium for activism in support of the pro-choice and feminist movement. 

Unearthing History

Growing up, Heather Ault never imagined that people, especially women, have engaged in control over reproduction for more than 4000 years. She thought contraception was a recent phenomenon. Similarly, she’d rarely thought about women’s rights or community empowerment.


All this changed when she moved to San Francisco in 1997. “San Francisco … pulls you into local politics and I found that I loved [it].” Ault began canvassing for the Women’s Choice Clinic in Oakland, going door to door to raise money. After a year, she moved to NARAL Pro-Choice America. In 2000, she moved to Humboldt County and became active in a group called Democracy Unlimited. She also enrolled in Intro to Women’s Studies. Despite having worked for both a clinic and NARAL, she and her coworkers never spoke about reproductive history. The class opened her eyes. She remembered being surprised by what she didn’t know, citing as an example when she learned that abortion had been legal before it became illegal; “that blew my mind.” Her curiosity piqued, she began researching the history of abortion and contraception. After hungrily consuming Linda Gordon’s 2002 book, The Moral Property of Women, Ault began digging in earnest.


Ault’s interest had personal roots as well. “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.” This journey included her choice to have an abortion.


She noted that, “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 … about birth control and abortifacient products going very far back in American, and world, history. I was shocked to see these practices [advertised in] women’s magazines throughout the 1800s.”


As Ault’s research unfolded, her desire to share her knowledge magnified. Finding the best outlet was easy. “I put 20 or 25 images on transparency paper and showed them to my women’s studies class.” She asked the students two telling 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. ”


History and Vision

Ault moved to Illinois to study art at UIUC in 2007. She continued to probe reproductive history; however, she focused on connecting this history with her art. She used graphic representation to document the intense need to control fertility. She considered many options— including hanging message-laden pieces of female lingerie inside a red tent— but eventually took her cue from Josh MacPhee and the Just Seeds Poster Collective. The Collective’s displays of posters wheat-pasted onto urban walls inspired Ault’s vivid wall hangings. Her first gallery display, four posters depicting the history of the condom and showcasing herbal abortifacients, sold almost as soon as it went up.


Since then, Ault has created 50 brightly colored posters. Entitled, 4000 Years of Choice, the posters introduce a raft of little-known information. For example, in 1500 BCE, the Egyptians used a contraceptive plug made from an acacia plant, honey, and lint; Roman physicians wrote about using wild cucumbers to end unwanted pregnancies; and, throughout the 1960s, Patricia Maginnis, founder of the Society for Humane Abortion, stood on San Francisco street corners handing out information on obtaining safe and affordable (and illegal) abortions. Ault’s paean to Maginnis — a bright red likeness on a peach background — calls her the, “first abortion rights activist in history.”


Defending the Right to Choose

Ault is fixated on messaging. She was impressed by Shepard Fairey’s campaign posters for Obama. “His [one word posters] HOPE … made everyone feel hopeful.” She felt this same power at the 2007 March for Life. “It was the first pro-life 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 …. We use terms like fight, defend, and struggle and use the coat hanger …. which suggests death and desperation, not empowerment.”


Back in Illinois, Ault thinks we can do better. Her new posters use one large word — words like affirm, cherish, discover, love, unite, “to note our history and invoke victory.” They boast, “bright, lollypop colors … [that] are cheerful and inviting.”


Debra Sweet, executive director of the World Can’t Wait, calls them inspiring. “Their presence doesn’t preach, … [they] just show how much women have searched and acted, with what they had at hand, to control their reproductive lives.” Dr. Susan Wicklund posted them throughout her Mountain Country Women’s Clinic in Livingston, Montana. “Patients stop and read them. … Putting choice in a historical perspective is enlightening and comforting.”


In 2010, Ault went to Germantown, Maryland to help defend Dr. LeRoy Carhart and hisclinic against anti-choice protesters. She was appalled by the invisibility of pro-choice ideas and immediately got to work painting enormous banners: Trust Women, Good Women Have Abortions, and We HEART Dr. Carhart, among them.


New Strategies

Ault has a strategy to undo some of the stigma surrounding clinics and the abortion procedure itself. “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.’ [We could also use clinics for] events, celebrations and parties to create something positive between the health center and the community. The pro-choice movement needs to do more than merely react to anti-choice activity.”


She is also eager to strategize about spreading the pro-choice message. “The history of abortion and contraception has remained largely unknown because it has not been translated into visual culture. 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.” Ault has seen this happen. “At the U.S. Social Forum, I talked to hundreds … all of whom were deeply moved by my exhibit. In clinics where my posters are hung … 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 had worked 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 fire are hard to resist. She continues to focus on the persistent challenge: How can we better champion reproductive freedoms and sexuality? And, how can we brighten the light on the proud history of our movement?

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