In the decade before the passage of Roe v. Wade in 1973, a trio of Bay Area women later dubbed the Army of Three fought for women’s health rights, including access to legal abortions. Their activities included circulating a list of doctors, mainly in Mexico and Japan, who provided safe abortions. Eventually Rowena Gurner, Patricia Maginnis, and Lana Phelan formed an organization that expanded into what is now the advocacy group NARAL Pro-Choice America. But in the early years, the three answered thousands of desperate letters not only from women but also husbands, friends, and family members seeking their help.
When artist Andrea Bowers learned of the group’s work, she set up an interview with Maginnis at the activist’s home in California. There, she noticed that Maginnis had saved the many letters mailed to the Army of Three in stacked plastic bags. One correspondence, dated February 8, 1968, reads:
I find it very difficult to know where to start. I am 6 weeks pregnant and am just about out of my mind. I am 43 years of age - a happily married woman with 3 teen age children. I have a part time job which has given me a new lease on life and now this. I am desperate. I heard your programme with Jack Webster and as fear gripped my heart even then, I jotted your address down. You are my last hope. Could you please phone me collect or write me and advise me of a contact I might turn to here on the coast or someone who could advise me on how to help myself out of this dreadful problem. I am so desperate because of dreading what is in store for me and also my husband is in a mental state about it. We have no one to turn to. Please, I beg of you to help me.
My phone # is [redacted] or please write me very soon. Please don’t turn your back on me as I cannot go through with this. Please.
Recognizing the letters’ historical importance and as well as the subject’s ongoing relevance, Bowers felt compelled to honor the women’s work though her own form of activism. For the project, she meticulously copied each by hand, word-for-word, replicating the senders’ hand-writing in graphite on paper. “When making these, I hoped that people, in considering my labor, would then be more considerate of the issues raised by this work,” she says. The resulting series, Wall of Letters: Necessary Reminders from the Past for a Future of Choice (2006), includes four works recently acquired by the Walker and currently on view in the exhibition The Living Years: Art after 1989.
In the days before the 2012 US presidential election, one in which women’s reproductive rights played a heightened role, Bowers agreed to discuss the project, her aim to use art to “expand our notions of history,” and why it’s important that we’re still talking about the activism of the Army of Three today.
What was your reaction when you discovered these letters to the Army of Three?
When I went to Pat [Maginnis]’s house in Oakland, she was involved with antiwar protests, women’s healthcare rights, and the rights of sex workers, and she was also working on animal rights issues. This was all kind of going on in her house. She had cages of rescued animals! While there, I noticed all of these plastic grocery bags filled with papers and tied shut. There were stacks of them piled on top of each other, almost like columns, throughout her house. Inside were thousands of letters. Many of the writers went into long, compelling stories that were extremely emotionally powerful. For me, it really brought to life what that time must’ve been like, both in that moment and still today in the midst of issues around women’s healthcare rights, abortion, and birth control.
After you read and studied the letters, you then carefully rendered each one in its authors’ style of handwriting and signed their names. Did the drawing of the Wall of Letters piece take on some aspects of performance for you? How would you delineate between performing and drawing in your artistic practice?
It’s complicated. I don’t think I’ve really talked about this. I was trained by some of the most important conceptualists and by some of the most important feminists. Drawing, for me, is a conceptual project in that it’s an equation: you set up a list of procedures and you follow it through. At the same time, I come from a strong background in feminist art practice, and I think that something that has been left out of the male tradition in art is empathy. This project combines those two things. In conceptualizing these works, I thought if I make it by hand and there’s a lot of labor in it, there will be more respect for the image and the subject matter than if it was, for example, just a Xerox copy. When making these, I hoped that people, in considering my labor, would then be more considerate of the issues raised by this work. Also, I’ve been rewriting things by hand for years. When I was a kid, I had a hard time learning and studying. The only way I could learn was to copy things. I copied everything. I would literally copy textbooks because I otherwise couldn’t understand the words. So, by doing this, there was a real sense of building knowledge and understanding.
When you started doing representational drawing, were realist artists an influence?
A while ago, I came across Linda Nochlin’s article “Some Women Realists” in Gregory Battcock’s book Super Realism: A Critical Anthology (1975). I read about Yvonne Jacquette, Sylvia Plimack Mangold, Vija Celmins, and Janet Fish. When I started to think about their work in relation to the modernist male tradition of art and the domination of white men in the art world, I started to see a politics to their work that I could relate to. Also, though I don’t think those women artists were considered feminists, their work was so strongly pro-woman, and they talked about some of the problems they went through as women artists at that time. It became a way for me to figure out how to use that type of drawing and still make a really political work.
Your drawings both document underrepresented issues or movements and generate necessary conversation about those ideas. Which ones have resulted in some of the most productive debate, in your opinion, in relation to the issues they address?
Probably these. I think the Army of Three body of work caused some of the most debate. One of the things I’m trying to do is use my specific set of skills as an artist to expand our notions of history. By having these works in a museum, they become a kind of official history. That content gets talked about. And this interview helps.
Certainly. I’m sure that hanging the Wall of Letters in the Walker’s collection exhibition just a few weeks prior to the presidential election has already generated a lot of interesting conversations. I’m also curious about how your work pervades discourse beyond the realm of the arts. If you could show your project in a nonarts setting, where would it be?
Well, when I started making these letters, they were to be in a show Ralph Rugoff was doing in which he asked artists to propose monuments for the United States. I proposed that the actual letters be framed and hung in the White House, specifically the Red Room. Not only is it a public governmental place but it’s also, usually, the room that has been decorated the most by the First Ladies, and it’s where all the parties are. [laughs] How’s that for reaching people?
I think the White House gets a million or so visitors a year? They’d be read by all of those young kids, voters, and all the government officials who probably need the most reaching out to right now. The Army of Three takes on the White House…
What was Pat’s response when you talked about incorporating the group’s letters into your work?
I think her attitude is that the more ways we can get this information out there—in terms of talking about women’s healthcare issues and rights as they are under attack, whether by government or by religious organizations—the better.
Once you address an issue through your art, does that often prompt you to remain involved with it outside of the realm of your artistic practice?
Absolutely. Now I am working with Planned Parenthood. This was something that Pat wasn’t sure I should do early on because she felt like the work of small independent clinics needed more support. But ever since the recent attacks on Planned Parenthood, I decided to join the organization’s work. Next week, I have a lunch with their CEO in Los Angeles and maybe some of her staff and board members. I’m trying to also invite an art collector who supports Planned Parenthood and a really amazing actress who also supports it. We’re going to come to my show, then have a lunch and talk strategy. I also was arrested a year ago for tree sitting in Arcadia, so I do get on the front line every once in a while. [laughs]
“One of the things I’m trying to do is use my specific set of skills as an artist to expand our notions of history. By having these works in a museum, they become a kind of official history.” —Andrea Bowers