Wakeup/arts and Interrupting the Curriculum

Article excerpt

I found my career as a historian a little late in life. But once I discovered my life's work, I became passionately devoted to combing archives, reading old newspapers, scouring government documents, writing books about who has the right to be a legitimate mother in the United States, who does not, how these matters have been decided, enforced, and resisted over time-and what race and class have had to do with "maternal legitimacy" in this country.

Naturally, as a political person, I thought about the limited audience I was reaching with my academic-style books. In the early 1990s, through the Rocky Mountain Women's Institute in Denver, I began to collaborate with three artists who, under the urging of one of them, Kay Obering, made an exhibition associated with the themes of my books Wake Up Little Susie and The Abortionist. This exhibition, entitled Wake Up Little Susie: Pregnancy and Power before Roe v. Wade, opened in 1992. Over the following decade, the show traveled to fifty-six college and university galleries, from Maine to New Mexico, from Oregon to Florida.

In 2001, just before my book Beggars and Choosers: How the Politics of Choice Shapes Adoption, Abortion, and Welfare in the U.S. was published, Kay and I-WAKEUP/Arts-organized Beggars and Choosers: Motherhood is Not a Class Privilege in America, a photography show responding to the decades-long string of ugly images of women who occupy the reviled categories: women we are supposed to see as too young, too poor, too gay, too disabled, too nonwhite, too foreign, to be "legitimate mothers." These ugly images have been fed to media consumers, to make the case that certain women have no business becoming mothers. In the exhibition, some of the country's best documentary photographers have photographed women who appear to occupy the reviled categories. But in these pictures, the women are clearly loving and attentive mothers, strong, dignified, and determined. The show makes a powerful political point. And it presents a stunning collection of photographs. …