Curation and/as Feminist Organizing: The Reproductive Justice Movement and Transnational Spaces
— Sritama Chatterjee
I write this with a lot of rage and anger. I knew that the verdict was coming. I knew that the people who can get pregnant will not have autonomy over their own bodies and will be overturned by the Supreme Court of the United States of America. And yet, I have known that building and organizing are long-term efforts and organizers at every level have been preparing for the long term. In a time like this, it might be tempting to immediately join organizing without considering our role in the movement. However, this moment calls for a serious self-reflection of what skills we can bring to the table, what is sustainable in the long run, what forms of support organizations committed to reproductive justice need, and what global solidarity movements can look like. I take this opportunity to think aloud about one specific work that folks can do in the reproductive justice movement: curation. To be clear, I am not suggesting that people immediately run into curation work. Curation is a specific skill that requires training or at least self-learning over a period of time to be effective. Rather I am inviting the readers of this platform to think through the possibilities that curation opens up and a few considerations to keep in mind while curating an exhibit.
In the Fall of 2021, I took a Gender, Sexuality, and Women’s Studies course titled Reproduction at the University of Pittsburgh with Dr. Rachel Kranson. As part of the course, our final project for the course was to curate a physical exhibit on Reproductive Justice, particularly focusing on the records of Planned Parenthood of Western Pennsylvania, housed in the Archives and Special Collections of the University of Pittsburgh. As an international student, though I was not entirely familiar with the history of Planned Parenthood, I knew that the foundational history of the organization was rooted in eugenics. So, though I wanted to engage with the archival collections, I was fairly skeptical about how we would go around curating for the exhibit. The first time we visited the university Hillman Library, our amazing archivist and instructional librarians, Meghan Massanelli and Anais Grateau drew my attention to a specific photo.
Black and white photograph of Gandhi and Sanger sitting on a mat. Photo sourced from University of Pittsburgh’s Archives and Special Collections. Photographed from the archives by the author.
This was a photograph of Mahatma Gandhi and Madam Sanger, the founder of Planned Parenthood, who was a eugenicist. The photograph piqued my interest. I looked into more artifacts in that particular collection and realized that the Gandhi-Sanger meeting was widely covered in all the leading newspapers of the United States. Whether compiled in scrapbooks or the rare invitation card that shows Vijay Lakshmi Pandit visiting Pittsburgh to deliver a talk, it is a history that shows the transnational linkages of reproductive movement histories. I am grateful to scholars such as Asha Nadkarni and Mytheli Sreenivas who have done the important critical work of tracing these transnational connections and for their robust histories of the reproductive justice movement in India. As a co-curator, I chose this photograph for display at the exhibit and wrote a short curatorial essay contextualizing the item for the audience. You can read the curatorial essay here (see essay 5)
Invitation card from Vijaya Lakshmi Pandit’s visit to Pittsburgh to deliver a talk on Public Health in India. The entry fee was $2 in 1945. Sourced from the University of Pittsburgh’s Archives and Special Collections. Photographed from the archives by the author.
The photographs served as a provocation to me to think about how to tell a story that is complex and does not deify any of the people pictured or mentioned. A photograph, while acting as a prompt for further query, can belie the real intentions of those pictured. On a first glimpse of the Gandhi-Sanger photo, I was perplexed. What could Gandhi possibly be doing with Sanger? If Sanger was known for her questionable politics about her distribution of birth control pills amidst the African-American communities, Gandhi’s opinion about sex was conservative because he believed that sex was not for pleasure. Here, the role of the curator becomes important because in an exhibit on reproductive justice, the goal is to be able to tell the story responsibly, more than what the picture can show. I see that curation as a form of organizing can help in tracing unlikely connections, and can help in raising awareness, especially at a time when misinformation and fake news abound.
The reason, I talk about curation is because I see the act of curation as an intrinsic aspect of feminist organizing. I hope that my experience of curation as a form of organizing can open up ways to think about curating histories of reproductive (in)justice and as curators how we hold ourselves accountable in the long run. Towards thinking in that direction, this article aims at offering a glimpse of the curation process behind putting together the exhibit “A Century of Mobilizing for Reproductive Care”. As I had said at the outset of my article, the founder of Planned Parenthood Madam Sanger was a eugenicist and therefore during the curation process, I asked myself several questions: What is the ethics of drawing materials from the violent history of an organization to exhibit them? As curators, what steps do we take to ensure that we are not replicating the same violence and thereby causing more harm? My co-curators shared the same concerns and we had a long conversation over many days about how to go about doing the work of curating histories of reproductive (in)justice. After extensive conversations, we were unanimous in our decision that we would not frame our exhibit as echoing the history of a particular organization, but rather we will position the artifacts drawn from the collection within a much larger discussion of mobilizing for reproductive care locally, nationally and transnationally. I shared my concern with my co-curators that while I understood the transnational connections and implications of the Gandhi-Sanger meeting, I was struggling to frame it within the rubric of “care”. My amazing co-curators and colleagues drew my attention to the “population control” conversations that were prevalent in the late 1930s and went on till much later internationally.
An example from the Planned Parenthood Archives and Special Collections that shows how the “population control” discourse was intentionally cultivated through various forms of propaganda. Photograph by author
As a postcolonial studies theorist trained in Feminist Studies, it offered me a way to show that at the heart of the “population-control” discourse were imperialistic ambitions to control people’s bodies and the reproductive body was the site of the empire’s machinations of domination and control. Therefore for my part of the exhibit, I interpreted “care” as making visible the connections between transnational alliance, empire and reproductive bodies. My work on care joins a long and diverse trajectories of thinking on care including Black Feminist thinkers as well as more recent work by Care Collective. Historically, care work has been relegated to the domain of women or gender non-conforming people, further complicated by intersectionalities of class, caste and race. At a time, when hegemonic nationalism and corporate bodies have joined hands to devalue the importance of “care work”, ascribing it to the individual to escape their basic responsibilities, rethinking what curation as “care-work” could look like becomes all the more urgent. The rubric of care was the thematic principle as well as the organizing force behind the exhibit. With the overturn of Roe vs Wade in the US, the fight for reproductive care is at its peak. While curators are not trained to provide reproductive care, care as a philosophy in curation work can be useful to hold States accountable and to interrogate thorny questions about the responsibilities of the State.
This philosophy of curation formed the kernel of my approach to the exhibit. What brought me to Postcolonial Studies and archival methodology was its radical potential to reveal how power is deployed, who is affected by power and what forces enable power to maintain the status quo. As I have argued in my curatorial essay, “The reproductive body of cis-women was at the heart of constructing a nationalist imaginary of progress, modernization, and development.” (Chatterjee, web) This shows that the early feminist politics around reproductive rights in India was far from emancipatory and severely compromised by often eugenicist ideas of ‘finest men and women’ constituting the nation (1). As feminist scholars, we need to grapple with this difficult history of the fight for reproductive justice in India. How does one tell this story in an exhibit without replicating violence? The physical exhibit will be likely visited by people with varying degrees of stakes in gender justice, health care and global reproductive politics. How does one communicate the complexity of the Gandhi-Sanger interaction?
The Practical Stuff
Once the broader question of how to frame the exhibit was decided, next came the time to think through how we will frame the object labels for the exhibit that will be on display. The work of an object label is to provide some basic information about the object on display, draw attention to particular features of the object on display and make the audience curious about the object. There is no one way to frame an object label. After much discussion, we decided that we will present our object label as a series of questions. My particular object label for the Gandhi-Sanger photo has the following text:
This photograph of Mahatma Gandhi, anti-colonial leader of India’s freedom struggle, and Margaret Sanger, the founder of Planned Parenthood was taken by Pittsburgh-based reporter Anna James Phillips when she visited India in 1935 to discuss birth control measures. Notably, Gandhi did not consent to the photograph being taken. It raises a few key questions: What were the specific talking points around birth control between Gandhi and Sanger during this meeting? In what ways was the discussion around birth control in India reflect a polarized perspective between population panic and bodily autonomy? How did the other anti-colonial leaders in India respond to this discussion? What influence on reproductive healthcare policies in India did this meeting have in the long run? Reflecting on the transnational implications of the meeting allows us to locate the interconnected histories around reproduction and the impact of the discussion on population growth in the Global South.
Our rhetorical choice of using questions was guided by multiple factors. In a conversation with Megan and Anais, we discussed that for people who could not visit the physical exhibit, it would be good to have a digital component to the exhibit. After much discussion and deliberation, we decided that as a semester project, we did not have the requisite time to pull off a digital exhibit, which calls for its own design and curation process. Preservation of digital exhibits is also a challenge. Therefore, we went with a simpler process. We decided to have a dedicated page in the University of Pittsburgh’s Library Guide for the exhibit. The page would host a short curatorial essay for each of the artifacts on display along with photographs of the exhibit. Having it hosted through the University’s Library Guide page would ensure its sustainability in the long run. So for anyone visiting the physical exhibit and interested in knowing the answer to the questions, they can scan the QR code on display which will then lead them to the Libguide page. The libguide page is also accessible online to anyone with an internet connection. While the particular artefact with which I engaged for the exhibit was focused on transnationalism, my co-curators focused on an array of topics from disability politics to sex education. At the end of the day, I have to acknowledge that this curation is carried out in a university in North America. Therefore due to its spatial location and infrastructure, the work remains concentrated and physically accessible only to a certain demography. Although having an online component (however small), does not erase the inequity in any way, the online component helps in opening up the conversation to those who might be interested in transnational issues of reproductive justice.
My point in explaining this combination of online and offline modes of telling the story is to communicate that a feminist method of curation invited me to present the exchange between Gandhi and Sanger within a more historical context and briefly point at the implications of the meetings for contemporary reproductive politics in India and the Global South. Narrativizing the questions and the responses and deciding what goes in the physical exhibit, what stays on the libguide, and carefully considering the affordances of each platform were crucial aspects of the curation process. More importantly, when anti-intellectualism is so prevalent, curation by ethically responsible scholars, curators, and artists serves to challenge biased narratives about reproductive justice. To be clear, curating an exhibition on reproductive justice has its risks, especially for personal safety as well as the safety of the exhibit itself. Therefore, one must clearly evaluate the risks involved in this work and proceed accordingly. Organizing, sometimes, involves risks and curators are not outside of the risky endeavors. For instance, if it’s an online exhibit, it is important to secure the digital safety of the page and take steps to increase one’s private digital security.
What should curators of the future think about ?
Here are a series of questions/considerations to keep in mind while curating an exhibit on reproductive justice. These are feminist principles that are not specific to reproductive justice, per say but are nevertheless helpful to keep in mind. If you find that the questions are overwhelming you, it is because this fight is difficult. It is messy work. Perhaps after reflection, you find that you will not be able to bring your full selves to this work, that’s perfectly okay. Perhaps you realize after reading that you have a friend/friends who have skill-sets that can be useful for curation, pass on this question set to them.
- What reproductive justice issues do you want to center on while curating an exhibit? Whose voices are centered and whose voices are left out?
- If you are collaborating with an organization or a community for the exhibit, what are your shared values and ethical models of collaboration? How will you solve any potential conflict that might arise?
- Are you paying enough attention to trans reproduction and disability justice in the exhibit? Is the exhibit accessible to people?
- If the artifacts in the exhibit are about people who are still alive and/or whose family is still present, have you taken permission from them? What potential risks might they be encountering? Does the curation make them even more vulnerable? If the answer to the last two questions is yes, you might have to rethink your entire curation process and if necessary, step back. As curators, we need to be knowing when to pause and what projects to not undertake.
- What resources and infrastructure do you have at your disposal to have an exhibit? (online or offline)?
- What models of funding can you mobilize to have the exhibit?
- Are you acknowledging the work of everyone involved in curating the exhibit?
- What aligned programming can you have with the exhibit? (such as exhibit-walks, mini teach-ins, policy talks)
- How do you intend to document the exhibit if physical? How are you approaching the questions of sustainability of an online exhibit? These questions are contingent on whether you want documentation to exist, in the first place.
As we think with these questions, I must acknowledge the support of Meghan and Anais, our archivists and instructional librarians throughout the process. They have been our co-partners in this journey. From curating and showing us model exhibits on display at Hillman library, thinking what kind of cases and displays would work for us, developing the library guide page where the curatorial essays are hosted, providing organizational support in curation talk– without their support the exhibit would not have happened. As a curator and graduate student still learning the intricacies of the profession, collaboration with them has been one of the most generative experiences that I have had at Pitt. So, during collaborative curation work, we need to be mindful about making the contribution of archivists and librarians visible. After all, being cognizant of who performs what kind of labor in a collaborative environment is one of the principles of feminist organizing. I believe that our work for the exhibit embodied feminist principles not just in how we brought together multiple aspects of reproductive justice but also in the methods we adopted in doing that work. As we move ahead with organizing for reproductive justice organizing, we need to be looking at the room: who are our allies? Who are we in solidarity with? Whose help can we ask for? Asking these questions are critical in our journey of moving forward.
Feminist Solidarities Forever!
Acknowledgements: I am grateful to Dr. Rachel Kranson for teaching the class on Reproductive Justice and for making the space to do curatorial work. I truly value her feedback about my work. I am thankful to my co-curators in the exhibit for sharing the vision. Once again, Megan and Anais for being comrades in this work. I am grateful to Dr. Dibyadyuti Roy for his comments on the essay. Finally, I am humbled by the faith that Sayantani Saraswati has shown in me during the editorial process.
All views are personal and do not necessarily reflect the views of my institution and co-curators.
(1) The quote ‘finest men and women’ is from Margaret Sanger’s speech. Margaret Sanger, “What Birth Control Can Do for India,” November 30, 1935. Typed speech. Margaret Sanger Papers, Sophia Smith Collection, Smith College, Northampton, Mass., 4, 5. For more on this idea of how feminist politics in India during the national freedom struggle was far from emancipatory, please see Asha Nadkarni’s book, Eugenic Feminism: Reproductive Nationalism in the United States and India.
- Chatterjee, Sritama. “Photograph of Margaret Sangher and Gandhi.” A Century of Mobilizing for Reproductive Care Library Guide. Web. Accessed on July 3rd, 2022
- Notestein, Frank. “Problems of Policy in Relation to Areas of Heavy Population Pressure.” In Demographic Studies of Selected Areas of Rapid Growth: Proceedings of the Round Table on Population Problems. Twenty-Second Annual Conference of the Milbank Memorial Fund, April 12–13, 1944, Milbank Memorial Fund, 1944, New York, pp 155–158.
- Nadkarni, Asha. Eugenic Feminism: Reproductive Nationalism in the United States and India. Minnesota, University of Minnesota Press, 2014.
- Sreenivas. Mytheli. Reproductive Politics and the Making of Modern India. Washington: University of Washington Press, 2021.
About the Author
Sritama Chatterjee is a literary and cultural theorist of the Indian Ocean World. Trained in Postcolonial Studies, Environmental Humanities and Feminist Studies, she is currently writing a dissertation titled, “Ordinary Aesthetics in Contemporary Indian Ocean Archipelagic Writings”. She is the coordinator of the DHARTI Special Interest Group Archives and Archiving. You can follow her on Twitter @SritamaBarna or subscribe to her newly launched Digital Humanities newsletter titled Interrogating Digital Humanities.