Since 2020, officials at the Radcliffe Institute’s Schlesinger Library had been busy planning a major exhibit to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Roe v. Wade in 2023, featuring its extensive collections that document the long and contentious struggle over women’s reproductive rights in the nation.
Then in June the Supreme Court overruled the landmark decision securing the right to abortion in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, and plans had to be adjusted to reflect the new reality. Titled “The Age of Roe: The Past, Present, and Future of Abortion in America,” the exhibition will chronicle the history of abortion in the U.S. “from before Roe to Roe to the Dobbs decision,” said Mary Ziegler, Martin Luther King Jr. Professor of Law at UC Davis School of Law, and the exhibition curator. It will open Oct. 24.
“Obviously, we had to adjust a bit to account for the fact that the age of Roe, as the exhibit says, is over,” said Ziegler, a legal historian of reproductive health and the family. “Then the exhibit became a sort of meditation on what does it mean that Roe has gone, or in what ways is Roe gone, and in what ways is this sort of preoccupation with it still with us?”
“The exhibit hopefully will show people that … sense of powerlessness is misguided because historically, people, on either side of this issue, have managed to change things when things seemed unchangeable.”
— Mary Ziegler, exhibition curator
While the Dobbs decision affected the planning of the exhibit, it also added a sense of urgency, said Jane Kamensky, Jonathan Trumbull Professor of American History, Pforzheimer Foundation Director of the Schlesinger Library on the History of Women in America at the Radcliffe Institute.
“The sense was that it was really important to spend some time thinking together about the past, the present, and the future of the world that made this decision and the world that Roe made,” said Kamensky. “When we started, the ‘Age of Roe’ seemed that it would be potentially ongoing in January 2023. Now it feels more remote, like it’s the ‘Age of Jackson.’”
Drawing on archival materials at the Schlesinger, the exhibit will document the landscape of abortion from the viewpoints of both the abortion rights and the anti-abortion movements. Among them are records of abortion-rights organizations, personal papers of anti-abortion activists, audio files and videos of rallies, as well as personal letters of women asking for help to terminate their pregnancies.