The Semiotics of a Movement: Picturing Life and Death

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In the previous installment of this series, How Pro-Life Became a Marketing Campaign, we met John and Barbara Willke, leaders of the pro-life photographic campaign in the early 1970s. While the Willkes disseminated fetal imagery, the women’s movement was gaining momentum, and the Supreme Court passed Roe v. Wade in 1973. Upon the ruling, Ms. Magazine published an unidentified photograph of a woman bleeding to death from a back alley abortion in hopes of calling attention to what they hoped women would no longer have to endure. It was their response to the gore of fetal imagery. Years later, Leona Gordon recognized her sister, Gerri, as the woman in the picture. Today, I talk about the nuance behind a picture and what it means for the end of someone’s life to become a visual symbol for public outrage.

Content Warning: This story contains descriptions of and links to graphic imagery.

Gerri Santoro always wore bright, white tennis shoes. That is how her niece, Toni Elka, remembers her: dressed to the nines. She grew up on a farm in Pennsylvania, the youngest girl among 15, where she climbed trees, fed chickens, and danced to old tunes her parents sang. In high school, along with her best friend, Joyce, she drank coffee at the Wyndham Diner, played hooky, and worked night shifts at the Electromotive factory. When Joyce got engaged, Santoro took it as a challenge. I’ll beat you to it, she told Joyce. She met a man at a bus stop, and three weeks later, they walked down the aisle. 

From that point on, things changed. Her husband became violent. She endured years of bruised limbs and abuse before taking her two young daughters and fleeing with barely enough money for gas. They moved in with her parents, and she found a job at a school for mentally disabled children. While there, she fell in love with her coworker. Santoro was six months pregnant when she got a letter from her estranged husband informing her of an upcoming spur-of-the-moment trip to see their daughters. Terrified of his reaction to the pregnancy, she and her boyfriend ended up in a motel room with a DIY book on self-induced abortions. The maid found her body the next morning. She had hemorrhaged and bled to death.

This scene appeared in the pages of Ms. Magazine in 1973. Santoro is face down and bleeding out, her hands gripping rags to stop the bleeding. It is the kind of graphic photograph that makes a reader’s eyes turn away in pain. She has no identity in the accompanying article— simply a woman, the left side of her face pressed against the floor in distress. The title reads ‘Never Again’ in celebration of Roe v. Wade. The use of never, now, one year after the decision to revoke the right to abortion feels trite. In the article, Roberta Brandes Gratz writes of Santoro, “Her body was photographed exactly as it was found by the police in a bloody and barren motel room…Now that a part of the battle is over, it is important to honor its victims and heroines.” At the time, Gratz didn’t know who the woman in the photograph was. No one did.

Ms. Magazine is oft-called the first nationally published feminist magazine. Co-founded by Gloria Steinem in 1971, it sought to speak to the voice of every woman, although it received plenty of criticism for failing to do just that. Its covers seemed to turn whiter by the year, and Ms. was called out for occasionally pandering to more traditionalist views in fear of criticism from its readership. In other instances, Ms. went in the other direction. Its 1971 preview issue was published as an insert in New York Magazine, featuring the Hindu goddess Kali with a pregnant belly and a different item in each of her eight hands, including an iron, typewriter, frying pan, and clock. It was intended to represent the overwhelming nature of a woman’s responsibilities, with Kali acting as a symbol to appeal to all women. For their debut, Ms. sought to be inclusive, to corral women who may otherwise not identify as Ms.-reading feminists. Kali is blue-skinned, the editors’ choice to steer clear of any racial preference. While I wonder what my Indian ancestors might think of a Hindu deity on the cover of a magazine with a nearly all-white staff, my mother assures me that Kali was a feminist herself, a ferociously strong slayer. My mother is more religious than I have ever been, so I stand corrected. The preview issue sold out within a week.

Ms. images were hotly contested. In episode two of Mrs. America, the Hulu FX series about the ERA years, Gloria Steinem argues over what to put on the first issue’s cover with Clay Felker, who funded Ms. In the episode, Steinem wants to feature Shirley Chisholm, the first Black woman to be elected to Congress. Clay laments that it’ll lead to depressed numbers in the South. Ms., like every other publication, was a battleground of ideology versus profit. Clay suggests Wonder Woman as a “symbol of women’s power,” to which Steinem responds: “Wonder Woman’s my idol, but you know she’s not a real person.” (They ended up choosing Wonder Woman for the first issue, and Shirley Chisolm would eventually appear on the cover a few years later.)

Santoro was a real person, yet it was her anonymity that resulted in her image circulating more widely than editors could have imagined. She could’ve been anyone. In the 1995 documentary Leona’s Sister Gerri, Gratz recalls seeing the picture at a protest after it was published in the April 1973 issue of Ms. She was shocked that it had landed in the public eye. She pointed to the image and told her daughter that it was the photo she had used in her story for Ms. The power of the picture has proven itself in ways we could have never imagined,” Gratz said. Her reaction calls to mind Lennart Nilsson’s when seeing his LIFE magazine photographs at protests, although his was baked in horror and hers, pride. Ms. and Nilsson both published an image without knowing how it would reverberate and who might adopt their work to further any one of their causes. The photo of Santoro’s death had become a symbol of the pro-choice movement, emblematic of what was being fought against. It was truly because of her ostensible anonymity that the magazine felt justified in publishing it, as well as how she remained a symbol in the eyes of the public.

Santoro’s daughter, Joannie Santoro-Griffin, was 17 when she saw the photo. Her aunt, Leona Gordon, showed it to her and confirmed what she and her sister had thought all along but had never said out loud: their mother died from an abortion. “How dare they flaunt this? How dare they take my beautiful mom and put this in front of the public eye? Who gave them permission?” Santoro-Griffin asks in Leona’s Sister Gerri. Gordon, who knew of her sister’s cause of death but hadn’t seen the photograph prior to its publication, called up Ms. and inquired about its source. No one remembered. “Anonymity, at the time, was the rule of the day,” said Gratz. Patricia Carbine, Ms. founding editor, acknowledged that there were discussions around whether publishing this photo would exploit Santoro for a second time. However, she was considered unrecognizable, so they went ahead. “It said so much of what we were trying to say,” said Gratz. Like the Willkes, Gratz saw an image that encapsulated a message with instant impact. It was an opportunity to affect the millions who would see it.

In her death, Santoro was surrounded by tokens of a life fully lived. Her purse lay in sight. It contained her wallet, pieces of paper, a hand mirror, cosmetics, and photographs of her family. Leona gently removes the objects her sister gathered and held close to her. Embryos don’t have a usual shoe, favorite Juicy Fruit gum, and two daughters at home. When a picture gains a life of its own through details of its humanity, the personal complicates the political. It’s easy to talk about a topic in theoretical terms. From a distance, Gerri’s photograph is an anonymous warning sign. Knowing Santoro’s story, she becomes more than a symbol: she becomes real.

“I keep coming back to this idea that it’s the details that make a person’s life,” Jane Gilooly, creator of Leona’s Sister Gerri, told me over the phone. She had seen the image in the book Our Bodies, Ourselves when Toni Elka told her that she knew that woman— it was her aunt, Gerri. This was years after its initial publication, but Gordon was not ready to speak about it. Then, one day, she called up Gilooly and said she wanted to tell the story. Critics often ask Gilooly if she felt she was exploiting Santoro again by spreading this image to a larger audience, as Patricia Carbine had considered before its publication in Ms. two decades prior. But Gilooly told me that if the family had not agreed to the use of the image, she would not have made the film. But she, too, wanted to get to the bottom of how this picture came to be a symbol, so she tracked down police reports, files, sources, and everything else she could find to trace its journey.

While searching through Ms. files, Gilooly happened upon the original photograph. Sure enough, in a region that had been cropped, there were Gerri’s bright, white tennis shoes.

Fifty years ago, Ms. Magazine rejoiced in the landmark decision to legalize abortion while John and Barbara Willke built up the case against it. Now, half a century later, we’re seeing a reversal in politics all over the world. Roe v Wade was overturned in the summer of last year (inspiring this series), and the discourse released into a landscape of TikTok videos, memes, and repurposed images. Protests are no longer relegated to the physical world, as they were at the time of Nilsson’s fetal photograph and the Willkes visual campaigns. In the next and final installment of this series, we will return to the present day. The images we’ve discussed so far have been flattened, made devoid of their original context in the physical realm. We’ll look at what this means in today’s online visual landscape and its consequences for the politics of abortion.

Much of this article comes from conversations with Jane Gilooly and her documentary, Leona’s Sister Gerri. You may view the documentary, generously made free by Gilooly, here on Vimeo.

It is also available through Kanopy, New Day Films, and Apple TV.

Divya Mehra is currently a writer and artist-in-residence at NYU Tisch. She teaches classes on visual symbolism and experimental storytelling. She holds degrees in Art + Technology and Economics and previously worked in strategy consulting.

All images courtesy of Jane Gilooly New Day Films.

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