Of Hangers and People – Visual Protest against the Anti-Abortion Law | Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design, Jerusalem

Of Hangers and People – Visual Protest against the Anti-Abortion Law

Published on

In June 2022 the French daily newspaper Libération, published a caricature based on the American flag, but its stripes were converted to rivers of blood that gushed from naked women with wide open legs, and whose stars were converted to clothes hangers. At the bottom of the caricature was written: "Abortion –Black Friday". It related of course to the US Supreme Court verdict from June 24th 2022, that cancelled the "Roe vs. Wade" decision of 1973, that ruled the right to due process includes the right of privacy, and with that, the right of women to have a clinical abortion without the government's involvement. It is not the first time that the French were thrilled to insult Americans, but this isn’t our main point; but rather, it is the fact that the new law provoked, within days, painful and furious reactions, many of which used the clothes hanger as a visual symbol.


קריקטורה מהיומון הצרפתי ליברסיון (Libération)
Caricature from the French daily newspaper Libération


The hanger isn't alone here. Visual communication is naturally based on different signs that are supposed to be understood, one way or another, by as many people as possible. As defined by Charles Sanders Peirce and developed by endless semioticians, everything is here: the woman is an icon (based on its resemblance to the actual thing), the exact way in which a camel or a deer on road signs signals to us that they may cross the road. The red lines are indexical signs (a sign that has a logical connection with what it stands for, and is understood based on conclusions we draw from our life experience). The same way smoke is an index of fire and black clouds to a rain storm, so the puddle of blood is an index of the violent gynecological action taking place. Finally, the hanger is a symbolic sign (whose meaning is clear only through our knowledge of norms and cultural contexts), the same as the star of David is a symbol of Judaism and scales are a symbol of justice. The metal coat hanger became a symbol of self-induced abortions prior to the "Roe era", when women had to insert domestic objects into their cervix, to abort their unwanted pregnancies, often ending in injuries, infertility and even death. In time, hangers were used as a symbol around the world, in parades or demonstrations, and continue to be used against laws which forbid abortions; and in order to proclaim women's rights to their body, in general.


טאמבנייל ניוזלטר תח׳׳ח-הפלות
Photo: Waving hangers at a demonstration for women's rights to her body


And so, the combination of the three signs in the said caricature inserted into the American flag (which is itself a classic example of a symbolic sign), is very sophisticated on one hand, but well understood by the wide public on the other. This is conditional with the viewer being aware of their connections to current events and to currently debated issues. From this aspect, the waving of hangers at protests is similar to the waving of bras at protests in the sixties, and the pink woolen hats, the Pussy Hats in the Women's March in January 2017 and in the following Januaries. They all portray women's symbols from different points of view; humiliation on one hand, and empowerment on the other.


מדבקת תמרור - איסור הפלות
Road sign patch –Abortion Prohibited

Since we are dealing with sign-systems, we can't avoid this traffic patch that combines the universal sign for prohibition together with the hanger representing self-induced abortion. Naturally, and in the spirit of the time, the first ones to react are the designers of visual communication. In social media and in online marketing they offer a variety of products (posters, stickers, pins and shirts) where the hanger is front and center. We'll never forget the extinguished torch of the Statue of Liberty (1886), on the cover of the New Yorker magazine on 13.20.2017 (John W. Tomac –Flameout), the statue that has become the personification of "Liberty" and a preeminent symbol of the United States (1886). And now, when American Liberty is shedding a tear, and exchanging the torch with a clothes hanger, words seem redundant.


החירות האמריקנית אוחזת קולב
The Statue of Liberty holding a clothes hanger



Dr. Naomi Meieri-Dann
Lecturer in the Department of Visual and Material Culture