Fighting Back Via Poster Power : A Group Called the ‘Guerrilla Matrons,’ Aided by Artist Robbie Conal, Takes to the Streets at Night to Spread Its Abortion-Rights Message


On the night of Jan. 23, four Los Angeles-area women armed themselves with posters, brushes and wheat paste. They climbed into a Volvo station wagon and hit the streets just after midnight to make a political statement.

They planned to blanket the city with a message protesting the federal “gag rule” on abortion, which forbids counselors in federally subsidized family planning clinics from referring patients to doctors who perform abortions.

They were not exactly old hands when it came to postering abandoned buildings, walls and fences in the dead of night. But they were armed with a two-page guide titled “Guerrilla Etiquette and Postering Techniques,” written by artist Robbie Conal, whose irreverent posters of government officials (“Men with No Lips,” “Artificial Art Official,”) have covered Los Angeles-area construction sites and abandoned buildings since the late 1980s. Among other things, Conal told the women how long it would take to paste up 50 posters (about an hour), and that a police officer is always right.


It was his “Gag Me With a Coat Hanger” poster featuring an image of Supreme Court Chief Justice William Rehnquist that the women used in their protest against abortion foes. (They added the words “Abortion is still legal. For information call your local family planning clinic.”) And it was Conal who gave them their nickname--he dubbed them the Guerrilla Matrons, a take-off on the Guerrilla Girls, a band of New York City activists who put up humorous, ironic posters calling attention to the art world’s discrimination against women.

The group leader, Mary-Jane Wagle, is a divorced mother of three teen-age daughters. Deanne Shartin also has three daughters. Ellen Levitt, co-founder of the Children’s Museum, has two sons. Senja Lappin is a financial analyst. Others who participated in the project included Planned Parenthood officials Marie Paris, who had recently given birth to a daughter, and Suzanne Campi, who was expecting her second adopted baby.

Wagle, a member of Planned Parenthood of Los Angeles’ board of directors, decided she had to get involved in some sort of protest when President Bush vetoed legislation overturning the “gag rule” and Congress was not able to override the veto.

“I was so upset that women around the country, and particularly low-income women, were not going to be able to find out what they needed to know to make decisions that affected their lives,” Wagle said. “I said to myself, ‘If we can’t get this message to people officially, we’ve got to find a way to get it to them unofficially.’ ”

“I wanted to put it up in places where people will see it,” she said, “(so that) they’ll understand not only that there’s an attempt to prevent them from getting this information, but they’ll know that abortion is still legal.”

Wagle wanted a poster that was both art and social commentary. A friend recommended Conal. They first met late last year.


“He was already working on a couple of projects related to the gag rule decision because he was outraged at it himself, and his wife had been pushing him to do something about it,” Wagle said.

“I was surrounded by four of the nicest, smartest, angriest middle-aged women I’d ever met,” said Conal--and that’s when he came up with “Guerrilla Matrons.”

Conal donated his artwork to the endeavor, which ended up costing about $5,000 (for printing 5,000 posters). Wagle and a friend raised the money from about 15 donors in one week. Peg Yorkin, head of the Fund for the Feminist Majority, was the first to contribute.

“I loved the whole idea of respectable ladies doing something so daring,” said donor Joan Palevsky, a philanthropist and long-time supporter of women’s rights. “I couldn’t resist supporting this streak of disobedience.”

Wagle and Paris attended meetings of some of the 170 organizations belonging to the Greater Los Angeles Coalition for Reproductive Freedom, seeking volunteers for the project.

Someone suggested that the poster should also be produced in Spanish. The text was translated, and 1,500 additional posters read, “ Callame Con un Gancho . )

The first postering sortie took place the night after the 19th anniversary of the 1973 Supreme Court decision, Roe vs. Wade. The next night, 24 people went out. “A couple of the women said they had to mislead their husbands and tell them that they were doing something else,” Paris said.

Added Wagle: “Cops sometimes drove by, but they didn’t bother us. We had some people stop and want posters, want us to give them, so we gave them to people.”

“We don’t pay any attention to them unless we get a complaint,” said LAPD Detective Richard Rudell.

“It was a great experience,” Wagle said. “You see the city in a different way. You have a sense that it belongs to you as a place to speak, as a place to make your views known and to try to bring other people out to agree with you.”

All of the posters went up within a month. Some of them were distributed in Orange County, Santa Barbara, San Diego, Sacramento, San Francisco and Oakland as well, through local abortion-rights coalitions in those cities.

The Guerrilla Matrons are taking on a new project. Their next poster--”Freedom From Choice”--was unveiled Sunday at a Santa Monica fund-raiser.

Conal and his wife, Debbie Ross, a film graphics designer who came up with the phrase “Freedom From Choice,” designed the new poster together. It shows Clarence Thomas and the five Supreme Court justices--Rehnquist, Anthony M. Kennedy, David H. Souter, Antonin Scalia, and Byron R. White--who upheld the “gag rule” in a 1991 court decision. In the poster, the men are about to replace the word of in “Freedom of Choice” with from.

Planned Parenthood is officially sponsoring this project. Seventy of its affiliates, at least one in almost every state, have agreed to participate in putting up 25,000 “Freedom from Choice” posters. Each affiliate is distributing the posters in its own way; some will use “Guerrilla Matrons” tactics.

“The idea of saying that we’re moving from freedom of choice to freedom from choice is an image that suggests to people to think beyond just the issue of abortion to contraception, how you behave in your private life, whether you can be sexually active or not, and what you can hear from your doctor,” Wagle said. “It goes to the issue of personal freedoms and choices of all kinds.”