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The Controversial Pro-Choice Collective Republicans Labeled a 'Hate Group'

The SisterSerpents outraged right-wingers and were described as "bra-burning, knife-wielding Amazons." Why were they so feared?
Group shot of SisterSerpents. All photos courtesy of the group

“Attention men: A bunch of raving, bra-burning, knife-wielding Amazons out of your worst Seventies-era male chauvinist pig nightmares have arrived at Edge Gallery to loudly threaten dickheads—and their dicks.”

So read one 1993 art review about SisterSerpents, a group of now largely forgotten feminist artists who were rattling the cage bars of women’s rights in the late 1980s and 1990s. Using art as their ideological weapon and fuelled by the fires of an oppressive American political system, this group of women took to the streets in order to fight for women’s voices to be heard. They shocked, they inspired, and their message was clear: patriarchy would no longer be tolerated.


The year was 1989 and the Supreme Court had just voted in favour of Webster v. Reproductive Services. This seismic decision meant upholding a Missouri law that imposed restrictions on the use of state funds for the provision of abortions.

The decision was a huge blow for pro-choice advocators, and the catalyst for bringing together a radical group of women who were determined to speak out against this attack on their civil liberties. Jeramy Turner put an ad out in a Chicago newspaper, inviting political artists to join her in a Dadaist-inspired movement of discontent. Four women answered. The SisterSerpents were born.

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The group set to work making posters and stickers, venturing out into the dead of night with their buckets of wheat paste and Xeroxed art. Bare walls all across Chicago were soon covered in provocative messages and shocking images. “The modern individual family is founded on the open or concealed slavery of the wife,” one read. “Misogyny: Look it up, Stamp it out,” urged another. There was no message too contentious for these guerrilla artists, and they had no qualms in upsetting men, and women, in their fight for female justice.

It was one poster in particular, though, that propelled Sister Serpents into worldwide notoriety. A member of the group had captured black-and-white photographs of a jarred fetus from the Natural History Museum and at their next meeting, the Sisters gathered together to discuss the photograph. They decided to overlay it with statements they would say to those who considered a fetus to be more valuable than a woman: “Have a fetus cook for you,” “Have a fetus clean your house,” “Try to get a fetus to work for minimum wage.” And, most controversially of all: “Fuck a fetus.”


The "Fuck a Fetus" poster.

“The fetus poster put SisterSerpents on the map. It was pasted all over the city and mailed all over the world,” Mary Ellen Croteau, a founding member of the collective, tells Broadly. “It also put the issue of women’s right to control her own body front and centre.”

“If we wanted to affect people, shock people, there’s nothing more shocking than a visual image,” said Turner in a recent interview with Interference Archive in Brooklyn. And shock it did, as the caustic fetus poster sparked outrage amongst the political Right. Talk radio and the Heritage Foundation began a scathing crusade against SisterSerpents. Republican senator Jesse Helms labelled them a “hate group.”

However, despite the opposition they received, SisterSerpents had clearly succeeded in striking a nerve, and in so doing, garnered the attention their message deserved. Their work also led to an outpouring of women rushing to support them, invigorated by the messages the collective was spreading.

SisterSerpent art against rape featuring Julia Child.

“I saw women thrilled that their feelings and reactions were being validated and put forward by this group that was expressing women’s anger in a very public and confrontational way,” says Croteau.

“It gave women a sense of clarity, an escape valve, which was, and is, vitally needed,” adds Jeramy Turner. “It gave women a glimmer of the strength of camaraderie.”

The strength SisterSerpents inspired in women is evident in the countless letters they received as a result of their work. Women saw their concerns and struggles being depicted in an unashamed, provocative way, and people all over the world were taking notice. “We were exploding,” says Turner, “and we were asking women all over to explode with us.”


Used Boyfriend Auction details, SisterSerpents' Rattle Your Rage exhibition, 1990.

Encouraged by the swell of support, SisterSerpents turned their attention to furthering their feminist movement through other projects, including a series of exhibitions. The collective issued a call for “art against the oppressors” as they prepared for their first exhibit titled Rattle Your Rage.

The show opened at the Filmmakers Gallery in March 1990 in Chicago. It featured pieces that dealt “with rage against sexism and the personal and societal oppression of women,” including a “Used Boyfriend Auction,” American flag penis-piñatas, and an installation depicting an imaginary “Independence Day, 1995, when the patriarchy met its demise.”

Not everyone was enamored by the strong female voices coming to the fore. The windows of the exhibition space were smashed in with an iron pipe, and a military-grade bomb was planted in the director of the show’s home.

Were they scared? “We stopped our fear,” replies Turner. “By the fact of our number and the fact of being women, and the fact of recognizing how intense and strong our rage and our power is, we had no fear.”

Dart Game against patriarchy, SisterSerpents exhibition.

SisterSerpents’ unwavering strength and their commitment to artistic expression saw them overcome the threats, and Rattle Your Rage became an acclaimed success. The show travelled to New York later that year, and the collective continued to put on exhibitions with titles such as Piss on Patriarchy and Art Against Dickheads that ran in Chicago, New York, Denver, and Hamburg, Germany.

The group remained active until 1998, but their cultural and historic importance lives on in the defiant work they produced, their legacy solidified by the inclusion of their art in the Smithsonian’s Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum’s permanent collection.

Outdoor banner put up by SisterSerpents.

SisterSerpents were as controversial as you could get in the 1990s, and both Croteau and Turner believe the collective’s work would still shock viewers today, perhaps even more so than it did 30 years ago. The issues they fought so hard to address through their work remains as relevant now as it was then. “It seems that the attitudes we had, and the great joy that we had, and what we were saying is absolutely relevant today and hopefully people will be inspired,” says Turner.

“The media like to focus on one thing and then move on to the next thing, which will not be women,” says Croteau, adding in Spanish: “ La lucha continúa [the struggle continues]! ”