Who were the Janes?

Review of the documentary: The Janes

by Catherine Walthers

At the height of the ’60s, a group of young women in Chicago dropped out of the male-dominated civil rights and anti-war movements to do something about terrible experiences pregnant women were facing.

Many of the women who came together as the Jane Collective knew of women who were left bleeding in dirty hotel rooms, even dying because they tried to get an abortion, illegal at the time.“Women did awful things and women were dying because they were women,” one of the Janes explained. “We were ordinary women trying to save women’s lives.”

A new documentary called The Janes, by directors Tia Lessin and Emma Pildes, picks up this story more than 50 years later. It was the first time many of participants have spoken publicly about their secret, underground network that helped women obtain abortions in the City of Chicago, say Lessin and Pildes, who will be talking about their film and travels across the U.S. with Massachusetts’ Indivisibles via zoom for the September 27 IMC Statewide call.

“Jane was an outrageous undertaking by a lot of smart women,” says another of the Janes, recalling the bold actions these women took knowing they could be arrested at any moment.

The Janes looked for doctors who might perform abortions outside hospitals and set up a whole system to transport and help women attain safer abortions.  They posted on bulletin boards throughout the city — “Need an Abortion? Call Jane.”

A woman named Eleanor took the calls at first. She didn’t want to use her name, so she picked “Jane” she said because it wasn’t very common. Women were given appointments, driven to “The Front” for an initial consultation and then brought to a different location where the abortion took place. Calls came every day. In the end, the collective helped nearly 11,000 women receive illegal abortions, with care and empathy, between 1969 and 1973.

The documentary places the audience smack into the ‘60s and early ‘70s, and it’s remarkable to take this look back.  We see Chicago – the cars, the protests, the sea of men dominating nearly every profession and women in secretarial pools. Women and men both rose up to protest the war or racial injustice, but as we are seeing this from womens’ point of view, we hear firsthand complaints of being treated as only helpers in these movements, not leaders, not respected.  

I might have been 9 or 10 at the time of actual Janes, and watched the documentary with a friend about the same age when it came to the Martha’s Vineyard Film Festival this summer. Throughout the 101-minute film at various moments, we kept turning to each other in disbelief or surprise, as if to say, I can’t believe this. As mentioned, the film takes into account women’s lives at the time — a perspective we don’t often get. Women could not work if they were pregnant, one of the women in the film points out, “If you weren’t married, you were out of luck.”

More to the point, this glimpse into Chicago showed the challenges for women pre-Roe.  It goes back to the Cook County Hospital’s septic ward where women were taken after botched abortions. Injured women streamed in every day, a then student doctor in the film recalls. And nearly every week, he reports, one of those women died of her complications. The implications hit you – that was just one city.

Though it was underground, the Janes said they knew they were all being watched. And then, one day the police came for them. Seven of the women were charged with multiple counts of “conspiracy to commit abortion,” each woman facing a potential of 110 years in prison. I won’t spoil what happens or some of the twists and turns this story takes as told by the filmmakers.

In the film, events are barreling toward the passage of Roe in 1973 and we watch as celebrations take place across the country and see women’s relief when abortion healthcare finally becomes the law.  As part of the audience watching this past July, just weeks after the Supreme Court reversal on June 24, the irony of seeing this celebration on film seemed even more devastating. We were still grasping the implications and emotions that this hard-found right had somehow been taken away in 2022.  Tia Lessin, one of the co-directors who had come to talk about her movie, said this was the first time watching her film since Roe had been overturned. She was nearly speechless.

We won’t be going back to exactly that time in the late sixties, early seventies. We are probably not watching this story to use as a roadmap to helping women. We are in different times. For one, we now have medication abortion, not available back then. We also have a proliferation of unwanted technical surveillance of pregnant women those before 1973 Roe did not need to worry about.

But seeing the courage, ingenuity, service and sheer guts of these women, as well as the early days of the women coming together during the women’s movement, gives me hope to move forward to see what we can do collectively today.