It would be nice if Tia Lessin and Emma Pildes’ documentary The Janes could be viewed strictly as part of the historical record — a detailed account of “how things used to be.” But with women’s right to choose still under relentless attack and Roe v. Wade seemingly on the brink of being reversed, this film about a group of young women who worked tirelessly in the late 1960s and early ’70s to help provide access to safe illegal abortions couldn’t be more timely.
Combining vintage photos and footage and contemporary interviews with most of the Jane Collective’s prominent members, Lessin and Pildes tell the story of how the group formed in the pre-Roe 1960s in the Chicago area and how the members eventually helped more than 11,000 women terminate dangerous or unwanted pregnancies. To avoid both law enforcement and the mafia (illegal abortions were a big moneymaker for the mob), these young college students, mothers, and activists established pseudonyms (“Jane” was the name the whole network went by, rather than one person), set up safe houses, practiced evasive driving skills, and even learned how to perform abortions themselves.
Along the way, many of them became deeply involved in the women’s rights and civil rights movements, fighting tirelessly for the changes they believed would ensure equality. They made mistakes — for instance, interviewees talk frankly about how the Janes, who were overwhelmingly white, didn’t really understand issues related to intersectionality at the time they were operating — but they never wavered from their mission. Even when several of them got arrested and were facing serious charges, they didn’t regret the choices that led them to that point. Their fellow women needed help, and they were determined to provide it.
Some of the film’s most moving moments are when the erstwhile Janes and their clients talk about how the simple fact that women were trying to help other women was life-changing. Support instead of judgment, assistance instead of punishment, compassion instead of shame — Jane provided all of that and more to women who desperately needed it. In a world that seems bound to chip away at the rights so many women like the Janes fought for for so long, the film is a valuable reminder of exactly what Roe v. Wade meant to the United States in the 1970s — and why it’s imperative to preserve and protect it now. — Betsy Bozdech
Team #MOTW’s comments:
Pam Grady: The high stakes of illegal abortion come into sharp focus in this involving documentary about the Jane Collective, an all-women’s organization that facilitated and performed illegal abortion in Chicago in the years immediately preceding the Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade decision. A blend of archival footage and new interviews with group members, some of their associates, and a retired Chicago policeman, the documentary lays out in great detail the history of the Janes. These were women who had been active in the male-dominated civil rights and antiwar movements who saw a need among the sisterhood and risked their own liberty to fulfill it. Directors Tia Lessin and Emma Pildes have made a fascinating film that suddenly feels like a blueprint and a call to action. With Roe v. Wade’s days apparently numbered, The Janes is a timely and urgent work.
Marilyn Ferdinand Chicago’s Jane Collective has been getting a lot of attention, as legal abortion has been restricted in many states and now seems destined to vanish as a constitutional right. In 2019, a fictionalized account of the collective, Ask for Jane, and Heather Booth: Changing the World, a documentary about the founder of the Jane Collective, premiered. Now we have a well-researched and comprehensive documentary about this illegal abortion service in Tia Lessin and Emma Pildes’ The Janes. Lessin and Pildes not only detail the logistics of the service former Jane member Laura Kaplan wrote about in her seminal book, The Story of Jane, but they also interviewed many of the Janes, as well as the infamous Mike, who provided many of the abortions the collective made possible and trained a number of the Janes to perform the procedure. As we learn about the horrors of illegal abortions from mob-connected butchers and the septic abortion wards on which many women died, we also see the everyday courage and determination of women who wanted to help each other. The Janes provided a safe and respectful service up to 90 times a week for which there was an overwhelming need—a need that will not go away if Roe v. Wade is overturned.
Leslie Combemale Co-directors Tia Lessin and Ema Pildes remind viewers of the importance of knowing our collective history in their timely new documentary The Janes. The film profiles the Jane Collective, a fearless, radical group of underground activists that believed in reproductive freedom, and came together to aid women of the pre-Roe V. Wade era in getting safe abortions. Between 1968 and 1973, they were able to make 11,000 safe abortions happen, when, without them, long term negative consequences or death was a distinct possibility for those who sought to end their pregnancies. Read full review.
Sherin Nicole The recollection that opens The Janes is unnervingly vivid, especially if you never knew the Chicago Mob gave abortions. Imagine a potentially life-threatening procedure given codenames like Cadillac, Chevrolet, or Rolls Royce, performed in motels on young women left alone and bleeding. That’s where America stood in 1969, the era that birthed a clandestine organization called “Jane”—women revolutionaries who worked to provide safe abortions for those who chose to have them. Imagine being willing to allow those dangers to happen again. Yet that is where we find ourselves. Ignoring the flashing red warning of history, our lawmakers continue to exert control without the benefit of the freedoms this country promised. In reflecting our current times, The Janes is a painful yet vital mirror, spotlighting another American disease. This is a documentary that wields impact because it is solely told through testimony and footage in an unflinching reality that needs to be seen. When you hear the stories from the members of Jane you want to scream that we should know better. Yet The Janes is a lesson that allows us to hope that maybe this time we can defy the legislation of women’s bodies. Maybe this time.
Sandie Angulo Chen: The Janes is an extraordinary and extraordinarily relevant documentary about a group of young Chicago feminists – mostly White and college-educated – who worked together to counsel and refer women looking for safe and affordable (and at the time illegal) abortions from 1969 to 1973. Filmmakers Tia Lessin and Emma Pildes interview nearly all of the women involved in the Jane Collective, as well as a few husbands who supported them and even a homicide detective who eventually helped arrest them. The HBO doc is a timely reminder of how important reproductive freedom is, and how some states are turning back the clock a full 50 years on the pro-choice movement. This is a must-see for anyone who doubts the power of women on a mission to help other women.
Jennifer Merin Filmmakers Tia Lessin and Emma Pildes’ compelling documentary is a deep dive into the lives and labors of a group of extraordinarily brave, generous and socially conscious activist women, collectively known as Jane, who worked clandestinely in Chicago to help women terminate unwanted pregnancies at a time when anyone seeking, facilitating and/or conducting abortions faced criminal charges and long term imprisonment. Read full review.
Loren King Tia Lessin and Emma Pildes’s documentary The Janes joins two recent scripted films — this year’s Call Jane, directed by Phyllis Nagy, and Rachel Carey’s 2018 drama Ask For Jane —that look back at a not-so-distant time when abortion was outlawed across the US and women banded together to fight back and take action despite the grave risks. Young women in the nascent feminist movement in Chicago in 1969 organized to form the Jane Collective which secretly helped pregnant women desperate enough to “call Jane” obtain safe abortions. The Janes offers testimony from members of the collective, now in their 70s, who recount with clear eyed passion and still painful memories the reasons they took such bold and dangerous action: some had themselves experienced the trauma of illegal abortion; others had friends who suffered or nearly died. The volunteers were surveilled by the FBI and in 1972 seven members of the collective were arrested. Each was charged with 11 counts of abortion or conspiracy to commit an abortion. They faced a possible 10-year sentence for each charge until 1973 when they were spared following the Supreme Court decision in Roe v. Wade. That nearly 50 years later the court and the country is poised to return to the harrowing years chronicled in this film, anchored by the courageous women who stood on the front lines and now bear witness, makes The Janes even more compelling and essential.
Liz Whittemore Filmmakers Tia Lessin and Emma Pildes’ documentary The Janes comes at a time of continued turmoil in women’s health care. With the leak of the Supreme Court’s opinion on Roe Vs. Wade, the likelihood that American women will be living in Margaret Atwood’s fictional world of Gilead doesn’t seem so farfetched. While disgusting anti-abortion bills pop up in Red states across the country, forced birth is on every woman’s lips. With this very predicament before them in 1969, a group of savvy and brave women calling themselves “The Janes” decided to protect their own. Read full review.
Cate Marquis Fifty years after Roe v Wade, who knew we’d have to fight this fight again. But as the Supreme Court seems poised to undo the ruling that legalized abortion in all fifty states, there is a need to remind audiences, or educate younger ones, about what things were really like before abortion became both safe and legal. One of a spate of films taking up this the task is an excellent documentary The Janes, which spotlights a diverse group of women, from various backgrounds, in Chicago who cleverly set up an underground network to help women facing unwanted pregnancies to get a safe, if illegal, abortion, at a cost tied to what they could pay. All they had to do was make a phone call and ask for “Jane.” At the time, anyone involved in abortion in any way, even in helping a woman seeking one in any fashion, could be charged criminally. What these women were doing was bold, it was risky but it was needed, to keep women from dying from botched self-inducted or back-alley abortions. The Janes faced opposition not just from the police but from the mob, who ran back-alley abortion rackets. But they did have one advantage, according to one of the “Janes”: men didn’t think women were capable of organizing something like this. The Janes gives an eye-opening, insightful and inspiring look back at this group of brave, resourceful women, who did the right thing at a time when the ’60s-’70s women’s rights movement was just getting started and Roe had not yet happened.
Title: The Janes
Directors: Tia Lessin and Emma Pildes
Release Date: June 7, 2020
Running Time: 101 minutes
Distribution Company: HBO
AWFJ Movie of the Week Panel Members: Sandie Angulo Chen, Betsy Bozdech, Leslie Combemale, Marilyn Ferdinand, Pam Grady, Loren King, Cate Marquis, Jennifer Merin, Nell Minow, Sherin Nicole, Liz Whittemore, Susan Wloszczyna
Edited by Jennifer Merin