Whilst I was studying in Amsterdam on my year abroad, I took a course called Metropolitan America. Focusing on Chicago, the module tracked the history of urban expansion in the U.S, from early frontier settlements to modern day commercial hubs.
Our final assessment for the course was a 2000 word essay. As with all the history courses I took at UvA, the topic and question of the essay was entirely up to the individual. As long as I could draw a connection with an American city then I could write about it. (For those used to the rigid structure of English universities you’ll appreciate how amazing this level of academic freedom is.)
I decided to write about Jane, Chicago’s underground abortion clinic that was active from 1969 to 1973, situating this grassroots organisation within the broader second wave feminist movement.
I wouldn’t normally publish one of my academic essays, I’m by no means a publishable historian, but Alabama’s recent decision to ban abortions has got me pissed off. No more than that, it’s got me scared. Scared for the girls and women living in Alabama who can now be forced by the State to carry a pregnancy to term. This is no longer about pro-life, it’s become about the oppression of women; about men believing they have the right to decide how a woman lives her life. It’s like something from a Margaret Atwood novel.
MEN SHOULDN’T BE MAKING LAWS ABOUT WOMEN’S BODIES.
It’s really not rocket science.
The consequences, as Alabama proves, are terrifying.
Whilst Alabama is by no means the only place where women are denied access to legal and safe abortions - almost 25% of the world’s population live in countries with highly restrictive abortion laws - what is so shocking about what is happening across the U.S is the fact these bills represent a step backwards for women’s rights. They are in direct violation of Roe v Wade, which protects a pregnant woman's liberty to choose whether or not to have an abortion, and as a result are unconstitutional.
Can someone explain to me why, when gun legislation is suggested, people immediately label it unconstitutional despite the fact the Second Amendment says nothing about semi-automatic weapons? (It actually starts with the necessity of a ‘well regulated militia’, but we won’t get into that now.) And yet, when a bill directly undermines a Supreme Court ruling, and in consequence the Constitution, no-one bats an eyelid?!
The more articles I’ve read about Alabama’s bill, the more I’ve been reminded of my essay. Whilst its focus is historical, its argument is a reminder that women will always find a way to fight back; that whilst 25 male Republicans might be able to pass a law, the women who it affects will not accept it blindly.
I haven’t added to or altered the essay in light of recent events, but I hope that it can still teach you a little about America’s chequered history with abortion, and maybe provide you with some sense of hope.
Disclaimer: As a history undergrad, I do not claim to be an expert on this topic!!
N.B if you’re unaware of Roe v. Wade (1973) and its companion case Doe v. Bolton (1973) I’d recommend doing a quick Google before you read the essay as it is aimed at an audience with a general knowledge of the two cases and the second wave feminist movement as a whole.
Liberty Tennant - Universiteit van Amsterdam (June 2018)
“Call Jane”: Chicago’s Underground Abortion Service and its Influence on Second Wave Feminism
When women called the Chicago Women’s Liberation Union (CWLU) about abortion during the late 1960s and early 1970s, they were ‘given a local telephone number and told to ask for “Jane”.’ Yet Jane was not an individual but rather a collective; a group of women committed to the belief that it is a woman’s right to decide whether and when to bear a child. The collective was established in 1969 by Heather Booth, a student at the University of Chicago, as the Abortion Counselling Service for the Liberation of Women, after she helped a friend’s sister find a doctor to perform an abortion. However, the service quickly became better known as Jane; the idea being that asking for, or leaving voicemails from, Jane was less conspicuous, as well as being more reassuring for the women seeking an abortion. The collective operated until 1973, when the ruling in Roe v. Wade made it surplus to requirement, offering abortion services to women at a time when terminating a pregnancy was illegal. During this four-year period, Jane provided around 12,000 abortions to women from a multitude of socio-economic and racial backgrounds. Crucially, Jane saw America’s anti-abortion laws not as a medical issue, but rather a social one; a symbol of the oppression of women in U.S. society. The collective’s view of abortion as a fundamental right for women is interesting as previous debates regarding termination had focused on more policy-based arguments, such as population control and, to an extent, eugenics.
The first part of this essay will concentrate on this positioning of abortion as a key woman’s right. In part two the analysis will turn its attention to the impact which this rights-based approach to abortion had on the outcome of Roe v. Wade. Finally, the discussion will consider the importance of grassroots feminist organisations, such as Jane, to the success of Second Wave Feminism. In particular, focusing on how the fight for abortion helped to unify the fractured movement. Through its analysis of these three themes, this essay will offer up an interpretation regarding the necessity of self-activity within the fight for abortion, and also suggest how the current women’s movement can learn from the example set by Jane.
Reproductive rights have been, and continue to be, a contentious issue within American politics and society. Though reproductive rights can be interpreted as the right to reproduce, in the U.S. context it is more often the opposite, the right to prevent reproduction, that is the focus of debate. The definition offered up by feminist legal-scholar Mary Lyndon Shanley is arguably the most suitable for the period with which this essay deals; she proposes that reproductive rights are ‘a range of claims concerning whether, when, and how to have children.’ Shanley’s definition echoes Jane’s ethos, that of women having the ability to choose whether or not to be pregnant. As one of the collective’s original pamphlets states, ‘women should have the right to control their own bodies and lives.’ Today, this emphasis on personal choice and the rights of women seems orthodox. However, in the late 1960s it was a relatively new concept. As historian Leslie Reagan highlights, abortion had been used by women for generations but it was second-wave feminists who ‘articulated a new analysis’ of the right to abortion as ‘fundamental to female freedom.’ For the first time, abortion was being seen as part of a woman’s right to determine her future for herself. The role of grassroots organisations such as Jane in Chicago and the Society for Humane Abortion in California, was fundamental in highlighting the importance of legal access to abortion in the wider fight for women’s rights, and also in introducing it as a key rallying point for the movement. The importance of their roles is highlighted in Laura Kaplan’s personal account of her time as a Jane when she describes how a new recruit, Jenny, had ‘never viewed abortion as a rallying point for women’ before attending one of the group’s meetings. The shame associated with abortion meant that promoting it as a key issue for the women’s movement was problematic; particularly as arguments in favour of abortion as a means of population control had both racist and elitist connotations. However, framing abortion laws as a symbol of the wider oppression of women within U.S. society enabled it to become a recognised feminist issue. As Kaplan goes on to emphasise, if women did not have the right to control their basic biological function of reproduction ‘then what chance did [they] have to control any aspects of their lives?’ In this way, the fight for reproductive reform during the late 60s and early 70s was focused on legalising abortion not for medical reasons, but as a means of improving women’s subservient status within U.S. society. It was about rights, not policy. This focus on a right-based argument is perhaps unsurprising when considering the fact that second-wave feminism had its roots in a pre feminist era, growing out of the information networks previously established by both the Civil Rights and Student Rights movements. These success of these two movements highlighted the power and scope which ordinary people, working together, had to initiate social change. In addition, these movements emphasised the importance of a rights-based argument. This essay will now turn its attention to the impact of this argument on the outcome of Roe, and consider whether Jane, as a women’s rights organisation, had any influence of its own.
In his statement for Roe v. Wade, Associate Court Justice Harry Blackmun revealed that the reasoning for the Court’s ruling in favour of Roe was based on the “right of personal privacy” enshrined in the Fourteenth Amendment. He argued that this right to personal privacy is ‘broad enough to encompass a woman’s decision whether or not to terminate her pregnancy.’ This expansive reading of the Fourteenth Amendment by the Burger Court represents a cornerstone feminist decision. One which Jennifer Baumgardner argues affirmed a ‘woman’s right to freedom and the pursuit of happiness.’ Most notably, the decision meant that a pregnant woman in her first trimester no longer had to prove she was ‘deserving’ of an abortion. For the first time women had some level of control over their own bodies. Though the Court’s ruling marked a positive shift in the legal rights of American women, as Mary Zeigler highlights, the concerns raised in relation to Roe and its companion case Doe v. Bolton (1973) were concerned with discrimination and not rights. The illegal procedures which existed as a result of the criminalised status of abortion were very expensive, with prices for a late termination costing over $1000. The high prices for abortion created a discriminatory system, one which prioritised white, middle class women. This economic discrimination, which was particularly common in racially diverse communities like Chicago, was a key issue for Jane. In their information pamphlet, the collective outlined their aim to provide abortions as ‘safely and cheaply as possible.’ To combat the economic inequality, the collective offered significantly lower prices and also established a fund to help the most economically deprived women get abortions. In this way, the argument put forward in the two cases reflects Jane’s beliefs. However, though the Court’s rulings realised the collective’s aims and ideals, it is interesting to note that as an organisation Jane never lobbied for legal change. Instead Booth decided that action was more useful than debate. That said, the services provided by Jane were fundamental in creating a more open, albeit secret, environment for women to discuss abortion; and it was this discussion which ultimately led to the success of Roe. Following the Court's’ ruling, the underground world of illegal abortions was replaced by open access. The legalisation produced immediate benefits for women across the U.S. In Chicago, Jane’s services were replaced by two dedicated abortion clinics, whilst Cook County Hospital began providing ‘small numbers of abortions.’ In particular, the publication of abortion clinics and their opening hours on a Chicago newspaper’s front page emphasised the dramatic shift in the nation’s legal climate. The ruling may not have been entirely responsible for the legal and cultural shift in attitudes towards women’s rights during the 1970s but it did guarantee women the power to control their own bodies, and thus their futures. The outcome of Roe also marked the end of Jane; its goal of legal access to abortion having been achieved. Yet, in spite of the collective’s limited period of operation, its impact on the feminist rhetoric of the time and the wider women’s movement should not be underestimated.
Jane’s ethos centred on the belief that ‘only women can bring about their own liberation.’ Rather than petitioning the State to change the law, the collective forged ahead in their cause without asking permission. As a collective, Jane is an impressive example of women taking responsibility for their own lives. Their focus on self-help and self-activity helped facilitate the re-defining of feminist tactics in the U.S. during the 1970s. A key element of this new approach was the positioning of women as experts on female issues. The abortion self-help movement, alongside the women’s health movement promoted the idea that ‘women themselves were the experts of their own bodies.’ This is most clearly illustrated in the way that Jane members taught themselves how to carry out abortion procedures. In so doing, they were able to cut out unreliable third parties and ensure their patients had the least traumatic experience possible. This was a marked transformation; undermining not only the authority granted to medical establishments but also the power of governmental bodies to control women’s reproductive rights. In addition to the promotion of self-activity, grassroots feminist organisations also introduced new understandings of feminism. The most notable was Socialist Feminism as proposed by the Hyde Park chapter of the CWLU. Similarly to Jane’s concerns about economic discrimination, Socialist Feminism argued that power had been ‘denied to women because of their class position.’ Their strategy was to build a base of power through a mass female movement from which women could unite and take back control of their destiny. This approach was revolutionary for the period, and became an important aspect of the second wave movement. The importance of grassroots feminist organisations like Jane was not limited to the issue of abortion. Their tactics and ideals redefined the very nature of the women’s movement of the 60s and 70s. They designated women as the experts for female issues and helped to change societal attitudes towards abortion. Most importantly they helped to introduce an understanding of feminism that encompassed all women, whatever their social or racial backgrounds.
Judith Baer highlights that the United States is often considered to be a “child-centred society”. However, as this essay has illustrated, this focus on children has repeatedly come at the expense of the rights of the mothers. More concern was given to the unborn foetus than to the personal circumstances, mental state, and economic reality of the expectant mother. The very existence of underground organisations such as Jane emphasises the disparity which existed between the government’s image of society and its reality. As Reagan acknowledges, the criminalisation of abortion did not miraculously create a society of ‘virginal brides and stable families.’ Instead it forced women to seek out backstreet clinics and be subject to punitive treatment by State authorities. Through the dedication of activists such as Heather Booth, and the sacrifices of ordinary women who became Jane members, abortion was finally legalised. Roe re-established a woman’s right to control her own body. Yet today, just forty-five years later, the reproductive autonomy of American women is once again under threat. With 80% of U.S. counties having no abortion clinics, inequality of access has reasserted itself as a key issue for the current women’s movement. Though Roe still ensures legal and open access to abortion, its future is looking more uncertain than ever. As Reagan concludes, should the ruling be overturned the ‘results would be dire indeed.’ The threat posed by the Trump administration has brought organisations like Jane back into the spotlight, with some suggesting that their services might once again be required. Whilst this would undoubtedly be a step backwards for women’s rights, what this essay has shown is that criminalisation would not be blindly accepted; the history of Jane proves this. The collective not only provided a much needed service at a time when doing so ran the risk of imprisonment, but it also played a part in bringing about the eventual legalisation of abortion. It transformed attitudes towards abortion, re-positioning it as a key women’s right and also introduced new tactics for the wider feminist movements. It is this legacy which can be drawn upon should the unthinkable happen.
If you’ve got this far, thank you!
The best way to combat injustice is to be informed and vocal. To read up on the issues and to talk to others about what’s going on, and, crucially, spread awareness.
I know that a lot of you reading this feel very strongly about Alabama’s ban, so please leave a comment and let’s start a discussion.
Baer, Judith A, ed. Historical and Multicultural Encyclopedia of Women’s Reproductive Rights in the United States. Westport: Greenwood Press, 2002.
Baumgardner, Jennifer. Abortion & Life. New York: Akashic Books, 2008.
Hyde Park Chapter of the Chicago Women’s Liberation Union. Socialist Feminism: A Strategy for the Women’s Movement. Chicago: Chicago Women’s Liberation Union, 1972.
Kaplan, Laura. The Story of Jane: The Legendary Underground Feminist Abortion Service. New York: Pantheon, 1995.
Pollitt, Katha. “Abortion in American History.” The Atlantic. May 1997. Accessed June 6, 2018. https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/1997/05/abortion-in-american-history/376851/
Reagan, Leslie. J. Dangerous Pregnancies: Mothers, Disabilities and Abortion in Modern America. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2010.
Reagan, Leslie J. When Abortion Was a Crime: Women, Medicine, and Law in the United States, 1867-1973. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998.
Roe v. Wade 410 U.S. 113
The Abortion Counselling Service, “Abortion: A Woman’s Decision, A Woman’s Right.” in Jane: Documents from Chicago’s Clandestine Abortion Service 1968-1973 (Firestarter Press, 2004)
Ziegler, Mary. “The Framing of a Right to Choose: Roe v. Wade and the Changing Debate on Abortion.” Law and History Review, Vol. 27, No. 2 (Summer 2009): 281-330.