Credit: courtesy Women Make Movies

Back in 1992, just after she’d published her first book, Feminist Fatale, and became the de facto spokeswoman for Gen X feminists, Paula Kamen appeared on a panel about feminism past and present. One of the other panelists mentioned Jane, the Chicago abortion collective that ran from 1969 until the Roe v. Wade decision in 1973.

“I didn’t believe it was real,” Kamen says now.

And even now it seems sort of fantastical: a group of young Chicago women, a mix of activists and housewives, who worked together to arrange illegal abortions for women in apartments in and around the city, eventually performing the procedures themselves after their doctor bailed on them. As far as anyone knows, they never lost a patient. Clients found them by calling a number and asking for Jane.

But it was real, the only such service in the U.S., and Kamen set about tracking down former Jane members and clients to find out more. The result was a play, Jane: Abortion and the Underground, which will be revived at a staged reading on Monday evening followed by a panel discussion. Proceeds will benefit the Chicago Abortion Fund.

Ruth Surgal, one of the original Janes, who died in 2004
Ruth Surgal, one of the original Janes, who died in 2004Credit: Chicago Sun-Times photo archive

Kamen decided to write a play instead of a conventional piece of journalism in order to create a feeling that the stories were coming directly from the women themselves. She tracked down former Jane members and clients by placing ads in the Defender and the Tribune‘s now-defunct WomaNews section. Back in 1992, Roe v. Wade was only 19 years old, and the bad old days of illegal abortion were still vivid memories. Some women were still terrified to talk about it. “People hung up on me,” Kamen remembers.

A version of the play premiered in 1993, but Kamen continued to update it as she talked to more people who were involved. As the years have gone on, she’s discovered that more people are willing to talk publicly. “I still find people all the time,” she says. She ran into one of the women at an event at the Hideout and was introduced to the Reverend E. Spencer Parsons, a minister who helped Jane, by her speech therapist.

Some of the people she talked to still had very vivid memories of what it had been like, and Kamen made an effort not to sugarcoat any of it. One woman, Lory, had been an 18-year-old hippie when she had her abortion. In a long monologue, she recalls the filthiness of the apartment, the unprofessionalism of the Jane member who’d performed the surgery (“I remember thinking, gee, you’d think she’d tie her hair up!”), the excruciating pain because there had been no anesthesia, and how, immediately afterward, she’d gone to the bathroom and vomited.

But this (abortion service) was the only option I was aware of at all. You know, it . . . it wasn’t . . . how I would have chosen it to be done. And now, having had an abortion since in a clinical situation with a doctor performing it and knowing the difference, it was like that was atrocious. But at that point in my life, if two days later, they would have
told me I had to have another abortion, I probably would have done the same thing because I couldn’t have, anyway, had a child and, you know, actually having the child wasn’t never even a thought. . . .

And so she was grateful.

A newspaper ad for Jane
A newspaper ad for JaneCredit: courtesy Planned Parenthood

The story of Jane, Kamen discovered, raised many questions about race and class and economics. The group had been started by a University of Chicago student, Heather Booth, who found herself serving as a go-between for pregnant women and an abortionist; she got so many calls at her dorm that she finally told people to start leaving messages for Jane. Although the Jane service became affiliated with the Chicago Women’s Liberation Union, which had strong ties to the labor movement, its membership remained overwhelmingly white and middle-class. “They wanted to change that,” Kamen says, “but they were also in a hurry to get stuff done.”

The separatist wing of the black liberation movement was also staunchly anti-abortion because of its ties to the eugenicists of the early 20th century who used abortion as a means of limiting the African-American population. But later on in Jane’s history, after New York passed the nation’s first nonrestrictive abortion law in 1970, many of its clients were poor and black and couldn’t afford to travel out of state.

Kamen tried to address these issues in the play, as well as conflicts among members of Jane. Booth, the founder, was a charismatic leader, but she saw Jane as one component of a much larger struggle and left the group early on. Like many feminist collectives at the time, Jane officially had no hierarchy or official leadership, but a core group of women emerged who made most of the decisions. (They were known as the “kitchen cabinet” because they met, quite literally, in a member’s kitchen.) Some of the others did not like this at all.

“It was not warm and fuzzy,” she says.

Kamen says that Jane: Abortion and the Underground was performed maybe 20 times during the Bush years, but during the Obama administration, people lost interest. Now, of course, things have changed. With abortion restrictions getting tighter across the country, Illinois has once again become a haven for abortion seekers. “Theater has to be part of a conversation with a wider society,” Kamen says. “With the Women’s March and The Handmaid’s Tale, it’s in the air.”

Three representatives of the Illinois Women's Abortion Coalition picket in favor of <i>Roe v. Wade</i> in January, 1973.
Three representatives of the Illinois Women’s Abortion Coalition picket in favor of Roe v. Wade in January, 1973.Credit: Fred Stein

This past spring, Kamen met Iris Sowlat, a 24-year-old director, at a Directors Guild event. The two decided to work together to produce a staged reading of the play, something easier and more flexible than a full performance. (It’s a talky play anyway, so the reading format works.) Sowlat had never heard of Jane before she read the script. “I knew abortions were illegal till Roe versus Wade,” she says, “but I didn’t know how much darkness and mystery surrounded abortion and women’s bodies.”

And although the women in Jane were working too hard under difficult circumstances to join in what Sowlat calls “rah-rah, girl-power feminism,” she does believe in the play’s ultimate message that Jane was about women helping women, despite their fears—one of the purest notions of feminism.

As one of the women says in a monologue at the end,

It’s not about some super macho and Wonder Woman kind of shit. It’s about understanding that it’s what we’re supposed to be doing. That this is the way we’re supposed to live. We’re supposed help each other give birth. We’re supposed to help each other abort if it becomes necessary. We’re supposed to help each other die. We’re supposed to help each other live. We’re supposed to do this. And we’re supposed to have the knowledge and the strength to do this. And that’s what I learned in the Service.

Jane: Abortion and the Underground. Mon 7/24, 7:30 PM, Pride Arts Center, 4139 N. Broadway, 773-203-3158,, $10 suggested donation.