Co-directors Tia Lessin and Emma Pildes’ engaging pro-choice documentary The Janes (2022), draws attention to events that should be remembered for the courage shown by a clandestine group of American women. Between 1968 and 1973, a network known as Jane [The Jane Collective / the Abortion Counseling Service of Women’s Liberation] helped 11,000 women secure safe, affordable, illegal abortions.
What’s remarkable is the collective’s use of discreet tactics including code names and safe houses, which enabled them to successfully evade the attention of the Chicago Police Department, until a fateful police raid on an apartment in the spring of 1971. The seven women arrested and charged only escaped imprisonment thanks to the US Supreme Court’s ruling in Roe v. Wade, protecting a woman’s right to an abortion.
Direct and engaging, Lessin and Pildes are open to the broader conversation that goes beyond documenting the network’s subversive actions. They address gender politics, the moral legitimacy of the law, the overreach of religion, and the high price activists pay in their pursuit of subversive actions.
The directors diligently leave the audience with a reminder of the personal toll of actively challenging illegitimate laws and authority. We witness the burdens these courageous women shouldered to fulfil their calling. The Janes makes clear that any noble act of protest or activism comes with risk and sacrifice.
In my review of the film I wrote, “We can only hope that US Supreme Court will not be foolish enough to repeal Roe v. Wade.” This interview was conducted before Politico broke the news on 2 May 2022, that a leaked draft opinion of the US Supreme Court, authored by Associate Justice Samuel Alito was set to overturn Roe.
What we are witnessing is a new call to action to protect constitutionally enshrined progress that gave women autonomy over their own bodies. A new generation must take the baton from the remarkable women that demonstrated ethical agency and challenged the legitimacy of the law, in a period that sees how vulnerable democracy, human rights, and liberties are, even in the supposed free world. In conversation with PopMatters, Lessin and Pildes speak about abortion as an electoral strategy, the past mistakes that sowed the seeds for the overturning of Roe v. Wade, and the exciting experience of shining a light on this chapter of women’s history.
To begin, what led you to tell the story of these women at this time?
Tia Lessin: The story is deeply personal, as it is to many others. I’ve been able to make my own choices about when and whether to have children. I have a ten-year-old son and that’s an indelible right that every other person in this country and beyond should have.
In 1989 I was arrested at a protest organized by Act Up at the Supreme Court. Even back then, the court was whittling away at Roe v. Wade, denying public aid for abortions and limiting access. I put myself on the line and when I heard about these women who really did put themselves on the line, I was captivated.
When Emma approached me about working with her on this, I was all in. But Emma has the interesting story about how she’s connected to the Janes.
Emma Pildes: I didn’t even get arrested. In addition to echoing everything Tia said about it being a long-standing passion of mine, and something that clearly felt a human right early on in my adult consciousness, I have a family connection to this story.
This has been mythology in my family for as long as I can remember. Daniel Arcana, who’s a producer on the film and happens to be my brother, started developing the film first. We were able to make the initial approaches to the women, and perhaps they trusted us because we had a longstanding history [of supporting abortion rights] in the family. The reason why the women did it was they felt a call to action, again.
They looked around and saw everything that was happening, leading us up to where we are now, unfortunately, with the backing of the courts and [Brett] Kavanaugh. Tia and I are fortunate, humble, and grateful to be able to tell their story at a time when it’s important for Americans to see what this country looks like when abortion isn’t legal.
To clarify, what was the family connection?
Pildes: My father is the lawyer who was married to Judith at the time she was Janing. Daniel was the little baby that was home needing to be nursed when the women were busted. More so for him than I, this issue has been present in our lives. Any responsible documentary filmmaker mines their own backyard first for the stories. I’m lucky to have some activists and radicals in my family that make for good films.
What are the origins of the opposition to abortion that continues to thwart the progress the Roe v Wade decision encouraged? Does its roots lie in religion, or, in right-wing and American conservatism?
Lessin: I spent many years filming my last film [Citizen Koch, 2013] in the Midwest, in the years before Donald Trump was elected. I saw firsthand how the extreme right was seeding the ground for the candidacy of this extreme politician. Through the Tea Party, there were three issues they were mobilizing their base around: guns, gays, and abortion. It was the culture wars, and cynically, they were not using these issues because they cared deeply about them, but because they knew it would mobilize people toward the elections.
If you’re a woman living in the wrong state, where the politicians are ideologically opposed to abortion because it has helped them get elected, then you’re screwed! And if you’re poor, rural, and of colour… I read a statistic that 90% of the counties in this country do not have an abortion clinic. It’s staggering and offensive that in the years that Roe v. Wade has been standing, there have been decades of restrictions on abortion rights. It’s culminating in what we’ve seen in recent months, with the States falling like dominoes, preparing for this overturning of the decision.
It’s a cynical use of abortion by the right-wing. It’s not about religion, it’s not about morality or ethics, it’s about electoral strategy. The good news is the majority of people in this country believe women should have access to abortion. […] We don’t need to change hearts and minds, we just need to make sure that the people who believe in this right as we do, speak out and take to the streets if need be when the time comes.
Look, we’re not politicians, we’re filmmakers. That said, we wanted to make a film that wasn’t about all of [the political issues]. The Janes is in dialogue with the present, but it’s about the past. It’s a cautionary tale, but in a sense, we have come full circle.
The cultural interpretation of heroism is shaped by storytelling. I’d describe these women as heroines who put themselves in harm’s way for something they believed in, similarly to the Russian activist and politician, Alexei Navalny. Documentary films about activism, like yours and Daniel Roher’s Navalny (2022), are celebrations of heroism in our modern world that cultivate a more realistic image.
Pildes: What was exciting about making this film is that women’s history is something that doesn’t get told enough. There are extraordinary women not only in this country that have been doing things to help their fellow person, and change the world through extraordinary examples of activism, organization, and smarts. We were excited to be able to tell people about it.
You touched on how we put it in the realm of a heist narrative, or a caper film. The Janes is conventional as far as a ’70s movie formula but inverted to make it about these women. It’s a dystopian tale. This is what our country looked like and will likely look like in some way. There’s a lot of inversion going on in the film. One of them was being able to tell this action story but with a female base.
These women are heroes, but from the very beginning, they balked at the word. This was an important point for them because they still know this today, that if you make them heroes, then that telegraphs to people that they themselves can’t do this type of activism. We think they’re extraordinary, but if you talk to any of them they’ll say they’re ordinary. They’ll stick to that point because they want everybody to know that you always have the opportunity to be moral and kind, and stand up for what’s right even when you’re punching up.
Lessin: There are people doing that every day now too. These days where just helping a person access abortion is a criminal activity in the state of Texas and many other places, making a phone call is a heroic act. Donating money to underwrite someone’s healthcare, or transporting somebody across state lines to get abortion care, are also criminal acts. There are modern-day heroes and the Janes are interested in passing the baton.
This speaks to the importance of seeing yourself or your group represented onscreen. The power each of us has is the strength to inspire and empower others.
Pildes: Representation is important for people to be able to see themselves and identify with a story. We wanted to clearly show people and put a human face on things – to look at a death certificate of a 19-year-old woman that died because of an illegal abortion. To hear the story of somebody that got a mob abortion in Chicago, and how that experience differed to her underground, nonjudgemental, organised, loving, transparent, and full of information abortion with Jane.
That’s why we make documentary films – to put the audience in other people’s shoes and create empathy and understanding. You can watch the news all day and it’s impactful. We’re upset all of the time. But to have a visceral experience of what it’s like to be afraid and alone, physically harmed and sexually assaulted, and all the rest of it when you’re trying to get healthcare in this country is a profound experience. We believe in the power of documentary that way, so yes, we believe it’s important for films like this to be out right now. It’s what we could contribute to what’s going on.
Lessin: We began making the film in 2018, so it’s not as if we had a crystal ball. We saw the writing on the wall, but we’d have been far happier if the film was a history lesson. HBO, God bless them, saw as we did the importance of this issue. They saw that the audience wanted to hear this unique and dramatic story, this cautionary tale.
The film is about challenging the legitimacy of the law and how the individual’s ethical agency is placed above the law. It’s also about the need for people to be politically, socially, and culturally engaged because the system is often shaped by personal belief systems or collective belief systems of the right or the left-wing. We’re caught in the counter-productive conflict between the two.
Lessin: These women didn’t come out of nowhere. They came out of the civil rights movement and the student anti-war movement. They came out of the women’s liberation movement and they were engaged with the world. They saw this as the next step of what they needed to do.
As we’ve seen with the Voting Rights Act, which in 1965 was an extraordinary victory, the Supreme Court and the state legislators have undermined those gains. The same thing can be said about abortion rights. We need the law, but we need political engagement even more.
Pildes: It’s incremental and of the times when these things are created. With the Voting Rights Act, you were just happy to have something. It could have and should have been so much more and it is possible to undermine it because of its limitation. Specifically with Roe v. Wade, there were very paternalistic elements afoot. What the women of Jane believed was the right to an abortion should be a woman’s right and only a woman’s right. She should have access to a doctor for consultation. It’s important to speak in those terms that a woman has complete bodily autonomy, but Roe v. Wade didn’t go so far as to say that.
If you talked to women at the time, they knew that there were problems that could come back to bite us. They were relieved at the time that somebody was paying attention, that there was some law of the land, and it wasn’t their complete responsibility anymore. Some that took this on were 19-year-olds. They shouldn’t have to be the ones giving healthcare to other women. They shouldn’t have had to put themselves in a situation where they could be arrested, sentenced, and die in jail.
We have to engage with, listen to and understand the people that are affected, and not write rules in the ivory tower.
It’s ironic how women are seen to be vulnerable by the right-wing, yet they’re weaponized for the right’s political purposes.
Lessin: It’s offensive. In the ’60s women couldn’t have credit cards. They couldn’t take out mortgages in this country and they couldn’t have deeds to houses in their names. This paternalistic atmosphere is the environment in which our subjects came of age.
One woman told us the first time she ever wore pants was when she came to Chicago. She had to wear knee socks through the winter months in the Midwest snow. The rules of the game were different then, and yet here we are now with more rights and liberties that we take for granted. In some ways, we’re worse off than we were before Roe v. Wade. Some of the penalties of these laws are much more severe than they were in the ’50s and ’60s. I don’t know if that builds on what you said, but “weaponise” is the perfect word.
Women’s bodies have been weaponized. It’s not about religion, and that’s why it was so important to show the role of the Clergy Consultation Service in the film. Emma and I were gobsmacked to learn about them. This was not a history that we were told about. There were members of the clergy who were not in opposition to abortion but were promoting access for women, giving them phone numbers, driving them, and giving them money to get to places like London and New York. These were mainline protestant and Jewish religious leaders who were involved.
We know the church’s stance on abortion, but there’s a bigger church out there. Many churches and synagogues have not only supported abortion rights historically, they still support them today. One other thing that was a revelation for us was the role of the mob. Who knew? But it makes total sense that organised crime was involved in providing abortions.
Pildes: The mob thing and what you’re saying about weaponising women’s bodies, or not listening to women, or thinking they can’t make their own decisions, it’s making me so cognoscente of how little people in this country value women’s lives. It was something profound to be thinking about daily when making this film – whether we’re weapons, whether we’re ignored, or whether we’re just another black market revenue stream for the mafia, our lives aren’t being valued. Nor are we lauded for our contributions to American history.
Even though they will not admit it, these women are extraordinary and women are extraordinary. We’ve done so much in this country. There’s an element of this film that is not all grim. It’s inspiring.