Really Ordinary Women

The Janes (2022)

photo: HBO

In my past life teaching gender studies, I loved hearing my undergrads share their feminist “click” moments—a term borrowed from Jane O’Reilly’s 1971 essay “The Housewife’s Moment of Truth” to describe the incidents that make us realize our individual experiences are part of a larger, politically structured whole. These incidents could be as minor as an unjust dress code or as weighty as physical violence—mine, for the record, was an early-’00s paper towel commercial in which a father and son stood idly by while a mother cleaned up the mess they made—but they all nudged us toward the same infuriating-yet-comforting conclusion: This is bullshit, and I’m not alone in it.

Throughout The Janes (2022), a documentary directed by Tia Lessin and Emma Pildes, members of the Jane Collective—an underground network that helped women find abortion care in Chicago from 1969 to 1973—describe their own “click” moments. These experiences are often deeply personal: subjects talk about navigating workplace norms that were explicitly designed to squeeze them out of public life, harrowing pre-Roe v. Wade illegal abortions, the realization that even the most progressive men in their lives didn’t comprehend them as full people.

But touchingly, their epiphanies are just as likely to emerge from their own pain as they are from witnessing another’s. My favorite moment in the documentary comes early: Eileen1 describes a night in college when a dorm-mate—bleeding profusely after an abortion—knocked on her door and asked for help. Though she barely knew the young woman, Eileen tended to her, calling a doctor for guidance on what to do, riding her bike to pick up ice packs, heeding the dorm-mate’s pleas to not tell anybody.

“I realized, Oh my god, how scary. She’s all by herself,” Eileen says. 

“That must have been really scary for you,” an interviewer adds off-camera. 

“It was, really,” Eileen replies. Then she leans in conspiratorially and admits with a laugh: “Plus, I was high.” 


The sense of solidarity between strangers Eileen describes—and, to a lesser but not that much lesser extent, her irreverence—is the backbone of both The Janes and the Jane Collective. As Heather Booth, effectively the organization’s founder, explains, she didn’t set out to create an abortion network. But when a friend called to ask Heather if she knew how his sister could get an illegal abortion, she helped them find a doctor willing to perform the procedure, and word of mouth led to more and more calls from Chicagoans in need. When the call volume grew too massive for one person to handle, Heather recruited additional members at meetings for local feminist groups, and her solo referral practice transformed into the Jane Collective, a group of women who brought together people who needed abortions and people who were willing to provide them. 

But their work went far beyond helping pregnant people get a medical procedure they needed; it was also an effort to realize a more empathetic, transparent, and thoughtful vision for reproductive healthcare. When people called the phone number they saw in newspaper ads and on bulletin board flyers that read “Pregnant? Need help? Call Jane,” they didn’t just get an appointment for an abortion procedure. Members of the collective used notecards to keep diligent records of each patient’s situation—notecards which flash across the screen showing patients’ ages, pregnancy timelines, current children, most pressing fears, abilities to pay for the procedure—and provided counseling that validated their choice and laid out in clear detail what they were going to experience. As collective member Laura Kaplan explains, “We had thought about how we would like to be treated, what was worrisome for us in a medical situation. We knew that what makes you terrified is the not knowing.” 

On a patient’s appointment date, she’d first go to what Jane members called “the Front,” a sort of off-site waiting room for patients and those who had come along to support them. Members cultivated good vibes at the Front, providing refreshments and companionship until the time came for another Jane volunteer to pick patients up in one of a rotating fleet of cars and drive them to “the Place.” Usually the house or apartment of a volunteer or a friend of a volunteer, the Place was a rotating site where a member of Jane’s roster of abortion providers would perform that day’s procedures. These providers were vetted not only for their trustworthiness—a peek at one of Heather Booth’s early lists reveals detailed notes on which Chicago abortion providers were known to use their positions of power for coercion and predation—but for their ability to provide a pleasant patient experience. 

The thought and care that the Jane Collective put into their services is a staggering departure from the illegal abortion experience narrated in the film’s opening scene, in which Dorrie Barron describes calling a secret phone number she received from a friend and having to speak in code to schedule a price-gouged, organized crime-aligned abortion. As instructed, Dorrie went to the address she was given with cash in hand and found herself in a motel room where another young woman was also getting an abortion. The men performing the procedure hardly spoke to them and fled the room as soon as the procedure was over, leaving the two young women bleeding and instruction-less. When they had recovered enough to stand without getting dizzy, the women got into cabs and went their separate ways—a terrifying, isolating experience from start to finish. 

While the Jane Collective, like the mob, worked underground, the matter-of-factness they project across the board in their talking heads underlines their claims of operational transparency. If you grew up in the Midwest (and maybe if you didn’t—but definitely if you did), you know dozens of women like this: totally uninterested in feminine aesthetic demands or emotive expectations but maternal in their compulsive need to keep you fed and warm; willing to provide advice you need but maybe don’t want to hear; impressive but wholly uninterested in impressing anybody; happy to bust your chops but never to shame you. Any modicum of basic humanity would have been a welcome counter to the nameless, faceless abortion care norm, but the Janes provided something far better than that: familiarity.


This close attention to the collective’s pragmatic rather than touchy-feely approach makes The Janes feel deeply grounded in Chicago. As Peaches says early in the film, “That was the beauty of Chicago, I think. It was a town where people did stuff,”—and the Janes were a platonic-ideal example of this. There was little sentimentality or sensitivity driving their creation of a safe, reassuring healthcare experience; their fundamental motivation was to get things done and to get them done correctly. As Eileen notes of the encounter with the woman in her dorm, “it just stayed with me because it seemed so wrong that this was going on,” and that problem-solving ethos intensifies as The Janes traces the evolution of the collective. 

The most dramatic moment in that evolution takes shape when “Mike,” one of the group’s most reliable and friendly abortion providers, is revealed to have no formal medical training. Some members are unfazed, having always assumed this to be the case, while others are so betrayed they leave the collective. And some, with the most powerful if you want a job done correctly, do it yourself energy I’ve ever witnessed, decide that if “Mike” can provide abortions without going to medical school, they can do the same. “Mike” trains those who are willing to learn before leaving the organization—and a more operationally self-reliant Jane Collective emerges as a result. 

While the members’ confidence in their own abilities in moments such as these is admirable, there’s often a chip-on-the-shoulder attitude running beneath the group’s fuck it, we’ll do it ourselves philosophy. As Katie notes of the group’s ability to function as a local open secret without drawing the attention of the Chicago Police Department and the organized crime syndicates that had previously monopolized abortion, “Men underestimating women’s abilities worked very well for us.” This dynamic manifests even when the Janes do attract CPD’s attention, as the detectives who break down the door of the Place in 1972 to arrest several members of the collective can’t figure out who could possibly be performing medical procedures in a building where there are no men.

Being underestimated remains a deeply gendered experience, but it’s also—as cliche as this is to say—extremely Chicago. To know that Chicago is the greatest city in the U.S. is to be simultaneously annoyed at how few people accept this objective fact and relieved that those who don’t deserve its greatness will never let themselves experience it. The Janes depicts the city as I know it: no-nonsense and action-oriented, with a strong sense of community and zero patience for being told what to do. 

  1. Some of the chyrons in the documentary show both the interviewee’s first and last name, while others only show their first name. Though the last names of some of the latter participants can be found in other coverage of the collective, I am representing their names here as they are represented in the film.