Always a Jane: Judith Arcana on History, Hope and Doing the Work

Always a Jane: Judith Arcana on History, Hope and Doing the Work

Judith Arcana tries not to give advice. But as an original Jane of the underground Chicago abortion service (The Service) of the 1970s, Judith admits that she has knowledge and experience that could be helpful:

“…we [Janes] are carrying a whole lot of history inside of ourselves. We are both emblematic, and we have information… so it isn’t so much that I want to give you folks advice so much as, if you want the information that I have, I’m glad to give it to you.”

My 75-minute conversation with Judith from November 19, 2020 really only covered four questions around abortion access, which means it was a great interview. Judith is generous with her time and knowledge, taking care to give thoughtful answers specific to her own ideas, experiences and perspective. She has clearly lived history but also studied the work of women who came before her and stays very engaged in current politics. When I opened our phone call by asking how things are going, she responded with a local political update when I had expected a more personal report. I immediately knew that she was a focused and deeply compassionate person dedicated to learning and sharing.

“When I first joined The Service, in the fall of 1970, I hadn’t known much about that group, but I very quickly learned about the women who had come before me.”

Throughout my interview with Judith, so many great quotes and ideas stood out. I have put them in bold in the following transcript. I chose these lines because they are meaningful to me or taught me something new, or a few I just thought were key facts/reminders. I hope they will resonate with you or inspire you to think differently as well. 

My biggest takeaway from the interview came right out of our first big question. People in the working group that put together this interview project had expressed their commitment to the bigger picture of abortion rights, which in their minds is bodily autonomy. Judith expressed her idea of this bigger picture differently, namely, rejection of ascribed gender roles. I don’t believe that bodily autonomy and rejection of ascribed gender roles are mutually exclusive (they are surely heavily intertwined) or that the bigger picture of abortion rights can’t be both, but I think Judith’s perspective resonated with me more personally. 

Of course I believe that anti-abortionists don’t want womxn to have control over their own bodies, but I also think such a blunt statement can remove the inherent connections to societal norms, making a much more dystopian-sounding argument. I’m likely just hearing two versions of the same story articulated very differently, but Judith’s explanation felt more grounded to me. Perhaps such an articulation could be useful in communicating with people more on-the-fence about the social importance of abortion access.

A lightly edited (for focus and clarification) transcript of our conversation follows.

R – Riley Brennan, interviewer, member of CDSA SocFem Branch

J – Judith Arcana, interviewee, Jane of Chicago Abortion Service


R: How do you see abortion as liberation?

J: I don’t think I would have thought of calling it THAT, of saying ‘abortion is liberation.’ I think that abortion can happen in goodly ways because of and when there has been political action that has created liberation. Abortion has become such a big deal because women are required to experience maternity. The deal is that if you are born with what has conventionally been considered a female body – of course, a lot of that’s different now, but not for everybody, and probably not for the majority, and certainly not for the people who are running the anti-abortion movement – [you] are expected to make people in our bodies, and expected to raise them, and expected to focus our energy and physical powers, although certainly the word ‘powers’ is almost never used by the regulars in relation to women, but still, it’s all supposed to be about motherhood. So anything that is connected to motherhood is grist for that mill. 

Because their [anti-abortionists] definitions and considerations of womanhood are so narrow, considering motherhood, abortion, which is the overt and clear rejection in a particular case, in a particular pregnancy, of motherhood, it just makes their brains explode. Also, even in the minds and lives of women who consider ourselves feminist, who think about this stuff in very serious ways in all of the contexts of our daily lives, we, too, have been thinking along those [womanhood as motherhood] lines, sometimes with resistance that’s conscious, but we can’t – well, I believe that it is almost impossible for people labeled female at birth to not take in this kind of socialization as we grow. In the same way that we learn about menstruation as a quote ‘curse,’ we also learn about our destiny as being absolutely inextricably bound to motherhood – making people inside our own bodies: making them, feeding them… each one of them, anywhere from fifteen to twenty years of our energy. We, which is to say everybody labeled female at birth, are socialized into those attitudes so that you don’t have to be an anti-abortionist person or even an anti-feminist person, anti-women’s liberation person, to have these thoughts and feelings. They are instilled in us all. What you have to have, if you want to be conscious and live out of consciousness, is an examination of that process [of feminization], but first, of course, an awareness of the process.

Those sociological definitions of gender are at the center of abortion having become this giant political issue and social concern. My thinking is, that unless we examine it the way I’ve just been going on about, we will say ‘what’s the big deal? Why has everybody got their knickers in a twist about abortion? What about this or this [other issue]?’ but it’s crucial, I think.

R: Something that stood out to me in researching The Service was the power of “lay” women performing abortions as opposed to doctors in a medical setting. Now many organizations like Planned Parenthood have deradicalized the abortion fight and abortion services back to doctors and this healthcare framework. How do you think the deradicalization of fighting for abortion has affected the way that we fight for our rights?

J: I think it’s a serious mistake. Sometimes when I’m in a really bad mood I think it’s a tragedy. Most of the time I just get pissed off about it. I think it was a serious mistake to emphasize the distinctions that the contemporary so-called “movement for choice” has emphasized. Planned Parenthood, because it is an enormous global corporation, is, of course, operating like a global corporation. They are not about to do anything radical. Now, individual Planned Parenthood clinics and individual people who work in them, my experience is, that often they are quite wonderful. But even they [wonderful people] because of where they work, and because of all the stuff we were just talking about, they don’t necessarily question the ways and the message. One of the things I learned in doing Jane work, maybe a few years before and certainly since, is that the medical industry is one of the most powerful elements in United States society. When I say “the medical industry” I mean three parts: pharmaceutical people, the insurance people and the MD/AMA types. Now there are lots of people, thank goodness, doing healthcare work who are not affiliated with any of those. I mean naturopaths, holistic health practitioners, home birth coaches, people who teach you how to give birth in the bathtub – I wish those people would have been around when I was giving birth; that would have been so cool. Not unlike most women in the United States, my birth experience was hardly what I would have wanted if I had known more. I knew a lot about abortion by then, but I didn’t know a lot about birth.

Judith Arcana

R: One of my biggest projects right now is wanting to know about my body and birth before I am pregnant. I feel like so often that knowledge isn’t shared in advance. I want to shed light on things I want to know before going through it.

J: Yes, yes absolutely. Take good care of yourself, absolutely. And we should not be embarrassed by being interested in and working toward taking good care of ourselves. So often, again part of the socialization, we – and I’m talking now specifically of activists and organizers or teachers, definitely teachers – refuse to, or aren’t even conscious of the refusal, to take care of ourselves because we’ve “learned” that that’s selfish. And that nice girls aren’t selfish, and good women certainly are not selfish. That’s part of the female socialization game. 

Now I don’t want to diss Planned Parenthood per se because they are so different all over the country. Also, so many people who go there are wildly grateful, and appropriately so for the way they are taken care of and the fact that they can even get the care. So when we are speaking and/or writing about this particular critique we really have to be careful. I think they shouldn’t be our target, unless we are writing or talking specifically about a critique about Planned Parenthood, saying ‘here’s the good stuff and here’s the bad stuff.” But if we are talking generically about healthcare delivery systems, specifically about birth and abortion and contraception and nursing and the whole girly set, then I wouldn’t want to focus on them because I don’t want to diss them. 

R: Where do you think we can get our fangs back, that radical perspective? I completely agree, Planned Parenthood may not construct their arguments in a way that I believe, or we believe, is most powerful and most true to our cause, but at the same time they are on the ground providing services that are needed. I don’t think that Planned Parenthood is the enemy; I think that’s what capitalism wants us to think. But where can we focus our critique and our energies to bring that radicalization back?

J: I think, and it’s so bizarre or even creepy to think, but when the Supreme Court overturns Roe v. Wade, massive action will take place all across the country, everything from marching in the streets to petitioning, chaining yourself to the governor’s mansion – that’s one of my favorite examples – and, doing it [abortion]. Doing it underground. There are already people doing it, in the United States, in those parts of the country where it’s been made illegal or functionally illegal. These people may call themselves abortion doulas or abortion midwives, or as I like, good, old-fashioned abortionists, which was a term, of course, shunned by the women’s movement in the decision to make it the “pro-choice movement” without ever using the term ‘abortion,’ which is such a tragic error. So I think it’s going to happen, but even before Roe is overturned, or even in some bizarre manipulation of the court to maintain the status quo of fear and dread, it doesn’t get overturned, there is still the fear of it being overturned and the contemporary reality that in many places in this country abortion healthcare is not available. Because of that, other people will take their lives into their own hands. And as I say, it’s already begun… people are going to rise to the occasion in greater numbers. If you suppress and suppress and oppress, the stuff just kind of leaks out from underneath the suppressive force and goes its own way. 

And this is not a happy thought. I don’t think, ‘oh if we just do this, it will get better;’ I don’t think I have a line like that. But I think if we continue with consciousness-raising and education, learning about how it’s done, what it is – so many people have no idea, really, what abortion is. People have been doing abortions for thousands of years in a variety of ways… reading about everything people have done is terrific in terms of producing energy and sparking energy.

Education, classes [about women’s health, childbirth, menstruation, etc.] and writing, from the past and now, about the core – and the core, when I use it in this context, is the uterus. It is the uterus that is the focal point of the defining of female people – is crucial. The fact is, I got lucky; I happened to find these people [Chicago Women’s Liberation Union]. But you don’t have to wait to get lucky. If you want more of this [education and abortion work], I believe it can definitely be organized. It’s putting this content into the organizing for and as female people. 

R: One question that is important to consider for future organizing, is how do you see the election affecting our fight? Obviously the new Supreme Court appointee changes how we see Roe v. Wade but we will have a Democratic, liberal but not radical, president. So how do you see the landscape changing for the movement?

J: That’s a big one. I think Roe is heading for overturn; I call it Roverturn in my writing. We were heading for Roverturn even before Ginsburg died. She wasn’t going to be able to stop it. People acted like her death meant, ‘oh this is it,’ well – we were there before she died; they already had the numbers. And now they have even more with that total crazy loon who is now on the court [Amy Coney-Barrett].

Strangely enough, sometimes I think, and I’m not the only one, that they – the bad guys – don’t really want to do a complete overturn because if they leave it on the books, they can say, ‘well what’s your problem? We have this court decision from 1973; if everybody will just do what their state laws require, everything will be fine.’ Sometimes I think that they won’t overturn it because they can make it [legal abortion] go away in an underhanded way. But mostly I think they want Roe gone; it’s a big emblem for them. Now they can make it gone if they can push it far enough, fast enough. 

… [on President-elect Joe Biden] he’s certainly nothing like what I would want, but there are some reasons to think that he can be talked to, influenced by Jill Biden and Kamala Harris, as well as the other female people in his family and coworkers… I think it can be worked, but I’m not big on hope. I learned how to hope very late. I learned about hope, let’s see, when I was maybe in my late 40s. It was when I was writing a biography of Grace Paley, the activist and writer. And it was knowing Grace, working with her, becoming friends, talking with her for hours and hours… she was Our Lady of Hope, I’ll tell you. She really knew what it was, and I was blown away by it. I had tremendous respect for her. Grace taught me about hope. I didn’t use it much, but then, about seven years ago, I kicked it into high gear because I had cancer. And that’s a big one. So I think that I am coming from my hope stash when I say these things [about Biden as an ally for abortion access], but that doesn’t mean that my intellect and my politics are rendered invalid. 

R: I think that’s something a lot of people are struggling with: wanting to be hopeful and wanting that hope to motivate them to continue doing activist work, but still wanting to acknowledge their own experience and others’ experiences at the same time. So I’ll definitely be keeping these lines about hope in my thoughts personally. 

Now one last question, if we have time. As you mentioned, The Service ended shortly after the Roe v. Wade decision, and you left before then, but you continue to speak on this topic and do advocacy work and writing and interviews. You are still doing the work, albeit differently. When do you think the work is ever done, and what will this look like for individuals?

J:  [laughs] Well I did leave the service about six or seven months before it ended. I was one of the women the papers referred to as “the abortion seven,” because it was right after the trial of the Chicago Seven, when we were busted by the police in early May of 1972. My life was changing radically at that time; I was on my way to ending my marriage, I had a tiny baby still nursing – a baby I had on purpose – I imagined the headline: Nursing mother arrested for abortion! But they never used that one, so I just have to use it myself. They had a lot of funny headlines. They had one that said, “Fired Teacher Arrested for Abortion,” which is also accurate, I had been fired from my teaching job, but that’s a whole ‘nother story… 

So, anyway after the bust we seven immediately stopped working, and actually the whole Service stopped working. However, The Service only stopped working for a couple of weeks because they couldn’t just stop working. It was quite wonderful really. But the seven of us, we would have endangered everybody. So we didn’t go back to working but we had some meetings, we did a retreat, we had to find lawyers… we spent the next five months doing that, and then some of us left, and some of us went back to work. I, even though I loved it [working in The Service], truly loved it, I just couldn’t keep my life together. I didn’t have an income. I had this little baby. My husband was willing to support the baby and the mommy, but in deciding to leave him I would not have that deal. Although he did pay child support – he definitely was cool about following the rules we had made in court. But I just couldn’t do that [work in The Service]; I had to get a regular job. I had to figure out my life.

Sometimes when I look back on it I think, ‘oh couldn’t you have hung on for another six months?’ and I just laugh out loud because, of course, I didn’t know it would be another six months. I thought it would be just like the last two years had been. So that’s why I left, but it’s not like I wanted to not be doing that work anymore.

I remember, some years ago, I used the past-tense in a sentence with a dear friend, long-time friend who is also a Jane. I said something about, ‘when we were’ or ‘when I was a Jane,’ and she said, ‘hold it. No past tense. Once a Jane, always a Jane.’ And as soon as she said it, I knew it was true. Ever since then, I always say, in an interview or when I’m writing something, ‘I’m a Jane.’ Even though The Service itself, per se, doesn’t exist, in some sense, for anything that ever existed, if people remember it – oh Gd I’m going to  sound like Dickens – but if people remember it and use it, then it still exists.

I don’t think there will ever be a time when we don’t need any more of this [activism], but there will definitely be a time when I’m not doing it. I’ve been thinking about it lately, actually, even though things are very bad right now, and there’s a need for a lot of work. But you’re the ones – this is what I love about talking to you young ones – it’s so exciting to me to find that there are so many young people who want to do this work. It’s part of what makes me think, ‘ok fine. It’s time.’ 

I’ve written a book of poems, I’ve written a book of stories, I’ve done I don’t even know how many interviews over the years – there was a period, by the way, when I was not doing abortion work. That was maybe 15 years. But then the bad guys were just so bad, bombing clinics and killing people but talking about being ‘pro-life’ at the same time, and I just couldn’t stand it. So in ‘98 or ‘99 I had this sort of cosmic experience and began writing again. Then, because of the writing, I got invited to go to events and talk about the writing and the history. So I would say I’ve been back in the game since the end of the 20th century. And now I’m just about done.

But that’s not because I think it [the struggle for abortion rights] is over; I just think that my run is coming to an end. And I don’t say that in a negative sense. It will be okay with me to be done. If I’m not working on it, that doesn’t mean I don’t care about it, especially because I know you’re on the case – you and these other amazing young women whom I’ve been talking to now for several years. It’s intense to see you, to talk to you, to learn what you want. 

I also think that everybody doesn’t have to do everything. Somebody says in the documentary film about The Service about how not everybody wanted to do the medical stuff. I had never imagined doing the medical stuff – well when I came in we weren’t doing it yet – but I didn’t stay with that. You may learn to insert a speculum, you may learn any number of skills to get the work done. But that isn’t necessarily going to be part of the rest of your life in that same way. There were women in The Service who counseled, did the desk work, were driving, and all the other jobs. So the work doesn’t have to be just one thing.