Ruth Surgal

(WOMENSENEWS)–One afternoon in 1969, I turned on the radio in my Chicago home and heard Studs Terkel interviewing Marlene Dixon and Nancy Stokely, two professors who had been fired from the University of Chicago for their work with the women’s movement. Before that day, I honestly hadn’t thought much about women’s rights. I was a 32-year-old homemaker, trained as a social worker but staying home to raise my children. To me, feminists were just women with bad marriages and a grudge.

But that radio program was one of those “Aha!” moments; everything fell into place for me. I understood why I was never allowed to learn to play the drum in school and why later I was discouraged from becoming a psychiatrist because girls didn’t do that. I got why my mother believed she couldn’t be a good writer because she was a woman.

I knew then that I wanted to get involved. A short time later, I went to a meeting of the Chicago Women’s Liberation Union, at the time one of the largest women’s groups in the country. When they announced the formation of an abortion-counseling service, I saw a chance to put my education in social work to use.

I ran the service with Jody Parsons, a student-activist at the University of Chicago. At first, we provided only counseling and referrals; we passed out simple flyers with a phone number and instructions to ask for “Jane.” We also fielded referrals from the Clergy Consultation Service, a national organization that arranged for women to avoid arrests by receiving counseling in one state and abortions in another. The head of the program in Chicago was the dean of Rockefeller Chapel. He told me he got 15 calls a day, mostly from very poor women.

We primarily referred women to one man who we called Mike. He wasn’t a doctor, but was able to perform safe abortions. (We suspected he was mob-connected, because at the time, the Mafia controlled the abortionists in Chicago.) Soon Jody befriended him. She found him a permanent space to work out of, organized his schedule and finally persuaded him to train her. Once she had the skills, she started working one day a week giving abortions and began training us all.

Then the project was really ours.

Roe v. Wade Brought Progress, But No Guarantees

The Janes of Chicago directly helped some 11,000 women before it was shut down in 1972, after the Supreme Court decision declared abortion bans unconstitutional in Roe v. Wade. But before the clinic closed, between seven and 10 women were trained to provide abortions. I’m very proud of that. The social worker in me is also proud that we gave women a place to talk about how they were feeling. We helped women feel better about having the procedure and about abortion in general: In clinical and political terms, we turned their depression into anger.

On another level, what we Janes got was the most intense experience of our lives. It bound us together in a way that’s hard to explain. There were personal struggles and differences among us, but ultimately those didn’t matter. The women were out there waiting and we all worked to answer the need.

Many of the Janes stayed in the health field; some went to medical school and nursing school. My younger sister, who was also a Jane, went on to law school. I started a women’s health center, focusing on preventive care, with some of the other Janes. But by 1980, I had become so burned out that I quit everything and took up pottery.

Now, at 64, I ‘m going back to social work. So much has changed, but it’s exciting: When I was in social work before, I was a rebel, but now many of the young women in the field sound just like I did in the 1970s.

We Janes thought we’d change the whole medical system. At the time we were operating, the mystique of medicine was being uncovered: The first free clinics were opening, challenging the untouchable, “magic” position of doctors. We provided our service in an unstructured and non-hierarchical way, so that the women who came to us in need were included in the process. We felt that patients had the right and the responsibility to make medical personnel answer their questions.

There has been some change in this area in the last three decades, but more is needed. Doctors provide much more explanation now, but there is an important difference between truly explaining a procedure and simply telling the patient what is to be done to them–whether they like it or not. It’s so important that doctors are trained on an individual level to make sure that real communication with their patients becomes the norm.

And of course, despite Roe v. Wade, women still face so many legal and financial barriers to real choice–new ones every day. You think you’ve won something, and then you learn you really haven’t–someone always wants to take it away. My daughter, Jennifer, said I shouldn’t worry about abortion anymore, that she would take up the fight. But I ‘m not ready to give up. It looks like we just have to keep on fighting.

WEnews correspondent Chris Lombardi assisted in the preparation of
this article.

For more information:

Chicago Women’s Liberation Union
“Articles about Jane”:

Chicago Women’s Liberation Union
“Organizing a Clandestine Abortion Service”