Jane Play & Student Guide
JANE: ABORTION AND THE UNDERGROUND
- “We are women whose ultimate goal is the liberation of women in society. One important way we are working toward that goal is by helping any woman who wants an abortion to get one as safely and cheaply as possible under existing conditions.”— Jane pamphlet, 1969-1973
- “We wanted to create an atmosphere that was empowering in a situation that was normally very disempowering. We wanted to give women some ammunition in their lives, and by acting directly, show them it was possible to take action on their own behalf and on behalf of other women. —Anonymous, The Jane Collective (from Abortion without Apology Nina Baeher, South End Press, 1991)
Drama, two act; at least 9 women (at least two African American), at least 3 men (doubling for both genders required); one simple set possible; offers ethnically diverse roles and strong roles for women.
Running Time: Three versions, ranging from 1.25 hours to 2.25 hours, without an intermission
***PLUS: Two new adapted brief versions by feminist theater companies:
- One-hour of monologues from play adapted by Ruth Vollick of Saint Mary University in Halifax, Canada, for 2010 production.
- Condensed Half-Hour Version, Requiring Only Three Actresses (One African-American), adapted Elizabeth Schwan-Rosenwald and Cortney Hurley of the 20 Percent Theatre Company, Chicago, used in 2007 National Women’s Studies Association conference production.
A timely and provocative drama about “the best-kept secret” in Chicago, “Jane,” an underground abortion service that operated from 1969 to 1973. Based on original interviews and features some of the only publicly available interviews with women who used the illegal service. This network, run by a feminist collective of mostly middle-class housewives and students, was the one safe alternative for about 11,000 Chicago women of all backgrounds. In all those years, “Jane,” which boasted no fatalities and operated in private apartments throughout the city, was well trusted by and commonly received referrals from police, university administrators, social work, clergy and hospital staff. Writing about play’s premiere production in fall 1999, Chicago Reader critic Kim Wilson said: “Everyone — but women especially — should hear this story.”
Available for free use for pro-choice fundraisers, especially #togetherforabortion and #shoutyourabortion events in January. See testimonial from Annika Speer, co-director of 2011 Santa Barbara Production.
- November 2013 Frontiers feminist journal article by Annika Speer. Discusses how play challenges theatrical conventions by dramatizing an abortion on stage (as opposed to obliquely referencing it) and with the general form of the “documentary play.”
- Jane the focus of last chapter of Examining the Use of Safety, Confrontation, and Ambivalence in Six Depictions of Reproductive Women on the American Stage, 1997-2007: Staging “the Place” of Abortion. By Lisa Hagen. New York: Edwin Mellen Press, 2010. Click here for review and to buy.
- Information on premiere 1999 production, Jane history and play excerpt from the Chicago Women’s Liberation Union Women’s Herstory site.
- BEHIND JANE: Interview, WORT, Madison, Wisconsin - Members of the Millennium Theater Production of “Jane” and Paula Kamen talk about the play, the characters and the politics of abortion. (audio clip)
- The interview transcripts on file with the Special Collections Department of the Northwestern University Library. Transcripts quoted in several books, including When Abortion Was a Crime, by Leslie Reagan and Bodies of Knowledge by Wendy Kline.
- Student Organizing Guide available for productions of Jane by Winona State student Nikki Gruis on request.
- See personal writings on Jane collective by member Judith Arcana, one of the arrested "Abortion 7" in 1972 and central character in play.
- For background, read the definitive account of the service, Jane: An Abortion Service, by Laura Kaplan, who was an actual member of Jane.
- Recent Chicago Tribune articles about Jane and the Rev. E Spencer Parsons, head of the Illinois Clergy Consultation Service, a character in the play. (Paula had him donate his papers to Northwestern before he passed away several years ago.)
- New York Times op-ed by Kate Manning about Jane and relevance to current politics
- New documentary about Heather Booth, Jane founder, by Lilly Rivlin
- Amazingly accurate comic-rendered history of Jane, to appear in Comics for Choice anthology by Rachel Wilson and Ally Shwed
- Profile of evolution of Jane play from raw interviews to newest version in Chicago Reader feature by Aimee Leavitt
PRODUCTION AND PUBLICATION HISTORY:
- World premiere by Green Highway Theater Company at the Chopin Studio Theater, Chicago, August 1999.
- Two monologues accepted for publication The Best Stage Scenes 1999 (Smith & Kraus, 2000)
- One scene accepted for publication in The Best Women’s Stage Monologues 1999 (Smith & Kraus, 2000)
- Production by Millennium Theater Company at the Bartell Theater, Madison, Wisconsin, June 2001.
- Readers’ theater production, Winona State University, Minnesota, January 2003.
- Readers’ theater production, Northeastern Illinois University, April 2004.
- Production, Florida State University, Tallahassee, January 2003.
- Productions, College of William and Mary, Virginia, March 2003, March 2005 and November 2007.
- Production, Golden Gate Planned Parenthood, Brava Theater, San Francisco, January 2005.
- Monologue published in Millennium Monologues: Voices of a New Age (Meriwether Press, 2002).
- Semi-finalist, Moondance Film Festival, Stage Plays Category, named November 2000.
- Finalist, Columbine non-violence award, Moondance Film Festival, January 2001.
- Reading, Venus Theater Company, Washington, DC, October 2005; and at George Washington University, January 2006.
- Excerpted performance by 20 Percent Theatre Company, Chicago, at the Pilsen Arts Walk, Chicago, October 2005; and at Northwestern University, Evanston, IL, January 2006.
- Full production by 20 Percent Theatre Company, Chicago, at the Side Studio, February 17-March 24, 2007.
- Full production by the Santa Barbara Pro-Choice Coalition and students from UCSB at the Center Stage Theater, 2011. Co-directed by Annika Speer, author of a 2013 Frontiers journal article about the play.
- Staged reading, at Pride Arts Center, Chicago, July 24, 2017. Directed by Iris Sowlat. Co-sponsored by Shout Your Abortion 773 and the Chicago Women's History Center. For YouTube video, click here
Research for the writing of Jane includes a detailed, original investigation into its past and many interviews with those who were on the scene. This includes leaders of the group and, most rarely, women who used the service in various stages of the network. The drama, a historical documentary, is stitched from original interview transcripts, fictionalized reenactments of conversations, and historical documents, such as a script for abortion-rights street theater by the Chicago Women’s Liberation Union and front-page newspaper coverage of “The Abortion Seven.” The research is so valuable that it was used by the makers of the PBS documentary, Jane: An Abortion Service, which aired in 1998. (Author Paula Kamen is credited as providing some of the film’s research.)
THE STORY: BEYOND THE SURFACE AND THE RHETORIC:
In its suspenseful drama and occasional dark humor, this play tells an important story of both Chicago and reproductive rights history. Engaged in the ongoing abortion-rights debate, the play presents the much needed and forgotten point of view of women, discussing the real threat to their lives and human dignity when abortion is illegal. The play also connects the group to its roots in the New Left, civil rights and women’s health movements — which become clear even to a non-political audience. Many characters were involved in all these movements, such as Micki, a black civil rights worker who was a legal aide in the Chicago Conspiracy Trial and let “Jane” use her apartment in the Kenwood neighborhood for the procedures. (The play also explores connections to the underground Clergy Consultation Service on Abortion, run by E. Spencer Parsons, former dean of Rockefeller Chapel at the University of Chicago, interviewed for the play.)
Jane is also about the power of collective action to make change in women’s lives. By cooperating together under stressful circumstances, Jane made a normally traumatic and “criminal” situation into an empowering one, where women often learned for the first time vital information about their own bodies and feminism. Especially in later years, the collective gave personal treatment to patients, giving them health information, such as copies of the first editions of Our Bodies, Ourselves, and emotional support through the process. Jane also was radical in demystifying and taking control of the abortion process, which was considered the exclusive domain of the male medical establishment.
Yet, while addressing politics (which are inextricable from the characters’ lives), the play is NOT AN “ISSUE PLAY” — and concentrates on telling stories rather than on polemics. The play explores many complexities of the abortion issue, as well as of the main characters involved, most of whom were mothers at the time. The playwright does not “whitewash” the abortion experience of people who used Jane, often including voices critical of this home-grown service. In this play, the complexities of abortion rights are revealed in twists and turns of the plot. Nothing is as it seems on the surface: a minister and pregnant women are abortion-rights activists; a policewoman knocking on the door of The Service is seeking an abortion, not an arrest; and the abortion doctor is revealed not to be a real doctor.
“Jane” was started by Heather Booth (later a leader in the Democratic National Committee), then a leader of campus activism at the University of Chicago, who is credited with forming more early feminist groups than anyone else. (She is also the subject of a 2017 documentary.) Because of her contacts in the civil rights movement, a friend asked her to find a doctor to help his sister, who needed an abortion. Soon, the word spread throughout activist communities of her connection to a doctor, and she found herself setting up a counseling and referral service. When returning calls to women, she used the code name “Jane.” When the workload became too much, she sought the help of other activists, many of whom were drawn to the emerging “women’s liberation” and women’s health movements. Eventually, “Jane” officially became a part of the greater women’s movement by affiliating with the Chicago Women’s Liberation Union, a groundbreaking socialist-feminist umbrella organization, founded in 1969.
Gradually, the women of “Jane” (or “the Service”) began assisting the abortionists and learning the procedures on their own. Meanwhile, they found out that the abortionists they were using were not real “doctors,” as promised, further demystifying this previously mysterious procedure. In 1969, they took over performing the abortions themselves, charging less than $100 a piece and helping the poorest women in the city. After a long period of surveillance, in 1972, police finally busted the Service. But before the much-publicized “Abortion Seven” could go on trial, the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision released them from charges and “Jane” dissolved.