Directed by Tia Lessin and Emma Pildes, The Janes is a documentary on the Jane Collective (Jane) and one of two films that highlight the significance of the group. Mostly featuring interviews from past members, The Janes delves into the history of women’s healthcare in the late 1960s, which drove the creation of the Chicago-based underground movement.
In the late 1960s, abortion was a crime for most of the USA. With abortions considered a sin in a heavily Catholic city such as Chicago, women with unwanted pregnancies had no other option but to contact the Mob for assistance, without any assurance that they would even survive after the procedure. As drastic as this measure was, it was the tip of the iceberg for single women needing medical assistance.
Around that time, women had to be married to obtain contraception or receive medical assistance regarding their pregnancy. However, they couldn’t work if they were pregnant and therefore couldn’t afford living costs, let alone basic healthcare. With men dominating the medical and legal fields, and women’s rights were implied of being of little to no interest, the Chicago Women’s Liberation Union and subsequently Jane were created.
With a constant feeling of frustration and fear, The Janes offers a one-sided perspective. The documentary consistently establishes the hurdles faced by women at the time, which results in a somewhat lack of personal insight from male parties (except for Jane collaborator ‘Mike’). Whether they wanted and hoped to do more or tried to bring the legalisation of abortion to the forefront of the political field is unclear, so The Janes doesn’t explore the third-party effects of the era’s social inequality as thoroughly as expected.
This is probably because Jane is the focal point of the documentary. Throughout The Janes, Lessin and Pildes reinforce a feeling of helplessness that emphasises the significance of the movement. With their covert operations, which includes changing drivers, the fear of police surveillance, and alternating locations, it is surprising that they could publicly advertise their service and have such a large uptake without drawing too much attention. Aside from the odd scare, Jane members didn’t care about the legal repercussions – their priority is those who call them and their duty to help them.
Down-to-earth yet candid in nature, former members openly reminisce their experiences with Jane. They were from different backgrounds and classes, yet they all recognised a need for women to take a stand regarding something as basic as healthcare. This sentiment also extends to social and racial equality as Jane sought to provide abortions for women unable to afford them. Their proactive nature also saw them take back some power from mostly male doctors, who may not have understood the mental and physical effects of childbirth. As certain Jane members had undergone abortions of their own, their collective experience allowed them to elevate their ‘service’ with a personal touch and increase its popularity with more than 11,000 abortions and no recorded deaths by the time of its disbandment in 1973.
As The Janes closes, their cause is beautifully summarised with a single sentence: “We were ordinary women and we were trying to save women’s lives.” With that simple aim in mind, Lessin and Pildes’ educative, eye-opening documentary raises awareness of a fight that, for some, is ongoing.
Director: Tia Lessin, Emma Pildes
Runtime: 101 minutes