Q&A: Cait Johnston and Judith Arcana on Abortion in Media and Making Ask for Jane

The upcoming film Ask for Jane tells the story of The Abortion Counseling Service of Women’s Liberation, also known as “The Jane Collective” or “The Service.” It operated in Chicago from 1969 until 1973. This group of courageous women (“Janes”) risked their freedom in order to help others obtain abortions—several members would ultimately learn how to perform an abortion, and by the time the group disbanded it had assisted in over 11,000 procedures.

Judith Arcana, now a writer and activist, was a member of The Service for over two years. Cait Johnston—a Planned Parenthood advocate—is the creator and star of the film. They spoke with Ms. about the film, Judith’s experiences prior to her work with the Janes, and how abortion has traditionally been portrayed in films and on TV.

What inspired you to make Ask for Jane?

Cait: I learned about the Jane Collective last May when I saw a documentary [She’s Beautiful When She’s Angry] that Mary Dore had created, and I was struck instantly by the story. It was only, maybe, two minutes in the movie, but I latched onto it, and I went home that night and started doing all this research and [found] all the information that I could. I thought it would make a brilliant film. So, I approached my friend Rachel [Carey] the next day and asked if she would write the screenplay.

I just care both about telling the story to an even wider audience, because I think it’s ridiculous that most people don’t know about this huge piece of women’s history. And also I’m excited about having a movie with tons of women in the film because there is this huge lack of gender parity in the film industry, and I think that this can help to correct that as well.

What initially drew you to the women’s liberation movement?

Judith: To the movement itself? Well, I was, of course, a woman and right away that was an opener, and I was, and I still am, a smart person. However, what I learned very soon after the first glimmers [of the women’s movement] in the mid-to-late sixties, and then ramping up really fast as the movement gained power and presence, was that you can be smart, but your ignorance and your lack of knowledge of what it means to be socialized in a particular way can stunt your intelligence, and that was a real mind-blast for me ’cause I thought “Well, I’m okay.” I mean I didn’t think that I [was] the greatest person in the world, or the most wonderful woman ever, but I thought, “I’m just fine, thank you.” And then I realized all the stuff that, of course, women in the century before me had also realized, and thought, “Huh, this means everything’s different from what I thought it was.” And that [made me think], “Well, okay, if it’s different, then how is it different and how am I supposed to behave and think and be in the world now that I know that the world wasn’t how I was raised to think it was?”

Were you involved with other groups as well? I read that you started off as a teacher, and in 1970 you were let go even though you were tenured because they deemed you to be too radical. What were some of the other things that you were involved with?

Judith: Well, actually, there’s a tremendous irony in that story in that I was, as I just described myself, really a beginner in political consciousness. In the years from ’68 through ’70 I was learning faster and faster and faster, of course, as it went along, but then they fired me and my two pals. There were three of us who were the scene of “the fired teachers” in that township in Illinois. When they fired us I was still, I will say, a relative beginner. They thought—they being the school board and the cadre of community, parents who were against us—that I was this dangerous, radical person, when in fact, I was still in baby steps, or toddler steps. And what I have learned to say since then, which is now a long time ago, is that they were part of what radicalized me. What they did to me, and to my friends, and to the entire community, really, by doing this, was to ramp up our knowledge and our understanding to a great extent.

So, I was not doing much. I was still figuring it out, and of course I was a full-time teacher so I spent a lot of time—and this was one of the things that scared the hell out of them—out of school with kids. We went on walks, we went to the beach at Lake Michigan, we hung out and they came to my apartment, they baked cookies in my kitchen. This was pretty scary stuff, as you can imagine.

It sounds like a continuation of McCarthyism in some ways.

Judith: Oh, yes! I would say you are right on the money with that one. Yeah.

Cait: I think it’s funny that people are so threatened by what they deem to be progressive because just like you said about learning from history and how things are different. Things are always going to be different. Things never stay the same. And if we don’t learn from our history how can we ever move forward as a country and as a people?

Judith: Really, and literally as individuals within “the people.”

Cait: Absolutely!

Judith: If you don’t know, you know, literally, ignorance is the great thing to be feared. 

There was one particular line in She’s Beautiful When She’s Angry that stuck out to me—”no victories are permanent.” I think that really encompasses everything that is going on now because I think so many people had thought, “We’ve already done this. Why is this happening again?” There were a lot of people that believed, “We’re a post-sexist society. We’re a post-racial society.” And, unfortunately, being in this situation now, it kind of raises all of the—for lack of a better term—pus to the surface because now it has to be dealt with. As opposed to just buried down deep where people don’t have to acknowledge that these things are still real problems.

Judith: I definitely agree. Nothing is ever over. Life is constant change. And it just keeps moving, and moving, and moving, and you must be alert to the movement of life.

Cait: I’ve been so struck in doing research for this film by the things that women said in the late 60’s and early 70’s that are exactly the same as things that people are arguing now. And things that my friends have said on Facebook. And just that we’re arguing the same points again.

Judith: And of course, I think I said something like this, about five minutes ago, but the women in the beginning of the 20th century, and certainly in the last, what, four to five maybe more decades of the 19th century—and that’s just the United States! We’re not even talking about the rest of the planet! So yeah, even the women my age and my generation, we weren’t the originators, ’cause I guess in some sense there are no “originators.”

I think that another thing that is really striking and sad is that so much of women’s history is not as well known, and it isn’t even committed to paper. I mean…

Cait: Yeah! It’s not taught in schools.

Yeah, exactly. I think that this has happened, and continues to happen, but there isn’t as much of a record of it as there are with causes that more men have been involved with, and I think that that’s really unfortunate.

Judith: Certainly, not as much as their wars, that’s for sure.

Cait, how did you involve any of the original Janes? Obviously, you are in touch with Judith. Are you in touch with any of the other original Janes, and how were they involved with the project?

Cait: Judith, you are only the member of the Janes that I am in contact with, and I am so thrilled to have you! Judith found me! I’ve been trying to spread the net of this project to everybody who might be excited about it because we’re doing this grassroots campaign to fund the film because the film industry tends to be very male-centric and politically cautious and this is a film that would take probably years to make if we went that route and we felt like it was important to tell now. So, somehow in the spreading of the word, and the Instagramming and the Facebooking and the emailing, Judith heard about it from a friend of hers who had heard about it from a friend of theirs and she emailed me. And I got the email from her as I was on the train to New Jersey to have a meeting with Rachel, who’s the screenwriter and director of this project, so I got this email from Judith and I already recognized the name in my inbox because of all of my research. I’d read her writing, I knew who she was and I thought, “Is this a mailing list that I signed up for? Or is this someone emailing me an article by her?” And I open it and it’s from Judith. I literally cried on the train and people around me are kind of looking up and were like, “Is she okay?” It made my whole week. It’s still making my whole year. It’s great! So that’s how Judith came to be involved.

Judith: I just want to put a footnote on that very wonderful and sweet recitation. It is actually and completely accurate about me. I got a note from a pal of mine who’s a long-time activist in reproductive justice work and who had heard from a friend of hers who, like Cait, is a longtime Planned Parenthood advocate. And so my friend said, “Do you know about this?” And I thought, “No.” So then I checked them out, of course, because I get, and the other Janes do too, a bunch of stuff, and more and more, of course in the last four months it’s like open season on Janes. But when I checked out Rachel and Cait, I thought, “Well these gals look like the real deal!” And I thought, “You know, it can’t hurt to write her a little note.” Because I have wanted movies about Jane for years and years and years. I write stories about Jane, well I have written, I’m done now, I’m doing other stuff, but I have a lot of stories about or rooted in Jane experience, also a book of poems that was rooted in Jane experience and I do a lot of talking and so on and so forth, performances of my work, all of that. But movies, damn it, I want movies!

The misrepresentation of abortion in films and TV shows is so, unfortunately, rampant. I think that that really affects how people see it. I think that positively portraying this experience as not always something that results in death—which is a very common way that abortion is portrayed on screen—is so important. In a previous interview, Judith, you mentioned the movie Obvious Child, which was a movie that meant a lot to me. I felt that the way that Jenny Slate portrayed abortion on screen as something she took seriously, but it wasn’t the “end all, be all” choice in her character’s life. It wasn’t something like 10 years later she cries about, you know? I think that is true for a lot of women. Not all women’s experience of abortion has to be this totally traumatic thing.

Judith: On the contrary, the majority are very much the other way. Obvious Child was a great gift to all of us. I completely agree with you. You may know this, but a good three to five years before Obvious Child came out, [Jenny Slate] had a 20-minute short version of Obvious Child online. I watched that thing two or three times and I tried to contact her, but I couldn’t. The movie is very valuable. And part of what makes it valuable is that it is indeed entertaining in the way that we want and need our theater and film to be.

Cait: Rachel, who is writing and directing Ask, is very interested in heist movies… so she was very excited about this piece because ultimately it’s this empowering story about women helping each other and there’s this cool spy element to it with everyone having to use the name “Jane” and having to operate in secrecy because of the nature of abortion being illegal.

I do think that there is something to be said for the fact that our entertainment does affect our political views. If you look at gay marriage in regard to how Will & Grace became a very popular TV show, and it was in the living rooms of people who had never had very much experience with “out” gay people, and over time their opinions changed. And I feel that having something similar in regard to abortion could have a really positive effect. That’s part of what drew me to this film because it talks about the history, of course, but it also shows what is at stake, and I think that that is incredibly important.

Cait: I would expand on what you just said. I think that it’s more than just changes to political views, film and media, I think that it can change all kinds of views in just the collective consciousness. For instance, the representation of women, to see women who are doing things and taking action and having initiative and not being the victims or side tangential characters and not being relegated to, say, the eye candy who’s half-clothed throughout the movie. This is a movie that has, gosh, 70 percent speaking, important female characters in it. I think that films like that help with the collective consciousness because girls can see them and think, “Oh yeah! I can do stuff. I can be powerful. I can make a difference.” Instead of feeling like hapless victims as the media so often portrays them.

Judith: I just read an interview with Geena Davis this morning, and also, of course, there’s the Bechdel Test, clearly this movie is going to pass the Bechdel test with an A+, gold star!

Cait: Flying colors!

Judith: Indeed, so this interview with Geena Davis… she was talking about exactly what you’re talking about right now, in terms of the percentages.

Cait: I think the numbers are three men to every one woman speaking character in the top 200 films. And that this statistic hasn’t changed since the 1940s!

Judith. Yup. People who speak of progress have to speak of slow action.

You can follow Ask for Jane on Instagram, Facebook and Twitter.


Jacklynn Blanchard is a freelance writer currently living in the Denver area. Her work has previously appeared in publications like Bustle, Amazon's Day One Literary Journal, The Word Magazine, Ellipsis Journal and Weird Cookies Journal. Another one of her pieces about the Jane Collective will appear in the Summer 2017 issue of Bitch>. You can find her on Twitter.