Fifteen Minutes of Feminism

69. Fifteen Minutes of Feminism: Heather Booth and the Jane Collective (in Memory of Dorothy Pitman Hughes)


December 13, 2022

With Guests:

Heather Booth: Heather Booth is a feminist organizer and political strategist. She started the JANE collective in Chicago in the 1960s when she was just 19, to help provide abortions prior to Roe v. Wade. Since then she has gone on to become a political strategist for progressive issue and electoral campaigns, working with the DNC, NAACP, and more.

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In this Episode:

On today’s show, we’re talking about the Janes. Before Roe v. Wade, if you were in need of an abortion in Chicago, there was a number you could call, run by young women who called themselves Jane. They’d provide abortions to women who had nowhere else to turn. It was started by Heather Booth when she was 19 years old.  We’re joined by Booth, to discuss the history of the Jane Collective and the connections between our pre-Roe past and post-Roe future. Where do we go from here?

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Background Reading:


00:01 Michele Goodwin

Welcome to 15 Minutes of Feminism, part of our On the Issues with Michele Goodwin at Ms. Magazine platform. As you know, we are a show that reports, rebels and we tell it just like it is, and we do it in 15 minutes, albeit counted in feminist terms. And on today’s show I couldn’t be more pleased than to be joined by Heather Booth. Heather is a feminist organizer and political strategist. She started the Jane Collective in Chicago in the 1960s, when she was just 19 years old, to help provide abortions prior to Roe v. Wade to women who desperately needed them.

And we want to take a moment with our show, before we turn to the interview with Heather, to pay homage to Dorothy Pitman Hughes, the inspiration for Ms. magazine. Dorothy Pitman Hughes traveled throughout the United States, giving voice to feminist concerns. She worked with Gloria Steinem, and really served as a force that helped to push the magazine into reality. Her work had been in advocating for child welfare, for women’s equality, and so much more. At the time, abortion was not legal throughout the United States. And she took the stage, making clear that these were issues that were intimate to women’s economic futures, to their liberation, to be able to free themselves from the vestiges of what had been coverture in the United States, which was basically women being property, the legacies of slavery and Jim Crow, which were still a bright reality during the 1960s and 70s. 

Left: Gloria Steinem and Dorothy Pitman Hughes in 1971. (Smithsonian / Flickr). Right: In 2013, to mark Steinem’s 80th birthday, Pitman Hughes commissioned a portrait reenacting the famous 1971 photo of her and Steinem with their firsts raised. (Bagan Photography).

She’s remembered for raising an iconic power fist and being captured in photographs that went all around the world. She was ahead of her time, because as she took the stage, when Gloria said that she felt that she couldn’t, because she felt a bit shy about it. Dorothy took that stage. And she took it being very sensitive to the concerns that women had, at that time—matters of domestic violence, which were real, where police would just say, just go and walk it off or go to the local bar, if you happen to be the man in the house. She was keenly aware about sexual violence and predations that women and girls experienced. She was deeply aware that the conditions which forced women into a motherhood of six or seven or eight or nine or 10 children was not something that could be sustained in cities like New York, with families living in one or two bedroom tenements, at best. 

She was deeply aware of the economic inequalities that women generally experienced, and Black women specifically. In a recent interview that I did with Gloria Steinem, so make sure that you watch out for that, here’s what she had to say about her good friend, Dorothy Pitman Hughes. 

Gloria Steinem:

So I thought, one, if I can’t speak she can take over, and vice versa, you know, we’re better if we go together. And then it turned out to be much better, of course, because we got more representative audiences than either one of us would have by ourselves.

Michele Goodwin:

We couldn’t be more pleased, more honored to lift up her legacy here at Ms. magazine. We are fortunate that she was in the life of Gloria Steinem. We are grateful for her activism and her leadership. We know that in her work to inspire Ms. Magazine, she did more than inspiring a magazine. She inspired a movement. 

And now for this special episode with Heather Booth. She and a group of young women performed 11,000 abortions in Chicago, before being raided and being shut down. But they kept up the fight. And since that time when they were shut down right before Roe v. Wade, Heather has gone on to become a political strategist for progressive issues and electoral campaigns, working with the DNC, the NAACP, and many other organizations. You’ve seen Heather in documentaries and also dramatized in film, and this winter holiday, some of you will be sitting back to watch the documentary about Heather and the Janes as they were called. I couldn’t be more pleased than to have her on our podcast, and on this special episode where we pay tribute to Dorothy Pitman Hughes, I’m so glad to be in conversation with Heather Booth. So sit back and take a listen. Thank you for tuning in.

(00:00:03) Michele Goodwin:

It is such a pleasure to be with you, Heather. Thank you so much for the courage that you’ve exhibited over time and leading a movement that today many people don’t know about, and here I’m talking about Jane. Can you tell us about the work that you did, pre-Roe, to help women who sought to terminate pregnancies?

(00:00:30) Heather Booth:

Michele, I really appreciate your bringing this history to the public, especially when it’s so relevant right now. To give people a sense of what life was like before Roe, when I was in college a friend of mine was raped at knifepoint in her bed in off-campus housing. I went with her to student health to get a gynecological exam, and she was given a lecture on her promiscuity and told student health didn’t cover gynecological exams. Learning from the civil rights movement, we sat with her. They called it a sit-in and because people organized, because people protested, took action in the face of injustice, people say now, of course, we have, students can get gynecological exams, you would get supportive counseling. I mean, they change but only when we organize. 

In 1965 a friend was pregnant and nearly suicidal and wanted an abortion. I was asked to find a doctor for her. I really didn’t know exactly how to approach it, but I went to the medical arm of the civil rights movement, the Medical Committee for Human Rights, and found a doctor, T. R. M. Howard, who I only learned later had been a great civil rights leader in Mississippi and came to Chicago when his name appeared on a Klan death list. I didn’t know that at the time, but I contacted him, made the connection with my friend, the procedure was successful, and I actually thought that was the end of it. But then word spread to others, and I got another call, I made that connection with Dr. Howard, and word spread and I realized I needed to set up a system. 

We called the system Jane and over time there’s a lot more to the history. Over time women I recruited into the Jane network themselves learned how to perform the abortions and the women of Jane performed 11,000 abortions between 1965 and 1973. And when people take action we can save lives, we can make a difference, we can change the laws and change the future. And we have to take action as these very precious freedoms are under threat right now. 

(00:03:01) Michele Goodwin:

When you speak to the number of people who came forward to assist and the number of people who utilized Jane’s services to terminate their pregnancies, can you also paint a bit of the backdrop about what the alternatives were? So, for those who could not use your services, what did, what was life like?

(00:03:34) Heather Booth:

At that point, there were many professions in the US where if you were pregnant or had children you couldn’t even hold a job. In fact, the first, one of the first cases that was brought before the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission that was about women was for flight attendants, and they weren’t allowed to have children on many airlines and they weren’t allowed to be pregnant. There were places where being a teacher you weren’t allowed to be so-called “showing.” As well as if you had a child and weren’t ready for it you might not have an income, you might not be able to continue with an education limiting further life chances, hold down a job, or have the funding to support yourself let alone a child. 

And so the decisions that women faced were just tragic decisions. Even for people who might want a child later in life, it was, as it was argued before Roe, that this is about the most intimate decision in a person’s life, the decision and the freedom to decide when or whether to have a child. And so many women took it into their own hands and had forced, improvised abortions, knitting needles, coat hangers, creating danger for themselves, danger for their future and there were women who died and suffered terrible consequences. There also was a question of community shame, family shame, when you’re put out of your family. And so this really is a fight for the freedom to make the decision about when or whether to start a family.

(00:05:40) Michele Goodwin:

So, leading up to Roe, there were families that came home and found their daughters bleeding out in bathroom tubs, on dining room tables or women dying in motel rooms. And as you say sometimes these were women’s attempts to terminate their own pregnancies, sometimes turning to people who were ill-equipped and unqualified to terminate the pregnancies. How was Jane successful, I mean, given how there were so many maternity wards that were filled during that period pre-Roe with people who were barely surviving after a pregnancy termination, at Jane you all were quite successful and the overwhelming majority, or was it all, of your practitioners, if you will, were all women? 

(00:06:40) Heather Booth:

Well, Jane was set up, it wasn’t on a profit basis. We weren’t doing it because we wanted to make money or become wealthy, but many people when something’s illegal the price often goes up and up. Initially, by the way, the price was 500 dollars, but we negotiated that price down even when Dr. Howard was there or then there was another provider name Mike who was also providing the services. And Mike helped teach many of the women how to perform the abortions in a safe manner. 

But not only was Jane not about a profit motive, it was about building a women’s community, a caring community, and so there was a front room where people were cared for. Some women came with their children. Many already had children and just weren’t prepared to have another child, or some were too young to really consider having a child. Some were too old to feel they could actually sustain a family with another child. And so we built a women’s community that was caring and supportive and the focus was the women’s health and wellbeing and full future participation in a society. 

(00:08:04) Michele Goodwin:

What could be more powerful and important than seeking to achieve that? But before I let you go, and I could spend hours with you, I have a couple of more questions. The first is about fear. Were you ever fearful about being arrested, about Jane being shut down? How did you manage that? 

(00:08:30) Heather Booth:

You know, I’ve personally been frightened about so many things. Certainly, potentially fearful about, would we be shut down? Would the operation be shut down? But I had been in the civil rights movement. I was in Mississippi in 1964 and when I was just demonstrating for the right to register and vote, actually, it wasn’t even a civil disobedience action, but we were arrested. We knew that the Klan was around. We had three young volunteers in that Freedom Summer Project who had been killed, and that other Black men had been killed and their murders not even reported when they were looking, the bodies were found when they were looking for the bodies of the three young volunteers. 

So, I realized that you need to stand up to illegitimate authority, not because you’re not fearful, but in spite of that fear, because there’s a higher cause that moves us on. And on the question of fear, in the civil rights movement people sometimes said are you willing to die for freedom? And it was a question I thought about. I wanted to live, but I was willing to make that choice, if necessary. But now I think there’s a different question. It’s will you live for freedom and justice and democracy and equality? Will you do the work every day? Sometimes the work is boring, it’s too hot, it’s too cold. I’m too tired. I don’t want to make one more phone call. I don’t want to be on one more Zoom.

And not to romanticize the struggle for freedom and justice, but it’s about following a moral commitment with a clear plan every day, often standing up to illegitimate authority. And the key lesson is to organize, to take action, to expand our numbers, to increase the involvement, and when we organize we have changed this world and if we continue to organize we will change this world for the better. 

(00:10:49) Michele Goodwin:

Well, on that note, it leads me to my final question and that is about silver linings. What do you see, Heather, as a silver lining going forward? Many people have lost a sense of hope. Do you see any silver linings going forward?

(00:11:45) Heather Booth:

Well, certainly as you say, there are some terrible things on the horizon. And this whole issue of women’s freedom to decide, people’s freedom to decide about our future and full participation in society has been politicized and made a partisan Republican issue that’s designed to mobilize a right wing, often white supremacist base. There is, though, hope. Because the main thing that’s changed, in addition to there being more providers who know how to provide the service, there being, now, more medical choices. You can have the, without a medical procedure you can have medicines to provide this even in the safety of your home. 

But the main thing that’s changed, that gives me optimism, is that we have changed, people have changed. The millions who have joined in support that we saw in the Women’s March, that we saw in Black Lives Matter, that we see in the Fight for $15, we see in leadership on so many issues across age, across race, across parts of the country. And when we organize, we will change this world. 

(00:13:09) Michele Goodwin:

Heather, it has been my honor, my privilege to spend time with you. Thank you so much for being with us.

(00:13:18) Heather Booth:

Michele, thank you so much.                    

Michele Goodwin:
Guests and listeners, that’s it for today’s episode of On the Issues with Michele Goodwin at Ms. Magazine. I want to thank each of you for tuning in for the full story and engaging with us. We hope you’ll join us again for our next episode where you know we’ll be reporting, rebelling, and telling it just like it is. 

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This has been your host Michele Goodwin. Reporting, rebelling, and telling it just like it is. On the Issues with Michele Goodwin is a Ms. Magazine joint production. Michele Goodwin and Kathy Spillar are our executive producers. Our producers for this episode are Roxy Szal, Oliver Haug and also Allison Whelan. Our social media content producer is Sophia Panigrahi. The creative vision behind our work includes art and design by Brandi Phipps, editing by Will Alvarez and Natalie Holland and music by Chris J. Lee.