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The Janes: They Defied the Law, the Church and the Mob

Tia Lessin and Emma Pildes are the directors of the new HBO documentary The Janes. Tia is an Oscar nominee for her work on HBO's Troubled the Water and Emma is an Emmy nominee for HBO's Jane Fonda in Five Acts. Their new film, The Janes, tells a story of a group of unlikely outlaws, defying the state legislature that outlawed abortion, the Catholic church that condemned it and the Chicago mob that was profiting from it. The members of The Janes risked their personal and professional lives to help women in the pre-Roe versus Wade era, a time when abortion was a crime in most states and even circulating information about abortion was a felony in Illinois. The Janes provided low cost and free abortions to an estimated 11,000 women. A raid in which seven members of the collective were arrested, became the driving force for Roe vs. Wade, the Supreme Court decision that legalized abortion nationwide in 1973 and is inevitably going to be reversed in the United States in 2022.

LISTEN to our complete interview.


[01:30] On what you're most passionate about

[02:45] On who The Janes are.

[03:57] On what compelled them to make the film

[06:03] On the legal risks that The Janes took

[08:03] On the advantages of this collective being an organization run almost completely by women

[10:52] On the effects on women of color or poor women even after abortion became legal in New York

[14:12] The lesson that we can learn from the film in the midst of the current situation with Roe vs. Wade

[16:12] On how the Janes feel about what's happening right now

[17:19] On a new movement of Janes

[19:34] On their dream for women?




The Passionistas: Hi, and welcome to The Passionistas Project Podcast, where we talk with women who are following their passions to inspire you to do the same.

We're Amy and Nancy Harrington, and today we're talking with Tia lessen and Emma Pildes, the directors of the new HBO documentary "The Janes." Tia is an Oscar nominee for her work on HBO's "Troubled the Water" and Emma is an Emmy nominee for HBO's "Jane Fonda in Five Acts."

Their new film, "The Janes," tells a story of a group of unlikely outlaws, defying the state legislature that outlawed abortion, the Catholic church that condemned it and the Chicago mob that was profiting from it. The members of The Janes risked their personal and professional lives to help women in the pre-Roe versus Wade era, a time when abortion was a crime in most states and even circulating information about abortion was a felony in Illinois. The Janes provided low cost and free abortions to an estimated 11,000 women. A raid in which seven members of the collective were arrested, became the driving force for Roe vs. Wade, the Supreme Court decision that legalized abortion nationwide in 1973 and is inevitably going to be reversed in the United States in 2022.

So please welcome to the show Tia Lessin and Emma Pildes.

We'd like to begin by asking you both what you're most passionate about. Let's start with you Emma.

Emma Pildes: My skillset when I'm good at what I've worked hard to be good at being a filmmaker to lift up stories like these in moments like these, to give a platform for in this case, these extraordinary women to testify about things that are important.

I'm passionate about using my powers for good. I think this is what I'm saying, but I mean, you know, that's it, we, we, there's so many things in this world that I can't do and I'm here and this is a path that I've chosen and I want to make something of it.

The Passionistas: What about you, Tia?

Tia Lessin: I'm passionate about storytelling. I'm passionate about democracy and passionate about my 11 year old son and living with. A good world in the future. I'm passionate about women's rights and racial justice and economic equality. I'm passionate about making pottery, which is something I do when I'm not making films and making dinner for my kid.

The Passionistas: Tell everybody who The Janes are.

Tia Lessin: The Janes are a group of infinitely resourceful women in the late sixties and early seventies. At a time when abortion was illegal and most of the country, they decided to challenge that they went underground. This was a group of pretty unlikely outlaws. They were college students and college dropouts and homemakers and clerical workers, and they knew that they wanted to use their resources and their time to save women's lives and to make safe and affordable abortions accessible to women in Chicago and actually women throughout the Midwest who flocked to them at that time who had few options when they wanted to end their pregnancies.

And one other thing I'll say is that they defied the Catholic church. They defied the Mob, they defied and invaded the Chicago police for many, many years and used all sorts of underground tactics and techniques. To build this sisterhood of care.

The Passionistas: What compelled you to make the film? Why tell this story now?

Emma Pildes: Three years after Roe became law of the land, the Hyde amendment passed. They've been chipping away at abortion access and abortion care and reproductive justice from the get-go. So I suppose in some way, anywhere along the way in the last few years, this film would have been important and relevant.

It certainly switched into hyperdrive in 2016 when Trump got into office and immediately started packing the courts and his rhetoric was all over the place and ideologues were more and more in government and in the courts, it got scary in a new way. And Daniel Arcana, one of the other producers on the film started developing, daniel also happens to be my brother and we have a family connection to this story. So he sort of had this in his back pocket and it was pretty clear that now is the time I don't think he knew, or we knew as we came together quite how timely it was going to be. You know, I don't think we could have ever predicted that in the same month that we're premiering on HBO.

We are going to lose Roe. So I would not go so far as to say we got lucky with that, because that is certainly not the case. You know, we wanted to tell a historical tale because it seemed important.

And to give these women a voice and it seemed important that it was starting to become relevant, but never could we have imagined that it would be quite so relevant, but we're just grateful to have something to contribute to the conversation. And we feel really fortunate and humble to tell these women's story.

The Passionistas: Beyond the abortions themselves, what were the legal risks that The Janes were taking and what did you learn from talking to them the reasons that they felt it was so important to do what they were doing at the time?

Tia Lessin: Well, they were risking charges of abortion and conspiracy to commit abortion. Actually at that time, even advertising their services was a felony crime assisting a woman to get an abortion was a felony crime holding her hand during an abortion was a felony. So it wasn't just providing the service, the medical service. It was everything around it that could have landed them in prison and almost did, were it not for Roe.

So look, they were well aware of the potential consequences of their actions, not to mention the social stigmatization that they potentially faced from friends and family members, because at that time, it wasn't a socially acceptable thing and still to this day. So they were willing to risk all that professional loss, personal loss time in prison because they so believed that this was a moral obligation to stand up, to help make sure that women had this ability to control their own fates, to decide when and whether, and with whom to have children. And they were highly influenced by the civil rights movement and the anti-war movement and the student movement and the women's liberation movement, of course, where they had a righteous calling against racism and economic injustice and the killing of innocent people in the unjust war.

And I think all that experience gave them the grounding to do this political work. And it was work, not just taking a political stand, not just signing a petition, but actually doing this day in day out work to, to create this group of mutual aid.

The Passionistas: What were the advantages of this collective being an organization run almost completely by women?

Emma Pildes: I can't remember Katie's exact quote at the beginning of the film, but she's basically saying, because nobody pays any attention to us as women that, you know, really worked hard advantage in this instance.

And I think that's really true. I mean, they're so smart. They sort of utilize that as a superpower to be under the radar with this. I think there's probably a lot of things I think quite highly of women, what they're capable of and what their super powers. So there's quite a lot that they brought to the table from being mothers or not being mothers from not talking, but listening and all of those other movements, because they weren't sort of allowed to talk.

I mean, they probably soaked up quite a bit of knowledge. They're being marginalized and they picked that up and they brought that with them and they use that to their advantage. So these are brilliant moral human beings. That as Tia said were really willing to put it on the line to help other people in need, no matter what the consequence is and that bravery, I mean, I don't know that there's, that's, that's something extraordinary.

The Passionistas: We're Amy and Nancy Harrington and you're listening to The Passionistas Project Podcast in our interview with Tia Lessin and Emma Pildes. qatch their documentary, "The Janes" on HBO and HBO Max.

We'd like to take a moment to share a special announcement. We'll be hosting the third annual power of Passionistas summit this September 21st through September 23rd, 2022. And. The three-day virtual event is focused on authentic conversations about diversity, equity, and inclusion, this unique gathering of intersectional storytellers and panelists partisans, the power of our rich community, a passionate thought leaders and activists to pose solutions to the problems plaguing women today.

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Now here's more of our interview with Tia and Emma.

Abortion became legal in New York what were the effects on women of color or poor women even after that momentous event?

Tia Lessin: It was true then. And it's still true that when women have to cross state lines for legal abortions, certain women, certain people are left behind large groups of people.

People that can't afford to travel, they can't afford the cost of a plane ticket or a bus. And they don't have access to a car or take a gas, you know, or they don't have a place to put their children because many of these were already mothers looking to terminate, maybe the fourth or fifth or sixth pregnancy, or they didn't have the luxury of taking time off of work.

And so this was primarily low-income women and young women, disproportionally brown and black women who were stuck, you know, they were left behind. And their very best option. And it was quite a good one was to turn to Jane the worst option. People who didn't have the resourcefulness or the luck or the connections to find Jane turned to the mob or to back-alley abortionists or, and if they couldn't find that they may have self-inflicted some harm, they might've tried to self induce.

And a lot of those women have. In the septic abortion, where to cook county hospital, which is a dumping ground from all over Chicago, for women who presented with bleeding or injury from a induced abortion. And when they got there, they were interrogated by police who had done this to them. And if they were lucky enough to survive, you know, to live another day, that was great.

But many of them didn't, many of them work damaged beyond repair and too many. And just to be clear, this is for a very simple medical procedure. We're talking about a procedure that is commonplace one in four people of childbearing age with a uterus, have an abortion. And we're talking about a procedure that's safer than a colonoscopy and a tonsillectomy, and is far safer than childbirth.

They're not dying because there's anything inherently dangerous about the procedure they were dying because they couldn't get one safely in a clinic situation.

Emma Pildes: The amount of women that died and were injured up against how safe the procedure is makes you realize how little the practitioners out there at the time cared. That's a tough pill to swallow. Nobody should be dying from this procedure when you're in a country where the government is saying that they don't value women's lives. I guess that's not surprising how unscrupulous the people out there in the back alleys. Some were doctors that were in it for themselves who injured, murdered, sexually assaulted sterilized women.

It's just, just none of that has to be the case here. So, yes, it's a, it's an incredibly simple procedure that a group of young, some of them are 19 years old. We're able to take on and do [00:14:00] safely just because they cared.

The Passionistas: What's the lesson that we can learn from the film in the midst of the current situation with Roe vs. Wade?

Tia Lessin: The remarkable thing about Roe vs. Wade is that it created federal protection for abortion. That means that every state had to subject career and other respect a woman's right to choose. And without Roe V Wade, as we see, you know, it's every woman for herself, your healthcare is dictated by your zip code and the state you live in and whether or not the people representing your state in the state legislature give a damn about women's autonomy and women's choice, or want to use that issue for politically.

So what's going to happen. What's clear. It's not a question of, if it's a question of when Roe V. Wade is overturned and it in this month is that large swaths of this country are gonna be without abortion care, like existed. pre-Roe only, in some ways there are much more punitive consequences for women and the providers who serve them.

People are subject to criminal prosecution. If they cross state lines for the spinach. Doctors potentially are subject to that prosecution for serving patients out of state. And everyday citizens are being incentivized with bounties to turn in their neighbors and friends and colleagues. If they suspect that person has had an abortion it's madness, none of those laws existed pre-Roe. In Ohio, there's a bill under consideration that prohibits abortion in cases of incest and rape, because the legislator who defended it says, you know, there's, there's always contraception in the case of rape and incest. Anyway. So in the context, I think we're [00:16:00] hoping that the story helps to pass on some of the lessons learned from that era and engage audiences in the fight.

The Passionistas: How did the Janes feel about what's happening right now?

Tia Lessin: Neither of us would put words in their mouth.

Emma Pildes: It's a dangerous thing to do.

Tia Lessin: They've been interviewed and they've been on stage when we've heard them enough to be able to say that they are in fighting shape. Look, 50 years ago is a long time, but they've moved on in their lives.

And many of them are in retirement and tending their gardens and their grandchildren. And Eleanor is in a quilting circle. And, you know, they're all doing their own thing. They are ready to fight. And they're using this film as a vehicle to do that. I mean, they're speaking out, they're speaking loudly, they're offering up whatever wisdom they've gained.

And they're also really very happy to pass the baton to the next generation of young people who really have to take this on and fight the fight. The stakes are very high and it involves their lives. So they're happy and mad as what I'd say.

The Passionistas: Do you think there'll be a new movement of Janes? Do you think there are already women out there who are coming together to be prepared to do this hard work?

Emma Pildes: Yeah, I think there's a lot of people coming together to do this hard work. I don't think we know exactly what form it's going to take. The conservative right. Has gotten very creative in the last 50 years, but we have to, you know, and we have the abortion pill now, which is a big leg up, you know? I mean, it's really, it's, it's a big difference.

We have the internet. That's a big difference probably for good and bad, but that's a big difference. So I think what's clear is that people care that was evident from the. I think that will people up a bit. I don't think it's enough yet. And what we hope to do with the film is to wake the sleeping giant of the majority.

You know, we don't have to change hearts and minds. We just have to remind people that they have to speak up. You know, all those things that Tia was just saying, that's a miscarriage of justice. That's a failing of our democracy. This, isn't just one issue. They're coming at us with this unrighteous moral high ground, and they're going to keep going, telling people how to live based on their beliefs.

So I don't think that's going to stand. I do agree with he, I think the ship has sailed. I think we are going to lose row, but I think people will come together. And the other side of the coin for us and making this. Yes. We were quite aware and have been for the last couple of years of the detailed reality of what this country looks like when women don't have a right to choose and how many people die and how many people are injured and all that.

But we are also steeped in this story of human trials. That the moral code of these women is part of the human condition too. So that's been very inspiring and I think there's an unfathomable amount of work to be done, but we can do it, but we got to take to the streets and open our wallets and do all the things necessary to make that happen. We can't rest on our laurels anymore.

The Passionistas: What's your dream for women?

Tia Lessin: Some days I'm very hopeful. So I think of the dreams and some days I just think of the nightmare that people are living in the U S has the highest incarceration rate in the world. There are millions of people in prison right now. There are millions of people sleeping on the streets every night in our country.

There are 30 million people. I just looked that up that don't have healthcare insurance that don't, that don't have access to. And now they're tens of millions of people who aren't going to have any say about whether and when, and with whom they're going to have children. So that's the nightmare part of it.

And that their access is determined by how much money they have in the pocket or what resources they can connect to. So I know the nightmare part of it. The dream would be that that all goes away. You know, that women, people with uteruses who want to have children can at the time they want to and have diapers for their babies when they're born and have baby formula or the ability to nurse and have good schools to send their children to, and the support they need, you know, the childcare support.

You know, and the economic support that they need to raise those children in loving homes with the resources that they need. And, and the, those people that do not wish to own a child, but want to be part of children's lives. Won't get stigmatized and can do that as well. So that's my dream is that women's professional and economic lives.

Aren't determined by whether or not we have. Our social status is not determined by whether or not we have children. And our economic status is not determined by whether or not we have children. That's the dream.

Emma Pildes: My dream for women, I guess, would be that they can fulfill their dreams. It's about feeling valued and equal and having bodily autonomy and not just stopping there. That's such a basic human, right. I feel like we've been fighting for basic human rights forever. So I guess my dream would be that we could stop talking about that and that we could thrive in all the other ways that we want to thrive. And fulfill our dreams and see it through to the, you know, to the next generation and not be damaged by male and female.

Unfortunately, lawmakers for generations, there's a lot of female generational trauma that comes from this kind of legislation. People lose mothers when they're very young and that changes their whole life and their children's lives. The ripple effect. It's very profound. So I wish we could stop talking about all this and stop having a fight for all of this and able to thrive.

The Passionistas: Thanks for listening to our interview with Tia Lessin and Emma Pildes. Watch their documentary, "The Janes," on HBO and HBO max, please visit The Passionistas Project.Com to learn more about our podcast and subscription box filled with products made by women owned businesses and female artisans to inspire you to follow your passions. Double your first box when you sign up for a one-year subscription.

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Until next time stay well and stay passionate.

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