Special Feature
Return to main Jane Articles Page
Ruth Surgal, social worker, potter
by Monifa Thomas

(Chicago Sun-Times September 2, 2004)-- For Ruth Surgal, becoming a social worker was never really a choice.

"It was her calling. She was the sort of person who always wanted to help others," said her daughter Jennifer Surgal.

That passion led Mrs. Surgal to work for the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services for nearly 20 years. But it was with "Jane" that she had her rendezvous with history.

"Jane" was the code name for the Abortion Counseling Service, an underground collective of Chicago women who performed as many as 11,000 abortions before the procedure was legalized nationwide in 1973.

Mrs. Surgal, also an accomplished potter, died Aug. 29 of a cerebral aneurysm in her Hyde Park home. She was 66.

The daughter of activist parents, Mrs. Surgal learned about the Abortion Counseling Service through her involvement with the Chicago Women's Liberation Union, a leading organization in the women's movement of the 1960s and 1970s.

Friends said the threat of being arrested didn't keep Mrs. Surgal from performing her duties as a coordinator of the group from 1969 until the mid- '70s, scheduling and finding hotels and other secret locations for the procedures, as well as arranging and providing counseling services to patients beforehand.

"She knew she was taking risks, but in her mind, they were risks worth taking," said Heather Booth, who founded the Abortion Counseling Service in 1965.

In particular, Mrs. Surgal took deep satisfaction in knowing that the members of "Jane," who were all trained by doctors, gave women a way to take control over their lives and bodies at a time when safe, affordable options for terminating pregnancies were scarce, Booth said.

Trying to cut through all of the red tape as a social worker for DCFS, on the other hand, proved to be less gratifying for Mrs. Surgal.

"She wasn't able to do any good, just Band-Aid work," Jennifer Surgal said. "It was too frustrating and painful, so she left."

Mrs. Surgal turned to pottery in the late 1970s, discovering a talent for it that led to a teaching job at the Lill Street Studio and several exhibitions of her work citywide. She taught ceramics until 2000, when arthritis in her hands and wrists forced her to quit.

According to her daughter, Mrs. Surgal's pleasant personality and regard for others made her a favorite in her Hyde Park neighborhood.

"Everybody who met her loved her," Jennifer Surgal said. "She was the type of person that everyone would automatically start pouring their hearts out to."

Mrs. Surgal's husband, Joel Surgal, was no exception. The two University of Chicago graduate students met through a mutual friend and married in 1960.

In addition to her daughter and husband, Mrs. Surgal is survived by another daughter, Rebecca Surgal; her son, Joshua Surgal; her sister, Benita Greenfield, and a grandson.

A service will be at 10:30 a.m. Sunday at K.A.M. Isaiah Israel Congregation.


Woman symbol


Special Feature