a Feminist, This 'Jane' Was Far From Plain
(Editors Note: Ruth Surgal was a leader of Jane, the Abortion Counseling
Service affiliated with the CWLU. This article originally appeared in
the March 20th 2002 edition of Women's
ENews. The picture of Ruth is from the 1995 video Jane: An
Ruth Surgal passed away August 29, 2004. She had just returned from
the Midwest Veteran Feminists of America Conference held at UIC that
weekend. Her friends and colleagues join the members of her family
in mourning the death of this remarkable woman.
Women's ENews Editor's Note: The following is a commentary.
The opinions expressed are those of the author and not necessarily the
views of Women's Enews.
(WOMENSENEWS)--One afternoon in 1969, I turned on the radio in
my Chicago home and heard Studs Terkel interviewing Marlene Dixon and
Nancy Stokely, two professors who had been fired from the University
of Chicago for their work with the women's movement. Before that day,
I honestly hadn't thought much about women's rights. I was a 32-year-old
homemaker, trained as a social worker but staying home to raise my children.
To me, feminists were just women with bad marriages and a grudge.
radio program was one of those "Aha!" moments; everything
fell into place for me. I understood why I was never allowed to learn
to play the drum in school and why later I was discouraged from becoming
a psychiatrist because girls didn't do that. I got why my mother believed
she couldn't be a good writer because she was a woman.
then that I wanted to get involved. A short time later, I went to a
meeting of the Chicago Women's Liberation Union, at the time one of
the largest women's groups in the country. When they announced the formation
of an abortion-counseling service, I saw a chance to put my education
in social work to use.
I ran the
service with Jody Parsons, a student-activist at the University of Chicago.
At first, we provided only counseling and referrals; we passed out simple
flyers with a phone number and instructions to ask for "Jane."
We also fielded referrals from the Clergy Consultation Service, a national
organization that arranged for women to avoid arrests by receiving counseling
in one state and abortions in another. The head of the program in Chicago
was the dean of Rockefeller Chapel. He told me he got 15 calls a day,
mostly from very poor women.
referred women to one man who we called Mike. He wasn't a doctor, but
was able to perform safe abortions. (We suspected he was mob-connected,
because at the time, the Mafia controlled the abortionists in Chicago.)
Soon Jody befriended him. She found him a permanent space to work out
of, organized his schedule and finally persuaded him to train her. Once
she had the skills, she started working one day a week giving abortions
and began training us all.
project was really ours.
Roe v. Wade Brought Progress, But No Guarantees
of Chicago directly helped some 11,000 women before it was shut down
in 1973, after the Supreme Court decision declared abortion bans unconstitutional
in Roe v. Wade. But before the clinic closed, between seven and 10 women
were trained to provide abortions. I'm very proud of that. The social
worker in me is also proud that we gave women a place to talk about
how they were feeling. We helped women feel better about having the
procedure and about abortion in general: In clinical and political terms,
we turned their depression into anger.
level, what we Janes got was the most intense experience of our lives.
It bound us together in a way that's hard to explain. There were personal
struggles and differences among us, but ultimately those didn't matter.
The women were out there waiting and we all worked to answer the need.
the Janes stayed in the health field; some went to medical school and
nursing school. My younger sister, who was also a Jane, went on to law
school. I started a women's health center, focusing on preventive care,
with some of the other Janes. But by 1980, I had become so burned out
that I quit everything and took up pottery.
64, I 'm going back to social work. So much has changed, but it's exciting:
When I was in social work before, I was a rebel, but now many of the
young women in the field sound just like I did in the 1970s.
thought we'd change the whole medical system. At the time we were operating,
the mystique of medicine was being uncovered: The first free clinics
were opening, challenging the untouchable, "magic" position
of doctors. We provided our service in an unstructured and non-hierarchical
way, so that the women who came to us in need were included in the process.
We felt that patients had the right and the responsibility to make medical
personnel answer their questions.
been some change in this area in the last three decades, but more is
needed. Doctors provide much more explanation now, but there is an important
difference between truly explaining a procedure and simply telling the
patient what is to be done to them--whether they like it or not. It's
so important that doctors are trained on an individual level to make
sure that real communication with their patients becomes the norm.
course, despite Roe v. Wade, women still face so many legal and financial
barriers to real choice--new ones every day. You think you've won something,
and then you learn you really haven't--someone always wants to take
it away. My daughter, Jennifer, said I shouldn't worry about abortion
anymore, that she would take up the fight. But I 'm not ready to give
up. It looks like we just have to keep on fighting.