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Paula KamenAn Interview with Journalist and Playwright Paula Kamen:
Understanding Jane

by Abigail Pickus

(Editors Note: Paula Kamen is the author of "Jane: Abortion and the Underground". Her newest book is Her Way: Young Women Remake the Sexual Revolution which you may purchase online through our Feminist Marketplace. Paula is a major contributor to the History Project. This interview originally appeared in the Summer 2000 issue of Bitch magazine, a publication we highly recommend.)

Whose side is feminist author Paula Kamen on, anyway?

This journalist and playwright is considered both a radical feminist and a mere moderate--depending on whom you ask. "I have an extremely odd existence," says the 32-year-old Kamen, who turns out all of her work from her book-crammed Chicago apartment. "Because a lot of my philosophy is to take all this feminist stuff to the mainstream, I find myself between two worlds a lot, and people don't know how to classify me." Take her first book, Feminist Fatale: Voices from the Twentysomething Generation Explore the Future of the Women’s Movement (published when she was only 24), in which Kamen asked young women around the country what feminism meant to them.

The answers weren't always pretty. The book won praise from some feminist bigwigs (bell hooks and Susan Faludi among them) and criticism from others (Ms., whose reviewer mistook her subjects' perceptions for Kamen's own opinions). "I was just reporting what other women think, and a lot of them criticized the feminist movement," says Kamen. "As a journalist, my agenda is to assess where we are, which means I try to portray both the negatives and positives. But what has happened is [that] because I'm just presenting [others'] opinions instead of only pushing a cause, people sometimes misunderstand me as not being totally profeminist."

When not conducting extended journalistic explorations of young women's lives (her latest book, Her Way, due out this fall, details young women's sexual attitudes and took seven years to complete), Kamen has devoted herself to writing plays. Seven Dates with Seven Writers, a comedy detailing one woman's disastrous romantic encounters with seven different male writers, was excerpted in The Best Men’s Stage Monologues of 1998. Her latest play, "Jane: Abortion and the Underground", which ran in Chicago last summer, tells the real-life story of an elaborate underground abortion service run by housewives and student radicals. Kamen also contributed her research on Jane, which performed over 10,000 abortions between 1969 and I973 without a single fatality reported, to a 1995 PBS documentary (See 'The Bitch List," vol. 3, no. I).

Despite Kamen's ability to keep people wondering, there is one agenda she admits to having: reminding women that we are all connected. "A lot of feminist issues now are solved if you have a credit card. Even if abortion becomes illegal, if you're rich enough, you could go to Europe and have an abortion there," she said. "All of these issues about controlling your sex life are much more intense if you don't have money, and we seem to forget that if we're from a more wealthy background."

How did you first come across the story of Jane?

I found out about it in 1992 when I was on a panel talking about the women's movement. Another woman on the panel mentioned that she used to be in Jane. I thought it was a great story. Forget the feminism, it was a great story where these bourgeois housewives and student radicals got together and formed this totally illegal abortion service! It was really the best-kept secret in Chicago, because the cops, the hospitals, and the clergy were all referring women to Jane. I mean, they trusted thousands of people with their number--just the suspense of that [makes for a good narrative]. Beyond that, I thought it was interesting because it really showed the power of organizing and political consciousness. It was just amazing that these women had such a high consciousness level that they were taking huge risks for women they didn't even know. They saw the bigger picture of women being able to make choices for them selves and not being treated like criminals, taking control of their bodies and taking power away from the medical establishment.

How did you decide to take this very complicated, nuanced story and put it into the form of a play?

It had a lot of inherent drama to it and I thought that dramatizing it would show the unbelievable tensions of that era really well. I mean, we hear the phrase "back-alley abortion" all the time, but what does that mean? It's something else to actually see it on the stage, how women going to get an illegal abortion were blindfolded and taken across town in a van so they wouldn't know where they were taken, or be able to identify the doctors. Plus, I've always been interested in theater, and Chicago has such a burgeoning, vibrant theater community.

Do you think it's significant that this underground abortion service happened in Chicago? Could it have happened anywhere?

It's definitely not a coincidence [that it happened in Chicago]. I didn't realize this before, but a lot of the women's liberation movement of the late '6os started in Chicago. Heather Booth, who started Jane, also started the first autonomous feminist group, called the West Side Group. She also helped start the first women's union, the Chicago Women's Liberation Union, a socialist-feminist umbrella group that included Jane. Some of the real biggies were here. The Feminist Memoir Project, a 1998 book about feminist memoirs of the late '6os and early '70s, is filled with chapters by Chicago people, and lots of references to the CWLU. Even the art used around the country to depict the women's movement--the posters with the little yellow chick that says, "Women are not chicks"--was created by their graphics collective. For our Jane poster, we used an original image from the collective, which was cool. There's actually a great website on the history of the CWLU.

From what I understand, when you first tracked down some of the women from Jane--both the ones who ran the service and the ones who had abortions through it--they weren't all so willing to talk.

Right. A lot of people had not talked about it in years. It's controversial because it was illegal at that time. For other people, it was a bad time in their lives that they were trying to get away from. I'd call people and they'd be sort of ambivalent, or they'd say they'd call me back and they wouldn't; they'd put me off. Or I'd leave messages and they wouldn't return the calls. So it was hard, but that's where it helped to be a journalist, because you're used to annoying people, bugging them as a part of your job. If I were a graduate student I wouldn't call someone seven times before they talked to me.

Did they have mostly positive things to say?

The biggest contribution I made was to find people who had used the service and were critical. This is part of the whole journalism thing again--I felt if I portrayed it as totally positive, that everyone had such a thrilling, warm experience with Jane, it wouldn't be honest. In fact, several people talked to me about it being a rather harrowing experience. One woman remembered how she felt as a working-class 17-year-old who was in shock when she went to Jane because she had always associated medicine with a sterile hospital, metal counters, and old men. And here she goes to this apartment where the 25-year-old woman operating on her is wearing jeans, and her hair is hanging down. Everyone remembers the line from the play where this woman says, "Gee, you'd think she could at least tie her hair up"…because she wasn't immersed in feminist politics [to the extent that] she'd know that Jane was consciously demedicalizing the experience. Jane's point was that they weren't doing to be like doctors, they weren't going to make it clinical at all.
I should say that even the women who were critical of Jane said that it was a better alternative to the coat-hanger abortion. They were all grateful to the Jane people. But I didn't want to portray it uniformly as this one fuzzy experience. That would be false.

Political art is so often didactic--how did you avoid that?

I feel very strongly that in making political art for young women, you can't create propaganda, or sanitized reality in black and white. As feminism has matured, we realize more than ever the complexities and contradictions in the world--and even in ourselves--and won't accept simple one-sided ideologies. Anyway, propaganda isn't appropriate to our more ironic, sobered time; this is a less inflammatory, politicized era than the early 1970s. Today, I feel that in the end, I'm more convincing if I paint a more realistic picture of the issues.
I also dramatized some of the real, persistent conflicts within the group such as a few women co%7ertly seizing more of the power just to get the work done quickly under pressure, in defiance of their collective, egalitarian (but really time-consuming) ideologies. I included some unsettling parts that a pure pro-choice activist might have cut, such as one very graphic description of what the second-trimester abortions were like, in the Jane members' actual words, without whitewashing the fact that they were removing recognizable body parts. In the last scene of the first act, the first Jane member to perform an abortion talks about what it was like when she removed "a little foot."
Also, I focused on the characters and the action more than the issue. I had to have a basic trust in the intelligence of the audience to draw their own conclusions about abortion. With political art today, you need to have more on your plate and more to express than just a political agenda. I had a very full, compelling, and exciting story to tell, full of twists and turns and very different and strong-minded women. They ranged from a corny, warm-hearted middle-class white housewife to a radical, acid-tripping black working-class civil rights worker who dated Black Panthers, served on the Chicago Conspiracy Trial Legal Team, and described becoming a feminist as a Girl Scout in her youth. The characters, almost all of whom were mothers at the time, illustrate the complexities of abortion rights better than any ideological tract.

I think how funny it was really helped, too. Can you comment on your use of humor?

Humor is what I've always wanted to do. When I was younger, I wanted to be a comedy writer. Even through my last year of college, that's what I wanted to do, but I got into feminism almost by accident. And now it's like I've combined these two different worlds. So I'm doing that more with the plays, combining feminism with comedy to different extents. With Seven Dates, it was mainly comedy with feminist undertones about power dynamics, what strong women have to do in this heterosexual world, how hard it is to be a heterosexual and feminist. And Jane obviously is very feminist, but then humor was also necessary to lighten it a bit. in first drafts I think I was divorcing myself from it; I was thinking, "Oh, this is serious feminism. I can't be funny!" But then I realized it was hard to sit through--it's very heavy--so being funny helped to leaven it. The Jane documentary influenced me when I did rewriting later on because the people who made the documentary had great senses of humor. They really captured the irony of these bourgeois housewives carpooling to dance lessons and also running an illegal abortion service at the same time. There's a lot of humor inherent in that situation.

What do you think is going to happen to reproductive freedom? There's a lot of restrictive legislative activity on the state level.

We're only one Supreme Court justice away from losing legal abortion in this country, so that's pretty scary. I'm scared when I see young women, even young feminists, who have no idea how life was before abortion rights, talking about "If it feels good, screw it!" without also talking about the bigger picture, like the RU-486 abortion pill, or parental consent laws.

Tell me a little bit more about Her Way.

It was an extremely difficult book to write because there's so much contradictory stuff about sex. But the main thing I found is that women are doing things more on their own terms. What that means--and it took me years to figure out--is that women are acting more like men than ever sexually, which directly correlates with their having more power and status in society than ever before. Women today have more sexual partners, are getting married later, and are doing more things sexually that have to do with self-gratification and less with serving of the man. There are also more women experimenting with bisexuality, and there's more of an emphasis on the female orgasm. Still, it's not utopian. There's a long way to go. But women do have more say in their choices in bed and in making relationships more egalitarian, although men are still a generation behind on these issues.

What's next on your agenda?

I hope to get "Jane" and "Seven Dates" produced nationally. My next book is going to be called How to Cure an American Headache, and it'll be another combination of the serious and the comedic. It's about my nine years trying to cure my severe headache problems. I've gone through an odyssey of Western medicine and alternative medicine trying to get rid of them. Some of it's black comedy about what people in pain will do, but it's also going to have a political focus on how doctors really know very little about pain, and how the medical establishment has a lot of problems dealing with women who have chronic conditions.

One hundred years down the road, when people refer to Paula Kamen's theory on something, what do you want them to remember you for? What's your legacy?

This is helping my headache! Flattery, you know, is a tonic for everything. I want to make sure that the fundamentals of feminism are not forgotten for each new generation. Because each new generation has to figure out how to be very conscious about how we pass on ideas, and to make sure that we reach out to people unlike ourselves, of different classes and races. Jane was there for the poorest of the poor. They often charged just $10 for an abortion when the back-alley rate was $1,000. They had really high class-consciousness, but in our current American culture, you don't see that at all.
We need to remind people to see beyond our own personal experiences. We have to remember to look beyond ourselves.

Paula Kamen invites you to visit her website at Abigail Pickus is a reporter for the JUF News, a Jewish newsmagazine, and a columnist for StreetWise, Chicago’s homeless newspaper.

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