“The Janes” Proves There’s No Time to Waste for Progress

by Bailey Pennick

Halfway through The Janes, the new feature documentary from Tia Lessin and Emma Pildes, one of the titular Janes mentions a Bob Dylan lyric that she thought was pretty fitting for their history.

But to live outside the law, you must be honest.

This poetry courtesy of Blonde on Blonde does describe the Janes’ operation to a tee: this underground network of young women providing safe abortions for people in need was illegal, but no one needed to rationalize their actions to keep the service alive. It was the right thing to do, but that just happened to make them criminals in the eyes of the law.

Now, 50 years later, they’re finally telling their story to preserve their memories and to relight the fuse for progress and activism with viewers. “We are now on the brink of a greater terrible-ness,” Judith Arcana says gravely during the post-premiere Q&A with her fellow Janes. “[Reproductive rights] haven’t been what we’ve wanted them to be for a very long time, but now, because of the power of the anti-abortion movement it feels extra tough.” 

Co-directors Lessin and Pildes add to Arcana’s call to action: “This film is so important particularly at this moment, where we can show what this country could look like without protection for women.” Created during the pandemic and in the dark shadow of the previous presidential administration, Lessin and Pildes looked to these pioneers for hope. “This clandestine group of women doing this type of work just to make sure that women got basic health care, period.”

As three of the Janes spoke with the directors as part of the Festival’s premiere, the online chat was flooded with messages, all written by different people, but all with the same simple message: “Thank you.”

Kathleen: Thank you to all the Janes who gave selflessly to help and protect women. You opened the doors for future generations. Thank you.

Toward the end of the film, which seamlessly blends archival footage with intimate conversations with the Janes and their network, the outside-the-law honesty comes out again: “We were ordinary women and we wanted every woman we helped to be the hero of her own story.”

Thanks to the Janes, we can all be heroes for each other and even after five decades, the original Janes are still working to push our country forward. Arcana kept it real for everyone when talking about our future as a society: “It sounds like a whole lot of work, but there are a whole lot of people!”