What Occupy Can Learn from the Jane Collective

by | August 15, 2012
filed under Feminism, Politics

Jane Collective Postcardby Chanel Dubofsky

One of the biggest misconceptions about  the Occupy movement is that its concepts and tactics are brand new. A closer look at (lady) history provides a different lens altogether.

From 1968-1973, the Jane Collective, an underground abortion service in Chicago, performed 11,000 abortions. In the pre Roe v. Wade United States, abortion was considered a homicide, and women who needed the procedure had to seek it out illegally. If you were wealthy, you could travel and find someone with medical training to do it;  everyone else had to take their chances with back alley abortions or homeade methods.

There are many startling and radical elements in the history of Jane that we can recognize in the current Occupy movement. One is  concept of mutual aid, in which those in Jane learned how to perform abortions and then taught others in the collective to perform them. The result is not having to rely on doctors, or the capitalist medical industry, in order to provide abortion care to the women who needed it.

The Jane Collective did not, of course, invent mutual aid, but the concept is again employed by the  Occupy movement via the People’s Library,  the Really, Really Free Market, and the Free University.  In short, mutual aid not only redistributes resources (in the case of Jane, this meant not only training everyone to provide health care, but also restoring power to women who had no access to abortion), and offers an alternative system in which people share skills and materials in a manner that runs counter to capitalism.

One of the most widely held critiques of the Occupy movement has been that it lacks a tactic. There are many examples of Occupy actions that disprove this, but by looking at Jane’s approach to the problem of abortion being illegal, we can make that claim even more clear. Instead of waiting for the government to make abortion legal, Jane literally took matters into their own hands There was no asking for permission, there was no list of demands. Jane’s tactic was to do the thing that needed to be done, to  empower other women to do it, and to create a system by which it could be accessed. Sound familiar?

Finally, the Occupy movement is a frame, a mode utilized to bring issues into sharper and more public focus. It’s meant to be done in solidarity, however, with communities, in the context of horizontal leadership (as opposed to one based in hierarchy). In a 1999 interview, Ruth Surgal, one of the founding members of Jane, said: “It was one of the things we talked about a lot that we were not doing something TO this woman, we were doing something WITH this woman and she was as much a part of it, and part of the process as we were.” Solidarity is a tactic, not only for making systemic change in every day life, but for repairing our souls, and unlearning what we’ve been taught about who deserves time, resources, attention, and hope, and who can partner together in revolution.

So what’s the point of me attempting to give this crash course in feminist history and Occupy theory? To remind us hat the tactics of Occupy (which are a real thing) are not new; they are the latest incarnation of theory practiced in other social justice movements. Occupy is an amalgamation of lessons learned and being learned, Jane being one example. It’s an opportunity to lift up a piece of radical feminist history so that it can be seen, and a chance to show that we can indeed do what might seem impossible.
(postcard image created by the Stop Patriarchy Blog)

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