The Timeless Pursuit of Our Voice

In honor of Women's History Month, we had the pleasure of interviewing Judith Arcana as part of our discussion and exploration on the evolving topic of Feminism.

Judith Arcana writes poems, stories, essays and books; some of them are about her experience in the pre-Roe underground feminist abortion clinic in Chicago. Some appear in journals and anthologies, on paper and online; one story is a zine, Keesha and Joanie and JANE, and one's a prize-winning chapbook, Soon To Be A Major Motion Picture. Her poetry collection What if your mother features motherhood themes, notably abortion, adoption, and IVF. Visit Judith's website for her writing, more info and links: http://www.juditharcana.com.



Interview by Jen Scholten & Ophelia Darkly of Ghostland Haunts




J & O:

It's challenging to keep up with language as it's so rapidly evolving in our culture. That said, can you give us your definition of the term feminism? What do you feel like the correlations are between feminism's past and present?


JA:

Well, certainly the word pretty much means the same thing it ever did, but that's irrelevant to what it means in the socio-political context of the culture at large. The concept of feminism, whatever it might mean to any individual person that you would stand in the street with a microphone and ask, was heavily negative for a very, very long time and just recently has had a resurgence of positive response in the culture at large. Even women who don't consider themselves political persons can definitely identify with feeling affronted in various ways and/or frightened at the same time, of our current cultural situation. This also includes people who are not women, but those who identify with femaleness or femininity for any set of reasons and descriptions. I agree with what you were saying about the changing of the terms throughout history. There's also a global component as well as the North American influence, which tends to have a lot of overlap. In terms of the North American piece, "feminism" wasn't the word mostly used for women's movements until the middle of the 20th century at the earliest. Women who were politically active were identified by what they were doing. For example, the suffragists; they were all about voting. In the latter part of the 19th century, in the United States, there was the startling notion of women being identified as actual citizens and as fully vested as men were in the constitution and the declaration of independence. That was a big part of what was going down. Right now, I think that the term is having this sort of "born again" experience, if we can say that about a word, and I think it's a good thing. I think it's politically useful for everybody, but certainly for people who identify as female.


"It's really a tough, forceful, cultural wave that is happening."

J & O:

Do you think that links up with the Me Too Movement at all?


JA:

Unquestionably. Certainly, the Me Too Movement is one of the contemporary manifestations of this resurgence that we're talking about. It's really a tough, forceful, cultural wave that is happening.


J & O:

How has the Me Too Movement impacted your life?



JA:

It certainly makes me happy, let's put it that way. It affects all of us and it affects those of us who are happy about the outpouring of storytelling as well as those who are not. Everybody is getting hit by the fact that this has begun.


It's not like we didn't know that these stories were out there. Everybody knows this. I mean everybody female knows this, from the littlest girls in whatever way they might articulate it. Everybody knows that if you don't pay attention when you're walking alone at night, you are in danger. Even if you do pay attention, you're likely to be in danger. Even the guys that you work with can talk in the most ignorant and offensive ways, and that's even before we talk about them touching our bodies. We all know this, we've always known this. And anytime a woman, girl or female identifying person of any kind would dare to speak of it people might say "oh, come on, you're too sensitive. " or "did that really happen?" or "that's just the way it is and you have to be able to deal with it." I think that this outpouring is clearly sparked by the level of badness, ugliness, terribleness of all kinds at present. This outpouring is just a really good thing, even in the presence of people who don't like it or afraid of it.


I mean, I can still remember stuff from when I was a teenager. I'm 76 years old and those memories are with me because of the strength of the impact of being assaulted in one way or another for being a girl. The strength of it. The idea that someone would put his hand on my breast, even a person I don't know. It still happens. It happens all the time.


J & O:

Yes - to the point where some women are still asking themselves 'should I be mad about this?" or "should I have said something about this?" What do you do?


JA:

Well, do you pitch a fit in the moment, on the train, walking downtown, in your office? This is one of my wonderful fantasies. How far are you willing to go? What are you willing to risk if you're willing to say "get your hands off of me" really loud - which is of course, one of the greatest things we can do - if we feel we can do those things.


J & O:

Recently, I was groped by a man on the street that I gave my money to only moments before. There's so many different things that go through your head when you're processing something like that. The fact that we're asked to just get over it is absurd. Unfortunately, even in my own processing, my default is to think that it's not that big of a deal. Why do we process these things this way?


JA:

That's a classic example of a situation where there are several different kinds of power dynamics happening at the same time. You or anyone in the position you were in, has a sense of responsibility to people in poverty, to people who are homeless and begging on the street. But at the same time those people also have the responsibility to behave appropriately, decently, as everybody else does. And so it's a clash. That particular example is a major league clash.


J & O

Oftentimes there are these gray areas and other power dynamics at play that don't get brought up and I think a lot of people don't understand how complex these situations are for women.



JA:

When the person who has been objectified and treated badly has to consider if she is a thoughtful person in these kinds of situations then something isn't right here. It's about discussing those layers and elements, because it's never just a one sided issue. This topic reminds me of Louis CK's situation.


J & O:

What are your thoughts on that situation?


JA:

I think that (and I mean this requires having a lot of information) but in the case of Louis CK, similar to Weinstein, the people who they're afflicting with their personal needs, desires or just general creepiness are generally people who either work for them or are in some way overtly structurally subordinate to them. Women in those situations are forced to say to ourselves, if I walk out, then I'll never get any more money here" or "if I walk out, then I won't get this job" or "if I walk out, I won't get cast” in that show ….. etc. One of the first things I thought about when I first heard that Louis CK was part of the boys team was: This man has two girl children. This man has two little girls. If I were their mother I would have to see to it that he is never alone with those children. Never, never, never - until we're all over a hundred years old. Because there is no excuse. There are reasons, certainly, but there are not excuses.



"One of the very best ways that we can strengthen ourselves is to continue communicating with one another."

J & O:

How do you think that as women we can stop from freezing up in those situations and then feeling the residual discouragement afterwards?


How can women move beyond this collective despair?





JA:

My sense of things in general is that one of the very best ways that we can strengthen ourselves, even toughen ourselves for when the moment comes, is to continue communicating with one another. One of the best things we can do is talk with other women on a regular basis. Not just specifically when something has happened. It's important to build into our life circumstances in which, at least once a month, if not more often, a small group of women gets together and talks about these very things so that it's a presence in our consciousnesses on a consistent basis. It's important to build a resilience, strength and a capacity to respond in ways that we won't be embarrassed by or ashamed of after events like these happen. We need to be in consistent, deliberate communication with others.


I can say out of personal experience, after an enormous amount of learning about how women deal with misogyny, that talking about these topics in small groups with participants whom are either women or at least female identified is powerful work. I think that keeps it right in the front of our consciousness. The astonishing outpouring of emotion and rage that caused the first, big, post-Trump election, Women's March was amazing. It was born of shock, rage and fear. In order to sustain the desire for action, and to go further, which I think is part of what you're concerned about (as we all should be) we need to continue having these conversations with one another. And every group that gathers will come up with a different way to contribute to the conversation. It's also crucial that we do not ask ourselves to take care of everything right away or to think it's hopeless. And I say that although I've never been a particularly hopeful person.


J & O:

Interesting, because you've done so much work in such a very clear direction.


JA:

Yes, it is interesting. You're not the first person to point that out to me. But I don't do it because I'm hopeful, although two things made me study hope.


One was my relationship with the late Grace Paley, because Grace was 'Our Lady of Hope', she was the Queen of all hopefulness, but even Grace, in the last decade or so of her life when I said: "So are you feeling particularly hopeful?" (and this was years back, she died in 2007), we would laugh and she would say: "Well sometimes it's harder than other times to keep it going". But it was natural to her; that was her character. I remember her son, Danny Paley, telling me when I was working on the biography something like: "I remember my mother telling me that by the time I grew up, there wouldn't be any more war." When I call her 'Our Lady of Hope', that's what I'm talking about. So, what I'm saying here is that, knowing Grace, being fond of her, l was learning from her, she was the generation ahead of mine and I pay a lot of attention to the people who've come before me. So, I tried it.


The other thing that made me think: "maybe I should try to get some hope going here", is I had cancer and cancer is so terrifying immediately. I don't have a whole lot of respect for the medical industry, but there are practitioners, lucky for all of us, who are wonderful. I refer to them as 'the goddesses' and I am grateful for that. That caused me to think: "okay, maybe I should try to get some hope in gear here." It was hard for me because it doesn't come naturally. If you choose to stay alive, even if the way you see the world is pretty grim — it contains so much badness — then you have to say to yourself: "okay, what am I going to do?" Given what I know to be true and the fact that, at this point anyway, I'm deciding to stay alive, I have to find some really good stuff to do and good ways to be so that I can feel all right about being alive. It's not about hope, it's about saying: "okay, I'm still deciding to be here, so what do I do?" And well, I'll write stuff, I'll perform it, I'll try to get it published, and so on. Everybody has a list.


J & O:

So, we saw that you had lost your teaching job at the high school and you were considered dangerous, if even radical. I don't know if you find that admirable, but we do. Could you tell us more about that?


JA:

That was part of my education, let's put it that way. It was very early for me, in 1970. The firing was in March and then the three of us, two of whom were tenured teachers (the first lesson I learned was that having tenure doesn't mean that they can't fire you), looked up the law. We discovered that in the state of Illinois, if a tenured teacher is fired by the school board, that person has the right to a public hearing. So we demanded a public hearing. Our assumption was (little did we know), that it would be a few hours in an office or auditorium. Well, it turned out (this was totally formative in my life), that it was months long, several nights a week in the auditoriums of the various township schools. Hundreds of people came every time. A lot of students, a lot of people from the community, a lot of parents, and the school board sat there in a row at a long table. They had a lawyer and they all wore suits, even the one woman on the school board. And then we also had a lawyer — who we paid with a great big bag of weed because now we had no salaries. I actually took my pension and lived on that for much of that year because I couldn't get a job it; it was in the papers, it was on TV, and everybody knew we were "dangerous radicals” — poison. You will not be surprised to hear that one of the other teachers, my pal John, got a job pretty quickly. I'm not saying it was necessarily gender, but seems suspicious. So that went on, through May, June, July, August, and into the beginning of September. Then the public hearing, which turned into this huge amazing trial, was over and the school board took a month to deal with whatever they were doing, which certainly didn't change their minds. The law was that they would decide if they had been right to fire us or not. That was when I hit the road. I had no job. I was separated from my husband. My whole life had just been exploded that year, which was 1970. It was a big year for me.


"And in those days, the young people were ferocious in political action. "

J & O:

Was that the defining moment where you said: "I need to do something for women and it's got to be in a bigger way"?


JA:

I never said that to myself. What happened was, I had been changing, which is of course why they came to view me as 'radical'. I certainly wasn't, I was really politically ignorant, but I was learning very quickly, a lot from my students, because that's the way it works when you're a teacher; you learn from your students. I mean, you do help them learn also, but, big time, you learn from your students. And in those days, the young people were ferocious in political action. It was fabulous, everything they were doing. So, that summer I thought I was pregnant. I had this incredibly late period, it seemed like a million years late. This is part of my 'Judith Arcana Origin Myth', except it's true. So, I thought I was pregnant and I thought: "Okay, obviously this is not a good time to make a person. That person would not have a good life. Got to figure this out". So I called a guy that I had gone to high school with who was in medical school and thought maybe he could do it. But he was too new, or maybe he didn't want to, I don't know, but he was quite wonderful. He immediately said: "I'll find out what I can and I'll get back to you". He called me the next day and said: "Everybody here says call this number and ask for Jane". Now when he said 'everybody here', he meant the University of Illinois Medical School: the doctors, the teachers, the students, they knew about the abortion service. So, I called and I left my message and she called me back. She said: "Hello, this is Jane, (which is the name of one of my stories and hopefully my story collection if I can get it published), and we talked for a long time. She was very cool. We had a lot of fun on the phone. One of the things she said to me was: "Have you had a pregnancy test?" I said: "No." And she said: "Well, you should probably have one." And she gave me the number of the Chicago Women's Liberation Union, which had a pregnancy testing service as well as the abortion service.


J & O:

Were pregnancy tests not readily available at that time?


JA:

Definitely not. The stuff that's in pharmacies now didn't exist yet. You had to bring in a urine sample and do the whole thing. It didn't occur to me. It wasn't that I didn't want to, it just wasn't in my consciousness. Anyway, so I called her back when I got my period, which was, I don't know, five weeks late (it felt like a million years), called her back and said: "I got my period. No problem. Thank you so much." And again we talked for this really long time, which she certainly did not have to do. And then later, once I had become a Jane, I knew very well, because I took a lot of those messages myself and made a lot of calls, that you don't talk to people for that long. But she and I, we just hit it off. And at the end of the conversation, she said to me: "You know, we're going to be taking new people in in the fall, and I think you might be interested." And I said: "Yeah, maybe I would". When the trial was over, I hit the road, and when I came back, she calls me and says: "There's an orientation for potential new Janes and here's where it is". And it was so convenient, that was another thing. It was right down the street from where I lived, in a little church at the corner of Fullerton and Geneva in Chicago. I visited that church a few years back when I went to Chicago on a research trip and saw that they are still a political church. They're doing a lot of good work about immigration. They're pretty amazing.

J & O:

Why did the abortion service regularly move from house to house?


JA:

Well, first of all, it's important to think about the service as morphing through a few years. It was roughly a four year time that the group actually existed as a group. And in the beginning, what the women did was find people who were willing to do abortions in the city or the suburbs. And when women called, they’d give them the name and number of the people they had made contact with who could/would do it. If we heard anything bad about them, of course, we stopped giving out their names. But that was what it was; a referral service, that's how it began. And then, 'counseling', the word we used, was 'added'. And what that meant was...let's say you're pregnant, you need an abortion, you call the number, and Jane calls you back and says: "I'm going to give your name and number to one of our counselors. She will call you and make an appointment to talk with you about how this whole process works. We will get back to you as soon as we can". And she would ask you questions like: "How far along do you think you are?" and things about your health, your age, and so on and so forth. Let's say it was me that got assigned to you. I would call you up and we would make an appointment. You would come to my place and we would talk. I would be explaining to you, depending on how far along you were, what the procedure would be and how the whole thing would work. So there was the referral time, then there was the counseling time. As time went on, we pretty much realized that there were some guys who were really good, and in particular, one guy who was really, really good and we liked him and he liked us. So we cut a deal with him. He was the one who, ultimately, taught us how to do it ourselves.

J & O:

Wow, what a story! Do you have any resources for women that you would recommend?


JA:

Some websites: ladypjustice.com and womensmediacenter.com, for even more resources, you can visit the 'Jane' page on my website: juditharcana.com. There is a brand new essential book called Handbook For A Post-Roe America by Robin Marty. Marty's book is literally filled with resources such as A. N. S. I. R. H. Many of them are mostly about information. Some of them are about how to get the pills. Until recently, that was very difficult in this country. Now that this country has gotten so negative, ironically, it's a bit easier because the outfits that were selling the pills were only doing it in places where it was very, very difficult for women to get abortions.


More than 90% of the counties in this country do not have abortion healthcare services. That's a lot. Here in Oregon, which is considered 'paradise' abortion wise, if you don't live in Ashland, Eugene, Bend, or Portland, you're out of luck, and you know, Oregon is not a tiny state. This ain't Rhode Island. So you have to travel across the state. There's N. I. R. H. - National Institute of Reproductive Health. And there are local clinics here and there that offer good stuff. Our local northwest abortion fund is also very valuable. You can find them on abortionfunds.org along with other geographies.



J & O:

One last question: If you had like a moment with the president, what would you say, do, or ask?

JA: (laughing) I don't think there'd be any point in talking to this president. This president is absolutely impervious. He is of no value as an actual human, so I wouldn't spend my time. There are people to talk to, but he ain't one of them.




Connect with Judith:


Judith Arcana Bio

Judith Arcana Jane



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