Megan Watkins ’97 is helping individuals and organizations make an outsize social impact on everything from animal protection to human services
It was at a pregnancy testing center where she volunteered in 1970 that Abby Pariser ’67 first saw an index card tacked to a bulletin board: “Pregnant? Call Jane.” These cryptic signs were popping up everywhere, posted around Chicago and printed in underground newspapers.
Pariser didn’t know at the time that “Jane” was officially known as the Abortion Counseling Service of Women’s Liberation. But within just a few months, Pariser, a passionate social activist, would be entrenched in the day-to-day operations of the underground group, which helped an estimated 11,000 women throughout Chicago obtain access to safe, affordable abortions at a time when they were illegal and criminalized in most of the U.S.
Pariser had recently arrived in Chicago with her husband, Peter Gollon, “a Columbia guy,” whom she married the summer after graduation. Peter, a nuclear physicist, got a job at the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory just outside of the city in Batavia, Illinois. And Pariser was pursuing a master’s degree in American history at Roosevelt University, which was founded in 1945 with an explicit mandate to admit a racially and economically diverse student body. Pariser’s decision to go to Roosevelt was largely one of geographical convenience, but it was a lucky match, pairing a radical institution with a woman who had marched against the Vietnam War in Washington, D.C., and campaigned for anti-war presidential candidate Eugene McCarthy.
As Pariser found her footing in Roosevelt’s history department, she became an active member of a fledgling group called the Chicago Women’s Liberation Union (CWLU). Officially founded in 1969, the CWLU was one of the most significant of the socialist feminist women’s unions, pushing for equal rights for women, racial and sexual equality, and freedom from what its members saw as the oppressive chains of capitalism.
Soon, she and some of her fellow CWLU members began working on the creation of a one-room pregnancy testing center in Back of the Yards, a heavily industrialized Chicago neighborhood immortalized for its pollution, squalor, and poverty in Upton Sinclair’s 1906 novel The Jungle. Pariser helped out at the testing center wherever she was needed, from the lab to the reception desk. Working at the clinic was an eye-opening experience for Pariser and made a lasting and compelling impression. “I had no idea that healthcare could be so warm, kind, and educational,” she says in a recent telephone call from her home in Huntington, New York.
The pregnancy testing center provided essential services and resources to women, but that index card on the bulletin board — signaling women to “call Jane” — offered a critical lifeline for women with very few and very risky options. Pariser felt called to do more.
Now 77, she recently shared her experience with Jane in the HBO documentary The Janes, along with other former members. Directed by Tia Lessin and Emma Pildes, the film — which debuted less than three weeks before Roe v. Wade was overturned in June — is a candid telling of the inner workings of the group and its members, who, even at their own peril, went to great lengths to help women access safe abortions. (The Janes was the Spotlight film at Barnard’s 2022 Athena Film Festival in March.)
Speaking with Barnard Magazine, Pariser recalled her time in the groundbreaking group and the anguish of seeing Roe v. Wade overruled.
The Roots of an Underground Network
The group that came to be known as Jane was initiated by Heather Booth, a University of Chicago student who had helped a friend’s sister access a safe abortion by contacting leaders in the medical arm of the local civil rights movement. Word spread, and soon Booth was fielding more requests than she could handle. The group, founded in her dorm room, eventually recruited others to help field calls, counsel women, evaluate doctors, and follow up after procedures.
“Jane” was a purposefully dull and unsuspicious pseudonym. It helped shield the clandestine group and simultaneously evoked the democratic and ubiquitous nature of the need for safe abortions. Teenagers, mothers, married, single, wealthy, or struggling — they all came to Jane in search of the same thing, though Booth and the other Jane members mostly helped women of color and those without the means to travel long distances to safely terminate a pregnancy. These were the women most likely to end up at Chicago’s Cook County Hospital, which, in the late 1960s and early ’70s, until Roe v. Wade passed, had a dedicated 40-bed septic abortion ward. There, doctors waited to triage women who were so desperate to end a pregnancy that they ingested poisonous chemicals or perforated their uterus, vagina, bladder, or rectum. Infections and burns were common, and so was death, as Allan Weiland, a retired OB-GYN, wrote in an essay for BuzzFeed News in June 2019. The goal of Jane was to divert as many women from these experiences as possible.
As she had at the pregnancy clinic, Pariser went where she was needed: to the drugstore to buy sanitary pads and rubbing alcohol, to the phone to take calls from scared women. When it was revealed that the man whom the group had been paying to provide the abortions was not, in fact, a doctor (though he had been regularly administering safe procedures), Pariser and other Jane members learned how to perform abortions themselves, using the common dilation and curettage (D&C) method, in apartments borrowed from friends or rented in a high-rise.
Pariser describes the intimate and high-stakes procedures without a hint of squeamishness, dread, or fear. “We kept up a stream of description of what we were doing,” she says. “And the other Jane sister would be sitting at the woman’s head and holding her hand. We called the woman that night, the next day. We wanted them to take their temperature, fill their prescription for [antibiotics], and go to their doctor or Planned Parenthood in two weeks. And we were very pushy about [saying],‘You need to use birth control.’ We also said, ‘You could be part of us.’”
In 1972, one of the Jane apartments was raided by the police. Seven Jane members, including Pariser, were arrested and charged with 11 counts of abortion and conspiracy to commit abortion, carrying a maximum prison sentence of 110 years. The women’s attorney was able to delay court proceedings, knowing the Supreme Court was likely to take up Roe v. Wade. The court’s ruling in that case decriminalized abortion nationwide, and the charges against Pariser and her Jane sisters were dropped.
An Activist’s Calling
Pariser grew up in Scarsdale, New York, the oldest of three. Though her parents were not activists, Pariser rode a collective wave of post-war optimism and idealism into her college years. “It felt like ‘we’ had to inform the government that they were on the wrong path and we were entitled to the right to assembly and the right to redress one’s government.”
She had watched the terror of the Cuban missile crisis. Now the government was sending Americans to a deeply divisive war in Vietnam. There were plenty of things to protest. Pariser had transferred to Barnard for her sophomore year, after beginning college at Cornell University. “I was unhappy [there],” she says. Her Cornell peers seemed unaware or uninterested in the moral crises of the moment. Once, a student saw Pariser browsing Russian literature in the library stacks and scoffed when she revealed she was looking for something to read that wasn’t assigned in class.
At Barnard, she found the level of ferment she was looking for. “We felt like the government was hiding stuff from us. If we gathered enough people to march in Washington, D.C., we believed they would say, ‘Oh yeah, you’re right.’ It was interesting when we marched, to see sharpshooters on the top of buildings. We were carrying signs. We didn’t have grenades,” she recalls.
Inspired by her love for her AP U.S. History class, Pariser majored in the same subject at Barnard and studied with Columbia’s James Shenton, a renowned historian of 19th- and 20th-century America who founded the Double Discovery Center, a tutoring and mentoring program for low-income teenagers in New York.
Pariser’s activism and exposure at Barnard and Columbia to those on the front lines fighting for social progress had fortified her for risky and vulnerable work, as did a certain amount of youthful naiveté. “I think it was the first or the second orientation meeting for Jane when they said we are doing something totally illegal. ... I went home to the suburbs, and it was a little scary, but then you’re just doing the day to day,” says Pariser. “The importance of each woman’s story carried beyond, ‘Oh my god, I’m a criminal.’”
Peter, Pariser’s husband, supported her work and was active in the ACLU. Someone had to step up, the couple agreed, and it might as well be Abby. Her parents worried. Pariser’s time with Jane aligned with the murders at Kent State and the Orangeburg massacre in South Carolina, where protestors demonstrating against racial segregation at a bowling alley were shot by highway patrol officers.
But Pariser and the other Jane members remained steadfast in their mission. “As Heather Booth said, the laws were wrong and we were right. You have to take the world into your own hands and do what’s right,” says Pariser.
A Life’s Work Continued
After her arrest and the passage of Roe, Pariser joined a group in Wheaton, Illinois, that was opening a Planned Parenthood clinic. “Our county had no doctor who would prescribe birth control. No tubal ligations. We ran the clinic for nine years, until the health department took it over,” she says, which was the goal all along.
The co-op atmosphere was familiar to Pariser. She and her colleagues were cross-trained to take a patient’s history and run tests in the labs. The clinic was in the basement of an Episcopal church. “Each night, after the work was over, everything went into a closet. Wheaton was and still is a relatively conservative place, and who knows what they thought when they saw a line of teenagers waiting to go into the church basement. But we never had a problem.”
Along the way, Pariser finished her master’s. Four years into her Planned Parenthood work, her daughter was born. She and Peter moved back east, to Huntington, to be closer to family. Pariser got involved with the National Organization for Women and pushed to get the local school district to provide before- and after-school care, as well as sex education. She was never too far from her history with Jane and in the early 1980s was contacted to help a woman in the Suffolk County Jail obtain an abortion; the sheriff wouldn’t let her. Pariser got a lawyer and successfully advocated on the woman’s behalf.
Some in Pariser’s circle never thought they would see Roe v. Wade overturned, but when the draft of the Supreme Court’s decision was released in May 2022, she saw what was coming. “When the septic abortion wards start happening again, and daughters and nieces and wives and mistresses of people in power start getting homegrown abortions and they get ill, it may change people’s minds,” she says.
Though cynicism and defeat would be understandable, Pariser remains an activist, involved in feminist politics and going door-to-door for local Democratic political candidates. She’s an active member of her Reconstructionist synagogue, a passionate folk dancer, and a “haphazard gardener.” She and Peter continue to be involved in the ACLU and go on service trips with the Sierra Club. Her daughter and son have children of their own. Pariser brings her grandkids to the Metropolitan Museum of Art and Broadway shows.
It was never an option to stand idly by, she says. “I’ve spent my adult life trying to make the world a better place. ... I had to be part of the movement to make women’s health services more humane, feminist, and more educational.”