If you want to celebrate Support Women Artists Now Day/SWAN Day this year by curling up with a good book, WomenArts has two recommendations – Sally Bellerose’s Fishwives and Judith Arcana’s Hello, This is Jane. Both books offer strong feminist characters, as well as insights into the history of current women’s rights issues.
Sally Bellerose‘s book is the story of two feisty older lesbians, whose relationship has survived for 50 years in spite of the intense discrimination they experienced in the period before the gay rights movement took hold. Judith Arcana’s stories reveal what life was like for women before the 1973 Supreme Court decision in Roe v. Wade loosened the restrictions on women’s right to choose – and what it may be like for the next generation if Roe v. Wade is overturned.
Fishwives by Sally Bellerose
When Fishwives opens, it is February 2017, and 90-year-old Jackie and her 89-year old partner Regina are deciding whether it is time to haul their dead Christmas tree to the local dump. As they move through the day and eventually set out in their beat-up car, they go back and forth in time, sharing memories and reflecting on their past.
Jackie and Regina have had to carve out emotional space for themselves in spite of society’s disapproval, but their high spirits and passion have survived. Although their relationship has been messy and old disappointments occasionally bubble to the surface, they both work on keeping the peace. And as they face the challenges of failing health and old age together, they continue to discover the sweet comforts of their hard-won love.
There are many wonderful and unusual things about this book. First, Bellerose reminds us of the repression lesbians and other LGBT people have faced in the not-so-distant past. Jackie and Regina meet in a lesbian bar in 1955 on the night of a police raid. Bellerose gives us a vivid portrait of the sexual electricity in the bar interrupted by the brutal police raid. Jackie is the butch bartender who suddenly slicks her hair forward and puts on a scarf to look more feminine when she hears the police at the door. She watches while a corrupt policeman smashes her best friend with his billy club and then negotiates with him to keep Regina and the others from being carted off to jail.
The scene establishes Jackie as a hero who is tough and sexy, and also shows her as a woman who is navigating a harsh emotional landscape where she often has to hide her feelings because she knows that people hate her simply because she loves women. Even though public attitudes towards homosexuals have softened over the years, Bellerose shows us how the painful memories of those earlier attitudes still haunt Jackie and Regina, sometimes amplifying the strains in their relationship.
The book is a joy to read because Bellerose has created such a vibrant community of characters. In addition to the wise-cracking and opinionated lovers, Jackie and Regina, there are four neighborhood kids and various other relatives and friends whose lives intersect with the main characters. Each one has a distinct voice and emotional arc, and Bellerose has an exceptionally keen eye for physical as well as emotional details. Whether the characters are hanging their legs over the side of a swimming pool, sweating at a poker game, or eating grilled cheese sandwiches, Bellerose gives us sights and sounds that make the characters and scenes come alive.
Finally – thanks to Bellerose for writing about working class lesbians instead of the upscale ones who usually show up in mainstream TV shows and films. Jackie and Regina have had to keep working at low-paying jobs in their eighties in order to make ends meet – and they still don’t always have enough money for their food or housing. Poverty is a seldom-discussed problem that many older women face, both gay and straight. As our political leaders bicker about whether to raise the minimum wage, it is helpful to see this honest depiction of what life is like for people who work hard but can’t afford to buy the things they need.
Hello. This Is Jane. by Judith Arcana
Judith Arcana has taught and written about motherhood and reproductive justice for decades. Hello. This is Jane. is a set of stories inspired by her experiences as a member of the underground Abortion Counseling Service of the Chicago Women’s Liberation Union from 1968-1973. The women in the group used the name Jane whenever they answered the phone in order to preserve their anonymity since abortion was considered felony homicide in Illinois and was illegal in many other states prior to the Supreme Court decision in Roe v. Wade in 1973.
The stories in Hello, This is Jane were written over a period of years and they were published separately in zines and chapbooks. Oregon’s Left Fork Books published these stories as a linked fiction collection in May 2020.
Some of the stories are about the women who worked as Janes, some are about the women who chose to use their abortion services. One story, Keesha, Joanie and JANE, is set in a future where Roe v. Wade has been overturned, and young women are studying the Janes as possible role models for an abortion service of their own. The final story is about a group of high school students who have designed a gigantic monument to all the women who “did the right thing” by getting an abortion.
On the Jane page of her website, Arcana makes the point that the Janes may be a useful role model for young feminists if Roe v. Wade is overturned, but there are two significant differences now.
First, she points out that the “Janes rarely experienced deep fear for the safety, health or freedom of the people we worked with, or for ourselves. We did not experience the vicious harassment and violence, including assassination/murder, that clinic staff routinely deal with now.”
And second, the pervasive reliance on cell phones and the Internet has made it much harder for activists to avoid surveillance and disinformation campaigns.
On a more hopeful note, she also talks about the ways that books and movies can shape public attitudes, and the fact that artists are already creating works in support of reproductive rights. To see the many films and books that Arcana recommends, please visit her Jane web page.