Jody Howard, 1940-2010

Jody Howard, 1940-2010; Feminist started group that provided safe abortions

By Trevor Jensen, Tribune reporter February 14, 2010

Before abortion was legal, Jody Howard co-founded a group that helped women with unwanted pregnancies.

It went by the innocuous name "Jane," and over just a handful of years, some 11,000 women used its services by calling a telephone number and asking for "Jane Howe."

Ms. Howard was a former board member of the American Civil Liberties Union, and her work with Jane was part of a lifetime committed to social issues from equal rights to ending war.

Ms. Howard, 69, died of organ failure Friday, Feb. 5, at her home on a small farm near Vonore, Tenn., where she had lived for about 15 years after many years in Chicago's Hyde Park and South Shore neighborhoods, said her former husband, Wayne Parsons.

She had been diagnosed with Hodgkin's disease more than 40 years ago, and radiation treatments had taken a toll, he said.

Ms. Howard was a feminist dating back at least to her days at Michigan State University, where she worked on the campus newspaper and married a fellow student.

"She was adamant that she didn't want to be Mrs. Wayne E. Parsons," her ex-husband said.

After getting her degree, she settled with her husband in Hyde Park and quickly became part of the neighborhood's liberal activist swirl. She wrote for local newspapers, campaigned for Bobby Kennedy and Eugene McCarthy, joined the ACLU board and got involved with the Chicago Women's Liberation Union.

Jane was founded as an arm of the union, an umbrella organization for several women's groups. Working with doctors willing to risk their medical licenses, Jane offered referrals for safe abortions to thousands of women from the late 1960s until the 1973 Supreme Court decision that made the procedure legal.

The group's existence spread by word of mouth. Women facing an unwanted pregnancy were led to a telephone number and told to "Call Jane Howe," then met with counselors at a changing series of homes and hotel rooms.

"We tried to set it up to be as protective of ourselves and the people who worked for us as the women needing our services," said Martha Scott, an early Jane member.

Ms. Howard's commitment to abortion rights had a personal component. She had been diagnosed with Hodgkin's disease while pregnant with her second daughter. An unexpected pregnancy led her to seek an abortion.

Despite the obvious health risks because of the radiation treatments she had undergone, she had to go through two psychiatric evaluations before the pregnancy could be terminated.

A forceful advocate for causes she backed, Ms. Howard "had a great deal of personal charisma and (at the same time) could offer a very nice analysis of the issue," Scott said.

With her daughters, Ms. Howard participated in a blockade of the Rock Island Arsenal to protest war. At an ACLU fundraiser at Hugh Hefner's Gold Coast mansion, she showed up with small pictures of naked men that she posted here and there.

"She was escorted out," her ex-husband said.

In the 1970s, Ms. Howard, along with her sister and mother, ran The Peddler's Cart at 14th Street and Michigan Avenue. They glazed clay flowerpots for sale at stores including Amling's. All of the employees were women.

After her 1989 divorce, Ms. Howard started spending more time at the 46-acre farm, set in a peaceful valley that she and her former husband had bought in Tennessee. She kept a farmyard full of animals.

She also trained two golden retrievers, Ruby and Upsi, to national championship level in obedience competitions, said her daughter Linda Parsons.

Ms. Howard is also survived by another daughter, Lisa Parsons; a brother, Robert; a sister, Lauren; and three grandchildren.

Services are planned for a later date.


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