Braided Lives is difficult to read as feminist canon. The women are more often frenemies than friends, and the main female friendship is full of jealousies and betrayals. They help each other survive, but help with survival is not enough to cite as positive female/female representation. Braided Lives is about as feminist as your average primetime soap, except for one pivotal factor: accounts of abortion in America during an era when it was illegal, and the social mores that enabled this dating hellscape. That is the political glue holding this novel together, and these glimpses into a society with only primitive access to abortion make the book well worth the read.
At the root of the abortion issue is the misogyny permeating every interaction between the women and the men they date. Piercy shines a light on these dynamics with every page. Sex is for men on men’s terms. Jill, the protagonist, says of one boyfriend who unsurprisingly happens to be really into Freudian analysis:
“If he would touch me before he came in, if he would eat me, I would come better, but he says wanting that shows I am sexually immature and stuck in the clitoral phase of development. If I was a real woman, he says, I would not need stimulation.”
The misogyny is of course not just enforced by boyfriends and Freud. Parents are also major culprits. “Keep quiet … You’ve forfeited your right to be heard,” Jill’s father says after finding out she’s slept with her boyfriend, Mike. Her mother is just as bad, if not worse.
Dating is as dangerous as it is socially expected, sexual consent is not even a concept, and rape is common. After Mike gives Jill an unenthusiastic maybe to the idea of marrying her, Jill asks him to drive her home and he proclaims:
“‘We haven’t fucked yet.’
‘I don’t want to.’
‘Oh? After all the trouble you got me into? Don’t try those withholding games on me. You think I’ll come around then. No thanks. Come here.’
That night I experience sex as pure pain.”
Dating is as dangerous as it is socially expected, sexual consent is not even a concept, and rape is common.
“All the trouble” she got him into, was the confrontation that occurred after her parents found out the two collegiates had been having sex during break and pressured them to marry. Jill won’t denounce her abusive family like Mike wants. Jill won’t leave her abusive boyfriend like her mother wants. Mike won’t marry Jill like Jill wants out of necessity. She is pregnant, and even after he finds out he refuses. He is also adamantly anti-abortion. He wants her to sacrifice everything—her family, education, and career—for him and to give her nothing in return. His hypocrisy knows no ends.
“There’s a snake like you behind every young girl’s troubles!” Jill’s mother says to Mike during a confrontation. True, Mike is fucking awful. But so is her own history of emotional abuse, overbearing rules, and pure hatred of Jill’s sexual activity. Having come from an abusive household it is no surprise Jill winds up seeking out a partner who continues to abuse her. But despite her mother’s contribution to this cycle, what she can’t see in herself she sees readily in her daughter’s awful boyfriend. Mike prioritizes his education, pride, and ambitions over Jill’s and her immediate corporeal problem. In the end it is her mother whose help Jill seeks to terminate the pregnancy. The result is a very painful self-induced abortion followed by a period of illness that Jill would not have had to experience had she access to a safe clinic. Jill survives, breaks up with Mike, and continues to freely sleep with men. She retains her agency on all fronts. Others are not so lucky.
That is only the halfway point in the book. More experiences unfold with Jill’s friends that combined with her own personal abortion experience cause Jill to become part of a network that helps women access safe, underground, illegal abortions in the 1960s. This is based on real groups that existed for this purpose, most notably the Jane Collective, also known as the Abortion Counseling Service of Women’s Liberation. It began in Chicago in 1969 and operated until 1973 when Roe v. Wade legalized abortion in the U.S.
“There was no available way, so I had to do it myself,” Piercy recounts. She nearly bled to death.
Heather Booth, one of the cofounders of Jane recalls in the documentary She’s Beautiful When She’s Angry, “A friend mentioned his sister was pregnant, nearly suicidal, and needed an abortion, so I helped find her a doctor. A few weeks later, someone else called . . . the word had spread. I was living in a dormitory, so I told people to call and ask for Jane. In those days, three people discussing an abortion was a conspiracy to commit a felony murder.” As the organization grew, they had to move their locations around on a daily basis for secrecy. The Janes learned how to perform the abortions safely and administered the procedures themselves. During their run, the Janes performed over 11,000 abortions.
“It was a time when falling in love could kill you,” Piercy has stated of her own experience with abortion, which inspired Braided Lives. “There was no available way, so I had to do it myself,” Piercy recounts. She nearly bled to death. “I decided that was never going to happen to any woman that I could do anything about.” Piercy began keeping a file of abortionists, adding names as she heard of them through others. “I helped women get abortions, I held them while they bled afterwards when the doctor who did it wouldn’t help them, all the way up until the time when abortions became legal.”
Piercy’s and others’ feminist activism with abortion groups is what paved the way for American women to access safe abortions. However, women in many parts of the world still don’t have access to abortion, including women in parts of America where abortion is legal but intentionally intercepted by distance to clinics, red tape, and where it is possible to be shot to death trying to seek medical care at a Planned Parenthood. The fight for women’s right to health is far from over. Braided Lives is a nightmarish reminder of the dangers women face when they cannot access these services safely.