Health Care Organizing in the Chicago Women’s Liberation Union

By Christine R. Riddiough

One central area of CWLU work was organizing around women’s health, reaching out to women across class and race lines through education, service, and direct action related to issues of health care, sex, sexuality, and reproduction.

Applying a Feminist Analysis

Like many women of their generation, early CWLU activists had in general been raised with little real knowledge about women’s health, sex, sexuality, or reproduction. In a recent discussion activists made the following comments:

I remember that we had sex education in junior high, a very prim and biological approach to how babies are made, as I recall. My mother gave me a book about sex and reproduction in the form (I think) of letters from a mother to her daughter - my mother never discussed sex with me, so that format was perfect. As I recall (as does my friend Alice) any discussions of sex among friends was tinged with morality - what "good girls" do and don't do. And I think that was all related to the absence of effective birth control - we'd certainly all been taught about the perils of the "rhythm system" - and the horrors of teenage pregnancy, pregnancy outside of marriage, etc. Alice recalls the captain of the cheerleading team coming into her sex ed class in high school and telling the class to "save themselves for marriage." A very practical piece of advice, in many ways, when birth control was uncertain and middle class morals very unforgiving indeed. The Pill changed all that, that is for sure!


Your memories of junior high/sex ed are actually pretty similar to mine. My mother also never discussed sex with me (and I'm sure that was true of her mother as well) but she did send me to a 'sex ed' class at the YWCA. The main focus of it as far as I remember was on menstruation, but I suppose it must have talked about getting pregnant, having babies, etc. I vaguely remember having this reaction of how the whole process sounded rather awful (and having this epiphany when I was 12 or 13 that since it appeared that the only choices for women were being wives and mothers or being "old maid" schoolteachers, that I would stick with the latter option.) The pill did change some of the dynamics - although there were I think still limitations - Judy remembers having to tell her doctor she was married in order to get a prescription for birth control. I do remember that "good girls" did not let boys get to first base. And one of my more vivid memories of college is early freshman year, the assistant dean of women coming around to the dorms and giving us a talk about how we were now out on our own in the real world and should "hold high the flame of our virginity." I doubt they give those talks any more.1

As CWLU activists applied a feminist analysis to their experiences with health care, sex and sexuality, and what they had been taught about reproduction, it became apparent to them that health care in general was largely controlled by what was then a male-dominated medical profession. Women’s health in particular was generally ignored and women were advised to simply trust the doctor. Information about pregnancy, sex and childbirth was limited, and communicated almost exclusively by men. Discussion of lesbianism was taboo. All that needed to change.

Evidence of the importance of women’s health, sex, and sexuality to the work of the CWLU can be seen in the emphasis on these issues in both the CWLU Liberation School for Women2 and the CWLU outreach newspaper WOMANKIND.3

Class lists for eight Liberation School sessions4 reflect an interest in issues related to health throughout the course offerings. In each session, at least two and as many as five of the classes concerned women’s health, reproduction, and sexuality.

A similar emphasis on women’s health, sexuality, and the health care system overall can be found in the WOMANKIND. Over its life from September 1971 to November 1973, WOMANKIND published 44 articles on matters related to women’s health, sex, sexuality, and reproduction.

Most important, however, were the impressive health care projects carried out by CWLU work groups, some of which continued on even after the disbanding of the CWLU itself in 1977.

Women’s Health in the Mid-20th Century

It is true that by the early part of the 20th century great advances were being made in health care, both in terms of public health and medicine. Making the connection between disease and polluted drinking water, for example, saved thousands, perhaps millions of lives. The discovery of penicillin saved many from disease and death. The development of contraceptive pills allowed many women to choose to have children – one of the few medical advances that focused on women. Most medical research and drug development was focused on men’s health.

For most women in mid-century America, reproductive rights were minimal. Contraception became illegal in the United States with the passage in 1870 of the Comstock Act. In 1916, Margaret Sanger, one of the first to raise issues related to women’s health was arrested for distributing birth control. Then in the 1950’s, researchers supported by the Planned Parenthood Federation of America developed the first birth control pills However, it wasn’t until 1965, that the Supreme Court of the United States in Griswold v. Connecticut, ruled that a law prohibiting the use of contraceptives violated the constitutional "right to marital privacy". In 1972, Eisenstadt v. Baird expanded the right to possess and use contraceptives to unmarried couples. Abortion also was illegal except in cases where the life of the woman was at risk. 

Francine Nichols5 notes that in the 1960s about 8,000 therapeutic abortions were performed annually, but almost 1 million illegal abortions were performed in that same period.

Opposition to contraception and abortion was related to the narrow view of sexuality prevalent at the time. Sex was permissible only within marriage and its main purpose was the production of offspring. While young men were expected to ‘sow their wild oats’, young women were expected to remain virgins until they married. Even within marriage, women were not supposed to enjoy sexual intercourse. Homosexuality was seen as a perversion that required psychotherapy, electroshock therapy or, perhaps, exorcism. Rape was viewed as a sexual act, often viewed as the fault of the, generally, female victim.

In addition to these limitations on women’s access to reproductive and sexual health, women were also hamstrung by a lack of information. Conversations with many women, who grew up in the 1950s and 1960s often include the statement, ‘We knew nothing.’ Little or no sex education was provided to girls in that period nor was there information on reproduction, pregnancy or child care. The expectation was that girls would grow up, get married and have children, but that they need not know anything about what was happening to them. As women became more sexually active – this was the generation that chanted ‘Make Love, Not War’ – many sought out birth control. But even contraceptives were restricted. Only married women could get a prescription, except in those situations where there was a medical need. For a single woman to get contraception, she needed to know the ‘code’ that would gain her access. 

Both the ignorance of women of that generation with regard to reproduction and sexuality and the ignorance and inaccessibility of health care, reproductive care and sexual counseling meant that the women’s movement of that time – whether the ‘reform’ wing or the ‘radical’ wing – focused much of its work on reproductive rights. But for women of CWLU and similar organizations, the connections with the civil rights and anti-war movements broadened the scope of the work. The focus was not simply on reproductive rights but on reproductive justice. That is that for a right to be meaningful it must be available to anyone regardless of their economic status. Robert O. Self in All in the Family has described this as the difference between positive and negative rights:

To say that women ought to be free to realize their potential in the workplace is to invoke a negative right: women’s freedom to do as they wish. It is different to say that in order for women to exercise this right fully, they require additional state action: guaranteed maternity leave and child care, for instance, or affirmative action in hiring. These are positive rights.”

Self goes on to describe reproductive rights and justice in this context:

And yet privacy, the basis of just about every legal success for reproductive rights, produced a cleaved citizenship. Positive rights do not usually follow the codification of negatives rights. Once a woman’s liberty to seek an abortion was established, opponents endeavored to constrain and circumscribe that right by preventing the government from funding entitlements that protected it. To leave a negative right unprotected, or to withhold the resources without which the right is inaccessible, is to make it a matter of market forces.

It is this kind of perspective that resulted in CWLU working not only for abortion rights but also for an end to sterilization abuse, support for accessibility of contraception, abortion and other services for all women.

This reproductive justice perspective led to many women activists taking a close look at the health care system in general. Thus women’s health must be understood in the overall context of the American health care system. Medicare was enacted in 1964 and Medicaid in 1965. Apart from the Veteran’s Administration (which at that point largely served men), they were the first and largest public health care programs in the US. The polio vaccine only became available in the 1950s and many other medical advances we take for granted today – from surgical interventions to antibiotics to vaccines – were only beginning to be available. Mental health was in its infancy. It was in this climate that the women’s movement began to organize around women’s health.

The Chicago Women’s Liberation Union

Throughout its history, the CWLU had a significant focus on organizing around women’s health, but this work was done in the context of the broader political perspective of CWLU. The goals of CWLU were far reaching – to organize Chicago women around issues that impacted their lives, to revolutionize their roles as women, to confront institutional power that limited women – at their jobs, in their communities, and to combine the personal and political.

CWLU was a socialist-feminist organization. CWLU members believed in women’s equality, and understood that it could only be achieved with economic, racial and social justice. Organizers were part of the anti-war and anti-imperialist movements and the civil rights movement. CWLU members worked in coalitions with many mainstream women’s organizations like NOW, NARAL, and ERA groups but their perspective was one of working for radical change.

The CWLU had a wide-ranging program that included

  • women organizing on their jobs for equal pay for equal work,
  • work for safe, affordable, high quality day care for children
  • access to organized sports, long before it became popular,
  • organizing the first Liberation School for Women, at a time when there were no women’s studies programs
  • support for lesbians in CWLU and providing public education around gay issues
  • building bridges to women in other countries
  • reviving the long buried tradition of celebrating International Women’s Day in the U.S.
  • creating its own culture in the CWLU Rock Band and the Women’s Graphics Collective.

Socialist Feminist Theory & Strategy in the Chicago Women's Liberation Union

By Margaret Schmid and Chris Riddlough


About the Module

Suggested Use
Socialist Feminist Theory and Strategy in the Chicago Women’s Liberation Union is a three-part teaching module for use with a course on ‘Second Wave’ feminism, the history of feminism and/or feminist theory. It focuses on the historical period of the second wave in the 1960s and 1970s. Feminist organizations during that period are sometimes criticized as focusing on the concerns of white, middle class, educated women, or as being preoccupied with consciousness raising and rap groups. The Chicago Women’s Liberation Union (CWLU) was an exception in both regards. The CWLU’s theory, beginning with its 1969 founding conference, recognized what is today called intersectionality – that is, the need to combat not only the oppression of women as women but also the simultaneous oppressions imposed by racism, capitalism, and imperialism. In the only change to the political principles adopted in 1969, the CWLU expanded its intersectional analysis to recognize the need to fight for the liberation of homosexuals, and especially lesbians. Additionally, the CWLU from the beginning emphasized outreach, education, and action in its work.

This module explores the original CWLU statement of political principles and the more complete intersectionality embodied in the amendment adopted by CWLU in 1972; the position paper ‘Socialist Feminism: A Strategy for the Women’s Movement; and the strategic framework the CWLU adopted to guide its outreach, education, and action programs throughout its existence.



The statement of political principles that was adopted at the October 1969 founding conference of CWLU reads:

The struggle for women's liberation is a revolutionary struggle.

Women's liberation is essential to the liberation of all oppressed people.

Women's liberation will not be achieved until all people are free.

We will struggle for the liberation of women and against male supremacy in all sections of society.

We will struggle against racism, imperialism, and capitalism, and dedicate ourselves to developing a consciousness of their effect on women.

We are dedicated to a democratic organization and understand that a way to ensure democracy is through full exchange of information and ideas, full political debate, and through unity of theory and practice.

We are committed to building a movement that embodies within it the humane values of the society for which we are fighting. To win this struggle, we must resist exploitative, manipulative, and intolerant attitudes in ourselves. We need to be supportive of each other, to have enthusiasm for change in ourselves and in society, and to have faith that people have unending energy and ability to change.

These principles reflect the involvement of the women who organized the founding conference of the CWLU and many of the early members in political activism through the movements of the 1960s – civil rights, anti-war, community organizing, student activism. For example, Vivian Rothstein, an author of the call for the conference, was an experienced community organizer who had traveled to Vietnam and met with women from their National Liberation Front. Another early activist, Heather Booth, had participated in the 1964 Freedom Summer and in student actions at the University of Chicago. They and the other early CWLU activists were keenly aware that these progressive movements were still primarily led by men and that even the most active women were marginalized when decisions of any consequence were made. Out of this grew a consciousness that, if women were to be liberated, independent women’s organizations were essential, and that women had to be central to the struggle. One of the major points of contention at the founding conference was whether it was legitimate to found an independent women’s organization. Many men in progressive civil rights, anti-war, and student organizations condemned the idea as divisive, and a contingent of women from male-led left-wing organizations were at the founding conference arguing against the creation of an independent CWLU.

The political principles explicitly link the struggle for women’s liberation to the struggles against racism, imperialism, and capitalism. Again, this was the result of the experiences of the women most instrumental in creating the CWLU and of the other early activists, all of whom had developed political awareness during the civil rights struggles in the 1960s and the fight against the Vietnam War in the 1960s into the 1970s. This political awareness made apparent that true liberation for women, the goal of the CWLU, could not be won by focusing on white women alone. Instead, the CWLU needed also to work for the liberation of women of color, women in Vietnam and other countries, women working for a minimum wage, women without control of their reproductive lives, and more. It was clear at the founding of the CWLU that the fight for women’s liberation was not separate from the struggles of other oppressed people in the United States and around the world. The choice of the word ”struggle” which recurs throughout CWLU documents likewise reflects the reality recognized by CWLU activists that the civil rights struggle, the anti-war movement, and the work of student and community organizers alike were pitted against the powerful machines of oppression and destruction.

The concluding two portions of the political principles again reflect the experiences of those most instrumental in founding the CWLU. Many women who had been active in the civil rights, anti-war, or community organizing movements had painful memories of being relegated to making coffee or running mimeo machines while men did the talking and made the decisions. Out of this experience of lack of democracy, disregard, and denial of opportunity came an emphasis on democracy, open exchange of information and ideas, mutual support, and faith in the possibility of major societal change that were hallmarks of how the CWLU operated.

Over the life of CWLU, only one change was made in the political principles – this was a modification to the fourth sentence in the principles: “We will struggle for the liberation of women and against male supremacy in all sections of society.” In 1972 this statement was revised in two significant ways to read as follows:

We will struggle for the liberation of women and against sexism in all sections of society. Included in this struggle is the struggle for the right of sexual self-determination for all people and for the liberation of all homosexuals, especially lesbians.

The most important change was the inclusion of the sentence defining the struggle for the liberation of women as including “… the struggle for the right of sexual self-determination for all people and for the liberation of all homosexuals, especially lesbians.” This broadened awareness made the CWLU statement of political principles more fully intersectional, and was reflected into subsequent CWLU outreach, education, and action work.

The impetus for this change came from lesbians in CWLU who felt it was essential to incorporate support for lesbian and gay liberation in the political principles. When the principles were first adopted in 1969, the gay liberation movement had barely begun. No gay pride parades had been held, no lesbian feminist festivals were established, and Stonewall was still a whisper in the background. By 1970, CWLU had started to incorporate lesbian and gay liberation into its program, and in the summer of 1970 the connection between gay and lesbian issues and women’s liberation was discussed at a meeting sponsored jointly by CWLU and the women’s caucus of the Chicago Gay Alliance. This led to further discussion within CWLU and ultimately the adoption of the principle above.

Also important, the change from the term “male supremacy” to “sexism” is indicative of the sweeping impact of the women’s liberation movement on society. In 1969, the word sexism was not in general use, but by 1972 - in part through the work of CWLU and organizations like it -the term sexism was widely used to denote the institutional nature of the oppression of women, oppression that was now acknowledged to go far beyond attitudes and expectations. The change in the CWLU political principles reflected this more broadly significant understanding, an understanding that the organization itself had helped to create.


CWLU Political Principles

Booth, Heather, Goldfield, Evie and Munaker Sue. 1968. Toward a Radical Movement. Unpublished.

Alter, Barbara, Ackerman, Carol, George, Liz, Rothstein, Vivian, Weisstein, Naomi, Keller, Alice, Hedda and others. 1969. A Proposal for a Chicago Radical Women’s Conference. Unpublished.



Socialist Feminism: A Strategy for the Women’s Movement was adopted in 1973 by CWLU. Written by the Hyde Park Chapter, this paper outlined in more detail the ways in which women are oppressed and provided three strategic goals for projects that CWLU undertook:

  • projects must win reforms that will objectively improve women's lives;
  • projects must give women a sense of their own power, both potentially and in reality;
  • projects must alter existing relations of power.

The introduction to the paper described the competing perspectives within the women’s movement of the time. The paper noted the importance of combining personal liberation and growth with structural social change, especially in its economic base.

The paper’s five sections laid out a comprehensive approach to organizing:

  • Socialist Feminism - the concept and what it draws from each parent tradition.
  • Power - the basis for power in this society, and our potential as women to gain power.
  • Consciousness - the importance of consciousness for the development of the women's movement, its limitations, and its place in a socialist feminist ideology.
  • Current issues and questions facing the movement - a socialist feminist approach to respond to and develop a context for our programs and concerns.
  • Organization - the importance of building organizations for the women's liberation movement and some thoughts on organizational forms.

The first section detailed the idea of socialist feminism and described its roots in the traditions of socialism and feminism. It incorporated a feminist perspective that recognized that the institutions of sexism and capitalism combine to oppress women. It then provided a detailed analysis of society and gave examples of the kind of changes it viewed as desirable but not obtainable in current society.

Perhaps the idea of power and the role it plays in women’s oppression and the necessity of women gaining power to achieve liberation was the most important idea detailed in the paper:

As socialist feminists we have an analysis of who has power and who does not, the basis for that power and our potential as women to gain power. Sisterhood is powerful in our personal lives, in our relationships with other women, in providing personal energy and maintaining warmth and love. But sisterhood is revolutionary because it can provide a basis on which we can unite to seize power.

The remainder of the paper discussed specific issues. It concluded by stating:

Primarily, we argue for an aggressive and audacious perspective. It is one that our movement began with when we thought we were the newest and hottest thing going. Now, we have found roots. We will need strategy, organization and so many steps along the way. But we must take the offensive again, and this time fight a long battle-- worth it because we believe we can win.

Throughout its history, CWLU included a focus on direct action. The Socialist Feminist paper put this into perspective. The Hyde Park chapter, which drafted the paper, also gave birth to the Action Committee for Decent Childcare, a program aimed at revising licensing laws for childcare centers in Chicago and getting the city to provide funding for centers. Working women, who had limited access to childcare, joined the effort. The jobs work group, later Direct Action for Rights in Employment (DARE), was another example of the use of direct action. In the early 1970s CWLU received a letter from one of the janitresses working at Chicago City Hall asking for help and support in a fight for equal pay with the male janitors. Both the work of ACDC and DARE reflected intersectionality in organizing.

Later in the 1970s CWLU’s Secret Storm work group worked with women in the Chicago Park District to ensure that women had equal access to Park District sports facilities such as playing fields and equipment. These are a few examples of how CWLU put theory into action.


Hyde Park Chapter (Booth, Heather, Creamer, Day, Davis, Susan, Dobbin, Deb, Kaufman, Robin and Klass, Tobey). 1972. Socialist Feminism: A Strategy for the Women’s Movement. Unpublished.

Action Committee for Decent Childcare Report, ca 1972.

Direct Action for Rights in Employment, Press Release Announcing Susie Bates' Filing of Gender Discrimination Charges, 1973.

Secret Storm Report, Women Put Parker in His Place, ca 1976.



CWLU continuously worked to develop strategies for successful work, guided by papers written by CWLU chapters. The first of these was Some Thoughts on Program, inspired by The Longest Revolution, by British Marxist-Feminist Juliet Mitchell. Presented at the CWLU second conference in 1971, this paper noted conflicting views within the women’s liberation movement about how to best move forward. For example, some argued for consciousness raising as the main focus for work as opposed to practical programs to meet immediate needs such as childcare. Instead, Some Thoughts on Program argued for a program and strategy which emphasized struggle on many different levels, none of which was a clear priority over the others, and none of which was adequate without the development of the others.

To illustrate this idea of a multidimensional, multifaceted program to struggle against the oppression of women, the Midwives said that they

“….conceived of making a visual chart. Along the sides are the four major roles into which women are placed in American society – roles which oppress us. First is our role in production (as surplus, menial, malleable labor force; domestic workers and keepers of the work force); second is production (being responsible for the reproduction of the race); third is sexuality and fourth is our role as socializers of children.

“Across the top are the different levels or dimensions of struggle which we have begun to see as necessary to build our movement. First are struggles around the immediate needs of women….Second is the development of consciousness through educational and other work…The third work which leads to the development of an analysis of women’s oppression and all oppression in our society, and which will lead us to developing a strategy for transforming this society…And the fourth dimension is the building of a vision of how society should look and the building of alternative institutions to the oppressive ones which exist today.”

Underscoring the understanding by early CWLU activists of the intersection of multiple systems of oppression, the paper recognized:

“….this is just a two dimensional chart. It helps us look at different types of program necessary to organize around women's oppression as women. But it is clear that women are not only oppressed as women, but are also part of all other oppressed groups within this society (e.g. blacks, workers, students, gay people). Because of women's interrelatedness to all of society we must have a view of program which says that our oppression as women cannot be separated from the oppression of all other groups. That means that our movement must work on program which struggles against all kinds of oppression and must respond specifically to the ways the oppression of these groups affects women in them.”

Lively discussion of this proposal for analyzing programs occurred at the second CWLU conference in April 1971 and resulted in the adoption of the “the Mitchell chart” as an influential tool for CWLU planning and strategy. Throughout the remainder of CWLU’s existence, the Mitchell chart guided the organization’s work. For example, in 1973, existing CWLU projects were graphically displayed using the

Mitchell chart:







As is apparent, CWLU developed on-going programs in each of the areas of the Mitchell chart, resulting in a broad, diverse, far-reaching array of outreach, education, and action programs aimed to empowering Chicago women to help achieve their liberation


Juliet Mitchell, 1966, The Longest Revolution, New Left Review, No. 40.

Midwives Chapter. 1971. Some Thoughts on Program. Unpublished.

Examples of the usage of the Juliet Mitchell Chart