health care

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.