(1975) An assessment of the CWLU 's work by an important decision making body within the Women's Union. (1975)
(Editors Note: The CWLU Planning Committee was an important decision-making body in the CWLU. In this report to the 1975 CWLU Annual Conference, the Planning Committee discussed the renewed emphasis on community organizing, the outreach to other organizations, and the general strengths and weaknesses of the CWLU.)
Good Evening, everyone, and welcome to the 6th annual CWLU conference. All of us on Planning Committee are looking forward to a conference where we can analyze what we’ve done in the last year, and where we want to be going for tomorrow. We also hope that differences in ideology and style of work will be discussed freely and openly, and that through principled discussion we will understand what these differences mean and how we can move forward together.
The report of the Planning Committee to open this conference is meant to be an analysis of lessons we have learned from our work in 1975. We are going to talk about overall successes and failures.
One of the main lessons the CWLU learned this year was a renewed understanding of and respect for community organizing and community organizations. In other words, a renewed respect for base building. But we cannot forget the lesson of direct action when we go back and rebuild our bases. We must remember the struggle and getting people involved in a struggle that will change a part of their lives is the primary goal of community organizing.
Historically we have gone full cycle. First, the CWLU tried to do community outreach, in 1969, 1970, 1971 and 1972 with the establishment of the Sister Center, the Edgewater Women’s Center, and the attempted establishment of Alice Hamilton Women’s Health Clinic. But it was all abandoned in 1972 when the direct action strategy came out and people rushed to do direct action for three main reasons:
- the new members in the CWLU didn’t see themselves as long term community organizers, which is a commitment to live in a certain area and is a slow and hard process.
- partly because some CWLU members didn’t see how community organizing could build the CWLU, and
- direct action was a new approach for doing needed struggle strategy.
However, the direct action strategy was never done where we had been doing community organizing; we only tried it in the programs that were new to the Union, that didn’t have a community base, like DARE, Abortion Task Force, and HERS. Although the strategy itself was sometimes successful, it was never seen as a strategy to involve contacts in a struggle that would change a part of their lives, and also build these contacts as CWLU members. Now that we have gained a new respect for the base building that needs to be done, it is equally as important not to forget to develop progressive struggle campaigns as one of the most important parts of solidifying the contacts and making changes in the way things are.
We have gained this respect for base building by many events that occurred this year. The first was International Women’s Day itself, where many people in the CWLU saw that we really had a base ourselves. The 700+ people there were our community. The lesbian workgroup decided to do the kind of base building that Secret Storm workgroup had been doing for a few years, and found that this outreach and visibility with a newspaper and Liberation School class and new campaigns have made their work among the most successful lesbian organizing in the country. For Prison Project members, their work around the work release center showed them the potential for community organizing around prison work, and gained them new members. The bilingual health project, which has evolved into a different form as CESA, taught those of us involved that health work cannot be done in any community without a community base. We learned that you can’t come in like gangbangers into a community and announce an educational program and disregard the community organizing already going on. That CESA is now going around to different community leaders, and asking them if they will help us by initially figuring out how to use our information in their community, and then later, when we have developed a base of interested people, develop a whole campaign. Lastly, the Chicago Women’s Health Center was founded this year with several CWLU women involved, and they intend to use the center as a focus for community organizing. These we all see as important that the CWLU is once again taking seriously the task of base-building.
The other major lesson that we learned this year is that if the women’s movement is not to remain all white and middle class we must begin the act on building strong alliances with black and other Third World organizations. We did better in some communities than in others, with the best results coming for our increased involvement with Latin organizations and the Spanish-speaking community. Whereas last year we had no contact with Latin organizations, this year it was our major coalition work.
Dr. Helen Rodriquez coming to Chicago for the CWLU and talking mainly in Spanish for our event was the first time we ever took seriously having a Spanish speaking constituency and making some of our events bilingual. Helen’s speech and her subsequent discussions at the Socialist/Feminist conference was important in uniting PSP, Mujeres Latinas En Accion and the CWLU in beginning CESA.
Simultaneously, PSP and CASA (an organization that works with Mexicans and deportations) were planning their May Day parade, and chose Esther to speak because of her work in the Union and her work in a factory. Again, this is the first time this has ever happened - that Third World organizations had responded to the women’s movement, or the part of the women’s movement we represent, in such a positive way. At the Socialist-Feminist conference, the Third World caucus said that they were a vital part of our movement and that we should work together to build the socialist-feminist movement in Third World communities as a major priority.
So by doing CESA work and the two PSP coalitions described in the analysis of our coalition work, at the same time, we have the beginnings of doing both political work around the independence of Puerto Rico, and community work, on the nature of sterilization abuse. Of we can do this work better next year, we will have learned our lesson well, and have done what our Third World sisters said we should do. And the ultimate survival of our movement depends on us doing this well because if the women’s movement cannot relate and respond to the specific needs of Third World women, then we will not make any lasting changes either for feminism or socialism.
Also, all this work with both community organizations and Latin organizations has made us part of a network of organizations that can come together and support each other in health care struggles, All our contacts and working relations with Latin organizations and other community organizations was crucial for the community meetings that have been called around the situation at Cook County hospital. It is important for us to help build and expand this network, because it makes us stronger, and in situations like the recent one at County, we need all the strength we can muster.
Another lesson that The CWLU learned this year was that theory and study are important. We all know we need to study in a more consistent way, but this year proved a breakthrough in may ways. The study groups for the Socialist-Feminist Conference were the most popular the Union’s ever had, and integrated us as an organization studying together more than any other time in our history. The continuation of that class and the two Marxism classes has set the stage for developing a program of internal political education which should be a priority for the Union next year.
This was also the year we say the for and size of a national socialist-feminist movement, and although there might be strong differences, there was a lot more unity and a lot more of a national movement than we ever dreamed. Through the conference we built a network of Socialist-feminist groups with which we have unity in terms of class and the need for an organization. There is particularly a feeling of much unity within the Midwest, between Dayton Women’s Center, Twin Cities Women’s Union, and Milwaukee Women’s Union (a new organization). The conference also was a recognition of national leadership. It showed us that we socialist-feminists had developed national leadership in terms of both individuals and organizations. And the CWLU came out of the conference as the organization that was being used as a model all across the country. It was also an important knitting of the S/F movement and Third World women, and was the beginning of our relationship with the Asian Women’s Study Group.
The conference was a powerful to realize our strength as a movement. This is increasingly important as we look around and see the demise of NOW. NOW was always a middle-class organization in which some of us may have felt comfortable and some of us didn’t. But on a national level, NOW is presently disunited, without program in most chapters, with the effective live of the organization over. It is important for us to understand what some of the forces were that brought this about, and what it means for us.
What it looks like is that for the last two-three years, NOW has been set up for failure. By the capitalists, by the FBI, who knows? But the lesson is if you’re not clear about your political direction, and sure of what kind of movement and society you’re going to try to get to, and if you’re not sure about who are your allies, and who isn’t, then you can be destroyed. It seems clear NOW never did this when we take two recent examples:
1. The woman who was for years the vice-president of NOW, is employed as the affirmative action lawyer for Sears and Roebuck, hired to help the corporation dodge meeting affirmative action guidelines, when NOW’s biggest national campaign is against Sears and Roebuck. Within the Sears campaign, thousands of dollars have been spent on NOW members in the campaign suing each other.
2. The second example is the Alice Doesn’t Day, which called for a national strike by women, with no base-building and no analysis of what women’s lives are like in this country. As everyone knows, it was a horrible failure, and totally discredited the woman’s movement. The lesson is that even progressive people sometimes make horrible ultra-left mistakes like Alice Doesn’t Day, but if they are serious about building a socialist society, they do a lot of internal criticism and learn from their mistake. NOW, on the other hand, celebrated their failure as a victory publicly, and further discredited the women’s movement.
What it means specifically for us here in Chicago is not yet clear. However, it does mean publicly, with this Alice Doesn’t Day and the defeat of the ERA in Illinois, and the probably dissolution of NOW, we have a vacuum to feel and challenge before us. We can not only show that the women’s movement is alive and well, we can show our kind of women’s movement with our kind of demands. This is the time to show visibility, but also to show to our working class and Third World sisters that we are a movement that will meet their demands. This is the time to move forward.
This year also saw the irreconcilable differences between the CWLU and the RU come to the fore, and the members of the RU leave the Union. We see this as positive, because there was such a wide difference of opinion as to the role of reform, questions of the family, lesbianism, and the importance of women’s issues in general.
Although legislative work is outside our area of work, two important and extremely negative things happened in that arena this year. A terrible abortion bill passed both the Illinois House and Senate that requires a woman to have her husband’s permission if she wants an abortion, or a minor to have her parent’s consent. And the ERA failed again. We should consider if there is some way in our ongoing work that we can deal with these setbacks.
We also think that we failed theoretically to solve the problem of exactly what kind of organization we are trying to build. We know that we are trying to build a mass organization, but we need a way to unite service, education, outreach and struggle into a more unified program. We need the structure to be as broad and flexible as we are now, but we also need to unite all the members and programs in a more consistent, programmatic way.
Furthermore, we need to have what has been called struggle programs, or mass action campaigns, that are always a part of our work. It was a failure that the aspects of struggle in the Prison Project and Secret Storm sports program were our only struggle aspects for the year, but we needed to learn that struggle programs must rest on a base, and the consequences of struggle campaigns must be evaluated.
It was also a failure that a stronger program of internal political education was not fully developed, but it should follow naturally form the beginning we made this year. We should build on the S/F study groups, and the one night membership educationals (Stephanie Urdang, Lourdes Vasquez, etc.)
We failed to set up a way to deal with and solve our internal childcare needs, and we hope it can be taken seriously this weekend.
We also failed in developing stronger organization leadership. Although we have been good about developing program leadership, it seems that our program suffers when a person is taken out to do organizational leadership because the central organization is not centralized enough to back up our programs. Planning Committee also criticizes itself for not working harder with the steering committee in helping develop their organization leadership ability. It is a trend of steering committee reps to be very passive in steering committee in taking responsibility both for guiding the organization, and for initiating discussions of their workgroup or chapters work in steering committee. We also suffered greatly from lack of an outreach person on planning committee, and should have pressed harder for someone in the organization to fill this position when Elaine resigned. This resulted in lack of a coordinated outreach program for the Union. Having an outreach person could have meant better follow-up on March 8th, development of better outreach literature, and development of the office for outreach to a greater extent than staff is humanly able to do, better coordination of openhouses, and the rap group program, and the outreach person could have taken charge of the community organizations we’re contacting.
In general, we feel the Union has matured greatly in the last year, is in good shape for further growth and anxious to cooperate more together as an organization in developing theory, strategy and practice, and continue to serve as a model for revolutionary women’s liberation organizations across the country.