chicago womens liberation union

Chicago Women's Liberation Union

by Naomi Weisstein and Vivian Rothstein (1972). A detailed report on the CWLU's organizing strategy. by Vivian Rothstein and Naomi Weisstein

(Editors Note: Women: A Journal of Liberation published this article in 1972. Written by two of the founders of the CWLU, it is a snapshot of the group's organizing strategies during its second year.)

The women's liberation movement in Chicago is in good shape. This is surprising, since in many places the women’s movement appears to be in critical condition. We feel that we have learned certain things from our work in Chicago, and have ideas about why we have been relatively successful. We don’t know exactly why the women’s liberation movement here remains relatively healthy, and we are not arrogant about it.

However, we think it is important for us to begin to understand what has or has not happened to our movement, so we can figure out how to work to make it strong, stable and lasting. So, in what follows, we will try to characterize the Chicago women’s liberation movement and discuss its health, its illness, and its recent history.

The Chicago women’s liberation movement can be characterized in the following five ways:

  1. There is a radical, citywide women’s liberation organization, the Chicago Women’s Liberation Union (CWLU). This is more than merely an umbrella of various projects. The Union has its own decision-making mechanisms, its own staff, a defined membership, a broad but definite politics, and a developing program.
  2. Sectarianism in Chicago is not heavy.
  3. There are a large number of serious, committed, full-time organizers who see women’s organizing as their highest priority.
  4. There are a number of on-going programs which have developed over the last two years which are reaching large numbers of previously inactive women.
  5. The movement is not university- based; there is a surprising amount of diversity in the life situations of women in the Chicago women’s movement.

Consider some of these in more detail:

  1. The CWLU—- The Chicago Women’s Liberation Union—— is an explicitly radical, anti-capitalist, feminist, city-wide organization committed to building an autonomous, multi-issue womens liberation movement. There are from 40-50 highly committed women who form the core of our organization, and about 150 women who are somewhat active on a regular basis in Union programs. Leadership abilities--by which we mean an assertiveness about what needs to be done and a commitment and responsibility toward doing it--have been developing throughout the CWLU membership. In particular, a large number of women participate or have participated in the steering committee-the decision-making body of the Union.
  2. The CWLU organizational structure has enabled us to survive slack periods when work seemed futile and morale was low; it has enabled us to feel that our work has a cumulative effect, and it has enabled us to broaden our constituencies in ways that single- issue, university--based groups, and small--group federations could not have. We feel that the Union is probably the single most important reason why the Chicago women’s movement is in good shape and that the other reasons, below, in some ways follow from and/or depend on the existence and activity of this structure.
  3. For instance, There are a number of on-going programs in Chicago right now, most of which have strong ties to CWLU. What this means is that effort on any one program is seen in most cases as cumulative; that is, as adding to the development of CWLU and, therefore, to the development of women’s liberation in Chicago. This means that we have something of a common political history and experience to draw on. There are several on—going programs; three of them—The Liberation School for Women, the Action Committee for Decent Childcare (ACDC), and Womankind newspaper——are discussed in detail in this issue of the Journal (Editors Note: The links will take you to those articles). Our other programs include: 
    a)A graphics collective has been functioning for about a year. The collective produces women’s posters and greeting cards, and also provides a context in which women who see graphic art as the center of their lives can work and create. 
    b) The Chicago Women’s Liberation Rock Band has been performing for a year and a half. The band wants to liberate rock from the sexist evil which pervades it; to produce beautiful music; to celebrate with Its sisters and to make real the vision of women’s liberation; and eventually, to reach every 14-year-old girl in the city of Chicago and in the country with its vision, its music and its politics. There is a sister band in New Haven. The two bands are in constant communication and do a lot of the same material. The band feels, especially through its collective efforts with New Haven, that they are involved in the process of creating a revolutionary women’s culture. 
    c) The oldest and perhaps most respected project in Chicago is the abortion counseling service, which serves all women who need abortions. The service is widely known, so that increasing numbers of third world and young women are using it. The service involves over 30 women in counseling and sharing medical skills.
  4. The Chicago women’s liberation movement is, by and large, not sectarian. With the exception last year of the standard Socialist Worker’s Party versus autonomous women’s movement fight (described in more detail below) denunciation of our sisters has been kept to a fairly inaudible mumble. The revealed--truth dividers that have come up elsewhere--straight/gay, male-identified/female- identified, feminist/socialist--have come up in Chicago, but they have not led to any serious splits in our movement. This is not to say that we have a uniform movement. We have a tolerant and moderate movement. We have straights, gays, celibates, women who are more male-identified and those who are more female-identified; women who consider themselves feminist—socialists and those who consider themselves socialist-feminists. We expect next year that a new division will arise; the year after, another. We also expect that these divisions will not have to lead to splits any more than our current divisions do. In other words, we live with all of us, not only because we have to if we are to survive, but because we believe in building a pluralist movement which understands that differences are inevitable and desirable. The work women do, and the diversity of skills and imagination that they bring to this work is more important than whether they (or we) have the “correct” political analysis and/or life-style.

We can think of two main reasons why we have avoided extreme sectarianism. The first has to do with CWLU. As we will describe below, it was founded in the midst of a sectarian storm, and it is possible that its initial response to that sectarianism laid the groundwork for handling later forms. Second, we think that our lack of sectarianism has also to do with the fact that the Chicago women’s movement, although started quite early, was never in the vanguard in terms of ideas, situations, or life-styles. In particular, the politics of women active in CWLU have remained fairly consistent since it began. There have been no theoretical breakthroughs from Chicago; we didn’t figure out very early about sexism, about violence toward women about nuclear families, and so forth. But when those breakthroughs finally arrived in Chicago, they didn’t appear in the form of ultimatums.

As we have remarked, many of the characteristics discussed above follow from the presence of CWLU. We have provided structures and programs——like the Liberation School and ACDC——which are medium range things, in the sense that one doesn’t have to have impossible revolutionary credentials to participate. None of this means that we hide our politics; but all of it means that we are able to keep broadening, rather than narrowing, our base, since the criteria for participation allows for entrance, development and choice. Finally, our understanding that people are at different places and that that fact adds to, rather than subtracts from, our movement, has helped us suppress our own individual sectarianism.

Since, as we have pointed out, we think that the presence of CWLU is the most important factor in the relative health of the Chicago women’s liberation movement, we would like to describe its history. It started at a time when the organized mixed white left had just hit the fan (i. e. the collapse of SDS as a relevant political organization). We felt that the women’s movement in Chicago was in danger of being destroyed in the wake of factional convulsions. We also felt very strongly that we needed an autonomous women’s movement that would work towards its idea of the revolution. In fact, even if the mixed white left hadn’t started to go crazy at that particular time, we still needed an organization for these reasons:

  1. Access to the women’s movement was pretty exclusive. It was very hard for new women to find women’s liberation activities and become part of them. It was necessary to know a friend who knew a friend who was in a rap group in order to find out what was planned. With this kind of limited visibility we knew that we could never build a very large, diverse, or strong movement.
  2. Leadership was developing in the women’s movement which was responsible to no one, or perhaps only to a small group. We wanted to have some way to develop democratic leadership——that is, leadership and spokeswomen who were part of a larger women’s movement whom we could talk with, criticize, etc. In essence, we needed a democratic structure so that active women could have some say over women’s liberation program, strategy, direction, etc.
  3. There was no communication between existing women’s groups, and there was little or no distribution of written articles, pamphlets, or magazines.
  4. Women’s liberation was never represented politically in coalitions and mixed political events because we had no organization to represent us.
  5. We needed programs in order to build the women’s movement. Because there was no centralized organization, it was very difficult, and often impossible, to find women who were interested in getting new program ideas off the ground—-and there was virtually no place to discuss and criticize program ideas. And a program, once developed, could not have a cumulative effect since communication of its success was limited.

In essence, we wanted women’s liberation to become a political force with a significant base, the ability to act and organize, and with a strategy and program to win power. In order to do these things we ‘realized that we would have to build an organization which made sense to a large number of women.

There are reasons why this particular emphasis developed in Chicago, while other parts of the country focused more on the’ “small group” and on consciousness—raising as the major political thrust. It has to do with the population of Chicago and the kind of movement which the new left had built here prior to the women’s movement. For one thing, Chicago has a relatively small university student population. As a result there are very few radical, counter—culture enclaves in the city. Chicago also has a relatively small left-liberal adult population. Given these conditions, radicals were left with the task of building a movement out of new local constituencies, often centering on community organizing efforts, or activities around small colleges and high schools.

The composition of the left was largely people who had experience with serious full—time organizing in one movement project or another. It was out of this base of committed movement activists that women’s liberation began to grow.

It is in the context of this background that one can see the initiation of the CWLU. In the fall of 1969 a conference was called to organize an "independent, multi—issue, radical women’s liberation organization."Our first conference turned out to be largely a debate among various sectarian groups on the left, and a defense of the right to form an independent women’s organization. All politically active women were invited. A number of political sects came to the conference intending to discourage the formation of an all—women’s organization because it would be "inherently counter— revolutionary." Our response to these attacks seems to have laid the basis for our response to sectarianism ever since. We were open to all women who wanted to work for an independent, radical, women’s liberation movement and were eager to discuss the issues involved in anyone’s politics. In other words, we wanted, and still believe in, a pluralist movement.

The outcome of the conference, besides much frustration, was a tentative set of political principles around which to build a women’s organization. The principles have remained essentially unchanged since then. They are:

  • The struggle for women’s liberation is a revolutionary struggle.
  • Women’s liberation is essential to the liberation of all oppressed peoples.
  • 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 consciousness of their effects on women.
  • We are dedicated to a democratic organization and understand a way to insure democracy is through full exchange of information and ideas, full political debate and through the 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 faith that people have unending energy and ability to change.

After the conference a series of large meetings were held which struggled over an organizational structure and program for CWLU. The structure which was decided upon was a general chapter structure with a steering committee made up of one representative from every chapter and work project. Two women volunteered to be part time unpaid staff until the Union could afford to pay two women for this work (which happened the next year). CWLU now hires two part time staff workers and pays them $50 a week each. The Union rented a small office and slowly set up the coordination center for our organization.

From the first conference to the present, CWLU has gone through several important struggles and changes. All have added up to a collective attempt to more adequately define the type of organization we need by making membership definitions clearer and making a more democratic structure, developing new democratic forms to ensure participation and the expansion of leadership functions, and more recently, by developing outreach program.

Two particular events in the history of our organizational forms seem to have been crucial was a democratic speakers bureau policy, and the other was a struggle with women from a Socialist Workers Party Orientation, who argued for a somewhat undefined, non-structured, non—centralized organization.

The speakers policy arose shortly after the CWLU was formed. It was the time when people were interested in getting a women’s liberation spokeswoman on every talk show, church forum, and college campus in the country. When requests came to the Union we would at first suggest women representatives from our membership who volunteered to speak publicly. All this did, essentially, was reinforce the kind of elitism which had previously existed. By promoting women who already had the confidence in themselves as political speakers, a star system was developing. This policy was criticized, and a new speakers policy was suggested which still functions in our organization. The policy is that all women who are members should learn to speak about the women’s movement. All speaking engagements are filled on a rotating basis. Each chapter has a turn to fill a request and must find a woman member willing to do it. This has ensured that most women in our organization have spoken at least once about women-related issues, and it has ensured a more active, committed, self-confident membership. The speakers bureau was an example to us all of how we could develop "liberating structures." It was popular to say then in the women’s movement, and still is today to some extent, that structures can only be oppressive. The speakers policy is an example of how this is not necessarily true and how, in fact, one can structure out elitism. t was the first innovation to really bring our organization into existence.

The second year of life of CWLU was composed to some extent of its defense. At that time, in different parts of the country, women who belonged to the Socialist Workers Party or who adhered to SWP politics, began to get active in different women’s liberation activities. From what we understand, similar arguments were made by these women in different cities, which were essentially that most of the existing women’s organizations were elitist, that all structures must be wide open to "all women", that the women’s movement must focus on mass rallies and demonstrations and popular "mass issues", and that women’s organizations should not try to take over the “Chicano, black or anti-war movements” but should stick to "women’s issues"(i. e. abortion, day care, equal pay for equal work, etc.) Many of the criticisms of the women’s movement which were raised were important, and a political struggle began. In Chicago we were able to debate these criticisms in a relatively open way and the results were very positive ones for the CWLU. Through long meetings and a constant attempt to bring out the "real issues"involved, the majority position in the CWLU became that the SWP women were pressing for very nebulous, indistinct, "mass organizations"of women with little political definition and self-determination because they saw the political leadership for the women’s liberation movement (and all left movements) coming from their party, the Socialist Workers Party.

But for the majority of women, there was no party to which we belonged, and we were committed to building an independent women’s organization with enough political sophistication and centralism to make the necessary political decisions, have the important political discussions, and develop the needed political strategy to build a successful women’s movement. The result of the long struggle (which was a losing one for several women’s organizations in other cities) was a heightened seriousness about the CWLU among a large number of women, the tightening of membership requirements (including participation in program, dues, as well as public speaking), heightened responsibilities for the steering committee, and a new energy and commitment to developing outreach program.

Of course there are many problems with our organizational structure. We have by no means overcome all traces of elitism, intimidation and cliquish-ness. Our structure never functions in as democratic a fashion as we always hope. Our chapters are often changing and representatives are often not responsible and consistent. And programmatically we have many of the problems common to women’s liberation throughout the country—we have developed virtually no “struggle oriented” programs which are designed to gain power over institutions which oppress women. Nevertheless we have a forum in which to constantly discuss, argue and debate these problems. We have an ongoing communication network to keep us all in touch and informed. We have a permanent women’s liberation presence in the city of Chicago. And our organization continues to learn from its mistakes and to grow.