liberation school

Liberation School

(authors unknown 1972) An assessment of the CWLU's successful Liberation School, one of the nation's first Women's Studies programs. author(s) unknown

(Editors Note: This article, reproduced from a 1972 Women: A Journal of Liberation, was an assessment of Liberation School one year after its highly successful beginning.)

  "What we don't know we must learn; what we do know, we should teach each other."

Women in Chicago are learning to tell a distributor from a carburetor, the clitoris from the vulva, good healthy food for survival from the plastic, often poisonous variety being sold of the shelves in supermarkets. Women are learning - or relearning - the theories of Marxism from a feminist perspective, how to get a divorce without a lawyer, how we can move with freedom and joy - together. And we're learning why we never learned any or all of these things in the course of our lives.

These revelations are all part of the Liberation School for Women, a project of the Chicago Women's Liberation Union. In writing about the Liberation School we want to convey our enthusiasm, our optimism, the growth and sharing we've experienced. The positive vibes are hard to describe, but they're very much present: the strength and solidarity that comes from a group a of women learning about their bodies - gaining knowledge that up to now we've been systematically denied; learning to accept - and even to like ourselves even if we don't fit into the Miss America mold. We've struggled together under the hood of a car against the female inferiority complex in the presence of things mechanical. We've studied the American family as and institution and women within it, trying to use our own living situation as basic data. And we've turned many women on to our movement, because for the first time they feel that our movement includes them, has something to offer them, and perhaps they have something to offer us.

Planning for the School began in the fall of 1970 when a group of women from CWLU wanted to develop a program to respond to some of the needs of the women's movement in Chicago. The first need was to bring more women in contact with the ideas of women's liberation through a source other than the established media, giving these newly interested women an overview of the movement and their own possible role within it. The second was the need for political education for the members of the Union and women in the women's movement in general: we saw the School as a place to develop our analysis and strategy as well as do research. Thirdly, the School was intended to provide a place to learn skills, both of which are necessary for survival but have been considered out of the sphere of the "women's role" and/or those of which are essential to build our movement.

The response has been fantastic. Since the first six-week session began in February, 1971, we have grown steadily through three sessions, both in terms of the number of classes offered and the total number of women involved: we began with eight classes in which 120 women were enrolled, this term we have 20 classes and 220 women enrolled. The growth has been organic - new classes have evolved from earlier ones; for example a class on Free Children led to a class on Education, and one on Women and their Bodies led to a class in Nutrition. And in the classes that are repeated each session, such as Introductory Readings, The Family, and Women and their Bodies, we have tried to build on our experiences to improve and sometimes experiment. An Introductory Reading class offered in the fourth session centered around the four areas of women's oppression as enumerated by Juliet Mitchell in her pamphlet: "Women: The Longest Revolution" : production, reproduction, sexuality, and socialization of children. This focus lent structure to the course without detracting from its rap-group nature.

Specifically, in the three areas mentioned earlier, how well have we succeeded? The School has introduced many women to the Women's Liberation Movement. Taking one or two classes one night a week for six weeks is a good way to see an overview of the ideas and projects of the movement while not involving a high degree of commitment. Classes offered as introductory courses have included Women and Their Bodies, The Family, Introductory Readings,and women's liberation for specific groups such as older women, high school women, and a course for men, convened by men.

The women who have taken the introductory classes have been largely white, young and middle-class, many of them mothers with children. They have been helped to come to the School through a policy of co-operative childcare run by the workgroup. At first we began by trying to pay for sitters collectively; now we have a system where by everyone taking a class is asked to volunteer to sit the evenings she is free. Women who need sitters are given the master list and can call anyone up to three times.

We have not been able to find such an easy way, however, to help and encourage women who are not "school oriented" and/or those for whom study or school is a luxury they cannot afford. Many of the women who feel excluded from the women's movement as a whole, such as poor and working class women, have so far not been reached by the School. We are trying to deal with this problem by offering neighborhood extension courses outside the central location of the School, which is at a church in a largely young, white, middle-class, student or ex-student section of the city. We have already offered most of the introductory courses as extension classes in various communities, and we are planning to expand the idea as an organizing tool around job oppression, probably beginning with a course for secretaries in the "Loop" or business district of the city.

Similarly, the School has offered a place to do serious study on questions relevant to the women's movement. It shows a new, woman-controlled approach to women's studies which we hope will provide a model for other institutions. Women have been able to work with other women and learn from other women in such courses as Psychology of Women, Fiction By and About Women, Racism and Women's Politics, "Women's Liberation is a Lesbian Plot" Marxism as a Way of Thinking, College Organizing, and Organizing for Direct Action. A six-week session, however, has sometimes seemed to short for an in-depth study, and classes structured for six weeks find it hard to keep going for a longer period. In the next term we are going to experiment with an eight-week format. Another problem has been that not all students are serious--they seem unwilling to put in the time and reading necessary to make a class really worthwhile. This may be an attitude retained from student days in straight schools when the object of the class was to often to do as little as possible while still making the grades. We see it too as reflecting the way in which we have been taught not to take ourselves or our activities seriously.

As far as the third need is concerned, the School has provided a place to learn skills. Some of the classes in this category, which also function as introductory classes, have been auto-repair, fix-it, silk screening, photography,and prepared childbirth. The main criticism here has been that many such classes have concentrated on teaching the skill to the exclusion of any personal exchange among the students. Also, there has been the danger that in skills classes the political rationale behind the classes and behind the School as a whole have not been discussed. Some of us feel that women teaching and learning auto mechanics, for example, carries in itself a very clear implication about the reason for offering the course in the Liberation School; others feel that such a rationale should be more explicit.

In the months since the first session started, we have worked through several problems in different areas of the school. In keeping with the organic nature we feel the School should maintain, we have decided that only when two women want to work together to convene a new course should it be offered; that is, we should not formulate a course that we would like to see the school offer, and then look for two women to convene it. In the past, courses put together like that have tended to be disorganized and less valuable to the women involved. There are certain courses, however, such as Women and Their Bodies, that we want offered every term, and if necessary we do solicit for conveners for them. We have decided that two conveners are important so that they can share work and responsibility for the class. More than one convener makes the class less teacher-pupil oriented.

Another thing we have learned is the more we can connect the work of the School with other organizing projects the more valuable it becomes. This is shown in a minor way in the participation and enthusiasm of the work group, the fifteen women who are responsible for running the School. We have recently divided the group into committees which are responsible to the School for the needs and resources in their particular area. The five committees are: health care, political analysis and strategy, skills, extension courses, and women's studies. People have joined committees according to their organizing interests and are now able to see their work much more as an integrated whole.

More broadly, we see part of the School's importance in the fact that it is attached to an on-going organization, which can use our resources for study and reaching new women and bringing them into organizational programs. The interrelationships between the School and the Union could be seen perhaps in projection for the future which could possibly be one that made as a condition of membership in the CWLU that members take at least one class a year in the School. This would insure that membership was dealing with political questions, reading, and being serious about its commitment. In addition, the School can be used for cadre training for perhaps a particular program of the organization. Last summer, for example, we had a course on organizing which dealt, with questions such as how to organize and what it means to organize rap groups and other programs. Another idea might be to have a course on daycare which would feed directly into and serve the growing daycare work of the Union. The School is not merely an isolated counter-institution, but one that is directly involved in meeting the needs of a growing organization.

Two practical aspects of the School that have evolved through our experiences are the Orientation and Evaluation. The first takes place at the beginning of each session. It is intended to give prospective students an overview of all the courses offered, the better to decide what she wants to take, and to give everyone a feeling for the school as a whole and as part of the women's movement. The Evaluation is held about midway through the session to give women a chance to talk about their dissatisfactions while there is still time to act on them before the session ends. During an Evaluation it was found that students felt that in one class there was too much structure, and in another too little. By having students and and conveners talk frankly about their expectations for a class, adjustments can usually be made. Of course this is the time for positive feedback, and if the Evaluation for the fourth session is a true indication, the School has a fantastic success. We as women are challenging each other to fulfill our human potential, and supporting each other to make it happen. We are building self-confidence in ourselves as individuals and the legitimacy of the School as an expression of our needs and desires within the women's movement.

We hope to see participation in the School become a springboard for students to a deeper commitment for social change, a deeper commitment to the movement and to the CWLU as part of that movement. We have described earlier some of the ways in which that is happening or can happen. But it is not happening enough yet. We feel that we must involve each class in some kind of action project. One model might be to involve people in Women and Their Bodies classes in pregnancy testing or abortion counseling; another may stem from the Prepared Childbirth course, which offers a service otherwise unavailable to many women, raises consciousness about our oppression in the healthcare system and our lack of control over our own bodies, and offers the possibility of direct action closely related to the course content. In this case, women in the class plan to demand that various clinics and hospitals start offering prepared childbirth courses. With this kind of action, the Liberation School will not be co-opted by institutions representing ways of life to which we are opposed but rather will challenge such institutions in meaningful ways.

Our goal is to create positive dissatisfaction in the participants in the Liberation School, a realization of the dissatisfaction many women fell with their lives, not a dissatisfaction which grows silently within each isolated woman and sours her life, but one which leads her to question her situation, to challenge it, to grow with other women to an understanding that sisterhood is powerful. The only given is that we will keep growing.