by Estelle Carol and Mary M. (1972) A report of a cross country trip taken by CWLU members to discover the state of the women's liberation movement in America. by Estelle Carol and Mary M.
(Editor's note: This article is a 1972 CWLU conference account of the fact- finding trip taken by Estelle Carol, Tibby L. and Mary M. Traveling across the country in Estelle's orange VW bug, they met with many women activists. It is a snapshot of the women's liberation movement of the time.)
The idea of this trip began when Tibby and Estelle from Graphics Collective decided to travel the country with their posters. Then a few women in the Union realized that this was a good opportunity to really see what the women's' movement was doing nationally and to share our experiences of the Chicago movement. So, Mary came along for the East Coast trip to New York, New Haven, Boston, Philadelphia, Baltimore and Washington D.C. Then Tibby and Estelle continued on the West Coast trip to Eugene and Portland, Oregon, Seattle, San Francisco, Los Angeles and Albuquerque, plus a short stop in Champaign, Ill. We brought with us the paper on the Union, papers on workgroups, and Womankind, as well the Socialist Feminism paper for those women who were interested in action and the paper's politics.
The trip was mind blowing. It was incredible meeting all these women committed to getting personhood back for themselves and their sisters. Just like us in Chicago, they have been working in isolation. So, when things got rough they couldn't even cheer up on the successes of their sisters a 100 miles away. Despite the lack of communication among cities we discovered a pattern. There were tremendous similarities in the way groups functioned, in the questions women asked, in the method of getting women interested, in the political ideas, and especially in the kinds of projects. For example, most of the cities had a women's center which had information on different groups, which was run by a staff of volunteers, and which often was struggling to survive. Many cities had a liberation school and most had a health service project. We discovered that both our news from Chicago and the cities already visited was enthusiastically received.
There were lots of differences between cities, too, of course. Sometimes a common problem like conflict between gay and straight women was getting totally out of hand, like in N.Y., but at other times had been worked through, like in New Haven and Seattle. Yet the thing that really hit me and scared me too was the general frustration and unsure-ness that touched everybody. So often we found ourselves in conversation about things like: Where do we go from here; More groups are disappearing than forming lately; Women aren't coming to our center as much as they used to; Women just aren't committed enough.
It didn't take us long to stop taking CWLU for granted. No where else did we find a citywide women's liberation organization which provided city-wide communication and resource sharing. No where else did we find a unity (amorphous as it is at times) among such different kinds of groups with such different priorities and political ideas. We just couldn't take for granted anymore our office with its reliable staff who keep reliable hours. And no more passing lightly over steering committee which doesn't always work to everybody's satisfaction, but still is a good system for democratic decision making based on representation by groups. The organization closest to ours was in the process of being formed in Washington D.C. There were lots of independent groups wherever we went, rap groups, work projects like abortion referral), common interest groups (like film or theater groups), skills classes (like karate), and women's centers. Some were solid and growing like the Liberation School in Boston. Some just managed to survive like the women's center in Baltimore.
From what we saw it seems that only in Chicago so far, is there centralized organization made up of autonomous groups who more or less do what each pleases, but who work together when they want to or need to. The groups and individuals who have chosen to be members of CWLU have put their common goals and common work first, their political, personality, and work priorities second. Maybe its because we put our work first that we are able to put aside our other differences.
Before the trip I used to worry about the problems and mistakes -- like not having ways for more women to work with us, I worried alot about the bad feelings between Lesbian Liberation and the Union. But now I worry about the Union in perspective, because not only does the women's movement in other places have a worse time with these two issues, but usually they have neither the communication, the resource sharing, the unity, the democratic decision making, nor the office with reliable paid staff. In Seattle there was communication, a hardworking paid staff of four, and a beautiful big office. But policy was made by the staff and the board of the YWCA (the University Y served a the women's center). On the other extreme. NYC and Boston had none of these structures for a city-wide movement. Our organization was strong and growing -- women wanted to know how.
We gathered so much information on these l4 cities, including their history, present situation, and future plans, that I can only give a short run down on four of them. Then for the sake of the questions facing this conference, I'll use examples from all the cities in a discussion of three major issues: organization, program, and political ideas. For the short run downs I'll do two east Coast and two West Coast cities - N.Y.C, because it was one of the worst experiences, Boston because it has some great workgroups, Los Angeles because it is both typical and has some unusual problems, and Seattle because it was one of our best experiences.
In Boston we found five projects. Three were healthy and doing exciting work: the Liberation School, the Day Care Coalition, Female Liberation, and the Somerville Women's Health Clinic. The fourth, the Women's Center in Cambridge was having heavy financial problems.
The Liberation School was into its second term this summer. Last Spring they had 350 women and this summer 250. It's a workgroup of about 15 women, some of whom were in Bread and Roses before it folded. They got the idea of a liberation school from some Chicago women. Although they hold their classes in the Women's Center there is bad feeling between the two groups. The school women think it was a bad idea to put so much money and energy into this huge house which the Center group bought. The School women feel even stronger about this now that the house has been repeatedly vandalized. A fire and no money for repairs means there's has been no electricity for months. No one lives in the house and not much was happening there except liberation school classes. Unfortunately we don't have the story from the Center side because the staff woman for the Center was not there the afternoon we expected to meet her.
The Day Care Coalition is a workgroup of 15-20 women (and a few men too) who are trying to force the city of Cambridge to implement a referendum that voted in favor of child care. The city doesn't want it to be community controlled. They have many supporters who come to their forums and actions. In fact our Action Committee for Decent Childcare was very similar to them except that ACDC had many neighborhood chapters and they have one big work group. They seemed determined and enthusiastic.
The third group, Female Liberation, puts out a magazine called Second Wave that has many well thought out articles on important issues. They had worked hard on the child care referendum and were thinking of working on the implementation struggle with the Day Care Coalition. They are 20-30 women who are action oriented, but who have set up some rap groups as well. They have an office with lots of literature and a staff person.
The Somerville Women's Health Clinic was the best equipped, best staff staffed, best organized, and not surprisingly, the best funded of the women's clinics on the East Coast. They were interested in direct action against Somerville Hospital, a private hospital and the only one in the community. The Clinic limits its service to residents of Somerville, a working class suburb of Boston.
Our first problem in N.Y.C. was that we couldn't find the women's movement. Their one information clearing house, the Women's Center in Manhattan, had just moved, was disorganized and had few contacts for us. The staffer we met there felt that the N.Y. women's movement was very fragmented and suffered from splits within groups and isolation between groups and projects. She felt that the Center's isolation was caused by tension between gay women and straight women. Even though the Center's minority of straight women worked well with their gay sisters, there was a problem with Center women not being interested enough, or not being able to relate to new women with lower consciousness then their own. She said there was also a strong resistance to defining responsibility or devising organizational structure by a majority of Center women, which resulted in decisions falling on a small group, and work not getting done. After a few days we tracked down some women active in Radical Feminists, the two and a half year old organization which has set up 100-150 rap groups throughout the city. It too doesn't define responsibility. Decisions are made by those who show up at the coordinating committee. They sponsor large monthly meetings on specific topics, like sexuality. Recent developments include a follow-up committee to the rap groups, and a few issue committees like one on abortion.
In the Radical Feminists there has been a lot of anti-money, anti- structure sentiment to the point where they cannot get women to pay $3 for their organizational newsletter. A few women find this a handicap and were excited about how the Union operates -- that we have an office, paid staff, collect dues, and have both an organizational newsletter and an outreach newspaper. Some Radical Feminists were concerned that the Union had a left, that is anti-capitalist, orientation. They believe that sexism is the issue not capitalism. Some women there also felt that they shouldn't work around traditional women's issues, like child care, because women have done that too long.
They also discussed the issue of the fragmentation of the N.Y. movement. One woman felt that one reason for the splits was that there are a lot of strong women who think of themselves as theoreticians and leaders, who disagree with each other and leave if things don't go their way. The media aggravates this by encouraging the star system, that is only covering things where name women appear. Many R.F. women feel very handicapped by the enormous influence of the media in N.Y., including their own emphasis on media.
We weren't able to talk to many other groups because of the great difficulty in locating them. We did talk to women from Up From Under magazine over the phone. They are a group of left oriented women who find it impossible to relate to the rest of the N.Y. women's movement and decided for that reason to have nothing to do with it in order to better put out their magazine.
L.A. has two centers which are home base for service and education projects. The Women's Self-Help Clinic is the largest project and has done more to bring women to the Center than any other. We arrived a few days after the Self-Help Clinic was busted. They are a year old and are the same group that traveled around the country starting self-help groups by giving public presentations of do-it-yourself pelvic exams. They get enough money from their abortion referrals (all done in hospitals) to pay for a big house and eight staff. They were busted for doing menstrual extraction. The L.A. Center started 2 1/2 years ago as a coordination center for women's groups, using $1500 given by UCLA women students. An intergroup council met monthly, but gradually became meaningless and died since the staff really made all decisions. Besides, in many cases the staff and the representatives were the same people. The Center projects like legal referral and liberation school, are handled by one woman alone. When she is drained out, no one will takeover and the projects die. The newsletter, on the other hand has six people and is one of the stronger projects. There is a Radical Psychiatry group and a lesbian feminist group, a media group, and a guerrilla theater group that was starting. Staff meetings are open, any volunteer staff who comes can help make decisions for the Center. Politically left women don t work with them according to Center women because the Center is too middle class, and because there was once a fight between the left-women and the non- left women. Six months ago a second center opened in a western community L.A., which holds classes, does referrals, forms rap groups, and shares a page in the older centers newsletter. It has a good size volunteer staff, does its own fund raising, and rents a house.
Seattle was a pleasant surprise. We found at the same time an unusual movement and one very similar to our Union. The women's center is a YWCA that is independent from the typical community Ys that we familiar with. Yet they they are funded like other Ys, so have a huge office and four paid staff. They are very committed to the independent women's movement and encourage women to start projects using the Ys space, phone, and resources. Y projects include a liberation school abortion referral, divorce counseling, rape counseling and a gay resources center. Two other projects began at the Y, a women's car repair collective and a women's newspaper called Pandora. Both left the Y when they felt strong enough to be independent. The staff and the Y board make policy decisions. There is so much happening at the center that the staff are under heavy work pressure The four of them work collectively.
There is a women's health clinic named Aradia affiliated with the Y and funded separately by HEW. The clinic shares resources with the free clinics. The gay women's group which is about a year old is on great terms with the Y and the staff. (which is gay and straight). There is a a women's bookstore that manages to support itself and is run by a collective. The women's movement on the University of Washington campus has an office and paid staff funded by the university which has done research on student and faculty women. Lastly a coalition is forming of all women's groups in the city to pressure the city government to decide in favor of women's issues.
We tried to get a sense of citywide organization: from the women we met, but don't know what we missed. We had little contact with women working on women's issues who considered themselves outside the women's movement. One key to the puzzle was finding out how much communication and sharing went on among groups. In Eugene and Portland, Oregon, the women's movement was so small (the cities are small) that the whole movement was basically a community of friends. In Eugene the groups were in touch because many of the same women belong to the same few groups. Both L.A. and N.Y.C. had problems with city wide communication because of their size, that was not counteracted by some conscious effort at coordination. N.Y. couldn't bridge the gap due to divisiveness, and L.A. couldn't due to transportation problems in sprawled out L.A. coupled with a lack of neighborhood spirit. The second center in L.A. tried to deal with this transportation problem. In Berkeley on the other hand, it was much easier to find out what was happening and where, not because there was a center or organization pulling everyone together, but because things were close together and people just knew what was happening. A few strong projects like the Women's Crisis Center, A Woman's Place Bookstore, the Women's Health Collective, the Radical Psychiatry Center were communicating informally. In San Francisco across the Bay there was a women's switchboard that had extensive files, and a woman on duty answering the constantly ringing phone.
Another factor we tried to look for was how much groups work together, shared resources and identified with the importance of each others work. Take a project like Liberation School, which in Chicago is one of the important ways women get involved in the Union. It is often the first contact from which women can join other CWLU groups. In Boston and Berkeley, the liberation schools are independent and did not seem to plan their classes in relation to other women's groups in the city. The liberation schools in L.A. and New Haven (only has an introductory and an advanced course) were projects of the women's centers there, like in Chicago.
Decision making was another organizational issue we asked about, usually when it was a case of a center or a group functioning as the base of activity for other groups and service projects. The New Haven Center had a steering committee like ours. Even though ten groups were members of the N.Y, Center responsibility fell on the few individuals committed to the survival of the Center. Washington was in the process of creating its Center, which would be run by a steering committee of member groups. Chicago was one of their models. In Philadelphia, Baltimore, and L.A. the volunteer staff made decisions.
Integrating new women is an organizational problem that the Union has never figured out, and it is facing us again at this conference. In Baltimore, where the women's center is very small and not much is going on, the center sponsored a women's assembly earlier this year which a lot of people worked hard on. It was great. A lot of women attended, but it didn’t lead anywhere. The Center women didn't know how to involve the women they had attracted to the assembly in an ongoing way. The bigger problem was a lack of things for these women to do.
Money is the last thing I want to talk about under organization. It's not accidental that the two most together women's centers were in the best financial position. Seattle has money because the Center is funded by the YWCA. Washington Center women are probably getting the grant which they had applied for while we were there. They were also seriously pursuing the possibility of a benefit concert by a female singer like Baez or Collins. One drawback with the grant money is that runs out, which happened to Women In Transition, in Philadelphia, a counseling center for women separating from their husbands. It was the most active project in Philadelphia last year and paid most of the rent for the Centers house, as well as paying four full time and some part time staff.
CWLU's approach to program has been guided by the idea that it is important to do service, education, and action simultaneously. In the other cities we found that service projects predominated. Education was next common, and action was the least.
There was a lot of counseling and referral. Almost every city had an abortion referral group or a women's health collective. The only exception was Baltimore where these services were done by the large free clinic in the same building as the women's center. The Philadelphia health group was not functioning while we were there. The only women's clinics with independent facilities were the ones with money -- Boston, Seattle, and Los Angeles. Other health collectives used space at a nearby free clinic, as in Washington and Eugene. The Berkeley women's health collective had its own storefront but used a Berkeley free clinic for the actual exams once a week. The Washington health collective wants to set up in their new Women's Center, and have used free clinic space up til now.
Psychological counseling was very common too. Berkeley's project is part of a men's and women's anti-professional counseling center called Radical Psychiatry. The Washington Center's Feminist Counseling Project included individual and group counseling done all by non-professionals. New Havens therapy project refers women to trained therapists which they have previously screened. The rape counseling groups in Washington and Seattle are relatively new and really exciting. Washington's is a 24 hour hot line which has white and third world women on its staff.
Divorce and separation counseling sometimes was legal counseling, as it is here in Chicago. Other times it is psychological counseling and aid, as in the Women in Transition project in Philadelphia.
Day care co-ops were a common alternative institution-service project.
Educational program included rap groups, newspapers, film and theater groups, press and graphics collectives and liberation schools. Rap groups seem to continue to be the main way that women get involved in women's liberation, though women are becoming more disillusioned with what rap groups can accomplish. They are of short duration and in cities where there is little program women do not move on to anything else. There is a feminist press of some kind in every city. If nothing else there is a center newsletter as in Philadelphia. The Radical Lesbians in Philadelphia have their own newsletter because they are one of the most active groups there. In Washington there was no center paper but two independent papers: Off Our Backs, which is nationally oriented and feels little commitment to the local movement, and the Furies, which is a well known lesbian vanguard paper. In Baltimore, the strongest women's liberation project is the nationally focused, left-oriented Women:Journal of Liberation.
Not including legislative actions done by N.O.W, or actions on women's issues done by women who don't think of themselves in the women's liberation movement (who we unfortunately had little contact with), most action projects were around day care and health. There is significant direct action against city government in Berkeley and Seattle which we will have to find out more about. Besides the Day Care Coalition in Boston, the day care group in L.A. includes action in its future plans. A New Haven group was doing a class action suit against the Connecticut anti- abortion laws. The Somerville Women's Health Clinic is an important example of an action -service education project. It started out as a service-alternative institution, added classes on women's health, and is now planning to build community support in order to make demands on Somerville Hospital.
We do not think that it is an accident that our Union is multifaceted, unified, larger than most women's movements, and growing. We think there are political ideas underlying the creation of the Union three years ago and others we have learned from experience since then, which are responsible for our success. One of the most important ideas that has been around from the first is that we are flexible and tolerant toward each others political ideas and projects. A lot of this comes from a belief among many Union women that political analysis largely follows from experience. In other words, if we think we have a good idea it is far better to do than discuss and rediscuss it hoping to find an ideal strategy for the women's movement. The NYC's women's movement suffers badly from intolerance. It desperately needs some cohesion to its frustrated fragmented parts which will never happen until the groups with opposing theories sad strategies unite on the basis of program. Many Radical Feminists do not want to fight for traditionally female concerns, like child care, and most of them do not consider themselves part of the left. Yet probably the Radical. Feminists could use the connection with child care groups or action projects run by left women, now that they are feeling the need to go beyond their consciousness raising groups. Probably service and action groups would benefit from the ability of the R.F. to reach large numbers of women via their city-wide consciousness raising groups.
Another political difference between CWLU and other women's movements that appeared over and over again is that from the beginning in the Union women with left politics (anti-capitalist) have worked with women who are feminist but not left. In Los Angeles, Baltimore,Washington, and New York, left and non-left women avoid each other. The non-left women resent being pushed to become involved in opposing imperialism and capitalism, which to them would be wasting their time on building a different movement. They feel that only women's issues will build a women's movement. The left women are patronizing to the non-left women who do not agree with or understand that capitalism and imperialism are major reasons for the oppression of women. We were surprised to find that the staff of the Baltimore Journal (who are Marxists) have hardly anything to do with the Baltimore Women's Center, even though both offices are in the same building. The left women often know how to organize, plan actions; and build ongoing movements because they have done it before. The non-left women are deeply concerned with meeting women's needs and making personal into political. They also communicate much better to apolitical women, which is after all,is most women.
Finally, we found a lot of resentment against structuring an organization, against recognizing women with leadership and other skills, and against the idea that money is important for building organization. This was most true in NYC and in the Northwest (except Seattle). We went to a conference in the Northwest which had been planned beforehand by a handful of women. Even though to us it seemed to have a loose planning many women complained that still it was too structured. These women felt that there was a clamp on their freedom, a limit on their growth. The existing social structures in our society are clamps and limits, not because is the nature of the structure, but because those who hold power have created these structures to keep us cramped, ignorant and uncreative. Many women in the Union believe that for women to feel comfortable, to participate, to learn skills, to gain confidence, there must be a conscious plan to make sure that these things happen. Sometimes women who oppose structure in theory still like our Liberation School classes because they move smoothly and spontaneously (of course they don't always), without realizing the hard work and planning that made this possible.
We found that the problem many women have with leadership works the same way. These women feel that it is wrong for some women to have more knowledge, more experience,or more skills at running meetings, planning actions, writing down their ideas, speaking to large groups or talking to women about our movement. We feel, that women with these skills must be recognized so they teach them to other women. In Philadelphia many women in the Radical Lesbians were against leadership because they had a bad experience with a woman who wanted to control things and would not share her skills. But after the group forced her to stop this power trip, many of the members chose to deny leadership altogether which only leaves a leaderless vacuum for some other person, not chosen by the group to slip into.
POLITICAL LESSONS FOR THE UNION
It was clear to us from the cities that we visited that it is not possible to build a women's movement without organization. But we should remember if we do national outreach that the specific form of that organization depends on the size of the city, the size and composition of the women's movement, the number and kind of groups in a city,the way other groups that relate to the organization, the needs of women in that city, and the political awareness in and outside. These same criteria should be a lesson for us in Chicago.
Our own structure should change as our needs and our situation changes The structure proposals at the conference are responses to new needs.
It seems to us that lack of program, that is, a lack of a variety of things for women to do on many levels of responsibility and commitment, is holding back the growth of the women's movement nationally. Women get their consciousness raised and then don't have a way to act upon their new ideas. Although lack of program is a problem for us too, we are in a much better position to deal with it. Our three year old organization and the programs we do have have given many Union women skills, confidence, and invaluable experience. We can afford to adopt a position like the Socialist Feminism paper because it provides a direction for much needed program here as well as other cities. To really understand the possibilities of this strategy many women's groups should use it. The Union should continue to try out out ideas, and learn experience rather than deciding that any political theory or strategy either correct or incorrect. Many cities have begun to look to Chicago as a model because we are ahead. Many of our political ideas work. We should write these up just as the Socialist Feminism paper was written, so that women's groups can benefit from them.
Confusion over the role of leadership is another issue that is holding back the women's movement nationally Although we have dealt it better than other places in our practice, we have not yet clearly defined what a responsible leadership for the CWLU would mean. This Steering Committee Proposal is an attempt to do this.
Our trip taught us the importance of gay and straight women working together in the women's In many cities, gay and straight women have not been able to work with each other. Sometimes the gay women predominate and set the tone. Other times it is the straight women. In most cities, the woman whose sexual preference is the minority will feel uncomfortable and leave the movement. Instead of sharing, learning together, and helping each other get the most out of the women's movement, the gay:; and straight women use their energy to argue and resent each other. Straight Union women still have to learn how to make gay women feel comfortable. Only then will large numbers of gay women will work with our present Union groups or form their own chapters and workgroups to deal specifically with the needs of gay women.
The last issue has hardly been mentioned so far, yet should not be ignored. Some women asked us how the Union related to black and third world women. This has been a problem for the women's movement nationally, which has up til now been predominantly white middle class. Since the Union has resolved many of the unresolved questions in other cities, we have a responsibility to take into account black and third world women in relation to programs being developed.
We were both were personally changed by this trip. The information alone has made us far more aware of where the women's movement came from and where we should go. The warmth, trust, and enthusiasm we received from women we met more than made up for the exhausting car trips from city to city, and the long hours of explaining the Union over and over again. Women went out of their way to make sure we had a comfortable place to sleep and something to eat. They set up meetings for us at extremely short notice and helped find us contacts. This trip has shown to us the deeply felt sisterhood among women in the women's movement nationally, and convinced us that the Union should start playing a national role.