Activities and Structure

A list of the CWLU's workgroups, chapters and projects reads like a Yellow Pages for the women's movement of the time. You could learn to fix your car, play on a sports team, join a protest at City Hall for decent childcare, volunteer at Dwight Prison, organize a women's caucus of your local union, draw a feminist poster, or even go to communist China.

The CWLU did have a formal structure with a steering committee and periodic membership meetings to set general policy, but the real work of the CWLU took place in small groups. Over 90 work groups, projects, and chapters were affiliated with the Chicago Women’s Liberation Union over the course of its existence. Some of these groups are described briefly, followed by a list of additional groups. Some of them are also included in the program descriptions and teaching modules.

CWLU Chapters
CWLU Workgroups
CWLU Projects

A Women's Liberation Timeline 1960 - 1977

A Timeline of the Women's Liberation Movement

by Ann Medina and the CWLU Herstory Project

Special thanks to Ruth Rosen for allowing us to borrow from the chronology in her wonderful book, The World Split Open.




‘Operation Bootstrap’ is in effect sterilizing one third of Puerto Rican women. 

Four young men sit-in at a Greensboro, North Carolina, lunch counter after they are refused service. Their action ignites youthful civil rights activists all over the South.

The Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) is founded.

Daughters of Bilitis hold first national Lesbian conference in San Francisco

Jorja English Palmer joins the Chicago Community Council Organization and becomes a leader in the battle to end school segregation in Chicago.

Illinois is first state in U.S. to decriminalize homosexual acts



President’s Commission on the Status of Women is formed by John F. Kennedy with Eleanor Roosevelt as chair.

November 1- Fifty thousand women in sixty cities, mobilized by Women Strike for Peace, protest above ground testing of nuclear bombs and tainted milk.

Dolores Huerta joins Cesar Chavez as a leader of the National Farm Worker's Association (later UFW). Jessie Lopez de la Cruz is the first union woman who organizes in the field.

Birth control pills approved in 1960 and made available in 1961.

Mary Jane Snyder, Planned Parenthood leader, speaks at schools, including at least one Catholic High School, about family planning.


Rachel Carson publishes Silent Spring, which exposes the dangers of pesticide use " helps launch the modern environmental movement. She is subjected to sexist attacks for her work.

Rev. Willie Barrow and Rev. Jesse Jackson organize Operation Breadbasket dedicated to improving economic conditions in the black community. It later evolves into Rainbow-PUSH.


Betty Friedan publishes The Feminine Mystique.

Congress passes the Equal Pay Act.

PCSW presents report to Kennedy documenting discrimination against women.

Some 200,000 people rally in Washington, D.C. and hear Martin Luther King, Jr.'s "I have a dream" speech.

Alice Rossi presents "Equality Between the Sexes: An Immodest Proposal" at American Academy of Arts and Sciences conference.

Terrorist bomb planted by segregationists kills four girls attending Sunday school in Birmingham, Alabama.

Chicago Board of Education sets up a 3 year project with Chicago Comprehensive Care Centers in a YWCA building.

Eleanor Roosevelt appoints Chicago labor leader Addie Wyatt to serve on the Labor Legislation Committee of the Commission on the Status of Women.


Congress passes the Civil Rights Act that includes Title VII prohibiting discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, national origin, or sex .

The War in Viet Nam escalates as the US begins bombing North Viet Nam.

The Free Speech Movement at Berkeley launches a sit-in and strike to protest restrictions on student political activity. Among the participants are Vivian Rothstein and Jo Freeman who later become organizers in the women's liberation movement

University of Chicago student Heather Booth goes South to register voters as part of the Mississippi Freedom Summer.


Casey Hayden and Mary King circulate a memo about sexism in Civil Rights Movement.

The "Woman Question" is raised for the first time at a Students for Democratic Society (SDS) conference.

First national anti-war protest held in Washington D.C.

Equal Employment Opportunity Commissioners (EEOC) were appointed to enforce of the Civil Rights Act. Aileen Hernandez, a future president of NOW, was the only woman appointed.

President Johnson signs the Voting Rights Act.

In Griswold v. Connecticut, the Supreme Court strikes down the one remaining state law prohibiting the use of contraceptives

Heather Booth does her first abortion referral. This eventually leads to the founding of Jane, the Abortion Counseling Service.

Illinois legislature passes a "Sex Education Act", a permissive non- mandatory bill encouraging promotion of sex education in schools.

The YWCA of Chicago's child care program begins with a Head Start program at Chicago's Coretta Scott King Center.

SCLC leader Dorothy Tillman comes to Chicago to fight for open housing. She will later become a prominent Chicago political figure.


National Organization for Women (NOW) is organized.

Heather Booth and Naomi Weisstein teach a course on women at the University of Chicago.


Women’s Liberation groups begin springing up across the country.

October LBJ signs Executive Order 11375 forbidding sex discrimination in businesses working with the government.

NOW begins petitioning the EEOC to end sex-segregated want ads. NOW adopts a Bill of Rights for Women.

Eugene McCarthy introduces the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) in the US Senate.

NY Radical Women formed by Shulie Firestone, Pam Allen and Anne Koedt organizes consciousness raising groups.

National Welfare Rights Organization is formed.

Vivian Rothstein goes to North Viet Nam to see the effects of the war and learns of the importance of women's organizations.

Women attending the New Politics Conference in Chicago are subjected to sexist abuse leading to further growth of the women's liberation movement.

The Westside Group, an early consciousness raising group, is organized in Chicago.

Women's Radical Action Project (WRAP) organizes at the University of Chicago.

Dr. Carl Meyer signs an executive order approving the dispensing of birth control at Cook County Hospital.


New York feminists bury a dummy of "Traditional Womanhood" at the all-women's Jeanette Rankin Brigade demonstration against the war in Vietnam in Washington, D.C.

For the first time, feminists use the slogan "Sisterhood is Powerful."

First public speakout against abortion laws is held in NYC.

Women protest the Miss America Beauty Pageant in Atlantic City.

First national women's liberation conference held in Lake Villa, IL.

Notes from the First Year, a women's liberation theoretical journal is published by the New York Radical Women.

First issue of the Voice of Women's Liberation appears with Jo Freeman as the editor.

April 4, 1968: Dr. Martin Luther King is assassinated. Chicago Mayor Richard J. Daley issues his infamous,"Shoot to Kill" orders when riots break out on the Westside.

August 1968: Police attack anti-war protestors at the Democratic National Convention.


Gays and lesbians resist a police raid at the Stonewall Bar in New York City launching the gay liberation movement.

Southern Students' Organizing committee has made Women's Liberation one of the topics covered by their speakers bureau.

The Women's Revolutonary Liberation Front in Boston has set up a female co-operative commune.

Women from Ohio State University SDS form a women's liberation group

Members of Redstockings disrupt a hearing on abortion laws of the New York State legislature when the panel of witnesses turns out to be fourteen men and one nun. They demand repeal, not reform, of abortion laws.

NOW celebrates Mother's Day with the slogan "Rights, Not Roses.

National Association for the Repeal of Abortion Laws (NARAL) founded.

Redstockings, a radical feminist group organizes. and introduces such terms as "Sisterhood is Powerful", and "The Personal is Political".

US Representative Shirley Chisholm of Brooklyn took office.

The Urban Preceptorship Program is started by Dr Quentin Young at University of Illinois, Chicago, providing courses for medical students, nurses and community health workers, who learned about the health care system from each other as well as from progressive mentors. Several CWLU members eventually enroll.

Vernita Gray starts a Gay and Lesbian hotline out of her South side apartment.

WRAP women and others in WITCH's garb hex the head of the University of Chicago Department of Sociology, Morris Janowitz in response to the firing of Marlene Dixon)

Sit-in at the University of Chicago to protest the firing of feminist sociology professor Marlene Dixon.

October 31- Founding of the Chicago Women’s Liberation Union (CWLU), with the showing of the play Everywoman: Past, Present and Future.

Abortion Counseling Service, Women's Graphics Collective, South Side Women's Liberation Center, and other groups affiliate with CWLU.

The first Chicago Women's Liberation Union office opens on Cermak Rd.

December 4- Black Panther leader Fred Hampton assassinated in Chicago while trying to organize a multiracial community action movement.

CWLU Meeting to discuss structure,Fred Hampton (give 1/3 of treasury to Black Panther Party)


Sisterhood Is Powerful, An Anthology of Writings from the Women's Liberation Movement edited by Robin Morgan is published.

The women's health book Our Bodies, Ourselves first published as a newsprint booklet for 35 cents.

A sit-in at the Ladies’ Home Journal exposes the sexism of the "women's magazines".

The North American Indian Women's Association is founded.

Chicana feminists found Comision Femenil Mexicana.

Toni Cade publishes The Black Woman.

August 26th- Tens of thousands of women across the U.S. participate in the "A Women’s Strike Day" to demand equality.

Bella Abzug is elected to Congress.

President Richard M. Nixon vetoes the Comprehensive Child Development Act, which would have established federally funded childcare centers.

AFL-CIO meets to discuss the status of women in unions. It endorses the ERA and opposes state protective legislation.

The Lutheran Church in America and the America Lutheran Church allow women to be ordained.

National Right to Life Committee is established to block liberalization of abortion.

Maggie Kuhn begins the Gray Panthers, dedicated to championing causes of the elderly

January- CWLU tries to start the Alice Hamilton Women’s Health Center (AHWHC) a low cost women and children health center and women’s center.

Spring- Pregnancy Testing, a CWLU workgroup, begins testing women when the only tests available were from doctor’s offices or clinics.

Meeting to discuss what action the CWLU should take to the May anti-women's liberation issue of Playboy.

First "Our Bodies" class summer of 1970 convened by Mary Sack

Alice Hamilton Women's Health Center opens at LaDolores, 2150 N. Halsted

June- Naomi Weisstein forms the Chicago Women’s Liberation Rock Band which lasts until 1973.

September- The Graphics Collective forms after the CWLU Newsletter invited women to “express…women’s liberation ideology through visual art”

Vivian Rothstein and Naomi Weisstein form “Midwives of the Revolution.”

November-Liberation School is founded.

CWLU members begin anti-imperialist work & examining the connections between imperialism and sexism.

CWLU membership expands tremendously, largely as a result of media publicity about the women's movement.

CWLU structure evolves towards monthly citywide meetings, regular Steering Committee meetings and paid staff.

December-The Action Committee for Decent Childcare (ACDC) demonstrates at City Council — 75 women and children demanded funds for free, client-controlled 24-hour childcare centers.


Bella Abzug, Shirley Chisholm, Betty Friedan, Gloria Steinem, and others help found the National Women's Political Caucus.

The first battered women's shelter opens in the U.S., in Urbana, Illinois, founded by Cheryl Frank and Jacqueline Flenner.

New York Radical Feminists hold a series of speakouts and a conference on rape and women's treatment by the criminal justice system.

Feminist Women's Health Center founded in Los Angeles by Carol Downer and Lorraine Rothman.

Union Wage, a working women's organization is founded in the Bay Area.

Lesbian-Feminist Separatist collective The Furies founded primarily as a reaction to anti-gay attitudes in the feminist movement.

NOW acknowledges lesbian oppression after some members are expelled for being gay.

January- 20 CWLU chapters listed including abortion counseling, day care project.

Our Bodies classes for high school women at Sisters Center 7071 Glenwood, Rogers Park-Liberation School.

New south side women's center opens at 5655 S. University- used by U of C and high school women.

February- Liberation School holds its first session.

April- CWLU holds first membership conference since its founding. The meeting tightens up membership and structure, while clarifying the Steering Committee's decision-making powers.

Liberation School involved in women's studies conferences in Chicago and in New York City.

More CWLU work groups form: Action Committee for Decent Childcare; Legal Clinic; Sister Center in Rogers Park and Womankind(monthly newspaper).

Our Bodies Ourselves courses are conducted in more Chicago area schools.


January- First issue of Ms. Magazine published.

Congress passes Equal Rights Amendment and sends it to the states for consideration.

Puerto Rican women hold their first conference.

Congress passes Title IX of the 1972 Educational Amendments to the Civil Rights Act to enforce sex equality in education, which forces educational institutions to support women's sports.

Representative Shirley Chisholm runs for the Democratic Party presidential nomination.

In San Francisco, Margo St. James organizes COYOTE (Call Off Your Old Tired Ethics) to improve the working conditions of prostitutes.

Phyllis Schlafly attacks the ERA in her newsletter and forms the STOP ERA organization.

January- Outreach/Secret Storm work group begins working to expand the CWLU's influence especially in working class neighborhoods.

May- Seven members of Jane are arrested and held in jail overnight charged with performing and conspiracy to perform abortions.

July- Chicago NOW causes the Illinois Bell Telephone Company to stop running sex-segregated want ads.

CWLU membership conference in November adopts revision of SC structure to include co-chairs chosen from CWLU as a whole.

CWLU adopts two major position papers on socialist feminism and lesbianism and changes its political principles to include support for gay liberation.

Liberation School begins to develop in the direction of doing more outreach classes.

Circle Women's Liberation Union (University of Illinois) affiliates with the Chicago Women's Liberation Union and is instrumental in launching the school's first Women's Studies Program.

More work groups form: Direct Action for Rights in Employment (DARE); China Group; Gay Group; Rape Crisis Line; Connecting Link; and High School/Junior College Outreach (later called Secret Storm).


January 22- Supreme Court strikes down many state abortion laws with the Roe v. Wade decision.

Congress allows the first female page in the House of Representatives.

Singer Helen Reddy wins a Grammy Award for her song "I Am Woman" which becomes the unofficial anthem of the movement.

AT&T agrees to end discrimination in women's salaries and to pay retroactive compensation to women employees.

The National Black Feminist Organization is formed.

More than three hundred women from 27 countries attend an International Feminist Planning Conference in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Their goal is to create an international movement through global conferences.

Olivia Records, a women's music record company, is founded, and issues Holly Near's "Hang in There".

Office workers form Women Employed in Chicago, Women Office Workers in New York, and 9-5 in Boston.

Naiad Press, Lesbian book publishers, started by Barbara Grier and Donna McBride.

The first CWLU co-chairs are chosen as part of the group's effort to build a long term organization.

Artemisia Gallery, a gallery for women artists is founded. (named for artist Artemisia Gentileschi, one of the first women artists to achieve recognition in the male-dominated world of post-Renaissance art)

200 women attend the founding conference of Women Employed (WE) which becomes a voice for the rights and aspirations of Chicago's working women.

CWLU members organize the Abortion Task Force (ATF) to assist low-income and minority women gain access to abortions in the wake of Roe vrs. Wade.

In a groundbreaking study, Chicago NOW’s Marriage, Divorce, and Family Relations Committee determines that nearly half of child support payments were unmet.

August- Chicago NOW hires the organization’s first full time staff person

November- The CWLU membership conference adopts a proposal for a 5-person Planning Committee (2 co-chairs plus 3-other people).

The CWLU Liberation School sponsors a conference for women's schools from other cities.

Health Evaluation and Referral Service (HERS); Women's Prison Project; and Emma Goldman Women's Clinic affiliate with the CWLU.


Equal Credit Opportunity Act passes ending much of the discrimination against women in obtaining credit.

Over one thousand colleges and universities offer women's studies courses and eighty have full programs.

Helen Thomas, after covering Washington for thirty years, is finally named White House reporter.

Elaine Noble becomes the first openly gay candidate elected to a state legislature. (Massachusetts)

Homosexuality removed from list of mental disorders by American Psychiatric Association.

CWLU's Outreach Committee into organizes women’s sports teams and battles sex discrimination in the Chicago Park District.

Chicago NOW along with local chapters around the country files law suit against Sears for sex discrimination and in April 1977 the EEOC found reasonable cause to believe Sears was violating federal law.

The CWLU Planning Committee forms, and co-ordinates major International Women's Day demonstration on March 8.

The Committee to End Sterilization Abuse (CESA) is formed which includes the Puerto Rican Socialist Party(PSP) and the CWLU.

A struggle begins over anti-gay attitudes within the CWLU, most notably those held by members of the Revolutionary Union.

Lesbian Group (later called Blazing Star) affiliates with the CWLU.

Chicago hosts the founding convention of the Coalition of Labor Union Women (CLUW)


The United Nations sponsors the First International Conference on Women in Mexico City.

For the first time, federal employees' salaries can be garnished for child support and alimony.

National Right to Life PAC organized to to stop women from obtaining legal abortions.

Phyllis Schlafly organizes Eagle Forum as an alternative to "women's lib," in support of voluntary school prayer, law and order, and a strong national defense, and against busing, federally funded child care, and abortion.

Tish Sommers, chair of NOW's Older Women Task Force, coins the phrase "displaced homemaker."

Susan Brownmiller's Against Our Will on the ubiquity of rape is published.

NOW sponsors "Alice Doesn't" Day, and asks women across the country to go on strike for one day.

Joanne Little, who was raped by a guard while in jail, is acquitted of murdering her offender. The case establishes a precedent for killing as self-defense against rape.

Chicago Coalition to End Sterilization Abuse formed.

Health Evaluation and Referral Service (HERS) forms and lasts until the 1990's.

Culmination of RU struggle results in expulsion of one member from CWLU and voluntary withdrawal of several others.

National Conference on Socialist Feminism is held in July--CWLU is involved in the planning, and Liberation School sponsored study groups in advance of the conference.

Asian Women's Group affiliates with the CWLU.

Another major struggle begins in the CWLU pitting the majority of the organization against members who uphold a "Two-line Struggle" position which opposes gay liberation, the ERA and the CWLU's traditional socialist feminism.

Illinois Coalition against Domestic Violence is formed.

Mountain Moving Day Coffeehouse for women and children opens.


Redbook magazine polls its readers about sexual harassment. 90% of young women say they view the situation as serious.

A bill that defines a "person" as "a human being" from the moment of fertilization is signed by Louisiana's governor.

A movement to repeal a gay rights ordinance in Dade County, Florida, is led by singer Anita Bryant.

ERAmerica is launched to promote the ratification of ERA.

The Organization of Pan Asian American Women forms for women of Asian and Pacific American Islander descent.

Barbara Jordan becomes the first African-American and first woman to give the keynote speech at the Democratic National Convention.

Supreme Court decision agrees with General Electric that the company's failure to cover pregnancy-related disability is not discriminatory.

Both the House and Senate pass the Hyde Amendment, which prohibits the use of federal Medicaid money for abortions.

Many professional and women's organizations decide to boycott those states that have not passed the ERA and to hold their conferences elsewhere.

The first marital rape law is enacted in Nebraska, making it illegal for a husband to rape his wife.

CWLU Co-Chair and Planning Committee elections not held due to internal chaos.

CWLU suffers a political split in March- "Two Line" supporters are expelled. Other members leave because of disagreement over how the dispute is handled.

Summer- Liberation School folds

The National Alliance of Black Feminists organizes in Chicago.



Houston, Texas, witnesses the First National Women's Conference, at which twenty thousand representatives, women from all states, gather to pass a far-reaching National Plan of Action.

National Association of Cuban-American Women formed.

National Coalition Against Domestic Violence established.

Eleanor Smeal, president of NOW, demands that homemakers should have their own Social Security accounts.

The American Civil Liberties Union asks the Rhode Island Supreme Court to allow women to use their own names, rather than that of their husbands.

The Air Force graduates its first women pilots.

January- Chicago NOW became a founding member of the Gay and Lesbian Coalition of Metropolitan Chicago

April- CWLU disbands after an 8 year existence.

July- Chicago NOW wins lawsuit against the City of Chicago for sex discrimination of hiring and promoting employees.

The Illinois Caucus on Teenage Pregnancy (ICTP) is initiated following a conference to discuss the national problem of increasing teenage pregnancy. United Way provides a part-time staff person- Suzanne Hinds.

Chicago Abused Women Coalition (CAWC) organizes.

Chicago Protesters Defend Woman Power


The 1969 sit-in at the University of Chicago was one of the events that helped give rise to the Chicago Women's Liberation Union.

Editors Note: The 1969 sit-in at the University of Chicago was one of the events that helped give rise to the Chicago Women's Liberation Union. The sit-in at the UC administration building was prompted by the University not re-appointing Marlene Dixon to her position in the UC Sociology Department. Dixon was a popular teacher with radical political views. These articles from the Chicago Tribune and the Chicago Sun-Times describe some of the student organizing that took place at UC.



By Guy Halverson and Lucia Mount

Now it's woman power. The wave of college protests which have championed such diverse causes as opposition to the war in Vietnam, establishment of black history courses, and a stronger voice for students in university policy decisions has added a new dimension at the University of Chicago. It may prove marketable beyond campus boundaries.

Ostensibly the issue here in the five-day-old sit-in in the university administration building has been the faculty's decision not to re-appoint Mrs. Marlene Dixon, a popular assistant sociology professor whose con- tract expires next September.

At first students insisted the decision was based strictly on Mrs. Dixon's radical political views. Lately, they have added that it also is because she is a woman.


A position paper unanimously approved by the steering committee of dissident stu- dents stressed that while women comprise as average of 22 per cent of the nation's college faculty and staff, at the University of Chicago their percentage has slipped from a mere 8 in 1899 to 3 in 1969. And of Chicago's graduate students on fellowships only 20 per cent are women.

At a "for women only" press conference — strictly enforced to the chagrin of male reporters used to elbowing their way into almost any situation - two spokesmen for the Women's Radical Action Project (an offshoot of the Women's Liberation Front) stressed the need for equal rights with men in women's dormitory and visitation hours.

They also suggested a department of women in a proposed "suppressed studies division." This department would take on such courses as "the history of women's oppression" and "stereotypes of women in literature."

Nancy Stokely, senior in history, charged that "male chauvinism" was an element in every University of Chicago course.

Against a backdrop of airplane and clothing ads featuring scantily clad girls (termed "exploitation" by this group of Chicago women students), the spokesmen explained that the steering committee of protesters had discussed but rejected the possibility of adding a new demand to their list: that 51 percent of Chicago's students and faculty be women in accord with the nationwide percentage.

Mrs. Dixon herself has attempted to keep her comments to a minimum, arguing that the protest has roots far beyond her individual case. She says, however, that the protest will lend new "unity" to the university.


Although most students in the administration building wore white and red "Rehire Marlene" buttons, the "unity" in this university with its strong individualistic traditions may go no more than button deep.

There are signs of factionalism in student goals and strategy as students debate whether to disrupt classes or stick to occupation of the vital administration building and decide whether or not to press for recruitment of more working-class students and the end of university expansion into nearby ghetto areas.

In any case, control of the group's information is highly centralized and reporters are hard pressed to get an articulate explanation of what the dissident Chicago group is after.

"We're engaging in one of the most creative acts of education that the university has ever seen," Jeff Blum, graduate student in sociology and member of Chicago's Students for a Democratic Society, announced via a bull horn on the administration steps to a small group of passers- by.

"We're not satisfied merely with the formal demands for 'student power' that many administrators now are happy to talk about. It can't be a mere slogan. It has to have political con- tent."

Although 61 students now have been suspended as a result of the sit-in, the university's administrative action has been restrained. So far the police have not been called. Wayne Booth, dean of the college, has said it would only come as a last resort. Many believe an injunction to evacuate the building will come first.

"If there's anything worth saving in this society, it's the university," comments Daniel Agin, associate professor of physiology. "But we can handle our own problems. We don't have to call on civil authorities."

Some believe students hope the police will be brought in so they may rally more numbers of their cause. (Current involvement is between 200 and 400 of the campuses 8,600 students.) It appears they must broaden their base of support to continue the protest. Certainly in demanding an equal role "in principle" for students and faculty in the hiring and firing of faculty members, they have pricked a sensitive point of power.



By Abra Anderson Exclusive to the Times from the Chicago Sun-Times

CHICAGO - The female attack on the University of Chicago as a bastion of male power is gaining momentum.

Some 200 women left the administration building barricades Tuesday for a feminist rally in Mandel Hall - a rally that turned into a press conference at which male reporters were hissed when they asked questions.

That constituted a slight gain for the gentlemen of the press, however. On Monday, men reporters were barred from a press conference on women's rights.

Great cheers went up when Mrs. Marlene Dixon, the heroine of the women's liberation front, told the women students they had started something that "stretches from the Sorbonne to Berkeley."

She said the female endeavor, which bears the initials WRAP - Women's Radical Action Project - was the largest single action in a two-year-old women's liberation movement.

Refusal of the university to rehire Mrs. Dixon, an assistant professor of sociology, touched off the administration building takeover and the subsequent demands for woman power.

Several students also addressed the rally. One, Sally Yogel, 20, a third-year history major from Evanston, Ill., deplored the idea that America's womanhood has been barred from producing better entries for the history books than such homebodies as Martha Washington and Betsy Ross.

And in modern careers, Miss Yogel lamented, women are stereotyped as "bitchy or masculine."

"Women feel they must flirt or giggle to attract men," she said. "I feel totally demoralized when I have to do that."

Miss Yogel dismissed the concept that women should be "barefoot, pregnant and in the kitchen."


The Chicago Women's Liberation Union: An Introduction

The Chicago Women's Liberation Union: An Introduction

by the CWLU Herstory Editorial Committee (2000)

"I am all women, I am every woman. Wherever women are suffering, I am there. Wherever women are struggling, I am there. Wherever women are fighting for their liberation I am there."- from the CWLU founding conference.

With these words still ringing in their ears, a small group of women left Palatine, Illinois to organize a revolution. It was 1969 and the founding conference of the Chicago Women's Liberation Union (CWLU) was over. The founders of the CWLU had come of age in the 1960's, a time of sit-ins, freedom rides, peace marches, strikes, riots and assassinations. The war in Southeast Asia was raging and campuses across the nation were in turmoil over the issues of war, imperialism and racism.

Women had thrown themselves into the struggles of the 1960's with a ferocious energy. From the dangerous backroads of Mississippi during voter registration campaigns to the streets of Washington DC to protest the Southeast Asia war, women were there in impressive numbers.

Yet in this struggle for freedom, women were not free. Men made the decisions while women made the coffee. Women typed the speeches so that men could speak the words. At first individual women suffered through this in silence and humiliation. But then a few brave women spoke up and said what was on the minds of their more reticent sisters. By 1968, a fledging women's liberation movement was born and America would never be the same again.

In America of the late 1960's, it was perfectly legal for women to be paid less than men. There were no women bus drivers, welders, firefighters, news anchors, CEO's or Supreme Court Justices. Women professors, doctors, scientists or lawyers were rare. Gays and lesbians were forced to live "in the closet" for fear of vicious persecution. Women were denied credit by banks and states could bar women from sitting on juries. Women knew next to nothing about their bodies and were afraid to honestly discuss their sexuality. Terms like "domestic violence" or "sexual harassment" did not exist and rape victims had probably "asked for it". Abortion was illegal and women seeking them risked death and injury at the hands of incompetent quacks.

The women who organized the CWLU in 1969 wanted to eliminate the sexism which made these abuses possible. They defined sexism as "the systematic keeping down of women for the benefit of people in power". They had no illusions about the immensity of their task.

"We know that changing women's position in society isn't going to be easy. It's going to require changes in expectations, jobs, childcare education. It's going to change the distribution of power over the rest of us to all people sharing power and sharing in the decisions that affect our lives. These are major, radical changes. We consider our struggle revolutionary because it will require a total restructuring of society, not merely making room for more women within this structure".- from a CWLU statement of purpose.

But the members of the CWLU were an extraordinary group of people with vision, commitment and the courage to blaze a trail for others to follow.

Heather Booth had gone to Mississippi in 1964 to register voters in the face of KKK terrorism. After helping found the CWLU she helped organize the Action Committee for Decent Childcare (ACDC) to challenge the powerful Richard J. Daley political machine's indifference to childcare.

Vivian Rothstein had traveled to North Viet Nam in 1967 at the height of the war to see the extent of the destruction for herself. Her experiences with the women's organizations in Viet Nam inspired her to emulate their example here in the US. Long before there was anything like Women's Studies, Vivian Rothstein conceived of a Liberation School where women could learn how to free themselves from their oppression.

Naomi Weisstein, a brilliant research scientist, had written "Psychology Constructs the Female" which demolished generations of male supremacist pseudo-science. She then helped organize the Chicago Women's Liberation Rock Band to shake up the sexist world of pop music.

Ruth Surgal came out of the anti-war movement and joined Jody Parsons to help build an underground abortion service that performed over 11,000 safe, inexpensive and illegal abortions.

Marie "Micki" Leaner, from a Southside steelworker family, joined Prison Project, which organized for improvements in women's prisons while working directly with inmates at Dwight Prison in Illinois.

Estelle Carol, a young University of Chicago art student, decided that art had been done all wrong by men and helped found the Chicago Women's Graphics Collective to decorate the walls of America with colorful messages of women's revolution.

Suzanne Davenport and Jenny Rohrer did not let their media inexperience stand in the way of creating the Chicago Maternity Center, a powerful documentary film exposing the deep and pervasive sexism within the medical establishment.

These individuals were among the hundreds of women who participated in the CWLU. The CWLU was very open to new ideas and if a woman or group of women had a cool idea that would help the struggle, a workgroup would form and they could try it out.

In much of the women's movement of the time, the emphasis was on personal transformation through conscious raising groups. Small circles of women would meet to help each other overcome the psychological and social effects of sexism. The CWLU did not ignore personal transformation, but was more focused on organizing women for revolutionary change.

This may be seen in the many workgroups, chapters and projects that made up the actual day to day work of the organization. A few examples:

  • DARE(Direct Action for Rights in Employment) plunged into the struggle against gender discrimination both on the job and within the hidebound male dominated AFL-CIO.
  • HERS(Health Evaluation and Referral Service) believed that women had the right to control their own healthcare. HERS distributed health information that had previously been unavailable to women. They also evaluated and recommended health providers so that women could make intelligent healthcare choices.
  • Blazing Star (The Lesbian Group) fought the vicious homophobia prevalent at the time. Its members worked with other gay organizations in a campaign which eventually won the passage of a Human Rights Ordinance for Chicago.
  • Jane (The Abortion Counseling Service ) was the CWLU's underground illegal abortion provider that performed over 11,000 safe abortions, many performed by Jane members themselves.
  • Secret Storm challenged the Chicago Park District's sexist exclusion of women's sports teams in neighborhood parks and helped women become involved in athletics through its sports organizing.

Nationally the women's liberation movement was very loosely organized and organizations tended to blossom and fade quickly. But from the beginning, the CWLU saw itself as part of a long struggle. This meant creating an organization that would survive the inevitable bumps in the road.

The CWLU was always a delicate balance among its many smaller workgroups, projects, chapters, and the central governing body. There was a strong emphasis on democratic process and open discussion, which inevitably meant many long and often frustrating meetings. Democracy is never a smooth process and the presence of so many strong opinionated women naturally led to vigorous debate. Yet throughout most of its history, the CWLU recognized that diversity was essential to its unity.

Although many of the people whom the CWLU served though its various projects were women of color, the CWLU was acutely aware that its actual active membership was overwhelmingly white. The social realities of the time made a truly racially mixed feminist organization impractical, so the CWLU made an effort to work with other organizations where women of color were active. An example was the Committee to End Sterilization Abuse which involved the CWLU, Mujeres Latinas en Accion, and the Puerto Rican Socialist Party. The CWLU also worked with Operation PUSH on a campaign to free Jo Anne Little, a young Black woman who was accused of murder after she killed a jail guard who had tried to rape her.

CWLU members usually concentrated on their day to day project organizing, but the group also did a lot thinking about political strategy and theory. It evolved into a socialist-feminist organization, dedicated to the elimination of capitalism and all forms of oppression. This distinguished them from reform feminists like the National Organization for Women (NOW), who while dedicated to gender equality, did not seriously question the capitalist system. It also distinguished them from the radical feminists who were more hostile to men and often drawn toward utopian female separatism. The CWLU was an all-woman organization, but men were usually welcome at its public events and the group carefully aimed its attacks on male chauvinism, not on men as a group.

By the mid 1970's, the CWLU could see the changes that the women's liberation movement had helped set into motion. Abortion was legal. Women were breaking down employment barriers and going into formerly male dominated fields. Women were fighting back against unequal pay and sexual harassment. Gays and lesbians were coming out of the closet. Rape Crisis Centers and Domestic Violence Centers were no longer being seen as "counter-cultural" institutions. There was a mass movement (ultimately unsuccessful) to pass an Equal Rights Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. Perhaps most tellingly, conservative activists like Phyllis Shlafly launched a powerful right-wing backlash against "women's lib", proving that the movement was being taken seriously by its enemies.

In a report to the 1975 CWLU annual conference, CWLU leaders predicted a bright future for the organization. The 1975 Socialist Feminist Conference at Yellow Springs, OH had attracted over a 1000 women. The CWLU was recognized as a model for socialist feminist organizing and the group had strengthened its ties with other Midwest Women's Unions. CWLU leaders pointed to the group's growing involvement with women of color. It compared the CWLU's situation with the disarray that NOW was experiencing after its disastrous attempt to launch a nationwide women's strike.

The optimism of the CWLU leadership proved to be unfounded. A small number of CWLU members, dissatisfied with what they perceived as the group's white middle class orientation unleashed a scathing attack on the organization's direction and leadership. This small group passed out a leaflet at the 1976 International Women's Day event which denounced feminism, lesbianism and the ERA. The contents of the leaflet rejected some of the CWLU's most basic principles. The CWLU went into a deep internal crisis over how to deal with the situation. The organization eventually split apart and in 1977 formally disbanded.

The death of the CWLU was an agonizing and wrenching experience for those who went through it. The memories are still painful even a quarter century later. The reasons why the CWLU did not survive this ordeal are still not well understood.

The death of the CWLU should not be allowed to obscure the organization's positive contributions toward the liberation of women in America. Thousands of women were touched by its many organizing projects and it set a powerful example of what a group of smart audacious women could do.

"We saw the value of working for a goal much larger than ourselves. We saw that you could really change, change people's lives, and change the reality by taking action."- CWLU founding member Heather Booth

Today former CWLU members are working in social services, education, law, publishing, manufacturing, electronic media, politics, healthcare and other varied fields. They are union organizers, writers, artists, administrators, nurses, filmmakers, teachers, professors, small business owners, doctors, office workers, political activists and more. Many are parents and grandparents. Some are retired and working harder than ever for positive social change.

For the most part they have kept the values that they learned in the women's liberation movement. The ugly media stereotype that the "boomer" generation betrayed its ideals does not seem to apply to the women who went through the CWLU experience. Now they are passing those ideals down to new generations.