historical context

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.