GETTING THE WORD OUT: CWLU Speaker’s Bureau and Media Relations Work
By Margaret Schmid
At the time the CWLU was founded, public and media interest in this strange new phenomenon called “women’s lib” was high. Requests to send speakers to events and classes came in frequently. Reporters wanted quotable quotes and stories about these strange new ideas, some with the goal of discrediting them. The new organization had to decide early on whether and how to get its sweeping new vision of liberation and empowerment for women out to a sometimes interested, often confused, and sometimes hostile (especially in the media) audience. Decisions on whether and how to communicate CWLU’s bold vision of liberation for women also required wrestling with important issues of egalitarianism and elitism, not just effective communication.
It is hard to think back to the early 1970s, when an ad from a poplar magazine read:
“Should a bride-to-be work as a Hertz girl before marriage? Yes, it gets her used to being taken for granted. And if that’s not perfect training for marriage, we’d like to know what is.”1
At the time, want-ads (then the major way of finding jobs) were listed by gender. Those women who didn’t follow the norm of getting married and having children could find work as teachers or nurses but seldom much beyond: only 8% of physicians were women; 5 % of lawyers were female.2 There were virtually no women news reporters (although there were a few “weather girls”)3 and news on the “women’s page” consisted mainly of society events, flower shows, and recipes. The term “sexism” had not yet been invented. Even in the New Left anti-war and civil rights movements, women were relegated to running mimeo (copy) machines and making coffee, while men made the decisions and the speeches. In fact, most New Left groups opposed the creation of an independent women’s movement as divisive.
To appear in front of a group and advocate for a radically different vision of the proper role and place of women in the world was a daunting challenge for all but the most experienced women. At the same time, the new CWLU wanted to avoid the “male” path of creating a select number of experienced star speakers while consigning all other CWLU members to sit in the audience. The struggle to communicate CWLU’s radical vision effectively while at the same time giving all CWLU members the opportunities, skills and support to participate in this broad and essential educational work created a tension that shaped the CWLU Speakers Bureau and media relations policy and practice.
Speaker’s Bureau: The Origin
The origins of the CWLU Speaker’s Bureau, set up early in the first year of CWLU’s existence, was described by two of CWLU’s founding activists:
The speakers policy arose shortly after the CWLU was formed. It was the time when people were interested in getting a women’s liberation spokeswoman on every talk show, church forum and college campus in the country. When requests came to the Union we would at first suggest women representatives from our membership who volunteered to speak publicly. All this did, essentially, was reinforce the kind of elitism which had previously existed. By promoting women who already had the confidence in themselves as political speakers, a star system was developing. This policy was criticized, and a new speakers policy was suggested which still functions in our organization. The policy is that all women who are members should learn to speak about the women’s movement. All speaking engagements are filled on a rotating basis. Each chapter has a turn to fill a request and must find a women member willing to do it. This has ensured that most women in our organization have spoken at least once about women-related issues, and it has ensured a more active, committed, self-confident membership. The speakers bureau was an example to us all of how we could develop “liberating structures.” It was popular to say then in the women’s movement, and still is today to some extent, that structures can only be oppressive. The speakers policy is an example of how this is not necessarily true and how, in fact, one can structure out elitism. It was the first innovation to really bring our organization into existence.4
To put this policy into practice, we developed Speaker’s Bureau training, giving everyone the chance to practice and take part in role playing. We provided support in the form of talking points, sample speeches, and sisterly critiques. We developed a resource file for use when preparing to speak. We sent women to speaking engagements in pairs, so that those giving their first talk could be supported by someone with more experience and confidence.
A sense of the spirit of this radical venture can be seen in excerpts from the announcement of the April 19, 1970 Speakers Training Day:
….We understand that if we can do something [public speaking] that our sisters cannot do, then it doesn’t mean shit until our sisters can do that thing too. Either we are all heavies, or none of us are heavies. What this means is that everybody learns how to SPEAK AT PUBLIC GATHERINGS, not just those who have gone to Cuba, been fired from jobs, written articles, been child stars, or have otherwise irrelevant credentials….
We propose a session in which we train women in speaking, in developing a style that they are comfortable with. We will work all day, we will drill, role play, criticize, and drill again; we will take turns being audience and star, co-panelist, second speaker and camera crew, we will video tape and play ourselves back, we will not leave our speaker training session until everybody has spoken and felt sure about it, and spoken again and felt double sure about it…5
While intimidating for some, the Speaker’s Bureau policy had some wonderfully liberating effects, as hoped:
I did a lot of work in the Speaker’s Bureau. And of course that was different than the other groups because your name was picked out and it rotated – you had to speak. You went with someone more experienced, often; and often you didn’t! I was very shy, I was very quiet – people I know [now] don’t believe this is true, but it’s true. I was very shy and timid and it was very difficult for me to go and speak. It made me do that. It gave people a sense that they could do things. I was not the only one, I know, that was transformed by that experience.6
The need to speak publicly about women’s liberation also required each CWLU member to consider how she would define women’s liberation, what it meant to her, and how best to convey the bold, new feminist vision that CWLU was all about. And there were many opportunities to do so: a report from March 1971 says that:
The Speakers Bureau has been running fairly well and close to the policy. The average number of speaking engagements has been 23 a month. The breakdown of the types of speeches from September to February goes like this:
37 high schools
37 women’s groups
34 mixed groups
3 all men’s groups
That same report listed some of the problems: lack of feedback on the speeches, occasional difficulties with last minute cancellations by the assigned speaker; difficulties filling relatively last minute requests for a speaker. The same report discussed ways in which each of these problems could be overcome. One thorny problem, one reflecting the priority placed on combatting elitism and the tricky question of how, at the same time, to communicate most effectively, was the question of whether to develop a method to ensure that a speech on a specific topic would be given by someone with the relevant expertise. That need to balance the anti-elitist and confidence-building thrust of the CWLU Speakers Bureau with the need for relevant expertise and effective communication was recurrent. One assessment of the Speaker’s Bureau policy noted that:
It [the Speaker’s Bureau] was both wonderful and terrible….I think that in some ways it was a really wonderful idea, everybody would have to do their turn. It mean that people really had to think through their politics very well and this was the year in which you couldn’t get a book and open it and read – you know, we were creating it. So you really had to be prepared to answer…. It, I think, raised the level, by having people represent us to the public…..the problem is that some people were really gifted, like (name omitted)… and should have been allowed to use that gift.8
Ultimately, policy and program changes were made to maintain the spirit of engaging all women in public speaking while also more effectively sharing our vision. The Speaker’s Bureau policy evolved to allow chapters with special projects (for example: Action Committee for Decent Childcare, Rape Crisis Line, DARE [Direct Action for Rights in Employment]) to designate speakers on those issues. After much time and debate, the organization allowed the CWLU co-chairs to be the designated spokeswomen for the CWLU when a statement on behalf of the organization as a whole was required.
Throughout, the importance of large numbers of CWLU members speaking in public about women’s liberation continued to be a high priority, both as a means of building skills, self-confidence and empowerment, and as a central vehicle for sharing the CWLU vision of liberation and empowerment for women individually and collectively. The sophistication of the training program continued to increase, as can be seen in this agenda for a speaker’s training program offered by the CWLU Liberation School 1973:
1:00 – 1:15 How speaking relates to CWLU
1. how speakers bureau functions
2. what engagements do we accept; what are our priorities
3. who is available to speak
1:15 – 3:15 –
a. practice speaking to partners, small groups, into tape recorders, getting feedback on mannerisms, tone of voice, speed of delivery, etc.
b. possible content for speeches
a. what literature, slides, movies, tapes are available? How can they be used to best advantage?
b. How to operate projectors, tape recorders, etc.
Solving problems (or what to do when your worst dreams come true)
a. how to handle hostility, silence, etc.
b. how to bring out disagreements in panel discussions
c. how to integrate your personal experience into your rap
We’ll use role playing to simulate situations.
3:15 – 4:15 Media
1. How to carry off a press conference
2. How to do radio-TV talk shows
4:15 – 5:00 When and how to do follow-up on a speaking engagement.
5:00 Criticism of workshop and suggestions for others, then adjournment.9
All told, the CWLU Speakers Bureau provided a way to reach women (and sometimes men) with the message of women’s liberation. This was important particularly in the early days of women’s liberation when finding the movement could often be difficult, misrepresentations abounded and “the movement” was hard to find. In Chicago the CWLU Speakers Bureau offered one way for women to ‘find the movement.
The CWLU also developed a separate program for dealing with the media, a particularly thorny issue given the caricatures of “women’s lib” too often found in newspapers or on the TV of the era. To quote from “An Evolutionary Perspective,” a paper done by two CWLU activists in 1971:
Our initial reaction was not to relate to the media at all since we couldn’t have control over what they would write or say. We were suspicious and paranoid partly because we had seen some terrible things done on women’s liberation.
In addition there were very few women in the media and we didn’t want to relate to the men. As we developed our organization, though, we began to realize that we wouldn’t get any publicity if we maintained this position, and so we began to ask the question, in what way can we relate to the media which will give us positive coverage? We started to develop specific focused items where it would be difficult to misconstrue our point and to develop relationships with some of the women reporters who were being given more responsibility. Recognizing that we can’t change the media’s approach, we dealt with how to use them for our own purposes.10
After wrestling with these perspectives and after some exploratory media projects, the CWLU Steering Committee adopted a media policy, which read in part:
Believing that relations with the media (TV, newspapers, radio, etc.) can be an important part of our educational work, we have adopted the following media policy:
I. The Union guidelines will be:
a. The Union will deal with the media only in those instances which we feel would be beneficial to us.
b. The Union will always demand to deal with women reporters, disc jockeys, technicians, etc.
c. The Union will demand control over the content of the media content (what this means will obviously vary depending on whether this is a filming session, an interview, a talk-show, etc.)
d. Every effort will be made to obtain a democratic representation of the Union membership. This means that every chapter will be notified and encouraged to participate in contacts with the media.
e. As far as possible, contacts with the media will be planned in advance.11
The second portion of the policy dealt with establishment of a media committee to screen requests, find people to fill them, provide support and information, evaluate how the policy is working, and report to the steering committee. The third portion described additional possible functions of the committee including “to run educational sessions for selected (women) reporters, etc.” and reaffirming “… our belief that every woman can be a spokeswoman for the Women’s Liberation movement….”
One early project, in conjunction with Chicago NOW, was issuing invitations to nearly twenty Chicago media women to a coffee in February of 1970. The results of the meeting, as reported in CWLU News, are worth reproducing in their entirety for the boldness and scope of CWLU aspirations and the care and preparation put into executing them.
It’s too soon to speculate on the long-range results of our informal coffee with Chicago media women Feb. 24. The media committee had hoped for a real two-way gut exchange of ideas, goals and problems, ending with some kind of modus operandi. We didn’t come to any real understanding or agreement with the press women, but the meeting was a good thing. We learned a lot, both sides aired some grievances and channels of communication were opened. We clearly made some friends among the press women, but we also heightened the fear and hostility of several of them.
Out of the 18 press women invited, 12 came – a fantastic turnout. Thirteen women came from CWLU and three from NOW. The meeting room was too crowded to create the informal atmosphere we had hoped for, but we all fit in. The media women were given press kits which contained an information sheet on the Union written by Margaret Schmid, a brief fact sheet on NOW, some statistics on women in the U.S., and a really good list of suggestions for reporters to follow in covering the women’s movement. The suggestions, along with xeroxed clippings of glaring examples of miscoverage, were compiled by Joanna Martin.
Heather Booth and Vivian Rothstein led off with brief raps on the movement and the Union, followed by Mary Jane Robson, who discussed the structure and programs of NOW. The purpose of having both groups at the same meeting was to help clarify to the press that the two groups are very different but not antagonistic. Judging from the questions that followed, reporters were confused about differences between Women’s Liberation and NOW. Many of them had trouble understanding the radical approach of Women’s Liberation (i.e., CWLU).
I think perhaps (personal reaction) that we communicated facts, but failed to communicate the spirit of our movement. We were extraordinarily polite, soft-spoken and genteel. We all seemed to be afraid of coming on too strong, possibly because of the presence of NOW, but more likely because we were uncertain of where the media women stood, and we were afraid of turning them off. During the general discussion, the media women were interested but distant. They didn’t identify personally with what we were saying.
Towards the end of the meeting Joanna and I outlined some of the persistent problems the women’s movement has had with the media and made some suggestions for improving relations. We asked them about some of the problems they face as women reporters and what we could do to help them. For example, does it help or hurt when we demand only women reporters at press conferences or interviews.
Then things took off! We quickly realized that these media women saw their jobs and our movement through the eyes of their male bosses. They told us that editors were offended and often angry when we demand women reporters and why didn’t we try to communicate with and please the male reporters rather than excluding them. One reporter said her fear was that if we were to demand only women reporters, then those women might be stuck in the bag of covering primary women’s stuff (implication: women’s stories are women’s stories, whether society benefit or demonstration at the AMA).12
Media work continued, supported in part by media training in the CWLU Liberation School. CWLU media work often took creative forms as indicated by this news note:
On Saturday, September 26, some sisters in the University of Chicago chapter of CWLU broadcast an hour long program on WHPK, the campus radio station. The program was a wonderful blend of music and talk when not only defined the essence of women’s liberation but also presented the spirit of our movement. In short, it was a fun program to listen to whether you were new to women’s liberation or not.13
Ultimately, women’s liberation was no longer a hot new topic, and CWLU received fewer speaking and media requests. It is quite likely that the CWLU refusal to cultivate a small number of “star” spokeswomen limited CWLU’s visibility as a source of information and commentary on women’s movement issues. The emergence of national spokeswomen like Gloria Steinem and the launch of MS magazine in 1972 helped define women’s liberation in the eyes of the media. NOW became increasingly prominent and visible, both in Chicago and nationally. All of these provided other sources of information for local groups interested in learning about women’s liberation. While CWLU program continued to change and develop, and although CWLU continued providing speakers and doing media work throughout existence, these now-established sources of information eclipsed the CWLU as a source of speakers and focus of media attention. Nonetheless, CWLU’s success in defining a policy that succeeded for a major period of time in spreading its radical view of women’s equality and empowerment while at the same time giving its members the chances to develop skills and self-confidence is a testament to its vision, determination, and skills.