text memoirs

On the Job with Jane

by Jeanne Galatzer-Levy "I was really adrift, but I wanted to do something, and it seemed to me that if you were going pick something in terms of women and politics the front lines was abortion because women were dying and that was real." 

(Editor's Note: This article was developed from a 1999 interview conducted by Becky Kluchin. Jane was the CWLU affiliated underground abortion group. The picture of Jeanne was taken during her Jane days.

"I was really adrift, but I wanted to do something, and it seemed to me that if you were going pick something in terms of women and politics the front lines was abortion because women were dying and that was real." -Former Jane volunteer Jeanne Galatzer-Levy

What was Jane?

Jane was the abortion counseling service affiliated with the CWLU. Before abortion was legalized in 1973, Jane members, none of whom were physicians, performed over 11,000 illegal abortions. Their philosophy was that women had the right to safe humane abortions and that if this wasn’t legally possible , than it was up to the women’s liberation movement to take up the slack. Jane took its medical and social responsibilities seriously, so careful training and a humane relationship with their clientele were an important part of the Jane experience. Known officially as the Abortion Counseling Service of Women’s Liberation, "Jane" was the name people would ask for when they first made contact.

Jeanne Galatzer-Levy joins Jane

Twenty year old Jeannne Galatzer-Levy’s introduction to the Abortion Counseling Service came at a meeting in Hyde Park. It was a rocky start. She had brought a friend named Sheila with her, which unbeknownst to her, violated Jane’s security protocol because Sheila had not been specifically invited. After some pointed discussion, Sheila was allowed to stay, but the incident illustrated the everyday stresses of working in a clandestine abortion network.

Jeanne’s first meeting was especially tense, because a young woman who had come to Jane had recently died. She had wanted an abortion, but had such a dangerous infection that she had been urged to check into a hospital immediately. Jane attempted to follow up her case, but it took several days to determine that she had died in the hospital.

There had been a police investigation. Although the detectives were sympathetic to Jane and did not think that the Service was responsible for the woman’s death, some members had left the group over the incident. It was a difficult soul searching time for those who remained.

By the time Jeanne Galatzer-Levy joined up, Jane members were performing the actual abortions themselves, based on the techniques they had learned from “Mike”, the male abortionist with whom they had formed an often contradictory, but very close relationship.

Jeanne remembers her first orientation,

It was a very large meeting, there must have been 30-35 people, all in the living room that was probably the size of my dining room, you know a big living room, a big old Hyde Park apartment, but still, a lot of women and we’re all sitting on the floor and a few in the chairs in the back that had been pushed to the wall. Then we were kinda told what the Service was. And you know, it was pretty straight forward, I think. They pretty much told us everything except they were doing it themselves.

They told us they weren’t using doctors anymore, and the history of that. My friend Sheila who was so much more perceptive than me, figured out immediately that they were doing it themselves and who it was that was doing it. Sheila’s very sharp. But I was completely oblivious. And we joined.

And that was how we started. And I was paired—we got big sisters— and what we did then was, at the end of a meeting they actually brought out the cards and passed them around and people took cards, but not us, we didn’t take cards. Then I met with Benita in her apartment a couple of times and just went through what we were gonna do and what not, and then she set up a counseling session and I actually sat in on it.

The cards that Jeanne Galatzer-Levy is referring to were the index cards Jane used to assign abortion clients to the Jane volunteers. Cards were passed around at meetings. People tended to want the “easy” cases and the “difficult” cards usually ended up being dealt last. Short term abortions were usually easier cases, so volunteers would start out on them. Long term abortions were more complicated and so demanded more counseling experience.

Galatzer explains,

The cards would go around, and everyone would grab you know, the one who lived in Hyde Park and was twenty years old and was three weeks since the last period, because , it was obviously gonna be better. And then there would be the woman in Long Grove who it had taken two months for her to find us, and she would go around and finally someone would say, we’ve gotta get rid of this woman, and someone would volunteer and take it, and I think some people learned long term counseling by saying I’ve never done one but I’ll do it if you help me.

Jane always tried to do follow up after an abortion was performed, but the results varied considerably:

I mean some people you really got to know and you really had these wonderful relationships with, and some people you just felt there were these huge walls around them and there were walls around you. You just touched at this one point and you helped them and you know that was it, and you knew that you were never gonna see them again. That the one thing in the world they wanted to do was to forget that this had ever happened.

According to Galatzer, the people who had short term abortions were most likely to disappear as the procedure was less prone to complications. With long term abortions, follow-up was a necessity:

The long terms, you induced an abortion, you induced a miscarriage. You had to follow up. It was very important to find out what happened because what we did originally, there was a period when we had Leunbach paste and all these other things, but originally what we did was we broke the bag of water, and they pushed out a much of the amniotic fluid as they could, and the fetus would die, and then they would go into a miscarriage. But things can go wrong with that.

One, you compromise the integrity of the uterus, so there’s a real possibility of infection, which there is with any natural miscarriage too. You could’ve missed and the baby could live, it could still live, and then you’d have to do it again. The body might not go into a miscarriage, and then there’d be dead matter in the uterus— mostly it worked very well, but there were a lot of things that could go wrong, and so it was very important to find out, to follow them, to find out whether they’d gone into a miscarriage, and then find out what happened.

Once they were in a miscarriage they were urged to go to the hospital or emergency room and then say they were in a miscarriage and deny having done anything. If they did it on their own, which some people did, they needed to have a follow up D and C, to do that because you can’t leave anything hanging around in there, nothing. So you did have to really follow them. It was a very different kind of thing. And you had to, it was kinda hard because you really had to establish that relationship. You couldn’t let them slide because you couldn’t pretend that it wasn’t happening the way you could let somebody get away with that who was eight weeks pregnant and it was gonna be something they’d deal with a lot later. It was a different situation.

New volunteers usually started out working at the "Front" which is what Jane called the apartment they used as a reception area. The abortions were performed at another apartment called, "The Place". Women were encouraged to bring along people for emotional support, so the "Fronts" became a gathering place where men, women and children could all be found.

Jane volunteers who worked the "Front", kept everything on schedule, gave out information and reassurance, inventoried supplies and served food and drinks. One Jane volunteer remembers that food was one of the few things that Jane ever really splurged on. Drivers would take a few women at a time from the "Front" to the "Place" and then back again when the abortions were done.

Jeanne Galatzer-Levy describes starting out at the "Front":

Everybody was expected to work the Front, and it was a really long day, and it was hard. People would come and their significant others of some sort or another, their sisters or aunts or cousins or boyfriends or whatever would come, and we were very woman centered. We had all this food at the Front. We always had all this food and tea and soda and things like that. And we gave out—we started them on a dose of tetracycline. And gave them a box of pills that included ergotrate and tetracycline. They took these afterwards, to contract the uterus and help them get back into shape.

You would talk to people. They’d be nervous and then the people who were going for the abortions would be driven off and their significant cousins, brothers, sisters, children whatever would then be sitting there. And so you would have to kinda entertain them. And you know, I was a fairly shy person and it was hard, you know it’s kinda hard to be conducive to strangers in this very peculiar circumstance. I was very young, and you were giving a kind of tea party all day long, and you really were kinda out of the loop, you really didn’t know exactly what was going on. So first you did that. And I did that for a while. And then there was the driver and I moved very quickly into driving because I was one of the few people who had a driver’s license. Lots of people didn’t have their license. Well U of C at the time was full of New Yorkers and New Yorkers don’t drive, like I was one of the people who helped teach Sheila how to drive.

After abortion became legal in New York, women with more money could hop on a plane and have the procedure done legally, so Jane’s clientele became poorer. Jeanne Galatzer-Levy was treasurer at that point and describes Jane’s finances,

Our population became much poorer and we charged, at that point one hundred dollars and we took anything—we literally took nothing. We asked that they give us something. But often they didn’t, you know. We were averaging about fifty bucks. I was by then the treasurer and we were averaging about fifty bucks which we figured we could do, we had figured out that whatever we charged we ended up with about half that per.

I think earlier on, when we were using ‘Mike’ we had to actually have the money and then he’d give us a few free ones. People have wonderful stories about getting people’s coin jars. I never got that as a driver, but I did get a lot of singles. And I, the driver would pick people up, drive around a little bit then go off onto a side street, park the car and ask for the money. People would hand me the money and I would take it, and then I would shove it into my pocket. I never counted it. And I don’t think anybody ever counted it. 

So you know, I didn’t know what people handed me and I didn’t care. And sometimes they would say when they handed me, I don’t have all this, and I would say it doesn’t matter. So we did have some really broke women, and for some of them, I mean they’d been lied to by their boyfriends, they’d been lied to by everybody and they had never really asserted themselves in any way, shape or form, and this was their decision not to be in this position, not to have a baby, not to get stuck again. And they were really flying. They would be really excited you know? We were real sunny and happy, so you know, they allowed themselves to be.

On May 3, 1972 Jeanne Galatzer was working the "Front", caring for three children that had been left by one of the women who was getting her abortion at the "Place". What Jeanne didn’t know was that the police were already raiding the South Shore apartment that was serving as the "Place". Ruth Surgal had just dropped off some snacks at the "Front" and when Galatzer heard a knock on the door, she assumed Ruth had forgotten something. It wasn’t Surgal, but a large beefy Chicago detective. Jane was being busted at both locations.

The Abortion 7 Bust

"We were terrified. We were looking at like one hundred ten years, one to ten each count. It was very impressive." -Jeanne Galatzer-Levy

Jeanne recalls what happened when she heard the knock at the door:

I was at the Front which was an apartment in Hyde Park. It was a nice apartment. It was a ground floor, and it had this long, long hallway, and we were way at the back of this building. Ruth had been over, dropping off food or something, and there were a bunch of people there, and I had been talking to them. It turns out that I had a long, very sincere talk with the woman who had turned us in, which really pissed me off later. I didn’t know, I mean of course I didn’t know. But she was having ambivalent feelings about it, so I was really very helpful. Later I wanted to kill her I was so pissed off.

I opened the door and there were the tallest men I had ever seen in my life, in these suits, and you knew immediately what this was. I don’t know if I said anything or if they said anything.

I think they announced they were the police, and I turned around and walked in front of them and said, "These are the police. You don’t have to tell them anything." And they were really irritated. That was how they decided to arrest me, because I’d opened the door, and you know, it was perfectly obvious to me— I’m a control freak you know, and I think I took charge the way people do.

They were really tall! Really weird. I developed this whole theory. I love crackpot theories, I intend to be a crackpot when I grow up. My theory is that you had to be really tall to be a homicide cop. These were homicide cops, because abortion was a homicide. And they were homicide cops who hated being there. You know it’s not easy to make homicide detective. You really have to be good. It’s not even political like taking the sergeants exam. You really have to do something, and they do it because they want to. And by and large what do is they track down people who kill other people. And they think of themselves as good guys and they hated being there. This was not their kind of crime. So they were very ambivalent about it. They were very funny. So we were taken, I was taken, the whole group of us were taken down to the station. I wasn’t handcuffed, I don’t think. I was treated very nicely, except that I was in a state of perfect terror.

They took everybody. We were dealing with a very poor population, so if a woman was on her second pregnancy and she had a two year old, she had nobody to leave that two year old with. We would beg people, if you’re gonna bring your two year old bring your sister to watch the two year old. But we had children running around, aunts, cousins, uncles, friends, a random bunch of people.

There were men at the Front and they took them too. I don’t think there were a lot of men, but there were a couple. You know I think they were teenagers, very young men. And they tried to sort us all out, and then they interviewed each of us.They asked us questions, and we said—you know we were really middle class savvy people, and we all said, "I don’t have to answer that." And basically, at the end of the day I think that they picked who they arrested on the basis of the ones who said, "‘I don’t have to answer that. You know, because everybody else was talking."

Actually some of the women just wouldn’t say anything. But when we hired Joanne, the attorney who defended us and she got the paperwork, she said, "You’re the best clients I ever had, people talk to the police all the time and you guys didn’t, I love you." We knew we didn’t have to talk to the police and we didn’t.

They asked us,"How much do you charge?" We said, "‘Well how much do they say we charged?". And they would go crazy because they’d ask the women,"Well what did you pay?" And somebody’d say twenty bucks and somebody’d say one hundred bucks, and it didn’t make any sense at all. There was usually this huge wad of cash in illegal abortion busts and the women would come in and say," I paid five hundred dollars." When we got busted, there was a wad of cash, but it was all singles, and these women were saying, "Oh I paid ten dollars."

We were very self-aware I think, and there were all kinds of class and race things going on with the police.They felt more like us then like the women they were supposedly protecting from us, and they kinda wanted that relationship. So that was bizarre, just bizarre.

Martha was in the middle of her period, and she needed a tampon, she’d been asking everybody and was getting nowhere, and a woman policemen walked by and Martha just spontaneously jumped out and called to her. Perps can’t act like that. It was really scary because it made us realize, you know, who were the arrested. What was a very natural act for her, was really inappropriate in that situation. It was very scary.

We weren’t questioned at the 11th and State lockup, we were questioned at wherever the hell it is, the local. And then we were put in paddy wagons, which are really unpleasant, and driven to 11th and State, and the drive in the paddy wagon was a riot. It was all women and of course everybody else who was arrested was a hooker, because that’s all they arrested women for then. And one woman was just giving hilarious stories, regaling us with stories of the street. It was really quite funny. And then we were in the women’s lockup at 11th and State.

We were a big group. People said to me afterwards, "Weren’t you scared?" But once we were together as a group I wasn’t scared again. But it was very unpleasant, a very unpleasant experience. You just, don’t have choices. It’s very strange; it’s just not the way life is. Very unpleasant. But we were together, and we were a group, and we figured something would happen. One of the women who was arrested, had a husband who was a lawyer. And he had managed to communicate to her. People were calling for us. We’d each made a phone call I guess. We knew that things were happening, and that they were going to pay the bail, and then there was the question of whether they could get us out that night or whether we’d have to wait until the morning.

Later into the evening, they put us into double cells, but we were in a row so we could talk to each other. I was put into a cell with Judy who was nursing at the time and they managed to get her out because she was nursing. She really wanted to get out, she really did. Her son really needed her to get out and her husband really needed her to get out too. If she we got her out on her own recognizance, that would lower the bail on all of us.

So they got her out on her own recognizance that night, at night court, so then I spent the actual night alone. But it was next door to other people. It was very unpleasant.In the morning, they gave us bologna sandwiches, which I couldn’t eat, and coffee. It was awful, but that was breakfast at Cook County Jail. Then they loaded us again and we went to, 25th and California, and we went into the women’s lockup there, I guess it could’ve have gotten much worse because women now are much more commonly arrested for all sorts of wonderful things. But at the time, many, many fewer women were arrested . The men’s lockup was horrible at 25th and California, I’m told, but the women’s lock up was pretty small and we were a pretty large group.Then we were called in front of the judge who was very nasty, but who let us out on bail to the arms of our waiting whatevers.

I called my mom and told her that my name was going to be in the paper, and she hadn’t seen it. I don’t think it had occurred to her to scroll down and look for my name. And she was very upset. She wanted me to promise that,"I’d never do anything like that again, and it was very nice but, I understand that you believe in this but you’ll never do this again will you?. You have to be careful," and all the things that mothers say.

I now appreciate that more than I did then. She was very frightened, and she didn’t like it, and we had a conversation about that. But I wasn’t living at home and that was that. And honestly my closest friends were in Jane, so the question of how I dealt with it was really in the context of those people, not in any other context. 

After the Bust

Eventually the "Abortion 7" as they came to be called, were charged with eleven counts of abortion and conspiracy to commit abortion. According to Galatzer, the remaining members of the Service who had not been arrested distanced themselves from the Abortion 7. Galatzer herself is unsure why this happened.

According to Laura Kaplan, who wrote The Story of Jane, part of the reason was the fear that since the police would be watching the "Abortion 7" people, their continued association could endanger the work of the Service. Some members wanted to shut down the Service, but the leadership insisted on continuing. There were desperate women out there and they needed abortions. Whatever the reasons, Jeanne Galatzer-Levy found the distancing painful and upsetting.

Jeanne recalls:

We were terrified. We were looking at like one hundred ten years, one to ten each count. It was very impressive. We were terrified and we all quit the Service, in fact the group withdrew from us and reconstituted and did their own thing. It was like they really didn’t want to be contaminated, which was also very, very upsetting for us. Though luckily for me, my friends were in the group who got arrested.

We became a group, and the first thing we had to do, was meet together and try to deal with the fact that we were in big trouble.We really tried to talk to each other, and that was difficult. We were a very disparate group. You could not have done a better job of getting us swiped across the demographics. You really couldn’t have. We went from Abby who’s really, extraordinarily bourgeois. She and her husband were living out in Downers Grove which is an affluent suburb of Chicago and she was a New York intellectual political person who had sought us out as a political thing and was really very, sorta old left kinda thing, but very bourgeois.

And then there was me at the other end—and Diane, Diane and I were both dropouts so that was the demographics. It went from one end to the other. Sheila was gonna start her senior year. Martha and then Madeleine were housewives with children,-young children. Judy had just had her first child; she had been a high school teacher. I think she had just retired, or taken a year off.

Madeleine who was very involved with NOW, and very involved with much more mainstream kinds of things, had also been very involved in La Leche League. Martha and Madeleine had both been involved in La Leche League early on because they’d nursed. They nursed when nobody did, you know, a million years ago. I don’t think we were endorsed by La Leche League, but you know, they’re great people. And in some ways, we had trouble becoming a group, and in some ways we never did. But we did have a common interest, and the first thing we did was we interview lawyers, and that was really fun. I mean, everything we did was fun, we just had a good time because, we’re just who we are.

We’d go downtown we’d all get gussied up, and it really was a matter of gussying up because frankly we all looked like that scene from The Snapper. It’s an Irish movie, one of the rowdy "down home on the soil " movies. The teenage daughter becomes pregnant, so it’s this whole thing of who did it to his daughter you know. She’s the oldest child of this large family. In the end, she has the baby and they all go to see her and the whole family dresses up right, meaning the father puts on a suit and the mother puts on a kind of a nice dress, and the little girl puts on her baton twirling outfit because that’s the nicest thing she’s got and the little boys got a superman shirt And I thought that’s exactly the way my family always gets dressed up. I loved it because it looked like my family.

Well, when we went to interview the lawyers, we looked the same way...we’d all get gussied up. But except for Abby, we were clueless as to how to do that. We didn’t have those kinds of clothes anyways, except for Abby of course. So we’d get all gussied up and we’d go down and we’d interview somebody. It was a very high profile case, and defense lawyers really like big high profile cases because they get their names in the newspaper and any publicity’s good publicity, believe me.

Defense lawyers as a group, and I say this knowing one of my closest friends is a defense lawyer and is actually very, very good, are a slimy bunch. There’s’s a lot of money in it, and you deal with some pretty sicky people, and some of these people are really pretty creepy. So we’d meet people who were really creepy.

One guy, I can’t remember his name, a very big guy at the time, had this office, this huge room with a huge desk in the corner of his office, and it was gleaming mahogany desk with, and you know he’s got this couch area. The first thing out of his mouth was, "You know you could be in trouble with the taxes". Because you know it was clear we earned money. But this had not occurred to us at all, you know, boy that was the last thing we were worried about.We said,"Not him. No way."

So we’d interview various people then we’d all go out to lunch. And that was all I was doing at the time. And it was pretty much all Sheila was doing at the time. She was trying to finish school, which she did, stretching though that summer. And she wasn’t sure what she was gonna do or, it was very up in the air. Some of us had things that don’t go away like, Martha’s kids, they didn’t disappear for the event. So she’d get up every morning and take care of the kids while all this was going on.

So we interviewed people and we ended up with Joanne who was a gasp. She was just a gasp. She really had this sorta hard as nails persona, and she was just a riot. She had been an elephant girl in the circus. She was great. She’d run off and joined the circus you know, a really interesting person. And she really wanted the case, because she was a woman and she thought a woman should handle the case, and we always thought that too. There were a lot fewer women lawyers then, it was a lot bigger deal. And we liked her. She was the only one who really spoke to us politically.

Well actually, we did talk to a law classics guy, who, I think Northwestern’s legal department. He was very political. And he scared the shit out of us because he was much more interested in the political aspect of it than what happened to us. And the last thing any of us wanted to do was to spend any more time in jail ever, and be martyrs. And we did run into people who had weird ideas about what we could mean to them. That were very strange. We just all quickly agreed that we had no interest in that. We had no interest in it being a political statement, we just wanted it to go away. What we were doing was a political statement, but going to jail was not one we wanted and it wouldn’t help anybody.

Through most of the first three or four months nobody in the Seven went back to work for the Service. And then Diane came in to a meeting and said,"‘I’m going back to work…this is really what I want to do, I really care about it, I was just on the verge of being trained and I really wanna do that, and I’m going back." And then Martha went back and I went back, and then Madeleine went back. Abby did not, and hated it that we did. Sheila didn’t because she wanted to get on with her life, she was going back to school and thinking about what she wanted to do. I don’t think Judy went back to work, and I don’t remember why.

Why did I make that choice? Well it’s very interesting. I was twenty-one when we got arrested, and quite frankly it had never occurred to me that we could get arrested. And probably, it had never occurred to me that choices had consequences, that actions have consequences. There’s nothing like a night in Cook Country Jail to make you realize that actions have consequences. It was an enormous growth experience for me. In a way I was really sorta shaken out of my little cocoon of being a kid. I really realized that what I did made a difference,and could have real consequences and I had to really think through this decision. When I talked through why I was doing this, I wanted to be doing it still. Which made me feel real good about having done it in the first place, and I decided well if this is what I want do then I should do it. Its sorta a civil disobedience argument.

The level of seriousness changed enormously. I was blithe about it, clearly I thought it was important, and I wanted to do it, and I was really having a lot of fun doing it, it was really rewarding. But afterwards I realized that I had made a very serious choice and if I was going to do this, I could get into really serious trouble. And I was gonna do it anyway. 

The End of Jane

Joanne, the Abortion 7’s lawyer, pursued a strategy of delay. She knew the Supreme Court was going to rule on the Roe vrs. Wade case, a major abortion test case. If the Court ruled in favor of abortion rights, then it would be easier to get the defendants off, or at least cut a better deal.

Jeanne Galatzer-Levy explains how it all ended:

Once we had hired Joanne, basically what she said was,"All we’re going to do now, from now on, is delay this until the Roe v Wade decision comes down because nobody wants to prosecute you knowing that this is happening. They don’t wanna waste the money, so they’re gonna allow us to wait." So we just diddled around. We had periodic court appearances, in which again we’d get all gussied up and we’d go down and have lunch after the court thing. And we just were waiting, and we knew it was coming.

Some of us had gone back to work, some of us hadn’t and we were just waiting. Then the decision came down and I don’t remember where I was standing when I heard this decided, I just remember that we all called each other and people called me. We got together and you know we were thrilled of course, we were real excited and happy, and you know, it was like everything else, you know you get into the court system and everything up, the arrest is so dramatic and exciting, horrifying and all those things, and then everything past that is so boring, and slow and very different kind of time frame and very different emotional thing. It’s very surreal. And disconnected in a way that the arrest is so immediate. So basically she said we’ll all go in and we’ll see, and I’ll talk to the prosecutor and see what they’ll do. Obviously they’re not gonna prosecute you at this point, but there are issues involved. So she went in and they cut a deal. They dismissed everything, and they didn’t hit us with practicing medicine without a license which they could’ve, in exchange for us not asking for our instruments back. We said okay sure.

The Abortion Counseling Service sort of ground to a halt. I think we did two more weeks. Then we had a party and it was all over.

After leaving the Abortion Counseling Service, Jeanne Galatzer-Levy joined the Chicago Women’s Graphics Collective and helped produce the large colorful feminist posters the group made famous. In 1974, she married Robert Levy and over the years raised 4 sons and 1 daughter, which she describes as,"...the first, best and most important thing I will ever do."

When her children were older, she returned to school and finished an MS degree in biochemistry(1994) and a second BA in journalism(1999). She now works as a freelance science writer. Her work has appeared in the Chicago Tribune and she has just begun a project for the International Medical News Group.

Writings on Abortion

by Judith Arcana (Editor's Note:  Judith Arcana is a writer whose poems, stories and essays appear often in journals and anthologies. Her newest book isWhat if your mother? See Judith’s profile at womenarts.org; for readings/talks, contact jawhatif@earthlink.net.) [Judith]

(Editors note: Judith Arcana was a Jane volunteer. The picture on the left was taken during her days in Jane and is from the videoJane: An Abortion Service.)

Three Pieces about Abortion

My father tells me something by Judith Arcana

You know, your mother had an abortion, it was before you and your brothers were born, in the thirties, about a year after we got married, so we must have been twenty one, both of us. She went, Annie went, to our family doctor, it was Jack Kornofsky, your mother’s cousin – well, he married your mother’s cousin Dorothy – he was the one we went to whenever anything was wrong, he would come out to the house when you kids got sick, do you remember him at all? He wore glasses, had a big smile. He would come when you had a fever, and he would always bring a Hershey bar in his bag for you kids – imagine a doctor doing that! Well, he knew you all loved Hershey bars. He and Dorothy were at our wedding. So anyway, he told her she was pregnant. When Annie came home and told me, we went back to him together, you know, and asked him what we should do. We didn’t think about it the way you do, the way everybody does now, we didn’t talk about it, we just knew it wouldn’t be good if we had a baby then, so young, just starting out. This was the Depression, we were still living with your grandparents in the old house on Saywell. So we asked him, Kornofsky, what to do. He sent us to this other doctor, oh listen, all of a sudden I remember his name, it was Ryan, his name was Ryan, can you beat that? All these years never thinking about it, why should I suddenly remember his name? So Kornofsky gave us the address and phone number of this other doctor, Ryan, who would do abortions. But no, no, if he hadn’t told us what to do, who to see, hadn’t given us the address, I guess she would have had the baby, we wouldn’t have known what else to do, I don’t know what else there would have been to do. Maybe your mother would have had some other ideas, maybe the women knew something, like you do, now, but you know, I don’t think so – as I remember it, she didn’t know any more than I did.

(Judith Arcana. Do not use/reproduce without permission. First published in Hurricane Alice, Vol.13, #s 2&3, 1998

Talking about Suzie, 1959 by Judith Arcana

Don't you remember anything? It was just a little while ago, I think it was '56, no, it mustve been '57, Suzie went away right after school got out, right at the start of summer. So what was that, your second year at Bonaventure, starting then? Sure, yeah, cause it was the summer before my junior year. Don't you remember, it was right around the time of spring carnival, they said she was sick and she had to stay home and finish the year with a tutor from DePaul? And then they said she had to go away, so Aunt Viv and Uncle Al took her away, but remember Teddy and the all the little kids stayed with us for a week and you two took them to the beach on the bus every day? Remember it was real hot, everybody was at the lake except me, that was the year I got my work permit, the first time I could make more than baby-sitting money, so I could only go to the lake on Sundays after church. Anyway, that was when they took her to one of those places, homes, in St. Louis; they keep you there until you have your baby and then they give the baby to people who can't have kids. It was like a convent there, or a jail even, I'm not kidding, places like that are so strict, the people who ran it were really mean, worse than Sister Marie-Claire- maybe even worse than Sister Thomas. I saw this movie about a girl who had to go to one, and her boyfriend tries to find her and he finally does, and he's real cute, but they wont let him in. So Mom and Dad and Aunt Viv and Uncle Al told everybody she was at a sanitorium, for breathing when you get TB or something, but she was'nt, she was in St Louis. It is true. She did. Don't tell me you didn't know this. Suzie had a baby right before school started up again. She nearly got back too late to register; remember because she came late she had to be locker partners with some girl in her homeroom who never talked? How can you not remember any of this?.

(Judith Arcana. Do not use/reproduce without permission. First published in Hurricane Alice, Vol.13, No. 2 & 3, 1998.

She said
- before 1973

by Judith Arcana

On the phone she said, I have a friend who's got a problem, but she couldn't get to a phone so I'm calling for her. Do you know what I mean? Is this the right place?

When she lay down, she said, Are you a doctor?

Then she said, Aren't you afraid you'll get caught?

When we were putting in the speculum, she said, Oh, I had breakfast before I came. I know I wasn't supposed to but I was so hungry I just ate everything in sight, is that ok?

Later she said, I think I have to throw up.

Or, I have to go to the bathroom right now. Stop. I just have to go to the bathroom, and then I'll come right back.

Or, on a different day, I don't feel so good, should I do it anyway?

The next week she said, Infection? I don't have any infection. Oh, that. That's not really an infection. That infection's nothing, I've had it before, it's nothing, go on, go ahead and take that baby out.

Sometimes she said, Can I see it before you throw it away?

But another time she said, I don't want to look at it, ok? When it comes out, I'll just close my eyes, and you take it away, ok?

Once she said, What do you do with it all at the end of the day? Boy, you people are gonna get in trouble sometime, this's against the law.

And when we were done she said, What if it happens again? You know – this. Would you do me again?

She stood on the back steps outside the counselor's apartment and said, This is mi prima, my cousin, from Mexico. Can you talk Spanish to her? Habla un poco? Un poquito? Si, gringa! We will do this.

No, I'll keep it on, I'm not hot, it's ok, I'm fine. She was wearing her boyfriend's baseball jacket in the kitchen. She said, Just tell me what I have to know.

This is my husband, Ed. He's going to sit here with me. She leaned over, touched his arm, and said, Ed, honey, this is Julie, she's my counselor, the one that got assigned to me when we called the number.

When we told her she should pay whatever she could afford, she was quiet a minute and then said, I think I can get nine dollars.

My father brought me here today. He's paying for this but he's really mad at me for it. She took a hundred dollar bill out of her pocket and said, He thinks if everybody got liberated, like with civil rights, that there'd be a lot of trouble, and he says I prove his point, because look what happens when you just do what you want. He says that's why we have to have so many laws on everybody, because if you let people be free and do what they want they'll just do evil things.

When the sister-in-law was asked why she called the police, she said, It's a sin, she can't do this. She has to have it, we all have to. Jesus doesn't want her to get rid of this baby, that's why I did it.

He doesn't like me to talk to my mother. Him and his mother, they don't let me go home to visit. She put the tiny baby in her mother's arms and said, We sneaked to come for this appointment. He doesn't know I'm pregnant again. My baby is so new, I can't have another one right away. He wouldn't even want it really, he thinks this one makes too much noise. He doesn't like me to do anything without his permission.

Holding her purse, wearing her gloves, the girl clinging to her coat sleeve, she said, You take good care of her, she don't know no better, she's just a baby her own self, she don't even know how this happened. She don't know what it's all about, this whole thing.

My mother told me I couldn't keep it, she told me she'd get the baby taken away from me right away if I had it. She cried, loud crying with snot and choking. She wiped her nose and said, She knows I want to have it. I could be a good mother, I've taken care of babies and I know what to do. But I'm only fifteen so she'll get them to take it away from me, I know she will. That's why I'm doing this! I'd rather not even see it!

After the cervical injection, she said, How did you learn all this? Did you read a book? Is there a book?

Every now and then, she said, How come you let us bring our boyfriends over to your house to wait? Aren't you afraid they'll tell? And, Jeez, who are all these little kids? What're you guys doing, running a kindergarten on the side? Are those doughnuts for us?

When we finished talking and gave her our phone numbers, she said, What if it comes out alive? What should I do then? I can't have it be alive. Should I, you know, should I...? Can I do it by myself? It could be alive, right?

Now and then she said, Oh I'm so sick, what a mess, oh I'm so sorry, I really feel fine but this just happened oh oh here it comes again. Oh god I'm so sorry, I can't help it, I'm such a mess, oh thank you.

She rang the bell, and when we buzzed her in she said, My girlfriends are downstairs. They brought me over when I called you about the cramps. Should they come back for me or can you give me a ride home? How long will it take for it to, you know, all come out?

Another time, waiting to miscarry, she said, I'm sorry it's taking so long. I'm sure you've got other things to do, I know a lot of women are waiting. But thank you so much, thank you for letting me come to your house. I couldn't have done this at my house, for sure. My parents think I'm at my girlfriend's house, I just hope they don't call to check on me, cause my girlfriend's mother could say something wrong and then I'd really be in trouble.

Ok, it'll take me about an hour and a half to drive home - I live over the line in Indiana - and here's what I'm going to do, she said one winter weekend. My father's a heavy sleeper, so if the cramps come in the night while he's sleeping he'll never hear me; I'll just go in the bathroom and lock the door. I'll do it all in there. He won't even hear the toilet flush, he never does, even when it's just ordinary, you know, flushing for regular reasons.

She looked at the clear plastic sheet on the mattress, the speculum and the syringe. Then she laughed and said, You ladies somethin, doin this up in here; you somethin, all right.

Why do you do this? She looked around the small bedroom and said, You're not rich. With what you charge, you can't be doing this for the money. What's it all about? Are you a bunch of women's libbers? Is that it?

I'm not nervous. I think you are good women. I'm never nervous, maybe cuz I'm always tired. She was so tired that when the woman beside the bed rocked her shoulder softly to wake her up, she said, It's over? I'm sorry, I just closed my eyes after the shot you gave me down there. I'm sorry, but I was real tired, I had to work a double shift and din have no time between work and here.

Ohmygod, does this happen all the time? This bleeding? She gasped and said, The blood is so dark. OOh! Ice?! Ay! Make it stop! This ice tray is too cold! Ohmygod! You better not be scared, I'm the one scared, not you. Orange juice, are you kidding? Ay, what if I faint? I know people faint when they lose blood. Can you still do me? Did you finish?

She leaned over to the woman driving and quietly said, My daughter's in Children's Memorial, she's only two, she's having an operation on her stomach valve today – it doesn't work right, since she was born. My husband's over there, with her, for that, while I'm here, for this. Could I leave right after I'm done? Could you take me back right away, so I don't wait til everybody is done? Would that be ok? Would the other women mind, do you think?

She gulped some water in the kitchen and said, Oh thank you, you'll never know what this means to me, thank you so much. I can't thank you enough, I'm sure. I know some people say it's wrong, abortion, that you shouldn't take a life. And maybe you did take a life. But it’s all give and take, isn’t it? My mother always said that everything always comes down to give and take. So the baby, today, that was the taking – and me, me, my own life, I think that was the giving.

Judith Arcana. Do not use/reproduce without permission. First published in CALYX, Winter, 1998, 17:3.

Something Real: Jane and Me. Memories and Exhortations of a Feminist Ex-Abortionist

by Linnea Johnson

Over the years, I have become convinced that patriarchal capitalism is a system women cannot revise any more than we can "reform" water so that we might breathe it. As long as the law is male, women must be outlaws. I became an outlaw when I joined "Jane," a group of women in Chicago who, between 1969 and 1973, did more than 11,000 abortions. 

(Editor's Note: Linnea Johnson was a member of the Abortion Counseling Service. She is a poet and a playwright.) 

"The woman's body is the terrain on which patriarchy is erected. The repossession by women of our bodies will bring far more essential change to human society than the seizing of the means of production by workers."

-Adrienne Rich, Of Woman Born

Part I

Over the years, I have become convinced that patriarchal capitalism is a system women cannot revise any more than we can "reform" water so that we might breathe it. As long as the law is male, women must be outlaws. I became an outlaw when I joined "Jane," a group of women in Chicago who, between 1969 and 1973, did more than 11,000 abortions.

Jane, as the Abortion Counseling Service, a work group of the Chicago Women's Liberation Union, has come to be called, began in the mid-1960s when of personal necessity, a couple women friends who lived in the Hyde Park neighborhood of Chicago found a couple men, representing themselves as physicians, who did good, clean abortions. In addition to referring women to decent abortionists, these women were what then was called "patient advocates". Patient advocates can be loosely defined as the unintimidated surrogate accompanying the "patient" to the "doctor's" office for the sole purpose of dislodging information relevant to that "patient" from that "doctor". That a person has a right to information about oneself did. Not make that information any less difficult to obtain given "standard medical practice," that stone wall behind which was kept what (often little) information was extant. The Service became one of many referral services across the United States referring women who wanted abortions to a person who could be trusted with a speculum, a dilator, and a curette. In the United States' in the 1960s the grounds for obtaining a legally/medically/male-sanctioned abortion were narrowly defined. Capriciously shifting, and rigorously mediated. Then as now, few protested the War Against women, that continuing war of the patriarchy against women, though there are and had been many, I among them, who had seen and had protested the United States' oppression of racial minorities, had seen and had protested US imperialism in Viet Nam.

By 1970 when I joined Jane, which we always called "The Service," I had begun to see that men have power though no right, to colonize women's bodies; that men have power, though no right, to make up laws which effect women and that what I could do about it this time was not again protest through lobbying, convincing, begging, litigating, demonstrating, educating, theorizing, waiting and waiting and waiting to get male intercession or permission. Instead, this time, what I could do was to act outside male law, male control, with women on our behalf. How I expressed this then was by saving that I wanted to "do something real".

The history of Jane is not in this essay. My history of me in that group is. We each tend to remember different things and to remember things differently: if collectively uninterpreted, all the stories of all the Janes would form the history/herstory of that group. The purpose of this essay is to offer a distillate of how I remember things, to spin my hit of the web, create my portion of what, if and when taken together, becomes context, becomes a history of Jane, "history" not being the monolith we are taught to believe it is.

In 1970 I had returned to Chicago where I was born and had grown up, from Nebraska, where I had taken my undergraduate degree and had also taken to getting married and pregnant. Two marriages, one miscarriage, one self-induced quinine abortion and two children later, I was twenty-three; twenty-three and for some reason convinced I could do anything. My father used to call me "bullheaded," my mother used to pray for me. I know I have always believed in conscience and justice whether expressed in terms of collective action, God, or lawlessness.

1970 is the year Robin Morgan's anthology, Sisterhood Is Powerful, came out: its publication doubled the number of feminist books I knew about. I had begun reading deBeauvoir's Second Sex in 1967, in self-defense; my first husband had called me a "feminist" while we were arguing. He'd said, "You know what you are..." I discovered the word in deBeauvoir and claimed it, feeling better and more myself than ever I had before.

By 1970 I was substitute-teaching in Chicago's public grade schools for work; my second husband was working civil service at the downtown post office. Having fled flimsy middle-income high-rise housing, we'd found a sunny first floor Northside flat on Gordon Terrace, a street which had once been on the lakeshore before the park and the Outer Drive had been set into place on landfill. This apartment was in a grand old Chicago house filled with woodwork and wainscoting, a third floor ballroom and several fireplaces. Eventually, this wonderful apartment, with its front bathroom and huge front bedroom, was one of the houses the Service often used for doing abortions.

In 1970, I saw an announcement in The Chicago Tribune for a National Organization of Women meeting and decided to attend. At this meeting the organizers talked about staging a cocktail party for advertising executives at which it would be our mission to convince these executives that using various female body parts to sell their products was not acceptable practice. Once again, I would be part of asking something of someone in charge: we ourselves were never those someones, and we were in charge of nothing but asking. "Strategy" was confined to trying to determine how to ask someone something effectively.

To me, fighting for Women's Rights was not, is not, a matter of asking or of educating the patriarchs--at parties or anywhere else. Appealing to members of the same group who maintain the custom of precluding rights was then, is now, simply a bad idea.

"Something real" is how I characterized what I wanted to do. I asked a woman who was standing next to me at the NOW meeting, "Is there anything real going on in Chicago for women? This cocktail party stuff is ridiculous. I want to do something real". She chuckled, as I remember it, and asked for my phone number saying she'd call me in a week or two. I thought, sure, right, but then she did call and she invited me to a meeting of women about abortion, "if you're still interested". I said that if it were to be about making cocktails while lobbying for abortion rights, I wouldn't be interested. She said it wasn't like that.

It wasn't like that.

The evening in 1970 I attended my first meeting of the Abortion Counseling Service, fifteen or so white and Semitic women were gathered at someone's house. I remember sitting on the floor wondering what exactly was going on. Eventually, I remember it dawning on me; I remember thinking, "These women are talking about DOING abortions". I hoped that what I surmised was correct, that, indeed, no one in this group would ask me to write to congress, to lobby, to convince anyone of anything, or to wait; maybe I was going to be able to do something real. Doing abortions with the Service has always felt that way to me: real. It is the best work I ever did.

Virtually every woman, heterosexual and lesbian, contemplates the possibility (or understands the importance) of abortion. At the beginning of the Service, the Hyde Park women would schedule abortions with the abortionists one day per week. Always, more women need abortions than can find ways to have abortions, so, at some point between 1967-l97O, the women and the one (sometimes two) abortionist(s) began working two days per week. Even at $4OO-5OO per abortion (every cent of which the man kept) these good, illegal abortions became the abortions of choice in Chicago.

Eventually and so that the man who wore a white coat and called himself a doctor could concentrate on the "medical"/ medicalized/"technical"/"important" aspects of abortion, and could, therefore, do more abortions per workday, the women began "assisting". "Assisting" was, at first, finding and equipping a workspace: then, gradually, it became that and giving the pre-abortion injection (of the antibiotic) tetracycline; then it became placing the speculum; then finding, holding onto (with a tenaculum), and swabbing the cervix (with the antiseptic Betadyne). Cleaning the blood off the women having abortions and off the bed on which the abortions were done was an early and constant part of assisting. When what the "doctor" had to do was walk into a room in which lay a calm, well-informed woman who wanted an abortion, what he would do would be to anaesthetize the cervix (with xylocaine), dilate the cervix/os curette the uterus, and then walk on to the next similar situation; his time spent per woman dropped and he was consequently convinced to reduce his charge to $275 per abortion (every cent of which he himself kept).

Besides assisting, however, what the women came to learn was that the abortionist was not a doctor. Without that mystique of "doctorness" abortion became what it is (and what most other forms of "medicine"/healing actually are a series of things to do carefully, most of which the women were already doing. The simple deduction was profound; if he can do abortions, we can do abortions.

From 1971,when the women began doing most of the abortions and sometimes hiring male abortionists to work with them/us, the charge per abortion became $100, or what the woman determined she could afford. The average amount paid was about $40 per abortion, with everyone having an abortion paying something. By the Spring of 1973, when Jane mostly folded (after the January 1973 Roe v. Wade US Supreme Court decision and the appearance of the first "legal" abortion clinics in Chicago), we worked 3 days per week doing 25-30 abortions per day--about 80 per week.

From the money we charged for abortions, we deducted our supplies, phone and laundry bills. When Jane women were doing most of the abortions, we decided to pay (by the day) the women abortionists (abortionists who held the instruments--mostly, all of us in Jane thought of ourselves as abortionists) and the Jane who organized the phone messages onto 3x5 cards.

From my talk with other former Janes over the years, I know now there was debate over these pay decisions then, but I don't recall that. Some women remember bitter arguments over a possible loss of altruism should any of us pay ourselves for our work; some women remember arguing about "volunteerism" and not seeming to value our own work if we didn't pay ourselves; some women argued about creating an hierarchical pay scale--and how could we avoid it and who should be paid...

It is an amazing part of this for me what each Jane remembers, what remains vivid for each of us. I tend to remember procedure and not Service politics; I still remember the feel of a speculum in my hand but I do not remember who liked whom and why, who said what and why. For some of us, the Service was all-consuming; for others of us it was, as it was for me, absolutely naturally integrated into my sense of living a life I believed in. I was comfortable with all I was doing; was neither wary, suspicious, nor paranoid as others since have said they were then. I remember telling my parents matter-of-factly that should I be arrested, I would like them to take care of my kids I didn't ask their approval or their opinion. They took it as matter-of-factly as I told them; my kids grew up knowing, this fact of my life incorporated along with many other facts Others are still wary of talking about Jane or aspects of how it was for them in Jane. For me, it is the best work I ever did.

Part II

How the Service worked was like this: a woman who had found the Jane phone number would call and get our answering machine. Our message said, in those days when answering machines were rare:

Hello, this is Jane from Women's Liberation. Leave your name and number and speak slowly and clearly. Someone will return your call. If you do not hear from us in two or three days, call us back.

Women found our phone number in a variety of ways--from underground/movement papers and bulletin boards in universities and Laundromats; from a friend, physician, clergy, or cop. Women got our phone number from the mother of a friend or from her own mother, oncologist, co-worker, pusher, social worker, or father. Illegal and legal, out of state and in, overt and covert sources passed along our phone number to women.

Remember that fewer than a hundred or so years ago women had not yet been culturally organized/trained to go to men for any such thing as to have an abortion. Before "professionalization" and "medicalization" (predicated on institutionalized male power) women's bodies were literally in the hands of other women: physicians were little more than grave robbers, dentists with an attitude, barbers with extra straight razors/scalpels, and ghouls.

In the early 1970s, there were phone numbers other than ours floating around: phone numbers good for a day or two, a week, maybe a year or two: phone numbers connecting women to masked quacks in Chicago, docs on the take in Detroit, guys working themselves through bartending or medical school or out the back of a van in California, St. Louis, and Weehawken. Phone numbers connected women to opportunists in Florida and to fly-by-nighters in Queens, and here and there was a phone number of a reliable someone working alone or in sync with conscience. With most of the abortionist-profiteers, women would find themselves blindfolded, blindsided, picked up on corners, bound to secrecy or to a kitchen table or motel coffee table. Often, others would do abortions too quickly and without anesthesia, compassion, the exchange of names, or so much as a hello, women finding themselves dumped back at some train station or onto a remote street corner without follow-up, friends, recourse, or information, and out several hundred dollars whether the abortion was complete or not, antiseptic or not, successful or not.

But, when they found the Jane number, the Service number, our number, women found something neither entrepreneurial nor impersonal, neither medicalized nor professionalized. When women found the Jane number, they found other women working together with, for, because of, and among women, however ancient and unique that seemed in 1.970, or now.

Several times a day, whomever was "Janeing" took messages from the tape, writing the information onto 3x9 cards she'd then take to our weekly meetings, the business of which, primarily, was to disperse the cards among the dozen or twenty women working any given week. We chose cards idiosyncratically, noting some similarity or difference in circumstance, neighborhood, ethnicity, or blood factor between ourselves and the name of the woman on the 3x5 card.

Calling back the phone numbers of the women on the cards, we'd find out that some of the women had already gotten an abortion elsewhere, some had gotten their period, some had given birth, kept it or given it up, and didn't want or need to speak with us. Some women had died. Some women were bleeding or had tubes or gauze or rags stuffed into their uterus; they needed advice, referral to a physician who wouldn't injure them further or turn them in, or advice on what they could do for themselves just then. Some phone numbers had been incorrectly given or received. Some women couldn't talk then but could they call us back some midnight from untraceable pay phone to untraceable pay phone. Often, a boyfriend or father called trying to arrange things for or in spite of the woman whose name, along with his number, he'd left on the Jane tape. However, most often, the woman whose name I had on the 3x5 card talked to me herself and was eager to meet so that I could describe and we could discuss the abortion she'd called to initiate.

I preferred to meet with women one to one, though other Service women preferred to meet with women in groups. I usually invited the woman to my house evenings after I'd put my kids to bed, suggesting she bring a friend along, if she'd like. Ordinarily I would have made tea for us and had some cookies out on a plate: we'd sit around my dining room table or in the livingroom, maybe in front of a fire, and we'd talk. On the 3x5 cards, I'd write down what she told me about her menstrual history, any children, pregnancies, allergies, or difficulties she had, and information about any medication she took regularly.

I'd tell the woman what a dilation and curettage (D&C) abortion was like. The choice to have an abortion was hers until the opening of the cervix to the uterus, was dilated; after dilation, emptying the uterus became inevitable. In those days, I saw little mind-changing; women had their decision firmly made, usually, and were eager to get on with the abortion. Frequently, they hoped I might do it then and there; women were unaccustomed to being told anything much about what was to be done to us--often the woman’s attitude was, "don't tell me any(more)thing, just get on with it". But we insisted that SHE KNOW; that the abortion was something we were going to be doing together, that this was her decision and she could, should, and must know all about it.

I would illustrate what I was saying by showing the woman diagrams/drawings from the newsprint edition then available of the Boston Women's Health Collective's Our Bodies, Ourselves; we had this edition by the cartons full and would give them to interested women. I would show the woman a plastic version of a metal speculum, and I would talk to her about how it held open the vaginal walls allowing us, and her with a mirror if she chose, to see the cervix and the os. Often, the example-speculurn I had lying around the house had eyes and mouths painted on them; the kids clacked them about as toy puppet ducks opening and closing the "beaks" to make them appear to speak.

The first time I saw a cervix was the first day I assisted; the woman on the bed could see, too, using a mirror. I knew the cervix to be the tapered neck of the uterus which extends down into the upper vagina, the os at the bottom of it being the opening through which sperm enters the uterus and which, in full term labor, opens to about ten centimeters. A pregnant uterus is engorged, purpled, as it is just before a period. 

But knowing is not the same as seeing. Seeing, I remember thinking how beautiful the cervix is and how it looks like a glistening pink doughnut. I felt happy and fascinated. Seeing her cervix, I knew that this woman was not pregnant; it was instinctual, inherent knowledge, a body reading the semiotics of a body. A pregnancy test had been incorrect, which had caused this women to find us. For the woman on the bed, her believing our reading her as not pregnant did not have to be an act of faith; it was, instead, a matter of corporeal epiphany.

Towards the close of my one-to-one meetings with the women who wanted abortions, I would write down the date, time, and address of her appointment; I'd write down my phone number, too, in case she had questions or problems after her abortion. I said I wouldn't call her unless the Pap test we'd do prior to the abortion was inconclusive or abnormal.

The address I'd write down would get her to the "Front," the apartment at which she (and a friend, if she chose) would wait before and to which she'd return after the abortion. Another one of the Service women, another Jane, would drive her and a group of other women wanting abortions, room the Front to the second apartment, the "Place," where she would have the abortion. Only Jane women and women having abortions would be at the Place.

Jane women would be at the Front to talk with and counsel with the women wanting abortions, and to keep the bowls full of Triscuit, the apricot nectar flowing; we always brought food and drink for the women come for abortions, and for their friends, as we brought nourishment and treats for any of the rest of us when we got together any other time. Often, the second group of women waiting for abortions sat quietly until midmorning when the first careful of women returned. Women returned happy: things went well; they were relieved; they were no longer pregnant; they had put their own decision into effect by finding other competent, caring, and determined women.

Both the Front and the Place were someone's apartment or house. We would volunteer our apartments or houses as we could. Our lives were in evidence in the photos and books on our shelves, the Melmac, teddy bears, or vibrator overlooked in a dining room or bedroom; the glass beads in the doorway, Joplin poster on the wall; in the sheets on our beds on which the abortions were done. The Service used some of the money collected from doing abortions to pay for the Places' laundry to be done professionally; I and many of the rest of the Janes used our best sheets on days our homes were being used as the Place.

At the Place we checked the information on the 3x9 cards again with the women whose information it was. Whenever we were asked if we were doctors, we said, "NO. We are not doctors. We are abortionists". None of the women who did those 11,000 abortions had been medically schooled.

We women in Jane learned how to do abortions from one another, as peer-apprentices, though no one called it that. Our home-done abortions had a lower infection rate (about 2%) than do most hospital surgeries. We killed no one, a fact which contrasts with what happened when legislators legalized abortion allowing physicians who had not necessarily ever been trained to do abortions, to do abortions. Quite simply, women died from legal abortions because the law granted authority (to physicians) without regard to proficiency. Similarly, those without license are not granted legal authority to do abortions, without regard to proficiency, the test for what is "legal" having to do with power and who has (granted themselves) the right to wield it. I have always been amazed at how relatively simple the physical process of performing abortions is, how readily it is learned; what keeps most of us away from that realization is that closed guild which is organized medicine.

Part III

I remember that the physical procedure to abort the pregnancy began with giving the pregnant woman an intramuscular injection of tetracycline (in the buttocks). A week's supply of tetracycline in capsule form (which, at the time, cost us about a penny apiece) was sent home with each woman after her abortion, with instructions to take them until they were gone. We also suggested she would be wise to eat some cultured milk products, like yogurt or sour cream, while taking an(y) antibiotic, since tetracycline/antibiotics help(s) prevent/control infection by indiscriminately destroying both good and bad bacteria In the body.

When a woman knew she had (relatively)rare RH negative blood, she would be given the name of a "sympathetic" physician who would follow-up her abortion with an injection of RhoGam which is used to immunize the woman to prevent possibly fatal RH-incompatibility reactions in future pregnancies.

We secured the necessary equipment and medications from various pharmacies and medical supply stores around town. Obtaining the supplies required no prescription--one merely had to appear to know what she was doing to purchase specula, sterilizing trays, gloves, tenacula, and the rest. Tetracycline is a prescription drug but was only slightly more difficult to purchase.

After the tetracycline injection, the woman would be asked to lie down so that we could position a sterilized metal speculum into her vagina to locate her cervix. We used no draping, no stirrups, no shaving, no masks, and no doctors. We used precise instruments but neither medical guise/guys nor props.

We then used cotton swabs to do a Pap test, taking sloughed cells from first inside the os, then around the face of the cervix. We placed the cells, in turn, on a glass slide labeled with her name and the date, used fixative, and, later, sent that slide along with the others from the day's work out to a lab which read it and sent back results which we later relayed to the women whose results they were. The lab charged us about a dollar per slide for their reading and report. Later in Jane's existence,. we purchased a microscope; we were going to learn to read the slides ourselves, but the cops confiscated the microscope in the May 1972 bust. I don't know that we ever got the microscope back.

After the Pap test we would wash the cervix with Betadyne, then inject xylocaine at 12, 6, 3, & 9 to create a paracervical block, using a tenaculum to hold the cervix in place, if necessary. Dilation of the os we accomplished by using either a graduated series of thin to less thin rods or by using a manual dilator, coaxing the os gradually to open. 

We assumed that women with normal thigh muscles could hold their legs as was necessary and, by god, each woman did. We told women: you're a part of this not an object of this; this is an ensemble production. Abortion was to be a matter of informed choice; decision-making is a revolutionary act. And we talked ~ along, giving information, asking and answering questions, a woman at the pregnant woman's shoulders holding her hand or maybe wiping her forehead. Those women who said they didn't want to know what was happening were told why we thought it important to know, why it is important not to detach oneself from one's body or to submit to anyone else, even to someone who is helping, who you have chosen to help, even to us.

The Jane who was holding most of the instruments would tell the woman whose abortion it was what was going on, asking her to relax, to lie as still as possible, and to keep her legs up and apart. We concentrated on what was going on and often we also talked and laughed and told jokes to and amongst one another--not because it was "therapeutic" or because we took abortion, ourselves, or the woman choosing abortion lightly, but because we were doing important things together as the people we were, and we loved doing those things and doing them together.

My favorite instrument was the sound. It is beautiful, silver , and pliable, has a rounded tip, and is calibrated. It is moved about inside the uterus to discern the size, shape, and topography of the uterus, the location of the pregnancy. When the tip touches solidity, the sound bends slightly; the hand holding the sound can feel that: it is a highly responsive instrument.

One woman who, in confirming the information on the 3x9 card noting her ten pregnancies, her ten living children, said, indeed, she was certain she was pregnant because she hadn't had her period in five months. Her cervix was grey, not the fuschia with engorgement of a usual 12-16 week pregnancy, and though starchy diets over a long time often produce such grey tissue, still, pregnant, the uterus should have at least flushed pink. Though the sound virtually disappeared into her huge, spongy, and seemingly empty uterus, none of us could find the pregnancy.

It did not occur to us to tell her, as her physician had, that a) she wasn't pregnant--he could find no pregnancy (either), and b) an eleventh child would make no difference in her life--the physician had told her to "show him" her pregnancy by having the child.

Finally, one of us, with the sound, found a tiny tunnel on the top and to the back of her uterus, a bubble of the uterus above and behind the tunnel, in which lay the small, underdeveloped pregnancy, a pregnancy which we removed, as we removed other pregnancies, with a curette.

Most often we aborted pregnancies by dilation and curettage (D&c). By about 1972, the technique of manual vacuum aspiration was available, and we used it, too, frequently for women six weeks pregnant or less, though curettage always completed those abortions. The aspiration was less uncomfortable but then we felt it was not always entirely reliable when used alone. For women 6-12 weeks pregnant, we always did the D&C.

For women 12-16 weeks pregnant, or beyond, labor was induced, most commonly by breaking the amniotic sac with forceps. Both laminaria and luenbach paste, which separate the placenta from the uterine wall, were available during some of those years, but their presence is clinically detectable while a broken amniotic sac, drained fluid, and a dilated os can all be attributed to natural process. The os dilated, the sac broken, labor induced, the pregnancy comes out.

After a direct abortion, an abortion in which labor was not induced, but during which both fetus and placenta were removed, the newly not-pregnant woman would be returned to the Front where she would meet up with whatever friend she'd brought along, talk with Jane women, celebrate, recover a bit, or talk with the other women there for the same reason. If she had come alone, she would call someone to pick her up. When she left the Front she'd leave with a packet of tetracycline in hand and a list of phone numbers for her to call in case she had a problem or wanted to talk about the abortion. We told her we'd call her in a few days if her Pap test needed to be followed up on. We told her (again, as this is part of what we'd talked about the first time she would have spoken personally with a Jane) if there was more bleeding after the abortion than during her normal period, she should lie down, put her feet up and put ice over the area o~ her ovaries and uterus. If this wouldn't slow down the bleeding, we said she should go (or we would take her, if she wished) to her doctor, a doctor, or to a non-Catholic emergency room, where, invariably she'd be told to lie down, put her feet up and put ice on her "tummy". If she were filling a Kotex in 15 minutes or less, we told her to consider that flow hemmorhaging and to go directly to an emergency room where we'd meet her (if she wished). More frequently than we took women to doctors or to emergency rooms where we took them was into our homes, our confidence, and, frequently, into the Service. Indeed, if a woman expressed interest in joining us, someone would call her up, as someone had called me up, and invite her to one of our meetings.

Eventually, the Service rented two apartments, one on the North Side which we used solely for women who did not have insurance, green card (government assisted health care), or circumstance to deliver the fetus in a hospital, or who did not choose to deliver at her own home and who had nowhere else to go. The other apartment we rented was on the South Side and, for a brief while, became our regular Place, at which point only the Fronts changed each workday.

It was at the South Side apartment that seven of us were busted on the May day in 1972 that J. Edgar Hoover finally died. Neither the Chicago Police nor the Outfit/Mafia had previously bothered us though each knew of our work: we were clean, damn good, and made too little money to interest them.

From all accounts, what happened to cause the bust was that the police, who reputedly knew and had known about us and who had photos of us at various political demonstrations and at our various residences over time, had been hounded by a Catholic sister-in-law of a woman who had chosen to have an abortion. The cops had put her off, apparently, but she was persistent and outraged that abortions could be going on at all and further outraged at the cops' reaction, or lack thereof, to her complaint.

The cops took everyone around that day, scooping up people first at the Place, then, at the Front--friends, boyfriends, mothers--there must have been a couple dozen people busted in mid-afternoon who didn't get tossed into jail until midnight. Seven Service women were charged with "battery" and the like. All charges were subsequently dropped ostensibly because the law was changed (Roe v. Wade, 1973) although the law never changed enough to "allow" non-physicians to do abortions.

The arrest was one of several points during the history of the Service when women dropped out. For instance, when the male abortionists were "found out" many of the women in the Service said. something like "They're not doctors!" and while some of us had a look of panic, horror, or terror on our faces, others, like me, smiled broadly saying it. Just after the bust I remember a discussion in which some women asked if we should continue doing abortions. I was impatient with talk like that. The arrests changed nothing for me; our doing abortions was (still) both right and illegal.

When Jane finally did disband (late 1973), after abortion was effectively "legalized," we unconsciously made the same error that the Suffragists had made after Suffrage had been "granted" in the US: we thought we'd won, changed something, that someone somewhere was wising up, seeing the light. But what we did was to remand women back into the realm of male law, male custom, medical custody. Bad idea then as now.

Those of us in Jane, in the Women's Movement then and now, had not done, have yet to do, our homework, either that or we are far too trusting, or maybe we believe that the system is only in need of revision and that it will somehow at some time begin to include us (structurally), work for us. What we must understand is that the system of patriarchal imperialism is inimical to women: it always has been and it always will be. We live by the tolerance or privilege or oversight of the patriarchs.

We didn't win at Suffrage. We didn't win at Roe v. Wade. There is no winning. A hundred years of hindsight has us asking how could the Suffragists have thought that getting the vote in a rigged, white, male, heterosexual system was a win. We understand that they should have not organized to become a part of such a system, but, instead, worked to take apart that system. Why do we not ask the same of ourselves?

Decisions/laws hold only as long as they work for or do not work against the decision/law makers. The acts of "asking permission," of marching, of lobbying, and demonstrating acknowledge the very power imbalance women must change.

We should all know by now that the rights of women are legally unacknowledged and structurally, fundamentally incompatible with patriarchy. We are treason and heresy: I think we should, embrace that, consider it kernel, foundation, nucleus, and core to being women.

It is no wonder that abortion law does not reflect women's needs, rights, and thought: which laws do? We must notice that other patriarchal imperialist traditions such as rape, pornography, and the male beating up on women are patriarchal perks--rites as well as rights of patriarchy; these are the same rights/rites conquering forces often exert, then traditionalize, systematize. These "traditions," these "values" are so deeply incorporated into gender relations that, for instance, normative heterosexual behavior is virtually indistinguishable from some outcroppings of violence against women, like rape and pornography.

Abortion is part of the power patriarchy holds over women. Abortion is an issue of hegemony and imperialism: men to other men are explorers; to men, women are the moon, enigmatic frontier and flow, "virgin"/empty land to be owned and controlled and into which flags can be rammed. Men have made women their territory, abortion theirs to control, mystify, and sell back to women; abortion is not simply a medical procedure, it is a medicalized procedure, a procedure medicalized, like childbirth and Pap tests, and for the same reasons--control and profit.

The Pap test consists of inserting a' speculum into a vagina, locating the cervix, then inserting, in turn, two long cotton-tipped swabs one at a time through the vagina to the cervix. The first swab pets cells from the os the second, pets cells off the surface of the cervix. The cells from the swabs are placed onto a glass slide next to a note regarding their place of origin, then a fixative is sprayed over the cells and the slide is sent to a lab to be read. The Pap test is no more difficult to do, little more' invasive or complex, than flossing a tooth. Indeed, the tissue of the vagina is similar to the tissue in the mouth, only cleaner. Clearly, the logistics of doing it oneself takes practice though that difficulty can be overcome by women doing each others' Pap tests. This is not a "medical procedure," but a procedure colonized by professionalization.

The Pap test, abortion, and childbirth are each procedures to perform carefully and knowledgeably; why they are "medical(ized)" procedures has to do with issues of control. To misquote and meld Marx and Engels: "He who is in control of the means of re-production is in control of an essential form of labor". One has but to look at the history of labor (of all kinds) under capitalism to trace the colonization and Pacification of a cheap (free/unpaid, in this case) work force to see how this operates.

Remember, too, if you will, the days before "birthing suites" at the local hospital; remember when women fought for their lovers, boyfriends and/or husbands to be with them at the birth of their children? Remember the Physicians' response to those demands? Unequivocal negative response. Unequivocal that is, until the physicians found a way to colonize "birthing," incorporate it into their business arena, and then sell it back to women along with their other "services". Their answer to our demands was a variety of ways of saying no--it was 'Unsanitary," "unworkable"--too many people in the delivery room at ~ time; it was "against standard medical practice"--until it wasn't any of those things--until the medical business found a way to sell "birthing" back to women.

I suggest we not only demedicalize abortion but that women begin (again) to do abortions ourselves. Bring back safe, "illegal" abortions done by women for and because of women. Groups of women can certainly do our own safe abortions; women have always done our own safe abortions. The medicalization of health and the colonization of women's bodies have obscured what can and must be done. Going back again and again to the patriarchs whose right/rite it is to rape women, beat women, and to force impregnation and childbirth is not what women want to continue doing. Women need to practice disobedience (civil..if you like) to law: we must not obey laws which we did not write and which are written at our expense and which keep us oppressed and keep us asking permission.

CWLU Work Groups and Personal Transformation

by Sue Davenport, Paula Kamen and the CWLU Herstory Committee — CWLU workgroups were the independent committees of the Union organized around particular interests and activities.

CWLU Work Groups and Personal Transformation by Sue Davenport, Paula Kamen and the CWLU Herstory Committee

(Editors Note: This memoir is adapted from a talk that Sue gave at Women and Children First Bookstore in 1999. Paula Kamen transcribed Sue's remarks. The photo shows Sue at a 1999 fundraiser for Jane: Abortion and the Underground)

CWLU workgroups were the independent committees of the Union organized around particular interests and activities. A well known CWLU workgroup was ACDC. (Action Committee for Decent Child Care).They set up a seasonal review of the licensing processes for daycare centers, and they actually got the city to allocate $1 million for child care. A group of women could go up against the city and get something real, a reallocation basically of wealth and power, that would benefit ordinary people and/or people's needs, and particularly children's needs.

We also had DARE, Direct Action for Rights Employment. For the women who were really concerned about women in the workplace, the Women's Union had a very dedicated group of women who worked with women in various largely industrial and service settings, where they were basically being very fiercely discriminated against, either by their management or their boss, or their union, or both. They worked and collaborated very closely with the women janitors, who were for the most part African American, and they met in their homes on Sunday nights in the South Side and slowly built up a campaign.

It was hard , no one of us up here wants to glamorize the conflict and the struggle, because people put real things at risk- people's psyches, people's bodies, people's energies. Susan Bates, the woman, the janitress who was the lead in the case had a cinder block was thrown through her window shortly before the case was won, and it hurt her. So DARE was the group that took on the workplace in the most serious kind of way.

We also had neighborhood organizing of women doing outreach with the newspaper, called "Secret Storm." Reaching out there to the passions of young women and their hearts and urging them again, to play sports and to ask for equal time on the courts and in the fields, and they got it from their local park district. And if any of you have spent any time dealing with park district bureaucracies you know it's not easy.

The gay and lesbian chapter, Blazing Star, organized among gay and lesbian women and did a tremendous job within the Women's Union of I think, helping us hold together so that we, unlike a lot of women's unions around the country, did not split along gay/straight lines. We held together.


I would just like to say a little bit personally about how I think that the experience of being in the Women's Union was a consciousness raising affair that just permanently changed every single one of us. You know, the lenses in your eyes aren't the same anymore. When I think of Estelle's talking about the Graphics Collective posters, the one that I just kept being stunned by every time I sat in office for a meeting was the one of a young American woman and a young Vietnamese woman back to back.

The young American woman, very attractive, young, is putting on bright red lipstick. And the Vietnamese woman back to back to her, is bleeding the same red out of her nose. Anyway that poster captured for me the sense of living in a corporate society where it was the agenda of the large corporations who really determined the wars and the allocation of resources.

That our whole government was mobilizing our whole society to fight, and that the price of that war for a Vietnamese woman was not that she didn't have any lipstick, but that it was pulling her family, her children, her villages, her way of life, all of the social fabric within Vietnam, and just turning the world upside-down.

And so that poster was very powerful for me, and some of the lessons that I took away from the Women's Union I think have been very important to me and all the rest of us. Because many of us found jobs where we could continue, surprisingly enough, to discover injustice was all around us. If we just opened our eyes to these schools we were teaching in, or the hospitals, or the, any of the big huge bureaucracies, or little small companies, or wherever you worked, you saw the injustices that were just innate in our democracy.

And so, there was always work to be done. Another one of the lessons that I could never forget is really what other people have said tonight. But it's basically, 3 to 5 people can get together and do just about anything. The final area that I think a lot of the changes were made in, were in our personal and family lives, and how we chose to live, and what kind of relationships we chose to live in, and that it was okay to be married or not to be married, or to be in a lesbian relationship, or to be lesbian for a while and to go back to men, or you know, whatever. There were just lots and lots of possibilities.

It enabled me to do a joint custody with my former husband, and so we could raise two sons, and two sons who turned out well. And that was one of the contradictions a lot of women were faced with: what are we doing having all these sons? And so my son's here tonight and I'm happy about that, because not only is he here but he's also taking a feminist theory class and a Marxist theory class in college this semester, and we have the feeling things are going to continue.

Sue Davenport was active in the CWLU workgroup HERS(Health Evaluation and Referral Service) and worked on the CWLU newspaper Womankind. She now works for Designs for Change, a Chicago school reform organization. Paula Kamen is a Chicago based writer and author of Feminist Fatale and Jane: Abortion and the Underground.

Remarks on Naomi Weisstein

by Jesse Lemisch and Naomi Weisstein (1997) — Naomi sends her love to all of her sisters, and she particularly congratulates you for your decision to meet in -- an armory. We appreciate the organizers' invitation to me to speak in Naomi's place. She can't be here because she has been totally bedridden and under 24-hour nursing for thirteen years now, suffering from Chronic Fatigue & Immune Dysfunction Syndrome.

(Editors Note: This narrative was originally a 1997 speech by Jesse Lemisch, husband of Naomi Weisstein. Naomi was a founder of the CWLU and is a major contributor to the CWLU Herstory Website Project. The picture shows Naomi in 1969 at a Chicago women's liberation conference.)

Naomi sends her love to all of her sisters, and she particularly congratulates you for your decision to meet in -- an armory. We appreciate the organizers' invitation to me to speak in Naomi's place. She can't be here because she has been totally bedridden and under 24-hour nursing for thirteen years now, suffering from Chronic Fatigue & Immune Dysfunction Syndrome. Naomi can't write a response to Jacqui Ceballos' questions about her involvement in Women's Liberation, so I'm going to give you my report as historian/spouse, but it is informed by lots of talk with Naomi, and you will hear her voice as well as mine in it. Naomi was already deeply a feminist when I met her and fell in love with her in 1963. Part of her feminism -- only a part, but an important part -- came from growing up in a family where she survived only by teaching herself that it was they who were crazy, not her. This strength was to give her feminism a solid grounding in her character. 

She grew up in New York. Her mother had been a concert pianist before Naomi's father had killed her career. Naomi went to Bronx High School of Science, then defied her father about going away to college --Wellesley. Naomi won, and still cherishes the supportive female environment of the place.

Harvard, where Naomi went for her PhD starting in 1961, was a different story, as so many women who went there in those years have reported. Sometimes there seems a direct correlation between the prestige of an institution, and the depth of its sexism. Naomi has been a pioneer in the revolution in brain science -- at Harvard she did a dissertation on parallel processing, which is now, thirty-six years later, a hot topic. When you hear that the brain is creative and active and shapes reality, you may be hearing someone who is building on Naomi's discoveries. But the male supremacist zealots who ran Harvard, people like Jerome Bruner, wouldn't let her use the experimental equipment there -- since she was a woman, Bruner felt, she would likely break it.

With resourcefulness and resiliency, Naomi said goodbye to Harvard, and took herself to Yale in 1963, used the equipment there, and got her degree from Harvard, first in her class, in three years. Then she couldn't get a job. The horror of these events is masked by her comedy in her article (in Sara Ruddick and Pamela Daniels' Working it Out), "'How Can a Little Girl Like You Teach a Great Big Class of Men?' The Chairman said, and Other Adventures of a Woman in Science."

Naomi knew that if she was to advance the revolution in brain science, she must face down her difficulties with math. In one of her many courageous acts, in 1964 she took a post-doctoral fellowship at the Committee on Mathematical Biology at the University of Chicago, and after much struggle, learned what she needed to know, about Poisson distributions, Reimann surfaces, and so on. Her math teachers started praising her analytical gifts. At visual cognition conferences, they began to call her Miss -- not yet Ms. -- Miss Fourier Transform.

But not at the University of Chicago, where, long before the important work by Nancy Henley on touch, we learned that at faculty parties there was a politics of eye contact, with colleagues addressing Naomi by looking at me, as if to say, "We Tarzan, she Jane." I began to learn to deflect their gaze.

At Chicago, great faculty liberals, yes even radicals, put their hands on her knee and urged her to have babies (David Bakan); voiced the suspicion that her radicalism stemmed from insatiable sexual lust (Milton Rosenberg); refused to grant her library privileges (College Master Donald Levine); and introduced her as, "Naomi Weisstein: she hates men" (Dean Wayne Booth. Naomi thinks it's important to name names.) Then they fired her, in 1966. Then she bargained hard with Loyola University in Chicago, having no leverage other than her passion for truth; driven by the Fates, and knowing that she had a mission, she demanded experimental space and equipment and got them. It floored me, as have so many things she has done. Again and again, when rejected for a grant, or for something else, she would conscript my gentleman's verbal skills and my sense of how the system works, challenge me to devise a script that she might use as a basis for an appeal, and as I was busy contriving an argument that I would never have had the courage to deliver for myself, she would grab it out of the typewriter, and would be on the phone to 202-land. Radical to the core, she educated me in refusal and resistance in ways that have helped to keep us afloat in more recent years, against dreadful and seemingly insurmountable forces.

Having been members of Women's Radical Action Project at the University of Chicago in 1965, in 1966 and 1967 Heather Booth and Naomi taught the first course on women at Staughton Lynd's University of Chicago summer course for organizers. In the fall of 1967, Jo Freeman, Shulamith Firestone, Heather, Amy Kesselman, Naomi and others began the Westside Group -- from which, Naomi has felt now for some time with regret, Jo Freeman was eventually excluded. Out of this group came, in the fall of 1969, the Chicago Women's Liberation Union, the non-sectarian city-wide organization. In 1968, Naomi had been one of the organizers of the Lake Villa Conference outside Chicago, the first national meeting of independent women's groups. (Naomi was also active in Chicago SNCC and, earlier, in New Haven CORE.)

Naomi is also a musician and a comedian -- she had come this close to running off with Second City in the 'sixties -- and in March 1970 she organized the Chicago Women's Liberation Rock Band. With their sister New Haven Women's Liberation Rock Band, they put out a record with Rounder Records. This was the beginning of women's music, a brilliant attempt to escape the old agitprop conventions of left music, to speak to the rising generation in a language that made sense to them, in ecstatic performances that mixed comedy and tears. They traveled all over, and Naomi recalls flying into Toronto with a joint in her pocket and totally unable to recall the name on the youth-fare card in her wallet. Who, she wondered, was this "Susan" that the Mountie was interrogating? Naomi sees a direct line from the Chicago and New Haven bands to Ani DiFranco and Riot Grrls today.

The band also assumed equality of talents, or that everyone could be trained to the same level of expertise. It was part of the magnificent utopian egalitarianism of the day. So was the speakers' bureau of the Chicago Women's Liberation Union. In the early anti-war teach-ins, Naomi had spoken with a quavering voice. Then, as she says, the women's movement gave her voice, a combination of reason and passion. She began to speak to hundreds, even thousands, with a comical but racked, egalitarian call-and-response rhetoric that brought women to their feet and reminded me, especially at the Yale Law School in February 1970, of the black churches at the height of the civil rights movement. They danced in the street that night. (The Yale talk was the one in which she allied with Rita Mae Brown in support of lesbian struggles, at a time when the rightward-surging Friedan was denouncing the "Lavender Menace.") CWLU's speakers' bureau, of which Naomi was the principal architect, was an attempt to teach these skills to other women. It failed, as did the band. Yes, as historians are noting, there was trashing directed at leaders and the highly skilled, and it was awful, and, yes it was Stalinist. But let's remember that the trashing was the underside of the utopian egalitarianism; next time, let's build a better non-hierarchical egalitarian movement while acknowledging differences in skills. But let's not forget the glory of this effort for equality, one of the most radical parts of radical feminism, deserving an honored place in the centuries-long struggle for true democracy.

Believing so much in equality, Naomi colluded in her own silencing as her group told her to stop speaking publicly lest her talents establish her as a heavy. What a waste! Then, three months after Naomi left Chicago in 1973, the Band collapsed; they put out --in the mystico-spiritual and ultimately dishonest style of the day -- a statement that the band's death was merely a higher stage of life.

Meantime, Naomi had become the leader of the anti-war movement at Loyola -- a small Jewish woman from New York, called "Dr. Weisstein," taking on the Jesuits. She did karate, and came home black, blue, yellow, and, sometimes, even green. She went to pistol ranges in Chicago to master what she thought were necessary skills for women's defense. She went on guerilla missions with her secret group, from el station to el station, pouring glue in Playboy centerfolds. I didn't know from night to night whether she would make it home.

Along with Phyllis Chesler, Joanne Evans Gardner, and others, in August 1970 Naomi founded American Women in Psychology, now Division 35 of the American Psychological Association. Almost single-handedly, Naomi feminized the Mother of all gonadal conferences, the annual meetings of the Association for Research in Vision and Opthalmology, where her impact is felt to this day. Later, she co-founded Women in Eye Research of ARVO. In 1968, Naomi first presented her landmark paper, "Psychology Constructs the Female," an attack on the sexism that dominated psychology, since reprinted more than forty times around the world, and the subject of a special 1993 commemorative issue of the British Journal Feminism and Psychology. This paper, scholarly yet combative and liberating, received enthusiastic responses, and it took her a while to realize that when people stood up at the end of her talks, it didn't mean, as she thought at first, that she had somehow fucked up and they were headed for the exits. The intersection between Naomi's skills and the rising movement regularly brought ecstatic standing ovations. She did stand-up comedy on rape, first in support of Charlotte Sheedy's lawsuit against Zabar's for sexual harassment, and later on tour around the country.

Naomi moved ahead in her research with neural symbolic activity, actually finding the visual neural channels that responded to indicate that the brain was filling in parts of objects that the eyes could not possibly have seen. Think of the wonder! Her standing in her field increased, but there were terrible obstacles. The editor of a leading journal, a looter and plunderer, tried to steal the ideas in a paper she had submitted. She felt like she was in a free-fire zone. All this was bound to take its toll, and it would. Meantime, Loyola was generous, but it could not provide the facilities and technical support necessary for advanced research in cognitive neuroscience. Naomi needed a better job. I had been fired and fired again and blacklisted. It was hard times. We toured two countries looking for work, and were denounced by Canadian sectarians. Finally, in 1973 the dream seemed to come true: two good jobs at the State University of New York at Buffalo.

But when Naomi arrived in Buffalo, some of the men who had wanted to get the great Naomi Weisstein there were ill prepared for the reality. They were self-advertised bastards, psychology professors who looked like Long Island building contractors, with their hairy chests displayed, and sharks' teeth around their necks. In the larger world, her reputation continued to rise; at Buffalo, her lab was a model of democracy, like the band had been at its best. (She skate-boarded the long hallway from her office to her lab, and responded to the President's query -- had she said "fuck you" to a student who attacked her for this unseemly behavior? -- with an homage to Brecht: "Would I, a Professor of Psychology, say such a thing?") But down the hall were the sharks, colleagues debriefing and demoralizing her graduate students, denouncing her research (Naomi would find that the fair play of colleagueship was not extended to women), and excluding her from their conferences. And she would not join in their Tuesday night poker games.

It was to be almost the death of her. By the fall of 1979, when we came to Greenwich Village on Naomi's Guggenheim, the day-to-day combat with the sharks had almost destroyed her. My sisters and I spent the first day there being driven by Naomi to install ghastly alarm systems that would go off like firebells when the faintest breeze blew. She was building a fort against the previous horrors. And she had to stay in shape for the endless combat, so when the disease hit, she continued her ferocious exercising -- exactly the wrong thing to do when this disease hits. She had come to New York, gloried in the Village's celebration of deviance after the repressiveness of Buffalo, and had been racked but happy. "Here comes the happy lady," they said at the gay xerox shop on Bleecker and at Balducci's, as she strode by on her long legs, looking like Freewheelin' Franklin. But now she was to be struck down, a fallen hero, a direct victim, I think, of body-punishing struggles against grotesque male supremacy. Too little has been made of the costs to women's health of such horrendous struggles.

By 1981 she needed a wheelchair. By 1983 she was bedridden. She lived the nightmare that she had written about in "Psychology Constructs the Female," as an insane and sexist medical profession offered psychojunk to explain a woman's illness. The sharks now morphed into greedy drug companies, and medical insurers that wanted Naomi dead because she was so expensive. We fought and fought and continue to fight.

Naomi has remained marvelously in touch, though she lives in a darkened room with her eyes covered against the light, rocked by terrible vertigo. The lab she had fought so hard to build went down the drain in 1987, after she had nearly died of esophageal hemorrhage and pulmonary embolism, and spent six weeks in St. Vincent's. The nuns crossed themselves to cover their fury when they found it impossible to throw me out of intensive care. But, with all this, Naomi has remained comical, hip, outrageous and sharp. She has continued her scientific work through collaboration, and is working on the notion of the brain as active agent. People read scientific manuscripts to her, and she sits on the editorial boards of Cognitive Psychology and Spatial Vision. She dictates feminist pieces, about the limits of mysticism, women's rock, women's humor, Madonna, primates, power, resistance and science, the beginnings of the women's movement, and consumerism. The spirit of the band lives on in the nursing staff: Naomi has taught them to sing "Avanti Populo."

After fourteen years in bed, Naomi is deteriorating. Two teeth broke off in a week. Her diabetes is worse, with frightening hypoglycemic episodes that make her shake. She wonders why the drug company won't give her the Ampligen that might save her, before all these secondary effects do her in. And she thinks about what a mean and barbaric time we live in. She knows that her life depends on an attack on the profit system, on medical care as it exists today, and on challenges to the standing order in every area.

Most of all, Naomi longs for a rebirth of her movement, a new radical feminism. She has always respected multi-level struggles, but she is tired of civility and subordination, and doesn't have time to wait for gradualist schemes and pomo and other academic rackets. She wants a movement that will express her rage and the rage of other women. She wants protests and mobilizations, and fierce responses to the mean and diseased culture which now floats over the country like a poison cloud, largely unchallenged, choking women under it. She wants this movement to be both passionate and reasonable, ecstatic and utopian, hostile to hierarchy and to unequal power in every form.

Finally, Naomi asked me to read from a poem by Gerrard Winstanley, as quoted in Christopher Hill's history of seventeenth-century English radicalism, The World Turned Upside Down. Winstanley, the old Digger, looks at the world around him and what it has become, and wishes that the movement would come again. He says:

Truth appears in light, falsehood rules in power; To see these things to be is cause of grief each hour.
Knowledge, why didst thou come, to wound and not to cure?
O power, where art thou, that must mend things amiss?
Come, change the heart of man, and make him truth to kiss.

Jo Freeman collected some memorabilia related to Naomi and was kind enough to share them with the Herstory Project. 

The China Project, the Prison Project and the Issues of Class and Race

by Marie "Micki" Leaner (1999) — We were just determined that we wanted to go to China, just because it was there and because we'd heard about women holding up half the sky, and they certainly didn't here in our country.

by Marie "Micki" Leaner, Paula Kamen and the CWLU Herstory Committee

(Editors Note: This article was developed from a talk given by Marie at the Women and Children First Bookstore in 1999. Paula Kamen transcribed her remarks. The picture is also from 1999).

The China Project

We were just determined that we wanted to go to China, just because it was there and because we'd heard about women holding up half the sky, and they certainly didn't here in our country. And we wanted to go to a place where that was what was so. So we said, "Okay, we're going to go to China," and we started learning Chinese; we started learning about China.

We formed this study group whose purpose was to learn as much about China as possible before we went, even though nobody had invited us yet. It was while we were watching Nixon traipse along the Great Wall that we got a call from the Chinese Embassy in Vancouver, and we didn't believe it, we thought it was a hoax. We thought somebody was playing a joke on us. You know, just like just an unheard-of opportunity for a disparate new group of people.

That's how we saw ourselves.They saw us as really progressive people from this incredible organization in the city of Chicago, where the women's movement actually began! Talk about different paradigms, right? And so we went, and we were fascinated by everything. Chinese light bulbs, Chinese this, Chinese that, I mean, talk about ga ga, we were just awestruck by the experience.

We got to visit women's institutions in China. We got to see women's clinics, and women actually literally holding up half a sky. I saw my very first female bus driver in China. Such a thing did not exist in the city of Chicago in 1973. Get that? I mean, it wasn't that long ago. So it was an experience, I think an incredibly formative and informative experience which we then proceeded to share with everybody that we could, both in and out of the Women's Union.

And I think it brought a different level of consciousness in a sense that we were a part of, if we didn't already know it, that we were part of an international experience and experiment, and history-making movement.

The Women's Prison Project

We went to Dwight prison, here in Illinois, which at the time was a female-only prison, and we went practically every Saturday for five years. I think it was a 180-mile round trip. It took several hours to get there. We were able to do was teach learning skills, legal research, we were also able to help women to begin to formulate for themselves their own means around seeing their children.

At the time women were not permitted to having visiting with their children, nor was there a place set up at the prison for women to be able to visit with their children. So you can imagine how reunification of families just wasn't going to happen in those kinds of situations.

Ultimately what resulted from our efforts is that the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services and the Illinois Department of Corrections finally got their act together and created a space for women within the institution. They had a nursery room and it was much more conducive to interaction between the women and their children. It fostered a little unification in that sense.

Issues of Class and Race

There are probably as many perceptions and versions as there are people who were active at the Women's Union at the time, and in the women's movement as a whole at the time. But our experience here in Chicago was that it was always a tension and a dynamic within the group how did we involve working class women, how did we involve women of color, whether it be Latino, African-American. Most of our chapters were white, and most of our groups were composed of middle-class women.

I think that we learned a lot about who we were being at the time, and how we were being. I think as time went on, more women of color started to look at the experience of white women and say, "Well some of what they're relating to is true, some of their experience is our experience, and some of it isn't."

You have to remember that at the time it was a civil rights movement that was happening, and there was I think for African American women, in particular, this sense that it was not our gender that was a dominant issue for us, it was our race that was a dominant issue for us.

And so the tension of do we join? Is sisterhood that powerful? So powerful, that it overrides these other things?Invariably the answer was no, it doesn't. It was not that powerful for us at this point in history. Well, that began to change as more rights and more freedoms began to be experienced by African American people in general, and so then it became easier to begin to relate.

So you had things like Essence magazine premiering, that sort of was the black version of Ms. But at the beginning, there was a disinclination on the part of African American women, and certainly Hispanic women, to be visibly out front as feminists. And fortunately, that changed.

Marie "Micki" Leaner co-founded the Women's Prison Project and The China Group. She was also active in Jane, the CWLU affiliated underground abortion service. She is presently project coordinator with the Chicago Media Workshop at Columbia College. Paula Kamen is a Chicago based writer and author of "Feminist Fatale", "Her Way" and "Jane: Abortion and the Underground".

The Magnolia Street Commune

by Vivian Rothstein (1998) — There are some things you should never do when your marriage is on the rocks. One of them is join a commune.

(Editor's note: During the late 1960's and early 1970's communal living experiments took place across America. This is former CWLU member Vivian Rothstein's experience with her commune. She is pictured to the left with one of the commune children along with their dog Poochie.)

 There are some things you should never do when your marriage is on the rocks. One of them is join a commune.

Our commune formed in 1971 when social change was in the air and young feminists were questioning the ground rules of marriage, monogamy, and heterosexual relationships. If the conventional family looked like an oppressive institution for women, we would come up with a more workable alternative. My fellow communards and I--all political activists in the human rights and peace movements--were committed to building a new world in the midst of the old. We were convinced we could transform the future by changing the way we lived.

For myself, I thought that living in a commune would bring my personal life more in synch with the budding women's movement in which I was deeply involved. Besides, my marriage was a mess; I was chafing at the limitations of coupled life. And we weren't making each other very happy.

 By the time we decided to form the commune, my husband Stephen and I had each had an affair, and by the time we moved in, he and another commune member, one of my best friends at the time and a member of my women's group, had begun a "relationship." Nevertheless, after months of planning, the ten of us--eight mid-twenty to thirty-something adults and two kids--moved into a three-story house on Chicago's far Northside.

Our commune was highly structured and cerebral, in part because Stephen, an all-or-nothing kind of guy, had played a prominent role in establishing its rules and expectations. While he hadn't initially been enthusiastic about the commune idea, Stephen figured if we were going to do it, we should do it "right." We would share all our income and expenses, jointly sign the mortgage, and discuss how each person spent his or her time earning money and being politically active. While the arrangement was unusually resolute for communes of the day, it reflected our commitment to collective decision making, economic equality, and simple living.

We bought the large, wood-frame house, squashed between two apartment buildings, from Hungarian immigrant Count Zichy and his wife, who had been having trouble selling it. The Zichys left some fairly nice castoff wooden furniture to which we added our motley collection of couches, upholstered chairs, and brick-and-board bookcases. We stored the kids' toys in the windowed sun porch that looked out to a postage-stamp front lawn. The alley-facing garage provided the perfect venue for female-only VW repair classes run by a woman in the house. Unfortunately, the dark backyard was, and despite our efforts remained, a mess, serving as a dump for our neighbors.

As part of our commune's plan to support individual privacy in a collective environment, everyone had his or her own bedroom, either in the house or in the separate coach house above the garage. I relished the idea of my own private space because I was anxious for the independence it provided. After all, I had been drawn to collective living largely by the desire to live as an individual in the house free from the emotional constraints of a coupled existence. Stephen did not initially share my enthusiasm about the private bedrooms. Early on in our commune experience, when we were already having trouble dealing with each other in face-to-face conversation, he shared his touchiness about the arrangement by writing:

It is of course true that for the first month or so that we lived here I put tremendous pressure on you to consider the in-law room as our room. I was really scared shitless that you would run away from me and I realize that this was terribly unfair to you and made you more dependent on our relationship than you wanted to be. . . . and also, because of my fears that you would take it as a sign of rejection, I didn't objectively encourage you to use your own room more, nearly as much as I subjectively felt like I wanted you to.

Though the interpersonal dynamics in the house were edging towards a New Left Peyton Place, we quickly reaped the predicted financial benefits of group living. In 1972, all ten of us lived comfortably, if frugally, for under $35,500. We spent $614 on clothing, $502 on books and magazines, $1,900 on individuals' allowances (of $5 a week), and $6,380 on food. Like an old-fashioned extended family, we managed with a single refrigerator, stove, TV, toaster, and blender for the whole house.

While money was available it wasn't plentiful, and we all had firm views on how best to spend it. One couple married, and the commune paid for their wedding rings. Another member was denied a $35 down comforter because we couldn't afford one for each person. And we energetically debated the cost of one woman's milk baths, which some members saw as overindulgence and others as appropriate self-care.

Together the adults in the collective kept the house clean, orderly, and operational through detailed sign-up schedules for cooking, shopping, cleaning, child care, and use of the four cars. Weekly meetings and occasional all-day Sunday gatherings combined practical housekeeping, child-raising, and financial discussions with comments on readings, political events, "personal/political biographies" and "criticism, self criticism and admiration"--a group process borrowed by American leftists from the Chinese cultural revolution. As I recall, we were always pretty short on the admiration.

Because our commune was a political collective, differences of opinion about worthwhile work could cause major divisions. "I think there are new political differences developing in the house," wrote one member in an ominous memo about a cross-country organizing trip he wanted to take. "They are not yet deep but could become so and will, I fear, if what we believe is not talked about and thus made accessible to modification by a public and collective process."

A case in point was the 1972 presidential campaign, which some commune members felt was an insufficiently radical choice of political work. Nevertheless, a few of us got deeply involved in McGovern's presidential race. I co-chaired the 48th Ward McGovern campaign, which was shunned by the Chicago Democratic machine. (The anti-McGovern sentiment was so strong among old-line Chicago Democrats that at some polling places on election day, when you pulled the big lever to vote a straight Democratic ticket, the little one marking your presidential choice was rigged to pop up, erasing your vote.) Through the Ward office I got a chance to connect with independent-minded Democrats from our neighborhood. One was a local firefighter whose company still went out on calls with a Dalmatian riding atop the hook and ladder. This guy, something of a pothead, explained that it was a good thing he worked in his own community because otherwise he "wouldn't give a shit if the houses burned down."

I was reluctant at first to tell these new friends about my collective living arrangement for fear they would think it too weird. But I soon found that, especially to the women at home with young children, it seemed ideal. Indeed, the most successful aspect of our commune was the commitment to share equally in the responsibilities of raising children together. The non parent adults got great pleasure from developing close, consistent relationships with the two kids and were proud of fulfilling their childcare responsibilities, whether that included staffing the cooperative childcare center we helped organize, driving the carpool, putting the kids to bed, or taking them on outings. My mother-in-law worried the arrangement would satisfy my maternal drives enough to put off my own child bearing, and she may have been right.

Communal child-rearing was not without its difficulties, however. One morning I walked into the kitchen to find the two-year-old playing with sharp knives. He was starting to get shallow slices on his little fingers. The commune member on childcare felt that would teach him that sharp things were dangerous. I quickly took the knives away.

At the same time, we all agreed that no one should impose "sexual hang-ups" on the kids. So when the youngest child in the house and his closest friend sat masturbating in front of Sesame Street most afternoons, everyone, though feeling a little uncomfortable, let them be.

Despite such potentially divisive and difficult moments, the need the parents had for childcare help and the enjoyment we all experienced in providing it on a fairly intimate basis served as the glue which held our commune, like many others in the 1970s, together. While we were utterly incompetent at creating lasting and loving alternatives to the nuclear family, we had it right in our critique of the isolating nature of the modern family structure when it came to raising children.

The sociability of group living was also a big plus. There was always someone to talk to, read a book with, or drag along to a movie. I learned about music, books, and poetry of which I had been completely ignorant. And I felt a tender closeness with most residents of the house. The day-to-day contact with other like-minded people my age was more fun than living alone with my mate.

The sexual landscape of the house, however, was much more painful than I had expected. I was deeply unhappy, and deeply conflicted about my unhappiness. I wrote: "[Stephen's] relationship with [Suzanne] is getting more and more intense as time goes on. They spend more and more time together, depend on each other more, and now I presume will sleep together more and more. I think that the situation I will eventually be asked to live with is sharing Stephen totally with Suzanne--two different but equally involving relationships."

As part of my effort to--as we said at the time--"struggle" with my feelings of betrayal and envision a new form of relating, I tried to consider a triangular relationship among the three of us, as Suzanne had suggested. I wrote away for various studies and guidelines for group marriages from the "Multilateral Relations Study Project" run by Larry and Joan Constantine in Acton, Massachusetts. ("When not studying group marriages," the literature explained, "Larry Constantine carries on another career as a successful computer scientist.") Their material, which included reprints of articles published in The Modern Utopian, The Futurist, and The Radical Therapist, observed that:

.....by and large our society, though pluralistic in almost every dimension, permits only a single model for the family. Today the model is nuclear, monogynous, and accepts only limited, covert departures. A truly humanistic perspective would provide a variety of models for marriage, thus giving the individual more chance of finding a marriage suited to his [sic] unique needs and temperament. While experimental alternatives to American monogyny will almost certainly be condemned by conservative and reactionary elements, such experimentation now occurring in limited circles, may lead to more cohesive, stable and fulfilling marriages.

Though the articles looked interesting, I was so oppressed and depressed by my living situation--which was supposed to liberate me from the isolation and pressure of my shaky marriage--that I could barely even read the stuff. Despite our high ideals, the reality of non-monogamy was a painful personal disaster for me, just as it had been for generations of women before me.

As the Multilateral Study Project predicted, "What sex in the multilateral situation can do is serve as the trigger for bringing problems of jealousy, possessiveness, exclusiveness and competition to the surface which will be good only if they can be dealt with." I wrote:

[Stephen] keeps thinking I can live with and deal with things that I feel are killing me, and causing me more pain than I have ever wanted to feel (or want to feel again). Rather than anything being any more under my control, I am asked to live with less and less definition, and believe more and more with some kind of mystical faith that Stephen will once again love me and treat me with more kindness some time in the future. . . . I don't think I can bear it. And I'm not sure that I think it's worth it. Most of what I've gotten from my relationship with Stephen, I may have already gotten--political growth, a sense of confidence, a sense of power and competence. In fact, it seems that very relationship has been destroying all of those things in me over the last year or so.

 I remember sitting in my coach house room out of whose front windows I could see the light from Suzanne's second floor bedroom where my husband and she spent certain scheduled nights together. (That structure again.) I would smoke a joint until the view and all it represented stopped bothering me. This intense effort at self-control succeeded (temporarily) only because I was either extremely disciplined or extremely stoned. Occasionally, however, I envisioned rushing into her room and shooting them both between the legs.

 On other nights Stephen and I were scheduled to sleep together. But our sexual relationship was becoming a big problem. I had become emotionally removed and unavailable for real intimacy. For his part, in attempting to rationalize his inability to respond to me sexually, Stephen explained in a painstaking, ten page, handwritten letter,

I really deeply love you, Vivian, and so it's just not realistic to expect that I'm not going to feel pressure from you [even] if you refrain from putting explicit pressure on me. Given how much I love you and how much I identify with you, if I can perceive that you are unhappy (even secretly--and I know you well enough to perceive when you are unhappy) about my relationship with Suzanne, I am going to feel guilty about it and under pressure to give it up. The result has been that I have resented you for the guilt and pressure that I feel, even though the pressure isn't really coming that much from you, but is mainly on my own "superego" pressuring me because of how much I care about you.

He had me coming and going--with an explanation that, predictably, left me the cause of his sexual problems.

I found myself reacting to small things with almost animal impulses--a tiny stain from Suzanne's menstrual blood on Stephen's bedspread obsessed me; the smell of her Noxema face cream left me fuming. Still, in the spirit of the time, Suzanne wanted to deepen her connection with me. (In addition to Stephen, she was involved with another man and a member of our women's group.) "What I would like most of all right now." she wrote, "is to be able to show you somehow that you can trust me--that I love you ... that I want us to be close and warm and loving because of my feelings about you, and because I want very much to be able to bring happiness and comfort to your life rather than pain and uncertainty." It was appealing at first glance to have some romantic action myself but, given my vulnerable state, getting involved with Suzanne felt like certain death.

One of my close friends at the time tried to cheer me up with a crocodile patch for my jeans and a poem that likened me to an idealized reptile, "peace-loving and shiny. It eats vegetables and swims through the everglades, planting flowers, doing soil reclamation, and organizing the pelicans. It wants to be left (somewhat) alone to do its good work. However, despite this, and even though it cries real tears, it never is."

Sandy, my best friend and colleague in the women's movement, lived in another commune just two blocks away and was having similar if perhaps worse problems. She had two children with her husband and lived in a far less structured and "political" situation than ours. Shortly before they moved in, just as Sandy began discovering her feminist identity, her husband informed her that he had a love affair with their mutual male best friend for many years. He then insisted on inviting his newest love interest to live in the commune along with their kids. Sandy had no grounds to object; we all felt that newly emergent gay men deserved our unqualified support. Besides, at that point the commune seemed to her the only way to keep the family intact.

Sandy and I were both in great pain but constrained in by our feminist beliefs from doing anything about it. Together we taught a very popular class on the nuclear family offered through Chicago's Liberation School for Women which we had helped found. Our readings and study group questions addressed the transition from the medieval to the modern family, the role of the modern family in sustaining the existing economic system, and the social controls it imposed on women and children.

 But that didn't mean we knew what alternative social arrangement would make life better for women in general or for ourselves in particular. Once a week we'd meet at the neighborhood Thai restaurant and commiserate about what we couldn't really admit to anyone else. In truth, although we were trying to create a new social order, we were suffering from the same wretched feelings as in the old. Insecurity and hopelessness were slowly eroding my optimistic outlook on life. I wrote:

I have come to the point of feeling that my life is so miserable, that I am so unhappy so much of the time, that I have so little control of my emotions and my future as well as my present, that I will try anything. What is happening to me is what I have always been the most afraid of happening in my life . . . that the person I loved wouldn't love me enough to not hurt me tremendously. And that somehow I would be locked into something with that person so that they could continue to treat me badly and I would have no way to get out of it.

I sought out a feminist therapist to discuss my despair and my options. After only a couple of sessions, her romantic interest in me became clear. The terrain felt so hazardous that I quickly stopped seeing her.

Still, I remained active in the Chicago women's movement--working with the citywide Women's Union and wildly enjoying myself at dances put on by the Chicago Women's Liberation Rock Band--even as my original exhilaration at joining the movement, and my belief that sisterhood was powerful, began to wane. Sisterhood, when I got right down to it, seemed also to be incomplete, misleading, and potentially dangerous. For me the promise of female solidarity and mutual trust which the movement held out so appealingly was foundering on the old terrain of sexual competition and acquisitiveness which had traditionally divided women from each other. Only this time we had rejected the bourgeois values that might have inhibited us from embarking on such adventures.

It wasn't just Suzanne who disappointed me; Stephen's first extramarital affair had been with a college teacher who called herself a feminist and said that, since I was a leader in the women's movement, she assumed I wouldn't mind their sleeping together. I felt taken advantage of as a founder of a movement that had become so judgmental and unsupportive of marriage and monogamy. Neither I nor the movement I helped build could defend my need for an exclusive relationship.

My one extramarital affair was with another feminist. Having declared herself a lesbian for political reasons, she found herself so tied in knots about her own feelings that our sexual relationship was a disaster.

This inability to reconcile what we thought women should want with what we actually wanted led the movement and many of its participants into contorted relationships that sapped our strength and distanced us from the lives of most "ordinary" women. So busy theorizing about the sources of women's oppression, we could not accept that what women need and want in their intimate relationships is as varied and diverse as women themselves. To its discredit, our beloved movement was quick to impose its own judgmental attitudes on women's lives to replace those of the larger society. The ambivalence of the movement and of each woman in it toward female leadership complicated things still further--it sometimes seemed that only the ideal of strong women was valued, while those who actually stepped forward with skills and vision were seen as threatening. Although the movement gave me my first real chance to play a leadership role, I sometimes felt women distrusting me for taking it.

While I was preoccupied with surviving the sexual tumult in my commune, our social experiment created other challenges. As we gathered every night for a communal meal, the emotional tension at our oversized table took away most of my appetite. The manic desire for food that often accompanies a moderate sadness for me had been replaced by a misery food could not relieve. To make matters worse, Suzanne decided to require her eight-year-old to take at least one bite of everything on her plate, no matter how much her daughter disliked the dish. The gagging and choking sounds from the protesting youngster further dampened my appetite.

When the commune moved into its second year, three members became committed to vegetarian cooking and alternative health practices. Meatless meat loaf, meals cooked without salt, garlic or onion, and lots of militantly tasteless lentils became part of the daily fare, to the meat eaters' dismay. I became thinner than I had ever been before in my life.

Then there were the village illnesses: Pink eye appeared again and again; crabs arrived on the second floor; and I was furious to find I had been infected with chlamydia. If I saw a sick friend whose child was in our co-op childcare center, I knew the illness was on its way to our house.

Well into the commune's second year the consensus about life directions began to dissolve. Three commune members were moving away from political activism and towards health/self-help/spirituality, while factionalism was shattering the political left. One of the marriages in the house was falling apart, and I had nearly decided I would rather split up with Stephen than continue the status quo relation of "no definition, no responsibilities, no obligations" in our relationship.

 Suzanne, the only single parent in the group, was the first to move out permanently. In the process she and her daughter lost the social support which the commune had provided so well. She also lost what I came to feel was her real goal, a chance to become connected to a long-term marriage between political activists. In parting she returned a gift I had made her and wrote "it symbolizes for me all the high hopes that haven't come true. And I don't want to throw it out--I don't feel that bitter and hostile. So here it is--with my regrets and my affection--I hope your life can be happy now."

"My house continues," I wrote in a letter to a good friend, "is stable and seems to last and last. But I don't get much from it. I am more private and isolated by my own choice and I don't make any attempt to reach out to other people, to understand their lives, etc. I think eventually Stephen and I will try it on our own again soon. . . . Until then I'll stay living here even though in ways I would rather not. He and I are getting along quite well--I've given up on some of the things that I thought were possible and he is happy with his life and I think more gentle with me after all the horrendous shit we have put each other through." And I added sort of hopelessly, "In any case, it's not as if there is much choice in terms of lasting, stimulating relationships."

One of the other married couples decided to divorce and share custody of their son, the youngest child in the commune. (His mother refers to him as coming not only from a broken marriage but also a broken commune.) The third couple moved into their own place. Stephen and I stayed together after he agreed to break off with Suzanne, and we moved far away from Chicago to another state. In the process we adopted a "don't ask, don't tell" policy--to the future detriment of our marriage. The VW mechanic, who succeeded in single-handedly rebuilding the engine of her bug, went to live in Findhorn, a Scottish commune best known for raising gigantic vegetables.

By the end of the third year, the commune had dissolved. We eventually sold the house and divided the profits. Few of us have been in touch since then.

Despite all the pain and disappointment, as I look back now on my commune experience, I still feel proud of our fearless and serious ambitions. With our own lives we tried to create new social forms that would foster women's autonomy and transcend the isolations imposed by the nuclear family. As I know from twenty subsequent years of child raising (both within a traditional family and as a divorced parent), current family forms pose painful and unresolvable conflicts between children's needs and parents' desires for meaningful and engaged work. The available alternatives--hired nannies and infant day care--are out of the financial reach of most families, and in many cases don't provide the loving, stable, individualized care so important for young children.

For younger people who long to combine child-rearing with ambitious work lives, communal living might again be seen as a humane way to provide the support needed by both parents and children in a self-created and self-conscious extended family. And for those like me, at the oldest tip of the baby boom generation, communal living may again become an option as we contemplate surviving into old age. Many of us have been through marriages and are loath to try them again. Yet long-term relationships of mutual affection and responsibility are important parts of our lives, and are not necessarily confined to sexually intimate ones. Many women are choosing to be alone, while men have turned to younger partners for their anchor and care in old age. Corporate-run, institutionalized senior housing will not sit well with our "question authority" generation. And many of us took the "simple living" admonition seriously, never amassing property or pension funds to sustain us financially in our later years.

Communal living, with its cost savings, mutual caring, community building, and on-the-edge social experimentation, may become current once again. I for one would welcome the revival of the best from the commune experience--although that may be only because I've had twenty-five years to recover from my last one.

Copyright , 1998. All rights reserved. Please do not reproduce without permission. 

Close Encounters with the Chicago Women's Liberation Union

by Bob Simpson (2001)

It was an unusual agenda item, even for one of our commune’s house meetings. Usually house meetings discussed items like dirty dishes, leaving peoples’ vinyl LP’s out of their cases, or why someone had bought 6 bags of pinto beans when everyone was sick of them.

Bob Simpson and Estelle Carol-1974

Bob Simpson and Estelle Carol-1974

It was an unusual agenda item, even for one of our commune’s house meetings. Usually house meetings discussed items like dirty dishes, leaving peoples’ vinyl LP’s out of their cases, or why someone had bought 6 bags of pinto beans when everyone was sick of them. But Barbara looked a little more serious than usual and aimed her comments directly at the commune men. Two heavy feminists from Chicago were going to be staying at our Lincoln Ave Commune in Takoma Park, Md and we had better be on our best behavior. The implication seemed clear to me, the reputation of the DC women’s movement was on the line, and we’d better not screw up. I knew better than to say anything, but I was a little offended.

The Lincoln Ave Commune had hosted a variety of movement visitors from the Viet Nam Veterans Against the War to the American Indian Movement. I hadn’t remembered any complaints. And it was 1972 after all. The women’s liberation movement had been around since at least 1968 and memories of being thoroughly trashed as “men behaving badly” were still painfully fresh in our male minds. We knew we were a long ways from the ideal non-sexist revolutionary man, but at least we were men “behaving a little better”. Barbara, Susie, and the other women in the commune really were our sisters in struggle. Some of us were in a men’s conscious-raising group that the local women’s liberation network had encouraged us to organize. Our men’s group had even done the day-care at a major DC women’s conference. We could handle this. 

As it turned out, the two “heavy feminists” from Chicago didn’t stay at our tree shaded commune on the Md-DC border. They decided to stay downtown someplace. The women from the Lincoln Ave Commune and our neighboring commune on Piney Branch Road met them there. The next day huge colorful feminist posters appeared all over the walls of our house. Women declaring war on rape, women holding hands in front of a love poem, the Statue of Liberty coming out in favor of daycare, a woman bursting out of a constricting medical cadeusus, a blooming sisterhood flower and an ingenious complex diagram that showed how man and woman could become a person. They had been hand silk screened by the Chicago Women’s Graphics Collective. I’d loved posters since the day I’d bought my first one of Malcolm X in the mid 60’s. I was genuinely disappointed that the visitors from Chicago had decided to stay elsewhere.

We got a report back about something called the Chicago Women’s Liberation Union (CWLU). I don’t remember the details, but besides doing these gorgeous posters, the Women’s Union was into a whole lot of organizing among working class women. Chicago had a reputation in the DC movement for bold innovative grassroots organizing. We could learn from these people. Believe me, women weren’t the only people disillusioned by the antics of the male dominated Left. A surprising number of men were quietly associating themselves with the women’s liberation movement through informal personal and political alliances. How that happened is a small piece of hidden history. Extreme caution seemed to work the best.

Fast forward to 1974. I was in Cuba on the Venceramos(“We shall win”) Brigade. The Brigade had been organizing volunteer work trips to Cuba since 1969. The Brigade had started out cutting sugar cane, but had switched to building houses sometime in the 1970’s. We all lived at a big work camp in separate men's and women’s dorms and went out to work in buses. Along with a healthy dose of exhausting, but exhilarating physical labor, the Cubans explained their version of socialist revolution. There were programs and presentations from a variety of people including an especially moving one from the National Liberation Front of South Viet Nam who was still at war with the U.S. and its Saigon allies.

As North Americans, we were expected to plan our own public programs as well. When it came time for the various movements of the Left to give public presentations to the camp: Black liberation, anti-war, Third World solidarity, labor etc., somehow the women’s liberation movement was conveniently left off. After some tense behind the scenes discussion, the women’s liberation activists were finally allowed to give a public presentation. Even so, a female Brigade leader made a disparaging comment about it directly from the stage. It was an ugly moment.

By 1974, most of the North American Left at least paid lip service to the women’s liberation movement. The public hostility of the Brigade leadership was unusual. It was an open secret that the North American Brigade leadership came mostly from the Communist Party USA, which despite its revolutionary sounding name, was actually considered pretty conservative by the rest of the Left.

I can’t be sure, but I suspect the Cubans were pretty embarrassed by the whole thing. One of the Cuban women in our work group was pretty high up in the Communist Party of Cuba, and she was helluva lot more sympathetic to women’s liberation that our erstwhile North American “leadership”. Although the Cubans tended to be skeptical of the U.S. women’s movement, they also seemed genuinely curious and willing to talk about it, at least privately.

The last 2 weeks of our 8 week excursion were spent on a tour of the island which included a lot of parties, beaches and banquets. After 6 weeks of doing hard construction labor under the unforgiving Cuban sun, it was a welcome vacation. The Cuban college students who had worked along side of us seemed to be enjoying it at least as much as their North American guests.

One day about a week into the tour, we were having a picnic next to a large lake. After a stone skipping contest with some other Brigadistas, I wandered over to an animated political discussion. A number of people were sitting and standing around debating women’s liberation. There was one woman patiently defending the women’s liberation movement with everyone else (mostly, but not solely men) roundly criticizing it. She held her ground with quiet determination. I finally said something that basically agreed with her after most of the people had begun to drift away. We talked for a little while until we all had to go back to the buses. I was impressed. She was self-assured, but not arrogant and self-righteous like so many of us were.

The following day I noticed an empty seat next to her at lunch. We were at a mountain resort popular in Cuba as a honeymoon spot. I believe it had been previously owned by the Rockefeller Family. I sat down and we talked for a long time about radical politics and science fiction. Something was happening. A long walk on the beach at Veradero, more “chance” meetings and a late night talk after a dance(which I skipped because I can’t dance) and we were madly in love. It took less than a week. Her name was Estelle Carol. She was a co-founder of the Chicago Women’s Graphics Collective, and one of the “heavy feminists” from the CWLU who had nearly stayed at our commune 2 years earlier. She laughed when I told her that story. Our last night in Cuba together was sheer emotional magic and we vowed to continue the relationship.

Of course Estelle lived in Chicago IL and I lived in Takoma Park Md which presented a serious logistical problem. Determined to lure her to the DC area, I invited her to stay with me at our commune for a month. It took about 3 months of letter writing and long distance phone calls but we finally arranged it. I did my best. She agreed that the DC art museums and the Blue Ridge mountains were breathtaking, but there was one small problem. The women’s movement in DC was in disarray. The jewel in the crown for DC was the Rape Crisis Center, the first in the nation. There was the Off Our Backs newspaper and a diverse lesbian feminist community. But years of infighting had taken its toll and there was nothing like the broad array of projects that the CWLU was involved in. She loved me dearly, but Estelle felt that there was no place for her in the DC women’s movement. If our relationship was going to survive, I was going to have to come to Chicago. It was not an easy choice.

My friends and family were in DC. All of my political activities had happened there: SDS, the student strike at the University of Maryland, numerous anti-war demonstrations, street riots, the Washington Free Clinic, a year working with the Black Panther Party, solidarity work with the American Indian Movement, union organizing with AFSCME, the Spark underground newspaper and so on and so forth. Our neighbors included the Piney Branch Commune, and the United Farmworkers house. There were good natured jokes about the “People’s Republic of Takoma Park”.

But love is a powerful motivation. So in the dead of winter-1975, Estelle flew down from Chicago, we loaded my earthly possessions into a Volkswagen squareback and drove all night through a snowstorm. We reached Chicago sometime the next morning and there I was in a huge old apartment in Uptown with Estelle and her roommates.

My introduction to the CWLU came swiftly since most of her closest friends were in it. I was impressed. The CWLU was real. They had a liberation school. They had a health program. They had a sports program. They had a daycare coalition. They had a legal clinic. They had women working as union organizers. They had a lesbian group which I thought had one of the coolest names on the Left- "Blazing Star". They had even had a rock band for a while.

Jennifer told me about “Jane”, the underground abortion group. I had helped refer people for abortions when I had worked for the Washington Free Clinic in 1970, but these people had actually performed the abortions themselves. Cynthia was a teacher in Universidad Popular, a politically aware school for Spanish speaking immigrants and was a CWLU link to the vibrant Puerto Rican independence movement. Working closely with the radical community group Rising Up Angry, the CWLU fought to get women sports teams into the city parks, despite the stiff opposition of the Park District bureaucrats.

Karen told me about DARE( Direct Action for Rights in Employment), which was trying hard to organize women against employment discrimination. The CWLU had actually helped women janitors win a major discrimination case against City Hall. They had taken on the dreaded Mayor Richard J. Daley political machine and won. Incredible.

The CWLU joined an alliance with Operation Push to support Jo Ann Little, a young North Carolina woman charged with murder for defending herself from a brutal jail guard who tried to rape her. We rode down to North Carolina in a rented bus to demonstrate at her trial. When Little was finally acquitted, we really had something to celebrate. Of course, not everything was bread and roses, Jennifer, Suzanne and Gordon told me the story of the Chicago Maternity Center, an innovative home birthing center, which finally closed after a long struggle to keep it alive. But there was going to be a movie about it by Kartemquin Films, so that at least that piece of history wouldn’t be easily buried.

I attended forums, protest meetings and social events sponsored by the CWLU. I quickly discovered that these people were networked everywhere. My first job in Chicago was in a particularly nasty factory. They wouldn’t issue us protective gloves, so in my naiveté I bought some Playtex living gloves. The chemicals I was working with ate through them in less than an hour. I hastily scribbled down the names of them and passed them on to Victoria, a CWLU leader whose husband was studying occupational health at the University of Illinois. After reviewing my little list, he chuckled and said if I worked there another 10 years I’d make a great case study for multiple cancers.

I decided to go back to teaching and through CWLU contacts found a unique alternative high school for adults located on the West Side of Chicago where Suzanne, another CWLUer was working. It was only a few blocks from where Black Panther leader Fred Hampton had been assassinated. One of teachers was a former Black Panther, another an ex-nun devoted to liberation theology, and it seemed like everyone there was some kind of rebel. Many of the students were women trying to get off welfare and they were some of the most motivated and hardest working individuals I’ve ever met. When the Maternity Center film was finished, Jennifer arranged for me to use it in my English classes. It was a hit. But I’m getting ahead of my story.

Three months after my arrival in Uptown Chicago, gentrification came to our end of Clarendon Street. For a couple of months we crowded into Karen’s attic apartment on George St. Estelle and I then decided to moved to the Roscoe Village area, then called West Lakeview. There were meetings in our tiny apartment of some of the CWLU’ s most active members.

People were trying to develop a socialist-feminist strategy that would build on the practical nature of the CWLU’s grassroots programs while keeping an eye firmly on a longterm revolution in American society. Nobody had any illusions that this going to be easy, but many hours of intense discussion produced a cautious optimism. Perhaps socialist-feminism could chart a course between the self-destructive tendencies of the sectarian left and the bland liberalism of the Democratic Party and the corporate feminists.

As a male observer and frequent participant in the CWLU’s public events, this was pretty heady stuff. I joined the New American Movement(NAM), whose guiding ideology was socialist feminism. Maybe, after years of inane bickering, sectarian splits and rhetorical bullshit, we were finally on track.

I was wrong. My first warning that something was amiss came when Estelle invited me to visit the Graphics Collective studio on Southport Ave. I was reluctant to go as I was actually very shy about going into “women’s spaces”, even when invited. Of course I couldn’t tell her that so I went. There were a few other women there and you could have cut the tension with a knife.

A woman named Helen started to argue with me about “feminist astrology”, a topic she brought up and which I had no interest in discussing. I soon figured out that she must be one of the separatists that Estelle had told me were now in the Collective. I tried to beg off, but she became increasingly rude and continued to bait me. I was mystified. In DC I had come in contact with a number of women who were drawn to separatism. I knew that their public rhetoric often didn’t match their private behavior. Some of them had male friends and I don’t remember anyone going off on a complete stranger without provocation.

After we left, I talked to Estelle and tried to make sense out of what had happened. She wouldn’t talk about it in any detail and I was reluctant to probe. It wasn’t long before she left the Chicago Women’s Graphics Collective. She was vague about the reasons, but it didn’t take much political savvy to figure that the wave of separatism sweeping the women’s movement had played a part. 

The Graphics Collective without Estelle Carol? How could such a thing have happened? But I looked at their new posters about goddesses and Amazons and actually sort of liked them. I was a history buff and had read about matriarchies, prehistoric female figurines, Amazon warriors, and the Mother Goddess worship of Neolithic Europe. I had no doubt that such things had once existed, but I was skeptical that they could provide us with much in the way of political direction now.

It got worse. Jennifer and I drove to the New American Movement (NAM) convention in 1975. I think it was at Oberlin College. NAM was overwhelmingly white and had the political atmosphere of a sedate graduate seminar. After some of the things I had witnessed on the Left, NAM’s political culture was seductively relaxing. At the convention, a Marxist-Leninist caucus raised issues of race and class. I found myself agreeing with the substance of their criticisms. My politics were pretty muddled and my experience with actual Marxist-Leninist groups had been very negative. But these people were raising real issues that the NAM leadership seemed to be avoiding. At the convention, they were treated politely, but it was clear they had raised their hands out of turn.

I was well aware of the totalitarian direction that the Russian and Chinese revolutions had taken, so I looked at Leninism with deep reservations. Still, I figured we had better learn more about it so we wouldn’t repeat the mistakes of the past. I genuinely liked the people in NAM, but felt that they were naive about the realities of political power and the bitter racial and class divisions in America. I stopped going to meetings and began to wonder if socialist feminism was the white middle class club its critics were calling it.

There was a huge socialist feminist conference in Yellow Springs, Ohio. 1500 women attended. Estelle came back very excited and my doubts about the viability of socialism feminism receded for a time. While few non-white women had actually been there, the issues of race and class had been discussed. Maybe on the way to becoming a mass movement, socialist feminism would mature and work out its race and class problems.

Wrong again. In 1976, the CWLU was rocked by a dangerous schism. Differences over the issues of race, class, sexual orientation and political ideology resulted in an overflow of extravagant confrontational rhetoric. Political intrigue escalated out of control. The details are hazy in my mind, but at some point there was a mass expulsion. People who thought the mass expulsion was precipitous and ill advised left the group. Friendships were shattered. Estelle felt caught in the middle and hoped for a reconciliation that never came. The Women’s Union died shortly afterward.

Within a few short years I had seen Students for a Democratic Society self destruct, the Black Panther Party destroyed and the American Indian Movement decimated. Now the Chicago Women’s Liberation Union, which I felt represented real hope for the American Left, was gone too. By the late 1970’s, the New Right was on the rise, promoting a terrifying vision of America with definite fascist overtones. With the Left in ruins, who could possible stop them? I felt a terrible sense of loss. I still feel it.

Now, nearly a quarter of a century later, I’m helping with the production work on the Chicago Women’s Liberation Herstory website. We more or less survived the New Right and many of the ideas of the women’s liberation movement are so commonplace today that people appreciate them about as much as a fish appreciates water. While nobody I know talks much about socialism anymore, my friends and associates from the Women’s Union days are still working for a more humane and decent America through their careers and their volunteer activities.

In some ways the CWLU was a vast social laboratory where people could study, experiment, build and share their results with like minded individuals. Can't find a decent place to get an abortion? Start an abortion service. No women's studies programs? Start a Liberation School. You can't play softball in the park? Start a sports program. You feel discriminated against and exploited at work? Organize a women's union caucus. You hate the preening sexism of corporate rock? Start your own rock band. Don't whine-organize.

People used to complain about the revolving door nature of the CWLU membership, but when people moved on with their lives, they could apply what they had learned in the CWLU to an astonishing variety of life experiences.

I want new generations to understand how the women’s liberation movement enriched people’s lives today by winning the freedoms we take for granted now. I want a new generation to know that the 60’s generation didn’t all turn into predatory stock traders and poll chasing politicians. I want a new generation to share their vision and experience with my generation so we can continue to grow as well.

By and large the women of the CWLU were people of strong conviction and excellent character. Yes, they had all the weaknesses associated with our imperfect species, but it's not a perfect world. Get to know them. You won't be sorry.

Bob Simpson is a partner in Estelle Carol's graphic design and illustration business. He invites you to visit their labor cartoon website at www.cartoonwork.com. He'd like to give special thanks to Estelle Carol for helping him develop this memoir and to Becky Kluchin for her encouragement.

Jody Howard, 1940-2010

Jody Howard, 1940-2010; Feminist started group that provided safe abortions

By Trevor Jensen, Tribune reporter February 14, 2010

Before abortion was legal, Jody Howard co-founded a group that helped women with unwanted pregnancies.

It went by the innocuous name "Jane," and over just a handful of years, some 11,000 women used its services by calling a telephone number and asking for "Jane Howe."

Ms. Howard was a former board member of the American Civil Liberties Union, and her work with Jane was part of a lifetime committed to social issues from equal rights to ending war.

Ms. Howard, 69, died of organ failure Friday, Feb. 5, at her home on a small farm near Vonore, Tenn., where she had lived for about 15 years after many years in Chicago's Hyde Park and South Shore neighborhoods, said her former husband, Wayne Parsons.

She had been diagnosed with Hodgkin's disease more than 40 years ago, and radiation treatments had taken a toll, he said.

Ms. Howard was a feminist dating back at least to her days at Michigan State University, where she worked on the campus newspaper and married a fellow student.

"She was adamant that she didn't want to be Mrs. Wayne E. Parsons," her ex-husband said.

After getting her degree, she settled with her husband in Hyde Park and quickly became part of the neighborhood's liberal activist swirl. She wrote for local newspapers, campaigned for Bobby Kennedy and Eugene McCarthy, joined the ACLU board and got involved with the Chicago Women's Liberation Union.

Jane was founded as an arm of the union, an umbrella organization for several women's groups. Working with doctors willing to risk their medical licenses, Jane offered referrals for safe abortions to thousands of women from the late 1960s until the 1973 Supreme Court decision that made the procedure legal.

The group's existence spread by word of mouth. Women facing an unwanted pregnancy were led to a telephone number and told to "Call Jane Howe," then met with counselors at a changing series of homes and hotel rooms.

"We tried to set it up to be as protective of ourselves and the people who worked for us as the women needing our services," said Martha Scott, an early Jane member.

Ms. Howard's commitment to abortion rights had a personal component. She had been diagnosed with Hodgkin's disease while pregnant with her second daughter. An unexpected pregnancy led her to seek an abortion.

Despite the obvious health risks because of the radiation treatments she had undergone, she had to go through two psychiatric evaluations before the pregnancy could be terminated.

A forceful advocate for causes she backed, Ms. Howard "had a great deal of personal charisma and (at the same time) could offer a very nice analysis of the issue," Scott said.

With her daughters, Ms. Howard participated in a blockade of the Rock Island Arsenal to protest war. At an ACLU fundraiser at Hugh Hefner's Gold Coast mansion, she showed up with small pictures of naked men that she posted here and there.

"She was escorted out," her ex-husband said.

In the 1970s, Ms. Howard, along with her sister and mother, ran The Peddler's Cart at 14th Street and Michigan Avenue. They glazed clay flowerpots for sale at stores including Amling's. All of the employees were women.

After her 1989 divorce, Ms. Howard started spending more time at the 46-acre farm, set in a peaceful valley that she and her former husband had bought in Tennessee. She kept a farmyard full of animals.

She also trained two golden retrievers, Ruby and Upsi, to national championship level in obedience competitions, said her daughter Linda Parsons.

Ms. Howard is also survived by another daughter, Lisa Parsons; a brother, Robert; a sister, Lauren; and three grandchildren.

Services are planned for a later date.


Copyright © 2010, Chicago Tribune

Remembering Jennifer Knauss, Fierce Leader and Advocate

by Yamani Hernandez 06/18/12

Jenny Knauss (1937-2012)- adovocate for reproductive rights, women's health, and improving the health and welfare of the disenfranchised

Jennifer Knauss, who was the Founding Executive Director of the Illinois Caucus for Adolescent Health(ICAH), and was most recently the President of Alzheimer's Spoken Here, a Chicago-based advocacy organization, died of Alzheimer's Disease last week on Monday, June 11, 2012, at Catonsville Commons Nursing Home in Catonsville, Maryland.

ICAH is truly saddened by this loss of a leader and tireless advocate, and we would like to honor her memory and give tribute to her legacy at a fall ICAH 35th anniversary celebration and reunion gathering. More details regarding this event will follow this summer.

In my first year as the fourth Executive Director in ICAH's history, I am stopped *ALL* time by colleagues who have nothing but raving reviews about Jenny and the impact she made on the field. Most recently, a former colleague wrote on Facebook in her honor, "Jenny Knauss is the reason I am who I am. Please make a toast to the mother of women's liberation in Chicago."

I feel lucky to have met her 12 years ago through my work at Girls' Best Friend Foundation, where she served on the Board of Directors. Jenny laid a powerful foundation for ICAH, and we intend to amplify her legacy and increase the impact of this organization by transforming public consciousness about youth sexuality and sexual decision-making and building capacity of systems to support the sexual health, identity and rights of youth in Illinois.

Ms. Knauss, who was known as Jenny, was 75 years old and lived in Chicago for much of her life before she became ill. Shewas a teacher and advocate, working at the University of Illinois Medical School and for several public health organizations throughout her career. Her area of expertise was women's health and reproductive rights. She was a founding member of the Chicago Women's Liberation Organization. She later became the first executive director of the Illinois Caucus for Adolescent Health, a nonprofit with an emphasis on marginalized populations and training young people to advocate for themselves and their communities.

When Ms. Knauss learned she had Alzheimer's in 2002, she decided to use her remaining productive years as an advocate for Alzheimer's patients, testifying before congress to garner research dollars for the disease and working with University of Illinois gerontology researchers.

Ms. Knauss was born in Melbourn, England, a small village near Cambridge. She received her undergraduate and master's degrees in history from Oxford. She moved to Nigeria in 1960, where she worked at the University of Ibadan. In 1964 she began teaching at the University of Ghana in Accra. In Ghana she met and married her first husband, the late Peter R. Knauss, and moved with him to the States.

Ms. Knauss is survived by her second husband, Don F. Moyer of Chicago; a son and daughter from her first marriage, Orlando Knauss, of Larchmont, New York, and Olivia Bukosky of Owings Mills, Maryland; and three grandchildren, Jacob Bukosky, and Theodore and Louisa Knauss.

Please stay tuned for more details this summer regarding ICAH's upcoming 35th Anniversary Celebration and Reunion Gathering in the fall.

Yamani Hernandez
ICAH Executive Director

My Father Tells Me Something

by Judith Arcana

You know, your mother had an abortion, it was before you and your brothers were born, in the thirties, about a year after we got married, so we must have been twenty one, both of us. She went, Annie went, to our family doctor, it was Jack Kornofsky, your mother’s cousin – well, he married your mother’s cousin Dorothy – he was the one we went to whenever anything was wrong, he would come out to the house when you kids got sick, do you remember him at all? He wore glasses, had a big smile. He would come when you had a fever, and he would always bring a Hershey bar in his bag for you kids – imagine a doctor doing that! Well, he knew you all loved Hershey bars. He and Dorothy were at our wedding. So anyway, he told her she was pregnant. When Annie came home and told me, we went back to him together, you know, and asked him what we should do. We didn’t think about it the way you do, the way everybody does now, we didn’t talk about it, we just knew it wouldn’t be good if we had a baby then, so young, just starting out. This was the Depression, we were still living with your grandparents in the old house on Saywell. So we asked him, Kornofsky, what to do. He sent us to this other doctor, oh listen, all of a sudden I remember his name, it was Ryan, his name was Ryan, can you beat that? All these years never thinking about it, why should I suddenly remember his name? So Kornofsky gave us the address and phone number of this other doctor, Ryan, who would do abortions. But no, no, if he hadn’t told us what to do, who to see, hadn’t given us the address, I guess she would have had the baby, we wouldn’t have known what else to do, I don’t know what else there would have been to do. Maybe your mother would have had some other ideas, maybe the women knew something, like you do, now, but you know, I don’t think so – as I remember it, she didn’t know any more than I did.

c Judith Arcana.  Do not use/reproduce without permission. First published in Hurricane Alice, Vol.13, #s 2&3, 1998.

Judith Arcana is a writer, currently writing fiction about tattoos and poems about abortion (supported by a Poetry Award from the Barbara Deming Memorial Fund, a Poetry Fellowship from Oregon Literary Arts, and grants from the Rockefeller Archive Center and the Union Institute Graduate College). Her poems and short prose pieces appear in anthologies,  newspapers, and literary magazines including ZYZZYVA, Nimrod, Fireweed, CALYX and Prairie Schooner. A longtime teacher of writing, literature and women’s studies, Judith’s nonfiction books are Our Mothers’ Daughters, Every Mother’s Son and Grace Paley’s Life Stories: A Literary Biography. Fifty years resident in the Great Lakes region, she moved to the Pacific Northwest in 1995. Judith is a member of the Graduate Faculty of The Union Institute.

Talking About Suzie, 1959

by Judith Arcana

Don’t you remember anything? It was just a little while ago, I think it was ‘56, no, it must’ve been ‘57, Suzie went away right after school got out, right at the start of summer. So what was that, your second year at Bonaventure, starting then? Sure, yeah, ‘cause it was the summer before my junior year. Don’t you remember, it was right around the time of spring carnival, they said she was sick and she had to stay home and finish the year with a tutor from DePaul? And then they said she had to go away, so Aunt Viv and Uncle Al took her away, but remember Teddy and the all the little kids stayed with us for a week and you two took them to the beach on the bus every day? Remember it was real hot, everybody was at the lake – except me, that was the year I got my work permit, the first time I could make more than baby-sitting money, so I could only go to the lake on Sundays after church. Anyway, that was when they took her to one of those places, homes, in St. Louis; they keep you there until you have your baby and then they give the baby to people who can’t have kids. It was like a convent there, or a jail even, I’m not kidding, places like that are so strict, the people who ran it were really mean, worse than Sister Marie-Claire – maybe even worse than Sister Thomas. I saw this movie about a girl who had to go to one, and her boyfriend tries to find her and he finally does, and he’s real cute, but they won’t let him in. So Mom and Dad and Aunt Viv and Uncle Al told everybody she was at a sanitorium, for breathing when you get TB or something, but she wasn’t, she was in St Louis. It is true. She did. Don’t tell me you didn’t know this. Suzie had a baby right before school started up again. She nearly got back too late to register; remember because she came late she had to be locker partners with some girl in her homeroom who never talked? How can you not remember any of this?

c Judith Arcana.  Do not use/reproduce without permission. First published in Hurricane Alice, Vol.13, #s 2&3, 1998

Judith Arcana is a writer, currently writing fiction about tattoos and poems about abortion (supported by a Poetry Award from the Barbara Deming Memorial Fund, a Poetry Fellowship from Oregon Literary Arts, and grants from the Rockefeller Archive Center and the Union Institute Graduate College). Her poems and short prose pieces appear in anthologies,  newspapers, and literary magazines including ZYZZYVA, Nimrod, Fireweed, CALYX and Prairie Schooner. A longtime teacher of writing, literature and women’s studies, Judith’s nonfiction books are Our Mothers’ Daughters, Every Mother’s Son and Grace Paley’s Life Stories: A Literary Biography. Fifty years resident in the Great Lakes region, she moved to the Pacific Northwest in 1995. Judith is a member of the Graduate Faculty of The Union Institute.

Dr Beatrice Tucker: Home Birth for Chicago's Working Class

“In the hospital you’re on duty for 8 hours and if you get into trouble they’ll come and help you out. If you’re out in the district, you know, you sit there for 24 hours if they’re in labor and you really learn about labor. You learn all the physiology of childbirth and you have to know that and know it well before you can really apply your obstetrical knowledge and manage and deliver a baby properly.”---Dr. Beatrice Tucker 1897-1984.

It’s a shame  there isn't a Nobel Prize for Obstetrics. What could be more important than bringing new life into the world? Without new life, there would be no humanity. None of our human accomplishments, whether for good or for ill would  be possible.

But if there were a Nobel Prize for Obstetrics, Dr. Beatrice “Tucks” Tucker(photo on right) and her longtime partner Dr. Harry “Bennie” Benaron would have won one  as leaders of the Chicago Maternity Center.

The Chicago Maternity Center grew out of the Maxwell Street Dispensary founded  in 1895 by Dr. Joseph DeLee to provide free obstetrical care for indigent women while training doctors in the latest methods of safe delivery. Financial problems caused to DeLee to reorganize the Dispensary in 1931 and rename it the Chicago Maternity Center. From 1932 until its doors closed in 1973, the Chicago Maternity Center was one of finest obstetrical facilities on the planet.

Specializing in home births, its record of live births and live moms set a standard for delivering babies that can still surprise those unfamiliar with its work. Given that the USA now has one of the worst infant and maternal death rates in the developed world, maybe it’s time to step into the WayBack Machine and see how Drs. Tucker and Benaron got the job done.

The Chicago Maternity Center was not located on the grounds of a prestigious medical school like Harvard, Johns Hopkins or University of Chicago. It was not a wing of a world famous hospital or a clinic like Mayo, the Cleveland Clinic or Mt. Sinai. Instead the Maternity Center was located at 1336 South Newberry Street in the heart of Chicago’s West Side. When Dr. Beatrice Tucker became the Maternity Center director in 1932, West Side Chicago was a desperately poor immigrant working class community.

The diseases of urban poverty like tuberculosis, anemia, rickets, & syphilis stalked the lives of the residents. Housing was miserably hot in the summer and icy cold in the winter. There was unemployment, labor exploitation, malnutrition, street violence and domestic abuse. All of this combined into a perfect storm of mental and physical stress to further weaken human immune systems. Yet the dogged physicians, interns and nurses of the Center who went into these homes to deliver babies had better success rates than some of the finest private hospitals. Tucker respected the competent midwives and doctors that she met in the course of her work in the Chicago slums, but was contemptuous of those who did not share her passion for constant improvement. All patients deserved only the best.

West Side Chicago 1930's

West Side Chicago 1930's

What was Dr. Beatrice Tucker doing differently in what science writer Paul DeKruif called  the “Fight for Life” against the “mother murderers” of childbed fever, eclampsia and sudden hemorrhaging? To understand that one must know something about her personal and professional background.

Beatrice Tucker was born in 1897 to a family with a rebel father who practiced medicine without a license, quite competently according to Tucker. The family moved frequently, as the dad, armed with his medical books, managed to stay one step ahead of the various medical boards. From the age of six Tucker knew she wanted to be a doctor, a line of work where women were not welcome. With the active encouragement of her father, she entered Bradley University in Peoria, finished her B.S. at the University of Chicago and her MD from Chicago’s Rush University.

After working in both private practice and in public health, she decided to pursue her longtime interest in obstetrics at the age of 35. She was accepted into Dr Joseph DeLee’s obstetrics program at the Chicago Lying-in Hospital. DeLee was probably the most well known obstetrician in the field. DeLee accepted 12 students and after their basic training, chose one of them for a 3 year residency program. DeLee was a lonely and contradictory man, a Jew in a country rife with anti-semitism, a political conservative, but one who when questioned about the economics of maternal care would answer,”I will say only this: nothing compares in value with human life.”

Early in her training, DeLee told Tucker about his dislike of women in obstetrics and pointedly reminded her that she was the first in his program. He once made an insulting remark about her behind her back. Undeterred Tucker confronted him:

“You shouldn’t have talked like that. You don’t know what I can do...and until you do, you should not make any remarks in front of anybody.”

DeLee was a fierce critic of the poor state of obstetrics and was not popular with the medical establishment. He knew that general hospitals were places where the presence of disease microbes made birth  dangerous  and he advocated specialized maternity hospitals.  DeLee also believed in increased physician intervention into the birth process and was opposed to midwifery. Yet, he thought that poor women should have the best possible care when giving birth and opened the Maxwell Street Dispensary for that purpose. In 1931, when the University of Chicago ended its financial support, he spent his own funds to keep it open and renamed it the Chicago Maternity Center.

Although he preferred maternity hospitals, he recognized that home birth was the only realistic option for Chicago’s most impoverished. When Tucker had finished her residency DeLee convinced her to work at the Chicago Maternity Center by telling her this:

“Just because you’ve had three year’s training in obstetrics doesn’t mean you know it. If you go to the Maternity Center you will learn more about obstetrics and become a really fine specialist.”

Overcoming his general misogyny and recognizing her talent, he made her director of the Center in 1932. It is a sad fact that some of the most important advances in medical knowledge have been made in wartime. Under the class war conditions of Depression Era Chicago, this was true in the obstetrical “Fight for Life” as well.

Chicago Maternity Center on Newberry Street

Chicago Maternity Center on Newberry Street

In the depths of the Great Depression Dr. Tucker, along with her partner Dr. Benaron, developed the procedures that made the Center so successful. Using medical students, residents and nurses, they ran a combination of a clinic and a real life school of obstetrics. Students from Chicago-areas hospitals like Wesley, Memorial and Northwestern would come to the Center to do home births and learn about obstetrics on the front lines. Documentary filmmaker  Pare Lorentz made a highly dramatized film about The Maternity Center in 1940 called The Fight for Life" based on the book by Paul DeKruif of the same name. Although she is listed as a consultant, no actress played Dr. Tucker in the film. Nobel Prize winning writer John Steinbeck worked on the script but was not credited.

The Film "The Fight for Life based on the book by Paul DeKruif

The Center had meticulous pre-natal procedures. When a woman came in for the first time, she was interviewed extensively and a baseline established for her general health. Her blood pressure and urine were tested for anomalies. She was advised to return to the Center on a regular basis and given nutritional and other instructions for maternal health. If she failed to show for an appointment, Center health workers would visit her at home. If there were any deviations in her baseline health, she was immediately counseled on her options. If necessary, she was taken to a hospital for a therapeutic abortion.

The health workers of the Maternity Center made themselves available day and night to all indigent patients, even ones who had not registered with the Center. For the docs and nurses still in training, this meant nerve jangling emergency cases where the margin of life and death could be minutes, even seconds. Tucker and Benaron were always on call for the complex ones and if the Center couldn’t handle them, it meant a trip to the hospital where Center workers would check on the woman’s condition and follow up on her.

But of course in the “Fight for Life”, death will sometimes win the battle. The Center would then do a rigorous post-mortem of their own procedures. Center workers took meticulous notes during the course of a delivery. Center workers would go over what had happened in an almost brutal self-examination. What could have been done differently? Where were the errors? It is said that doctors get to bury their mistakes along with the bodies of the dead. The Center did not believe in burying their mistakes, but in analyzing them and recording them. For the young trainees, this could be difficult, but Tucker and Benaron knew how important this was. They had made mistakes too.

Tucker and Benaron were patient with their trainees. Benaron put it this way,

”We never bawl them out for calling us when it was not necessary. Only when they fail to call us when they should have...When we’re humiliated by one of our mistakes, Dr DeLee always tells us--in his 45 years experience-- that he’s made nearly every blunder possible in obstetrics.”--- from The Fight for Life by Paul DeKruif

Hippocrates of Ancient Greece was supposed to have told physicians,”And first do no harm...” This ancient wisdom was one of the secrets of the Center’s success.

Center health workers practiced a patient vigilance and a policy of as much non-intervention with the natural birth process as possible. They would arrive with their medical bags pre-packed and ready to work. Newspapers were spread across kitchen tables as they were the most sterile table covers available. They called this the “Island of Safety.” Whether the home was neat and clean, messy and dirty didn’t matter, a small zone hostile to infectious microbes was always established.

A Chicago Maternity Center home birth

A Chicago Maternity Center home birth

Family members boiled water so the Center workers could scrub meticulously and ferociously before putting on gloves. Then came the long waits and the note-taking as the birth process proceeded to its conclusion. Center health workers stayed with the mom for a period of time after the birth, never rushing off prematurely. Home births (except for extreme medical emergencies) had another advantage. Hospitals could be impersonal, even cruel institutions:

“My first child was born in a Chicago suburban hospital. I wonder if the people who ran the place were actually human. My lips parched and cracked, but the nurses refused to even moisten them with a damp cloth. I was left alone all night in a a labor room. I felt exactly like a trapped animal and I am sure I would have committed suicide if I had the means. Never have I needed someone, anyone, as desperately as I did that night.”---From Lying-in: a history of childbirth in America by Richard and Dorothy Wertz

Women reported being tied down for hours and subjected to frightening conversations among medical workers about difficult dangerous births and being ignored when they were in pain or when they needed a hand to hold. This type of treatment poured a flood of stress hormones into a woman’s body, making the birth process more dangerous and mentally stressful than necessary. The Maternity Center’s methods allowed for a woman to have family there to support her.

Tucker and Benaron set an example of calm compassionate caring for their Center medical workers. Their patients were human beings and deserved to be treated as such. The pseudo-science of eugenics was popular among the moneyed elite before the Nazi Holocaust made those ideas unpopular. Eugenicists questioned why any money or resources should be directed to the "subhuman" population who lived in the urban slums of cities like Chicago.The Center had no use for those ugly racist, class biased ideas. All patients deserved respect and all life was sacred. Period.

Chicago Maternity Center home birth

Chicago Maternity Center home birth

An example of this was a difficult case the Center had on a frigid winter morning described by De Kruif in his bookThe Fight for Life. A young black woman had given birth to a baby who was not breathing. The two young residents took the baby to another room to clear it’s windpipe of any foreign material and to blow the breath of life into it. After 15 minutes, success! Then the nurse arrived to tell them the woman was lying a pool of blood; hemorrhage had set in.

A quick call to the Center gets Tucker and Benaron on the case. After quickly introducing himself to the frightened father, Benaron collected blood from the dad and rushed to the lab to see if the dad’s blood-type matched the mom in case there was need of a transfusion. Tucker injected glucose and salt into the woman’s veins and her blood pressure rose and her vitals  looked better. The bleeding had stopped.

Then as Tucker looked at the woman’s eyes, she saw them change to a vacant stare. The pulse was almost gone. It was time for an emergency transfusion, but Tucker couldn’t find the vein because the woman’s blood pressure was so low. She took a scalpel, and exposed the vein. The husband’s life-giving blood was pumped into her body. The mother began to speak:

“'Doctor! Save me! Save me for my babies!’ And then more faintly, you won’t let me die?’ These are the last words of this Negro woman who fought hanging on to harder and harder breathing. hoping her man’s blood might save her.’”

Benaron later said:

“When you hear a woman say that, you die too. Yes, she died. When we realized she was finally dead, Tucker and I dropped our instruments and began crying. The intern and the medical student and the nurse couldn’t keep their eyes dry either. We all just sat there and couldn’t stop crying.”

At the end of the record of pages for all the women who came to the Center was a message to the medical workers, “Tell what you might have done better and what to do next time”.  The two young men who had saved the woman’s baby had left the mom alone for too long. They learned a harsh heartbreaking lesson. From them Tucker and Benaron learned to improve their communication to Center medical workers. By 1938, the Center had a safety record for hemorrhaging deaths 10 times better than the national average.

With such a outstanding medical record, you might think that the Center received generous funding. You would be wrong. For years Dr. Tucker lived in the Center’s basement, at the mercy of Chicago’s weather extremes. There were bugs and rodents. DeLee had been a skillful fundraiser and she learned from him how to wheedle donations out of wealthy patrons. With donations in kind and as well as actual money, she was able to keep the Center alive, but dependent on medical schools for trainees. Still, there was medical equipment beyond the reach of the Center’s finances, equipment which could have saved more lives.

But by the 1960’s, home births attended by the Chicago Maternity Center were declining. The reasons for that were complex. Medical schools were losing interest in home births and began cutting off the flow of students. Midwifery was outlawed in Illinois. The underlying reason for the decline was economics. The home birth methods deployed by Dr. Tucker were not profitable. Her non-intervention into the birth process unless absolutely necessary meant long periods of medical workers sitting and observing. Medical care was becoming more corporatized with investments in buildings and equipment. Hospitals needed patients and home births meant empty beds. Medical intervention in the form of C-sections and other procedures increased dramatically. These brought in money whether or not they were medically necessary.

In 1972, a consortium of Chicago hospitals announced plans for the Prentiss Women’s Hospital along Chicago’s Lakefront. Chicago Maternity Center supporters were worried. The same hospitals that had cut back staff for the Maternity Center were involved in planning Prentiss. The Chicago Women’s Liberation Union(CWLU) along with concerned community groups, medical activists and Dr. Tucker organized Women Act to Control Healthcare(WATCH) to save the Chicago Maternity Center. They held press conferences, attended Board meetings, and organized demonstrations. CWLU members Jennie Rohrer and Sue Davenport joined Kartemquin films to make a documentary to help save the Center.

Chicago Maternity Center Board members, most of whom were allied with powerful corporate families, insisted that the Center would be moved into Prentiss and that home births would be supported. They lied. The Chicago Maternity Center’s home birthing program was ended in 1973. The medical-industrial complex succeeded in destroying one of the finest birthing programs in the entire USA. Unlike  Tucks and Bennie, life was not sacred to them---only money.

Kartemquin finished the film too late to help save the Center, but their classic documentary The Chicago Maternity Center Story explains both the history and the economics in vivid detail. I strongly recommend that anyone interested in birth and obstetrics view it. It is now available on DVD.

Dr. Tucker went into private practice until Dr. Benaron died in 1975. Tucker continued doing more home births, including the first child of two of my oldest friends in Chicago. She worked in public health and was a passionate activist for reproductive rights. You can see an interview with her late in her life as an extra feature on the The Chicago Maternity Center Story DVD. She was a great story teller with a lifetime worth of wit and wisdom. Tucker died just short of her 87th birthday in 1984.

Today a gleaming ultra-modern medical complex overlooks the Eisenhower Expressway not far from where the Chicago Maternity Center dispatched its medical workers. The Illinois Medical District is the largest medical center in the USA. Its gleaming towers are a testament to corporate medicine in all of its glory. You can take the Pink Line of the CTA from downtown Chicago and be there in a few minutes.

Just a short distance away from the Illinois Medical District are Chicago neighborhoods where the maternal and infant death rates are worse than in some 3rd World countries. There seems to be a historical amnesia about the medical advances that the Chicago Maternity Center made in its Fight for Life. Corporate profit has triumphed over the deeply personal and highly effective medical procedures practiced and taught by Dr. Tucker.

I was one of the nurses that worked there. I became familiar with the center as a student nurse and was employed there after graduating from nursing school. Dr. Tucker was a remarkable individual that truly believed in birth as a natural process, that involved the family as an integral part of the birthing experience. Birth was an incredible miracle not with the wailing, drugs and paternalism of the hospital experience that I saw in my OB experience. As a young nurse it was remarkable and as a young woman an eye opener to the beauty and miracle of birth. Thank you, Maternity Center and Dr. Beatrice Tucker.----Mary Amari RN

Dr. Beatrice Tucker left us a legacy that cannot be measured in money because it represents the highest aspirations of the human spirit. It’s time we reclaimed that legacy and put it to work. Today.

Dr. Beatrice Tucker

Dr. Beatrice Tucker

Sources Consulted

The Fight for Life by Paul DeKruif 1938 (Book)

The Fight for Life 1940 (Film)

“Recollections: An Interview with Dr. Beatrice Tucker” by Diane Redleaf & Pat Kelleher from Health and Medicine, Winter/Spring 1983

Maternal Mortality of the Chicago Maternity Center by Beatrice E. Tucker, M.D., AND Harry B. Benaron, M.D. from the American Journal of Public Health, January 1939

Medicine: The Baby Commandos from Time Magazine (1954)

Birth on the Kitchen Table from Life Magazine (1972)

WATCH Demands by Women Act To Control Healthcare (1972)

The Chicago Maternity Center: 77 Years of home deliveries from Womankind (1972)

Lying-in: a history of childbirth in America by Richard and Dorothy Wertz (1989)

The Chicago Maternity Center Story by Jenny Rohrer, Sue Davenport and Gordon Quinn 1976 (Film)

Tucks by Leon Carrow (2007)

Fortnight on Maxwell Street by David Kerns (forthcoming novel about the Chicago Maternity Center)



Days of Celebration and Resistance: The Chicago Women's Liberation Rock Band, 1970-1973

by Naomi Weisstein (1996) — In Chicago, one cold and sunny day in March of 1970, I decided to organize a feminist rock band. I was lying on the sofa listening to the radio -- a rare bit of free time in those early days of the women's movement. Perhaps a meeting had been canceled.

by Naomi Weisstein

(Editors Note: Naomi played keyboards for the CWLU affiliated Rock Band. She is currently living with Chronic Fatigue & Immune Dysfunction Syndrome. This memoir also appeared in The Feminist Memoir Project edited by DuPlessis and Snitow. The photo shows Naomi at a band rehearsal circa 1972.)

In Chicago, one cold and sunny day in March of 1970, I decided to organize a feminist rock band. I was lying on the sofa listening to the radio -- a rare bit of free time in those early days of the women's movement. Perhaps a meeting had been canceled. The trendy station that had just switched to all-rock was playing a medley of hits. First, Mick Jagger crowed that his once feisty girlfriend was now "under his thumb." Then Janis Joplin moaned with thrilled resignation that love was like "a ball and chain." Then The Band, a self-consciously left-wing group, sang:

Jemima surrender.
I'm gonna give it to you.
Ain't no pretender,
That's what I'm gonna do."

I somersaulted off the sofa, leapt up into the air, and came down howling at the radio: "every fourteen-year-old girl in this city listens to rock! Rock is the insurgent culture of the era! How criminal to make the subjugation and suffering of women so sexy! We've got to do something about this! We'll... We'll organize our own rock band!"

Of course there was more to my desire to organize a rock band than this small epiphany on a cold sunny afternoon in Chicago. I wanted to form a rock band because I was dissatisfied with the low state of feminist consciousness in the Chicago Women's movement and, in particular, in the Chicago Women's Liberation Union (CWLU), the magnificent city-wide umbrella organization that we had created, which nonetheless often placed its version of socialism ahead of feminism. Much of the leadership in Chicago was still trammeled by the dictates of a New Left whose misogyny meshed with its insistence on the primacy of class analysis, and I thought a rock band might help turn things around. Looking back from today, it may sound odd to bemoan the low state of feminism in the early women's movement. But the culture's enormous hatred of women and our own misogyny made it difficult for us to be steadfast in our feminism, to put feminism first. My primary goal for the rock band was always to reach out to sectors of the female population that the CWLU was not getting to; but a strong secondary goal was to try to make the CWLU more feminist.

A research neuroscientist then teaching at Loyola University, I had been organizing women's liberation in Chicago since 1966. That summer, Heather Booth and I had taught one of the first courses in feminism at a radical organizers' summer school for which the University of Chicago had grudgingly provided space. Then, I had been a founding member of the Chicago Westside Group, the first independent group of radical women in the country (1967-1969) and we couldn't talk about the oppression of women without getting a peculiarly guilty look on our faces. We were always switching to how-are-we-gonna-help-our-brothers-organize-draft- resistance.

Then in 1969 we formed the Chicago Women's Liberation Union (1969-1977) to pick up all the women's projects left stranded by the breakup of Students for a Democratic Society and to provide structure and leadership for the exploding feminist changes going on at that time. In many respects things were going quite well for feminism in Chicago. We early organizers had developed an empirical, pluralist, open politics which functioned wonderfully in maintaining unity through the bitter waves of sectarianism that had begun crashing through the New Left and the feminism that arose from the New Left. We had projects, demonstrations, meetings. Our influence was growing.

But, while there were many ardent feminists, and many exciting feminist projects that had started up -- I'm thinking for instance of "Jane," the underground abortion service -- low feminist consciousness and deference to the Left were still plaguing us. The week before my epiphany, for instance, a returnee from one of the Venceremos Brigades that went to Cuba to harvest sugar had described at a CWLU meeting how she preferred to cut cane with the Cuban men because the Cuban women were so "politically undeveloped." When I queried her preference, another CWLU'er whipped out her little red book and started quoting Mao Tse-Tung. Some women at the meeting sighed with relief to see the problem so easily resolved. Watching this scenario unfold, I thought I was hallucinating.

Clearly, our sense of our own profound oppression was also "undeveloped." Indeed, for many women, it was fast asleep. I wanted to awaken that sense and shake that sense; to dislodge the notion that men are where it's at, to instill a deep urgency about our own feminist revolution; to put forth a vision of a just, generous and egalitarian feminist society. But how to do it? We already had consciousness- raising, a spectacular wave of writings and ongoing projects. That Sunday afternoon I asked myself why we didn't try to turn to our own advantage the techniques used by the wider culture to keep us in our place. Why not see what would happen if we created visionary, feminist rock?

The idea of direct cultural intervention in order to change consciousness was held in low esteem by most of the CWLU leadership at that time. This was due to another assumption we had inherited from the New Left. This was that if we change the structures which maintain our oppression (such as if we won equal pay for equal work) consciousness would follow. I had started to disagree. Structural change is absolutely necessary if we are to overthrow our oppression, but it is not sufficient; we also need to change our consciousness. Structure is the tip of the patriarchal iceberg. Subjugation and submission gets inside our heads, and it takes direct confrontation with culture to extirpate them. We had to go through the culture, both mainstream and Left, with a fine tooth comb, confronting every thing from why we thought that a working-class revolution -- indeed any revolution -- was more important than a feminist revolution, all the way to why we believed, along with the mainstream culture, that male domination and a little bit of cruelty would always turn us on.

"What about Rock?" I said to myself as my epiphany boiled over. Rock, with its drive, power and energy, its insistent erotic rhythms, its big bright major triads, it's take-no-prisoners chord progressions, was surely the kind of transforming medium that could help to alter the culture in which we lived, and thus help us to change our consciousness.

Besides, not only did every fourteen-year-old girl in the city listen to rock, but also every CWLU'er did. We all identified with the counter culture; rock was considered "Our Music": dangerous, sexy and our harbinger of the social changes to come. No matter that rock assaulted women more savagely than anything in popular culture before it: "Under my Thumb," "Jemima Surrender," as well as Bob Dylan's "It ain't me, Babe," Grateful Dead's "Hello Little Schoolgirl," and a host of similar lyrics. Many of us lived cocooned in rock's sound, oblivious to, or even worse, delighting in the message.

The task would be to change the politics while retaining the impact. In subsequent weeks, while I was looking around for musicians for the band, many people told me, some with huge sneers, that it couldn't be done. Rock was its own thing, they said, and you couldn't mess with it. "Art and politics don't mix," they said. I dismissed this.

Rock was the pre-eminent theater of sexual politics; in this sense, rock was already deeply political. Moreover, as a Red Diaper baby and the daughter of a musician, I had grown up on political art: not simply agitprop, or socialist realism, but frontier art. I loved Bertoldt Brecht's and Kurt Weill's classic "Threepenny Opera"; Kurt Weill's moving and eye-opening "Lost in the Stars," about race relations in South Africa; and, a decade later, Lenny Bruce's morally outraged pre-feminist anti-authoritarian, brilliant stand-up comedy. Coming from such a background, while I loved all sorts of art and music, I thought that constructing a new kind of political art -- if you could pull off both the art and the politics-- was a most worthy project. It was a thrill to contemplate trying to make feminist rock.

And so I organized the Chicago Woman's Liberation Rock Band. My goals were much too ambitious -- a common problem at the time -- but the band turned out to be remarkably successful in achieving many of the goals. For starters, we actually got an effective band together. After the first shake-down months (at our first performance in Grant Park in August of 1970, we had thirteen singers all bellowing happily to their individual muses), we grew into a distinctive group of hip, even talented if inexperienced musicians.

High school dropout Sherry Jenkins was our resident rock genius with her wonderful alto whiskey voice and lyrical lead guitar. There was no rhythm that our hippy rhythm guitarist Pat Miller couldn't master. She was also wildly comical. In the middle of our drop-dead Kinks number, she broke in with a stone-perfect slob macho rendition of "Alouie, Louie," which drove the audience into the rafters. Bass guitarist Susan Abod was steeped in rock, if just starting out on the fret board. Both her bass line and her song lines were lyrical and inventive. Fania Montalvo and Susanne Prescott provided a double drumming rhythm. As for myself, I had seven years of classical training on the piano plus an additional 2 years of jazz piano. But my more important function as a performer in the band was to provide and direct theater and comedy, two areas in which I had some experience.

We were explicitly, self consciously political about our performances, while avoiding leaden sloganeering. To combat the fascism of the typical rock performance where the performers disdain audiences and the sound is turned up beyond human endurance, we were extremely interactive with our audiences, rapping with them and asking them which songs they liked and keeping the sound level at a reasonable roar. We were playful, theatrical and comical, always attentive to performance. We sang "Papa don't lay that shit on me," to the tune of the old-time dirty song, "Keep on Truckin', Mama," in carnival fashion with slide whistles and whoops of derision, the audience laughing and singing along:

Poppa don't lay that shit on me,
It just don't compensate.
Poppa don't lay that shit on me,
I can't accommodate.
You bring me down,
It makes you cool.
You think I like it?
You're a goddamn fool.
Poppa don't lay that shit on me,
It just don't compensate.

"Don't Fuck Around with Love" offered a parodic voice-over above a sentimental 'fifties doo-wop chorus: "Love is wonderful / Love is peace / Love moves the mountains / Love cuts the grease." Then we'd sing "Ain't gonna marry" and "Secretary" ("Sister I believe you when you say you hate / Sister can you hear me, better break your date.") But at all times we wanted our politics to be artful: revolutionary poetry, as in "Mountain Moving Day" (lyrics above).

We were an image of feminist solidarity, resistance and power, and audiences loved us. Just the fact that we were all women standing up on the stage playing our heavy duty instruments into our heavy duty amplifiers was enough to turn many women on, but we received a wildly enthusiastic response not only from women in the movement but also from a wide range of different groups including the crowd at the Second Annual Third World Transvestite Ball, and the fourteen-year-old black girls at a summer camp for inner-city children.

At Cornell University, where we played with the New Haven Women's Liberation Rock Band (organized by my close friend, Virginia Balled), women stripped to the waist and danced together in undulating circles. (Outside the room, angry fraternity boys were threatening to jump us. "Put your clothes back on," we sang, "We're in a hostile situation." The women kept dancing. "No we won't," they sang back. "We're free. We are... FREE.") At the inner-city camp, the girls made us play "VD Blues" six times before they would let us pack our bags and go home:

I went to the preacher, said preacher can you help me please.
... He looked at me and said, girl, get on your knees.
I went to the doctor and said doctor can you help me please.
... He looked at me cross-eyed and said,

Everywhere we went, we would be mobbed at the end of a performance, with the audience hugging the band and other members of the audience. And the band hugging the audience. And all of our faces wet with tears of joy.

"Secretary" and "Mountain Moving Day" were our strongest songs, as Kim observed; and sometimes, when we were really on, they transformed our performance. A gig we played at the University of Pittsburgh in April of 1971 is etched in my memory. The room we played in was large and bright, with the mixed male and female audience sitting in tiers as if in a science auditorium from which the chairs had been removed. In front of the shallow stage was a sizable dance floor.

We were on stage and at our instruments before the audience showed up. This was a rule with us. In accord with our subversive resolve to be audience-friendly -- unheard of with male rockers -- we tried always to be on time for a performance. There is nothing worse than sitting someplace for forty-five minutes waiting for an arrogant band to show up.

When the room was filled, Tanya did a cracking drum intro and Susie sang, "I don't need no doctor cause I know what's ailing me." Then I went to the mike, and assuming the sneering voice of your average low-life male sexist, said, "A women's liberation rock band. Farrrr Out! Farrrrr fucking out. Hey, I'd like to see you chicks in your gold lame short shorts and feathers on your tits." I went on to imitate Mick Jagger sing "Under My Thumb," "There is a squirrelly dog, who once had her way..." I ended with, "and do you know what he says then? he says, "it's alright.' Well, it's not alright, Mick Jagger, and IT'S NEVER GOING TO BE ALRIGHT AGAIN. [CHEERS FROM THE AUDIENCE] IT'S NEVER GOING TO BE ALRIGHT AGAIN!"

Then another cracking drum intro from Tanya, and Pat, Susie and Sherry began their sweet harmony opening "Secretary":

Get up/ Downtown. Don't you wish you could get out of this.
No trust/Big bust. Doesn't all those mumbles ever bother you.
Men's eyes/Fantasize. Memorizing thighs and getting off on you.
Elevators/See ya laters. Don't you think it's time you had a change of life.

Two bars of piano and bass and then Sherry launches into an acid lead guitar solo that is meant to signify a monumental head changing in the protagonist. The band members all improvise their solos which sometimes leads to very bad results. But this time Sherry just takes off and flies. Using a blues scale she plays syncopated cascades of fourths and fifths mixed with single stretched notes. It sounded as weird as she wanted it to be. Also it was lovely. After a caesura that followed her solo, she spoke:

Sister I believe you when you say you hate
Sister I could be you but it's too late
Sister can you hear me, better break your date
Stop it right now it's already too late

Then my solo came up. I was so high from listening to Sherry's that I just copied it with my right hand while my left hand provided a second voice of triads and sixths. Sherry decided to play with me, and the audience started clapping. "Rain forest" is how we described the sound later on: lush and dense. At the end, Sherry spoke the protagonist's final head change:

Get up/Downtown. Think I'll talk to Alice she may understand
And Susie and Pat joined in a cappella:
No trust/Big bust. Wonder if the new girl lives alone
Men's eyes/Fantasize. Jodi wants to tell the boss to fuck off
Elevators/See you laters. Tell all the girls noon in the lunchroom
Then the entire band spoke the last line in a sing-song:
And maybe we'll all wear pants tomorrow!

The audience didn't stop screaming for five minutes.

Susie and Pat's adaptation of my setting and additional verse for Japanese feminist Yosano Akiko's "Mountain Moving Day" (1913) was our final song. I played a soft sixteen-bar piano intro in dorian mode (like the "Greensleeves" scale), and Susie joined with a descending sixteenth note bass and then began to sing:

The mountain moving day is coming
I say so yet others doubt it
Only a while the mountain sleeps
In the past all mountains moved in fire
Yet you may not believe it
O man, this alone believe

Pat and Sherry's true harmonies amplified the last line:

All sleeping women now awake and move
All sleeping women now awake and move

Suzanne, who formerly played in a marching band, then did a haunting martial snare drum roll, as if to call legions of women to battle.

Susie resumed:

Can you hear the river
I can see the canyons as they stretch out for miles
But if you listen you can hear it below
Grinding stones into sand
Yet you may not hear it
O man, this alone hear
The waters now will tear the canyons down
The waters now will tear the canyons down

Again, folks in the audience began to scream and sing with us. Sherry and I always did a fugal coda to bring the excitement down at that point. But it was no use. The audience shouted and wept and rushed up on the stage and hugged our instruments and hugged us, and surely, we felt, we had produced a new world that would never go away, that would never fail us.

Driving back to Chicago, we had a flat tire and pulled off into a rest stop surrounded by tall trees. Amid the band's standard jokiness after a performance -- "tire's flat like your voice, Susie." "Fuck you, Pat." "This car is a piece of shit, Tanya." "It's a bright new shiny red Ford, so fuck you Sherry" -- we changed the tire. It had rained in the morning, and new huge blurry clouds were racing northwards. The trees, probably wild cherry, were just beginning to sprout little lavender buds. Tiny bird tracks across the wide blurred sky. We became silent and stood against the car. It was April of 1971, and we were getting good, and we were making history.

Every weekend, we crisscrossed the Chicago area, flew or drove to Colorado Springs, Bloomington, Madison, Pittsburg, Lewisburg, Toronto, Ithaca, Indianapolis, Buffalo, Boston, and so on. (Professor of Psychology aside, I flew as "Susan Young" at youth fare.) Audiences invited us back, and by the second visit knew half our lyrics. A cult began to form. We flew east to Boston to make a record for Rounder Records (1972), which became an underground classic for many feminists. This is when that congeries of styles and songs called Women's Music began. Years later, in 1994, Chicago New City music editor Ben Kim said of our record, "the band displays more than a fair amount of musicianship and spirit..." Calling Sherry Jenkins' "Secretary" "wonderfully angry," and my "Mountain Moving Day" "stirring,"Kim goes on to say:

....though "Mountain Moving [Day]" doesn't rock hard by conventional standards, its strong convictions lends it considerable weight. In a sense, it's the mother of Riot Grrrl, Foxcore, any rock by women who ask no quarter.

Ultimately we did fail. The band lasted three years and broke up in an agony of hatred and hidden agendas. This fact is not unusual; it even happened to the Beatles. But the way our band broke up reflected all the conflicts that were at the same time devastating the radical women's movement, and hence it is worth exploring in some depth. In a sense the band was a microcosm of what was happening all over the country: we were losing our women's movement and we didn't have much guidance on how to stop the dissolution.

There are many reasons for the band's failure. Some were external. With the radical feminist and radical movements of the preceding decade fast receding, our solidarity broke up as a result. But many of the reasons for our failure were internal: conflicts that once seemed easy to resolve, such as those of lesbians versus straights, now seemed almost insurmountable, and we began arguing too much and rehearsing too little. But there were two conflicts in particular which finished us. These conflicts lay at the millenarian heart of the prefigurative politics of the women's liberation movement.

The movement's utopianism included the ideas that: 1) any woman should be able to do anything as well as any other woman; and 2) there should be no leaders. We soon learned these ideas were untenable, but we persisted in thinking that if we were good enough feminists, we could abolish inequality of skills, and we could function without leaders; the contradictions between what we knew to be true, versus what we pretended was true, destroyed us. In our band, the first conflict expressed itself as a tension between expertise on the one hand and, on the other, enthusiasm-in-place-of-expertise (or "militant amateurism"). Our early women's movement said that any woman could do anything, if given the right social context and sufficient social support. (I said something like this myself in the early days).

I think this principle worked at the beginning, while our rock band was the first of its kind and women even appreciated its amateur qualities. After all, the band's amateurism conveyed the message that the audience itself could do things formerly considered taboo for women. But we owed it to our audience to be the best musicians we could. Some members of the band were willing to take up this challenge, but others were not. Feeling that the band needed a sharper beat, one day I suggested to one of our drummers that she take some lessons. She replied somewhat contemptuously, "I'm good enough for this band." The telling thing about this exchange was that nobody followed up. The myth about equality in skills was so strong that not one of us had the temerity to say, "You're not good enough for this band. Get better, or quit."

The second, and related conflict that did us in involved the question of leadership. This question was to rend the women's movement from coast to coast. Committed, as I have said, to what turned out to be a myth of equal skills, the movement applied the same kind of thinking to leadership, declaring that there should be none. For instance, in another area, after my reputation as a public speaker had increased and speaking invitations for me multiplied, the CWLU decided that I should refuse further invitations, lest I emerge as a "heavy." I willingly went along with this. (Instead, I organized intensive speaker training sessions, where I taught inexperienced women the skills that I had picked up.) But no matter what leaders did to abnegate and equalize, it was not enough. The utopian vision became cannibalism, and the movement ate its leaders: in city after city, they went down.

Here is how the leadership conflict played out in the band. We built the group painstakingly, and through much interpersonal struggle, to be an egalitarian collective. Thus, for instance, every member wrote songs, and these were accepted by the band as a whole with few questions asked, although friendly adaptations and amendments were usually received enthusiastically. But, amidst the appearance of structurelessness and leaderlessness, I was nonetheless clearly the theatrical director, theoretician, healer of wounds, spiritual leader and, if only by dint of a slight chronological advantage, "mother" to the band. Totally committed as I was to a deeply utopian egalitarianism, I was the de facto leader of the band anyway.

When the women's movement started trashing its leaders, the band turned on me for all the roles I had played. Its solidarity split open, and I came under attack. After I wrote (with Virginia Blaisdell) and published in Ms. a piece on the band's strengths and triumphs, I was attacked by the band for egotism: "Why did you sign your name to the article?" some members asked. Interestingly, nobody questioned the importance of the article, just that I should take credit for it.

The band needed my experience and skills, but they did not want to admit this. A gig we played at Bucknell University in 1972 made this clear to me. The audience was ferociously hostile, riled by an earlier speaker and angered by the fact that only half the band showed up. (In pre-performance confusion, they had taken the wrong plane.) Huge fraternity boys were roaring and piloerecting in the middle of the floor. At one point, Sherry put an empty coke bottle on my piano and grabbed an empty microphone stand because she thought they were going to rush the stage.

I sought to calm the audience with a stand-up comedy introduction. Concerned about my leadership role, the band refused to let me do this. Instead, another band member, inexperienced in such situations, made a stumbling presentation which further enraged the audience. At this point I came out, delivered the stand-up I had intended to present, and the hostile vibes from the audience turned to warmth and enthusiasm. The band was enraged at me for my success in turning the mood around.

After we got back from Bucknell, one of the band members -- the lead trasher -- suggested that we cut the band's repertoire to exclude the songs I had written: "I've been hearing that the sisters don't like your stuff, Naomi." I said that I agreed with the general principle that we should play what women want to hear. "So why don't we take a poll at our next gig?" My songs came out very popular and so she dropped that line of attack.

To paraphrase Tolstoy, these unhappy disputes all have their unique quirks and kinks, and it is beyond the scope of this paper to dwell on them. I should point out, however, that by talking about "the band" I don't mean to imply a monolithic consensus about trashing me. As these dynamics go, one person started the attack -- as it turned out, when I left the band she attacked the leader who took my place. The rest of the band, in varying degrees was reluctant to join the confrontation she had set up, but their silence gave the trashing the appearance of unanimity.

The reluctance of some of the other band members to stand up for me stem from the ideology and culture that had so recently infected the women's movement. Band members were just plain scared to oppose the new dogmatism. They didn't want to appear politically stupid. After all, hadn't the CWLU decreed that I should stay silent? Maybe, reasoned some of the band members, I shouldn't be performing at all.

How much the band actually relied on me was to be sadly revealed when I left Chicago. Struggling against the male power structure in science, I leapt at the chance when Bell Labs in New Jersey made me a scientific offer I couldn't refuse. In January of 1973 I took a six-month leave of absence from the band, in part because the group's attacks on me as leader had become intolerable.

Three months later, I read in my copy of the CWLU newsletter that the band had dissolved. The group described its dissolution as the outcome of natural, organic processes: "women's music lives and grows." But the reality was that the band had died. Women's music doesn't necessarily live and grow (although from the 'seventies to the 'nineties, many wonderful kinds of women's music did, but not the kind played by the CWLRB: bust-out bad-ass visionary political poetry.)

The band dissolved not because of spiritual, organic processes, but because we were not honest about the skills we needed to develop. The good musicians in the band resented the tenured-for-life members who refused to learn their instruments, and the inept members of the band -- to my surprise -- resented the good musicians even more fiercely. And, perhaps more important, the band collapsed because trashing had replaced compromise and negotiation as the dominant political modus operandi of the radical women's movement.

Recently, I heard the audio portion of a video tape of a CWLRB performance that took place shortly after I left Chicago. It's labeled "last concert," and I hear Susie on the tape announcing this to the audience. Jesse, who has seen the tape, tells me that it is grainy, fragmentary, black-and-white. It makes me nostalgic, bringing back both the conflicts and the euphoria of the period. For the rest of my life, I'll always be obsessed with the conflict between the band's ecstatic side and its amateurish side.

Through the poor tape, we nonetheless see Susie (a natural performer) working like mad to keep a lively tempo for the band. Sherry's deadpan voice shouts out, "Keep on truckin, everybody... there's plenty of space back there to truck." And Pat Miller's slide whistles and banjo-rhythmed guitar makes an old-time honky tonk festival out of the song. The audience is delirious, cheering like crazy.

Why is the audience cheering so hard? Many of the other songs are done quite poorly, revealing -- at least to someone familiar with the band's previous performances -- the extent to which the band has disintegrated. In another step in the de-skilling of the band, one of the drummers is now singing, "Ain't Gonna Marry," tunelessly and without rhythm. Sherry has omitted her lovely modal solos in "Mountain Moving Day." Even precise Susie loses the bass line in "Don't Fuck Around with Love," the key to which cannot be discerned. And the drumming has shifted from a rock beat to a polka. The demoralization that the band members are feeling as the drummer looses the beat and the singers can't stay in tune is palpable.

And yet, in the grainy shadows of that last tape, the audience is ecstatic. Why?

Beyond the CWLRB's flaws, beyond the disintegration of the last performance, the band nonetheless conveys movingly celebration and resistance. Its performance deliberately sets up a pre-figurative politics of strong, defiant women, absolute democracy, and an intense desire for audience participation. Through the intensity of the medium, through our bad-ass revolutionary poetry, it shouts the news: we can have a new world, a just and generous world, a world without female suffering or degradation. It is an irony that the utopianism that had destroyed us was the same ingredient that made our performance so powerful.

After the death of the CWLRB, I played with the more durable and musically more proficient New Haven Women's Liberation Rock Band, whose dominant forces were Virginia Blaisdell and Jennifer Abod. (Blaisdell was a professional musician who could play trumpet, french horn, drums, piano and even electric bass, and directed the beginner musicians into a tight ensemble sound. Jennifer Abod -- Susan's sister -- had the family's stunning dramatic presence, and a deep blue voice she could have taken to Hollywood.)

Later, when I became Professor of Psychology at SUNY, Buffalo, I sat in with a South Buffalo lesbian band. But it was never the same. I mourned the band, and the radical women's movement that fell apart in that same period; for years, I mourned it. The Women's Liberation Rock Band was, in Chelsea Dreher's words, "Like a lover who abruptly walked out on you and never did tell you why."

Yet you might not believe this.
Oh man, this alone believe:
All sleeping women now awake and move

Yosano Akiko, 1913
Adapted and performed by
The Chicago Women's Liberation Rock Band

-- For Susie, Sherry and Pat: time sharpens the intensity.

Jo Freeman collected some memorabilia related to Naomi and was kind enough to share them with the Herstory Project. You may view them Here (will open a new window)

 Naomi Weisstein can be reached at:

890 West End Avenue, 8b

NY NY 10025

phone: (212) 222-6649;fax (212) 222-1624

Our Gang of Four: Friendships and Women's Liberation

by Amy Kesselman with Heather Booth, Vivian Rothstein and Naomi Weisstein (1999) — When speaking of my involvement in women's liberation in the late 1960's, I often say, "feminism saved my life," replacing self hatred with anger, making sense of the world, reconnecting me with other women and providing an avenue to express my ideas.

(Editors Note: The authors were all founding members of the CWLU. This is a draft version of a chapter that appeared in The Feminist Memoir Project: Voices from Women's Liberation edited by Rachel Blau DuPlessis and Ann Snitow. This excellent collection is available through the book section of our Feminist Marketplace.)

When speaking of my involvement in women's liberation in the late 1960's, I often say, "feminism saved my life," replacing self hatred with anger, making sense of the world, reconnecting me with other women and providing an avenue to express my ideas. All of this happened for me and for hundreds of other women's liberation activists with lightning speed in the three years from 1967 to 1970. There were many elements of this transformation but a central one was the intense friendships that developed among women who were recreating feminism together.

While women have always had close friendships, these relationships were often tempered by the assumption that they were secondary to the main business of life, finding a man. And, for those of us who were trying to move into male terrain, friendships with women were sometimes stunted by the suspicion that connecting ourselves too closely with other women would interfere with the effort to be more like men. I, for example, felt profoundly ambivalent about my friendships with women in college. I cared about my women friends and felt more comfortable with them than I did with men, but at the same time, I felt troubled by the way women together seemed to accept and reinforce their marginality in the male dominated world of my college.

The friendships of the early years of women's liberation were different. They reinforced our strengths, rather than our weaknesses and were the matrix within which many of the ideas and excitement of women's liberation developed. This essay will describe the friendship among four women's liberation activists in Chicago: Myself, Heather Booth, Vivian Rothstein and Naomi Weisstein, reflecting on its role in the development of the women's movement in Chicago.

For all of us, involvement with feminism was closely connected to our relationships with each other. The excitement of the early days of women's liberation lent passion and intensity to our friendship and our friendship in turn facilitated the contributions we each made to the emerging movement in the city in which we lived. The narrative of this essay was written by me, interspersed with quotations from writings or interviews with Heather, Vivian and Naomi who also helped to shape and revise the essay as a whole.

I. Becoming Politically Active

All of us had seen ourselves as committed new left activists before the reemergence of feminism. For three of us (Heather, Amy and Vivian) the radical movements of the 60's had been the center of our lives for several years. We all came to Chicago in the 1960's, Vivian and Amy were drawn to the political activity in Chicago's neighborhoods; Heather was a student at the University of Chicago and Naomi was a professor of Psychology at Loyola University.

After growing up in Bensonhurst in Brooklyn, New York, I moved with my family to Long Island when I was in high school. My family's strong loving support, passed on values of caring for others and responsibility for building a better society. Even though I was the head of many high school clubs (yearbook, choir, study groups) I was looking for, but never found those ways to engage. I had heard Dr. King speak while I was in high school, and dropped out of the school "sorority" and one of the cheerleading teams when it was clear that they discriminated against blacks and girls who did not fit some standard definition of "pretty". Still, I was searching for meaningful activity. It was a time of movements. February 1, 1960 Negro students in Greensboro, North Carolina sat in at a Woolworth's counter to demand the service they were being denied because of their race.

I joined the support effort for the sit ins organized by CORE and began to identify a whole new world. This provided the opportunity to engage and make a difference on concerns that were meaningful. Within weeks after leaving home to go to college at the University of Chicago in 1963, I was active in a local political campaign for A.A. Sammy Rayner against the local political machine. Within months, I was active in the Friends of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) organizing the south side freedom schools during a school boycott and protesting the unequal school conditions created by the Superintendent of the Public Schools, Ben Willis. By the summer of my first year of college, 1964, I joined the Mississippi Freedom Summer Project to focus the eyes of the nation on the unequal conditions and the denial of voting rights to black citizens. Following that summer I did national traveling to other campuses, talking about civil rights and The Movement.

It was a time of youth movements. For the first time in history a majority of people in their late teens were going to college and the new experience away from home in an intellectual environment was transforming. In my first year, I confronted the ways that women were treated differently from men. Women students, for example, had different rules about when they had to return to the dorm. When I stayed out past 11 pm (giving support to a friend who was very depressed about a broken love), I was searched for contraceptives. I was outraged that they would humiliate me this way (and I was embarrassed, "how could they think this of me?") and over the next two years women staged "sleep outs" until they changed the rules.

In 1965 a friend from the Summer Project at the University, found out she was pregnant and was hysterical. She asked for help in finding an abortionist. I located someone. She was safe and relieved. Word spread. Others asked and I began what became JANE, the abortion counseling service. I don't remember really discussing it with anyone (I was much too scared) or even particularly seeing this as an activity related to women's organizing. It was simply the right thing to do in the face of a desperate situation.

I left the service in 1968, after my first child was born and recruited others, who later expanded the effort to actually perform the procedures themselves. The next year, another friend was raped at knife point, at home, in her bed. When she went to student health for a check up, she was told this was not covered by student health and was given a lecture on her promiscuity. Several of us sat in at the student health office until she got the check up and the policy was changed. Now, I did not take this action with bold courage. I was petrified. Would someone yell at me? Would I get thrown out of school? What would happen to our friend? Would I know what to do? Would I have time to finish my homework for school tomorrow? My heart was always pounding. I almost never felt I knew enough, and was smart enough, to be confident. But we acted in spite of not knowing enough, being smart enough or being confident enough. And the policy changed. We learned that if you act, you can change the world.

In the mid 1960's, at a very large student political meeting, I was shouted down by one male student and told to shut up while making a point. I did shut up. Then I proceeded to tap each woman at the meeting on the shoulder and suggest we leave the meeting. We formed our own organization, the Women's Radical Action Project (WRAP) and became one of the most dynamic groups on campus.

Other activities were going on at the same time. There were student's rights issues (what courses were taught, what kinds of professors we wished, what hours we could be out); there were sit-ins against apartheid in South Africa (leading to my first arrest); support for community organizing in the neighborhood of the University; education and expose against the war in Vietnam and the University's role within it.

There were documentary films and singing and dancing. There were service projects doing tutoring and work in a mental institution. There was the intensity and challenge of the classes from philosophy to sociology. There was an excitement about learning new things, meeting new people, and engaging the world around us.

In 1966, at a sit-in at the University over "ranking" men students according to grade point average and giving that rank to the Selective Service as the basis of future draft choices, I met my future husband--Paul Booth, who was there as a national leader of the growing student movement. All of this was part of the new world, learning and engaging, a meaningful and exciting life.

I grew up in Jackson Heights Queens feeling alienated from just about everything in my life. I absorbed political consciousness from my parents who had been left activists in the 30's but, in the fearful atmosphere of the McCarthy era, the messages were muted and confused. In high school, I helped to organize a discussion group called "Discussions Unlimited," (an ironic title since we were told we couldn't discuss politics, sex or religion), and picketed my local Woolworth's in support of the black students who were attempting to integrate lunch counters in the south.

In my senior year I was suspended from school for five days for giving out leaflets protesting the civil defense drills that perpetuated the belief that standing against the wall could save us if a nuclear bomb dropped on New York City. When I entered City College in 1962 I was much more interested in politics than course work, reading Marx instead of doing home work and becoming involved in the tiny but vocal student movement. I wanted desperately to be a leader in the left. I thought and read about politics all the time and took myself seriously as an activist.

In my junior year I organized a campus committee against the war in Vietnam and was elected president. But most of the time, when I was with my male colleagues I felt stupid and inadequate. While I was excited about being part of a movement to end the war, my memories of college are filled with petty humiliations and frustrations . My most vivid memory was at a sit-in at the administration building, aimed at getting the administration to refuse to release male students grades to the draft board, which would then draft those who didn't do well.

The Steering Committee of the sit-in was composed of nine men, each representing a different political faction, and me, representing the "Independent Committee to End the War." We started out with over 300 participants but as finals approached, the ever-practical city College Students began leaving to attend to their school work. We were losing strength. When the administration offered a compromise, I thought we ought to consider it and tried to get the other members of the steering committee to talk with me about it. No one would discuss this with me: "What give in now!" they proclaimed, as if they were talking to a member of a hostile press or an ignorant bystander rather than a comrade in struggle. I felt discounted and hurt but I felt certain that I must be wrong-lacking in guts or perseverance. Although we eventually had to leave the building without achieving any of our goals, I didn't realize until five years later, after I became involved in women's liberation, that I was right and that the stubbornness of the men on the steering committee had been counterproductive macho posturing.

At the time, however, there was nobody to talk to nor had I the vocabulary to express my feelings. I talked with my friends about male chauvinism, in a general way, but no one wanted to unite on the basis of our femaleness, it would further delegitimize us in the eyes of the male leaders. I read Juliet Mitchell's article "The Longest Revolution", published in New Left Review in 1966 and though "Yes, yes,yes, " but the essay was abstract and theoretical and there was no one I could talk to about its implications for my life.

When I graduated from college I could not imagine myself taking a job or going to graduate school within a society I considered hopelessly corrupt. Instead I became a full time activist, pouring my energy into the movement to end the war in Vietnam and to create a more just and generous world. Chicago, with its obdurate political machine, seemed like the belly of the beast: the perfect place to build a revolutionary movement. I was moving slowly and with difficulty away from the Marxist orthodoxy of my college years, noticing that the active agents of social change in the 1960's were not members of the proletariat but middle class young people, so I joined an organizing project in a middle class neighborhood: Citizens for Independent Political Action (CIPA) whose slogan was " If a machine short changes you, kick it." My job was to organize neighborhood high school students.

Chicago proved no more hospitable to female leadership than City College. While there were many women involved in the organizing projects in Chicago's neighborhoods, the leadership was male and just as given to posturing as the students I had worked with before. The leader of CIPA was Clark Kissinger, a past National Secretary of SDS who hummed when women talked to him.

As a child of German-Jewish immigrants who fled the Nazi's in the late 1930's, I had a keen sense that "they could come after us at any time". The immigrant community my mother socialized with (where everyone had lost their families and homes in Europe) and my Jewishness, combined with the absence of my father, made me feel like an outsider looking into mainstream America. I was a ripe candidate for 1960's activism when I became a scholarship student at Berkeley, a member of the first generation in my family to attend college.

At college I took a job tutoring African-American kids from Oakland and there learned about civil rights campaigns against discriminatory supermarket chains, restaurants, car dealerships, hotels. Weekends were spent in ever larger demonstrations demanding improved services or jobs for the Black community. And two days after my 18th birthday I was arrested together with 500 others on auto row in San Francisco. The passion and the call for justice of the civil rights movement stirred my own desires to be part of something moral in American society. But no matter how active I was, there seemed to be room for me only as a body going limp in mass demonstrations.

In an effort to make more of a difference and to play a more meaningful role, I went south in the summer of 1965 as a civil rights worker. After spending 10 days in jail together with hundreds of other summer volunteers and local black activists for parading without a permit, I was dispatched to an outlying rural area to register voters, run a freedom school and recruit kids to integrate the local schools in September. I took the mandate to develop community organizing skills seriously with the goal of returning north to work in poor white and black communities. In order to become a full time organizer I dropped out of school and moved to Chicago to work in JOIN Community Union, an SDS project organizing southern white Appalachian migrants around welfare rights, tenant issues, block clubs and neighborhood empowerment.

While most of the block organizers were women and most of the neighborhood leadership that emerged from our effort was female, the political leaders of the organization were male. Through the civil rights movement and community organizing in urban ghettos, I developed the organizing skills, strategic sensibility and confidence to help others find their voices. But the movements of the time didn't welcome me as a leader or intellect.

Still, it was hard to complain. The movement gave me opportunities that barely existed for women in the larger society to be a social critic, to develop a vision for eradicating poverty and racism, to stand up to the power structure -- be it landlords, city officials, ward committeemen or county welfare workers. The primary jobs for women outside the home in those days were in ghettoized female professions- teachers, nurses, secretaries. The Movement encouraged me to make history and fight for social justice in society at large.

In 1967 I was invited to participate in a peace conference between anti-war Americans and Vietnamese from both the North and the South. I was subsequently invited to visit North Vietnam as part of a peace delegation investigating the civilian impact of American bombing of the north. The trip thrust me into the role of public speaker for the peace community and changed my sense of my personal power forever. When a close movement ally commented that the trip to Vietnam had made me into a different person, my then husband remarked that our friend simply had never listened to me before. By then I had organizing skills and growing self confidence but still remained marginal to the movement leadership.

I grew up in the church of socialism and knew that all my life politics would be part of what I did. I also grew up with certain assumptions that we would later recognize as feminist: I knew that my life could not be devoted to husband and children, that I must have a career, and it wouldn't be such a bad thing if I didn't marry at all. Of course, that doesn't mean that I was not swayed by our society and by the culture, especially since the culture when I came of age was the '50s. I was ten in '50's and 20 in 1960. And in that harsh, repressive, and wildly woman- hating time, I felt truly crazy on both counts--the socialism and the feminism.

In junior high school I had a girl gang and we terrorized the posh East Side neighborhood in which our school was located, walked home through the Park to the scuzzier West Side, where most of us lived, went to each others' houses, taught each other how to masturbate, and were so tight with each other that many of us didn't want to go to different high schools, because we would have to give up our friendships. When I got to the Bronx High School of Science, my world collapsed. I went from a cozy and comfortable two years in an all-girls school to a heterosexual oven. All my music, my art, my writing, my acting in plays, my power, standing, and popularity, that I enjoyed in the first fourteen years of my life vanished in a day, as it became clear that the only thing that girls were judged on was their ability to negotiate the world of heterosexuality. I came to Science with braces, glasses, no breasts to speak of, red-headed, and with a considerable amount of baby fat. I could see myself fast on the way to becoming a nerd non person in this environment. I was furious and I was desperate. I insinuated myself into a girl group of smart dressers by the strength of my humor, sarcasm, and painfully carefully calculated cool.

They took me in, made me borrow money for clothes and contact lenses, gave me a padded bra to wear, told me not to open my mouth and smile so my braces didn't show, and helped me immeasurably to maintain some sort of standing through my four years of high school by having boyfriends. But I can still feel my resentment, rage, and despondency at this state of affairs, especially because it seemed as if my future was closing down on me. That all the things I had done before Science was for some reason no longer acceptable. It seemed like all my girlfriends were grooming themselves, first, for boyfriends, and ultimately for husbands and families. This was unbelievable. I'm going to the school for academic excellence and scientific prowess--the school in the city, maybe in the country--and here I am in this shuffling group of exiles, grooming myself for nothing at all.

Now, I was not a feminist till the women's liberation movement. I don't believe you can be a feminist without a movement, just like I don't believe you can be a socialist without a movement. So, my analysis on all these points was inchoate. But, my emotions were very strong and gave me the determination to scrape together the money to go to an all girls college: Wellesley.

In the spring of 1965, my husband Jesse Lemisch and I participated in an anti-Vietnam sit in on State Street, and our political life began anew. We joined Chicago SNCC and Chicago SDS, and both of us were delighted to be back in the movement, and especially delighted to be part of a NEW Left, a Left that was open, generous, at that time infused with a spirit of beloved community and vision.

During the sit in at the University of Chicago administration building in `66 I found though, that I couldn't speak in public and that no woman was speaking except for Jackie Goldberg. She did fine, but nobody else did fine. Heather Booth was there; she wasn't speaking. I believe that Bernadine Dorhn was there; she wasn't speaking. Evelyn Goldfield and Sue Munaker were there; they weren't speaking. None of us were speaking. I tried. I got up on a chair and announced that we were organizing classes in the administration building, but no one would listen. I shouted for awhile and then I said, "Fuck" and I got off the chair. I felt very weird.

II. Finding Each Other; Finding Our Voices
Building an American women's liberation movement, Vivian recalled, was a matter of survival for politically conscious and skilled women in the late 1960's. We were smart, we were dedicated, we had revolutionary ideas -- but who besides ourselves gave a damn? We had hit the glass ceiling on the left and there was not where up for us to go. We were hungry for political discussion with others who took us seriously,and we slowly began to find each other. It seems like a whole life away, but its important to remember that at the time there were no women on the Supreme Court, almost no women elected officials, no wage earning women characters in TV sitcoms and abortion was illegal. Yet we saw ourselves as serious agents of social change ( the Movement was after all our vocation), and we needed the validation of others who viewed us and themselves in the same way.

Between the years 1966 and 1967 we discovered each other and found the validation we craved. One day, shortly after I arrived in Chicago, I was sitting in the CIPA office waiting for boys to come to the office to have draft counseling. I was not particularly enthusiastic about this activity as a method of organizing high school students, but couldn't put my finger on why. Heather, who I had just met, called and we talked for two hours about her experience organizing hospital workers at a local psychiatric hospital. I felt that I had been awakened form a deep sleep: her observations were brilliant, she listened appreciatively to my ideas; together we figured things out.

When I got off the phone to confront a surly Clark Kissinger, outraged by my "gossiping" on the phone to my girlfriend instead of draft counseling, something clicked in my consciousness. I knew that my conversations with Heather were more important to me than performing an activity that I hadn't really developed myself. I first met Naomi after a movie. The man I was with was friends with her husband Jesse and we went out for coffee after the movie. Naomi asked me what I thought. I always had complicated thoughts about movies in those days but usually no one wanted to hear them. She did; seemed interested , contributed her own insights and Jesse and Steve vanished from my consciousness.

These connections happened repeatedly among the four of us. I thought Heather,Vivian and Naomi were all brilliant and when we were together we made ourselves smarter, more imaginative and more courageous. Our appreciation of each other was like fertilizer, liberating energy long stifled by the sexism of the male leadership of the new left. "We were so different," Heather remembers, " We were so similar. We were so courageous. We were so insecure. We called forth the best in each other. We called forth what we did not even know was there. We were more than the sum of our parts."

For all of us, pre feminist ideas had been percolating for several years and we responded eagerly as other women in the radical movement began to articulate anger and frustration. " We make love and we make coffee; but we can't make policy. I'm the garbage can of the radical man, that's me, and you and all my sisters too, (written by Nancy Stokely). Heather remembers going to a conference of the Students for a Democratic Society in 1965 because the "woman question" was on the agenda.

The "woman" discussion, with both men and women in it, started off slow. Then the women began trying to share their experiences. Several of the men, used to dominating the discussion, would often cut off the women, talk over them and deny their experience. I was one of the people who tried to keep the group together. After all, the civil rights movement was about people working together across differences, not dividing. Jimmy Garrett, a black SNCC organizer I had known in Mississippi, then stood up and told the women they needed to talk alone together and get their act together so he was leaving. I realized he was right. The group divided and several of the women met late into the night.

Throughout the spring and summer of 1967 Heather, Naomi and I talked about women excitedly and passionately at every possible opportunity and each time we talked we seemed to be generating new insights and ideas. During the summer of 1967 Naomi and Heather taught a seminar on women at the University of Chicago.

After the patronizing and hostile treatment of the women's resolutions at the National Conference for New Politics in September 1967, outraged women in Chicago organized the Westside Group which included Heather, myself and Naomi and Sara Evans Boyte, Shulamith Firestone ( who left for New York after a few months), Laya Firestone, Jo Freeman, Evie Goldstein, Sue Munaker and Fran Rominski. The organization of the groups, was for me, a major step away from allegiance to the male dominated left. I was cautioned by a male activist that the women's group would divide the movement. He was a member of my small group of the organizers union, a "heavy" in the Chicago movement and I wanted his approval more than I'd like to admit. But when he unleashed his ample rhetorical powers on me I remember thinking first " could he be right?" then after a minute or two of thought, "he's full of shit and then " I'll be damned, he's threatened."

While relationships within the Westside Group were somewhat less intense than the friendship of the three of us, our discussions generated a similar energy and we continued the process of developing feminist theory that had begun informally in smaller groups.

Naomi recalls

The best part of the group was that we all took each other seriously. We had become so used to the usual heterosexual chill that it was a giddy and slightly terrifying sensation to talk and have everybody listen. All of a sudden we were no longer invisible. I can hardly describe the joy! Unbelievable! The sound system had just been turned on. We couldn't wait to go to meetings, where we talked ecstatically about everything. We talked about the contempt and hostility we felt, not only walking down the street, but from our male friends in the New Left. We talked about our inability to speak in public. We asked ourselves what we should call the thing that was squelching us. Male supremacy ? Female Subordination? Male chauvinism? Capitalist debris?

Vivian joined the group shortly after returning from Vietnam. It was the Vietnamese, she recalls (not the American peace activists) who insisted that women be represented in the delegation. That's how I came to visit Vietnam where I was introduced to the Vietnamese women's Union, the largest membership organization (then and now) in Vietnam which runs its own women's institutions including schools, clinics, museums and economic enterprises. That's where I first understood the importance of independent women's organizations.

Heather, Naomi and I were immediately drawn to Vivian's sense of moral purpose, her intelligence and her unshakable commitment to organizing and the four of us began to spend time together, always talking : about women's condition and about how to change the world. The intense friendship among the four of us had positive and negative effects on the west side group. The presence of our friendship may have felt exclusionary to other members of the group. On the other hand we brought the insights we were generating together into the group, enriching the discussion. One of the most important insights, which Naomi brilliantly developed in her article "Psychology Constructs the Female," was the power of people's expectations to shape individuals' behavior. Our friendship was a crucible for this idea. We had created a countervailing force to the sexism around us and its transformative effects clarified in a graphic and immediate way the power of the social context. Naomi remembers that we talked about "whether it was true that we were less aggressive, less creative, less profound, less artistic, less "linear" ( whatever that means), less honorable, less smell free and less funny." Our confidence to steer through the "nature v. nurture" debate was immeasurably enhanced by our knowledge that each of us could see in ourselves the changes made possible by the respect and attention we lavished on each other.

The Westside Group had a shifting membership but the discussions were almost always exhilarating and they happened almost despite ourselves. We thought as soon as we decided that women's oppression existed we should move quickly to action. But the ideas welled up uncontrollably and we continued to talk, developing, as women throughout the country were doing, some of the central ideas of women's liberation.

Much of the way we handled this conflict was to question whether we were really oppressed and how and whether capitalism had really done all of this to us or whether women's subjugation preceded capitalism. In other words we kept talking but centering the subject around the left assuaged our guilt and using the categories we'd inherited persuaded us that we were doing something almost as important as action. So we talked about whether Jackie Kennedy was our sister or our enemy and whether we were too middle class and "white skinned privileged" and well educated to be complaining at all. And anyway after we had kicked around capitalist dissaccumulation for a while, we went back and talked about monogamy and our egalitarian, anti hierarchical vision of utopia and community and where children fit into our scheme. And we talked about cosmetics. Suddenly, it was no longer an imperative of nature that we paint our faces and squeeze our breasts into little cones ( or in my case pad our breasts into bigger cones). Some of us decided to give up make up and brassieres. It was a brave thing to do. I remember the feeling I had the first time I went out without my eyeliner. It was like wearing a big day-glo sandwich sign saying "HATE ME, I NO LONGER CARE WHETHER I'M PRETTY."

In the years between 1967 and 1970, women's liberation, exploded in Chicago and throughout the country. From my perspective, the torturous process of moving towards an autonomous women's movement was retarded by the close ties we had to the left and the central role that the movements of the 60's played in our lives. The process was accelerated for me by my contact with women from other parts of the country at the first national gathering of women's liberation activists in November, 1968 in Lake Villa, Illinois. While it has been described as polarized and divisive ( See for example Alice Echols, Daring to be Bad ). I remember the conference as enormously stimulating. It pushed my thinking deeper about issues of personal life, and convinced me of the importance and the viability of an autonomous women's movement.

From 1968-70 the four of us were organized women in a variety of contexts. I helped to form a women's group in CIPA and taught a course on women's role in society at the Chicago High School where I worked from 1968- 1970. Since there were no texts I used The Second Sex as well as the many mimeographed pamphlets that circuited among women's liberation activists. Heather organized a women's group in Hyde Park, Vivian was organizing high school students in a Chicago suburb and speaking widely against the war in Vietnam. Naomi, who felt," the women's movement gave me my voice, or gave it back to me," had become an extremely effective speaker and gave talks about women's liberation all over the country. While we worked with lots of other women, we looked to each other for political support and guidance, consulting each other about almost everything we did."

"They were smart," remembers Heather of the rest of us, "They knew things, learned from history, from other's experiences and their own, from things they read. They knew the implications of proposals and could see beyond the obvious.... Our approach was radical, as it got the root of the problem, not just the superficial symptom. The problem faced was not just the actions of an individual, but also of a "system". The system needed to be named and challenged. They were challenging. They challenged the conventional ways of thinking and safe assumptions of how the world worked. They began from the principle of how the world should work and then drew out what that would mean for how we should act in order to reflect this principle but more importantly, how we should act to make this a social reality.

Together we developed a shared vision of the independent women's movement that we were all working to develop. It was a vision of a movement that was both rebellious and pluralistic, one that both confronted the prevailing notions about femininity and was sympathetic to women's varied approaches to survival. It would be a movement that organized women to confront the myriad forms of sexism in their lives, that helped women build concrete victories that improved their lives and challenged the power relations of our society. We envisioned a radical transformation of society but believed that we had to build a movement around the specific injustices women experienced in their lives.

"We felt that peoples' consciousness develops through action," Vivian commented, "not through being hit over the head with a political line " Heather remembers are insistence that "We could change the world, and we can change ourselves in the process." For us, the feminist rallying cry, "the personal is political" implied that problems previously seen as private should be addressed politically; we tried to change the balance of power in a wide range of arenas, from singles bars to typing pools. We felt a strong sense of connection with other people's struggles against injustice, but we also believed that people organizing on their own behalf was the life blood of movements for social change and we fiercely defended the legitimacy of the women's movement.

We were radical but were repulsed by the gyrations of the radical movement in 1969 which was so engorged by revolutionary rhetoric that it was becoming increasingly irrelevant to American society.

According to Naomi: We constantly tested our ideas against the American political reality of the time and resisted the temptation of the withdrawal politics that had begun to gather force in the late 1960's. We didn't have the least desire to join a seed gathering commune in the Nevada desert on the one hand or on the other to chirp sayings of Chairman Mao from the little red book.

We helped each other articulate our politics in the Chicago women's movement and create an organizational presence in Chicago that would embody our vision of an independent women's movement. Naomi remembers Vivian called me and she said, "Let's have an umbrella organization for all the different women's groups, projects, and activities in this city. We'll have a conference, we'll found an organization, we'll have a series of pre-conference meetings, we'll have position papers, we'll call everybody we know--every woman we know--and tell them that we're trying to start a pluralist, democratic, open, empirical feminist New Left organization.

We worked together intensively on organizing the founding conference for this new organization. Naomi describes us as, "a political cohort, the spine behind the inception and first four years of Chicago Women's Liberation Union (CWLU)". The CWLU was inspired in part by the women's union Vivian had encountered in North Vietnam. The union was to be a federation of groups. "The idea of the organization's structure," according to Vivian " was to decentralize action, provide support for a variety of efforts, bring all the women's organizing together to increase its visibility and its impact."

At the founding convention of the union the four of us worked energetically against the arguments of women who opposed a separate women's organization. Naomi and I with several other women wrote an audience participation play called "Everywoman," which we hoped would bring people together. We began the play with a comical riff about two witches who wanted to start the revolution. They threw all the instruments of women's oppression into a pot which then exploded with the help of a theatrical smoke bomb which was much smokier than we anticipated and caused people to cough and choke for the rest of the play. We had distributed short excerpts from the writings of women activists from all over the world. At the end women positioned in the audience asked "Who are you ..." and the witches took turns responding:

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.

I am at the bedside of the woman giving birth, screaming in labor; I am with the woman selling her body in Vietnam so that her children may eat. I am with the woman selling her body in the streets of American cities to feed the habit she acquired from her boyfriend.

I am with the woman who never sees the light outside her kitchen; I am with the woman who never sees the light outside her factory; I am with the woman who's fingers are stiff from endless typing and whose legs ache from the high heels that she must wear to please her boss; I am with the groupies following the rock bands, bands whose every song is a triumphant celebration of women's degradation. I am with the women who wanted to be scientists and architects and engineers and poets and who ended up being scientists' wives, and architects' wives and engineers' wives and poets' wives.

I am with the woman bleeding to death on the kitchen table of a quack abortionists; I am with the woman answering endless questions of the inquisitive case workers. And I am with the caseworkers, whose dreams of making a new social order have long been smothered in the endless bureaucracy, the endless forms, the racism of their institutions.

I am with the beauty queen painting her face and spraying her hair with poison; I am with the black prostitute straightening her hair and lightening her skin; I am with the young child for who an apron is the only thing she has been taught to dream of; I am at the hospital where a beaten child is being treated for wounds caused by a mother driven by desperation past sanity, past compassion; I am with the forty- five year old file clerk, raped and strangled in her one room walk up

I am with all women; I am all women and our struggle grows.

I am with the Vietnamese guerrillas, fighting for the right to control their country; I am with the women in Ireland, living on the streets of Derry with their children because their houses have been burned or they have been evicted.

I am with the contacts in the Latin American cities, arranging supplies for the guerrillas, hearing the secret police in every footstep. I am with the welfare mothers in New York and Hartford and Wisconsin who will not be turned away by the indifferent legislators.

I am with the women who have loved other women as sisters, as lovers. I am with the airline stewardesses fighting to retain their jobs after they reach thirty and their market value has decreased; I am with the witches hexing Wall Street and the bridal fairs and the beauty contests; I am women struggling everywhere.

Two witches in unison: And where there are women too beaten down to fight, I will be there; and we will take strength together. Everywhere; for we will have a new world, a just world, a world without oppression and degradation.

"Afterwards," according to Naomi, "all if us were crying. The play had generated a shared feeling of unity and vision and hope and a sense that we were at a historic moment. "The CWLU, remembers Vivian, (who was a primary architect of the organization's structure, and its first paid staff person), "was organized as a `union' of locals each engaged in its own activities e.g. producing the organization's newsletter, running an abortion service, a graphics collective, a liberation school."

We tried to link together a wide variety of work groups: some organizing specific groups of women, some organized around a task and some offering a service to women. Vivian, who organized the enormously successful Women's Liberation School, remembered, "We felt it was important to try to win victories but also to build `counter institutions,' or services to give people a vision of how things could be run in a better society and to give people a sense of some effectiveness in the bleak political environment of a city run by an entrenched political machine." The Women's Liberation School was an early model of a women's studies program that attracted hundreds of women to its courses. It served multiple purposes: to present the ideas of the women's liberation movement to new members, to provide an opportunity for Union members to develop their political analysis and to provide an opportunity to gain knowledge and skills in a feminist environment.

Heather, who had small children at the time worked with Day Creamer (later Piercy) and Kathy Blunt to organize the Action Committee for Decent Childcare (ACDC), a multi-racial organization of parents and providers that succeeded in getting a million dollars for city funded childcare, revision of the city child care licensing codes and citizen review of the licensing process.

Naomi organized the Chicago Women's Liberation Rock Band (described in detail elsewhere in this site.) I worked with high school students and the CIPA women's group. Like the women's movement all over the country in 1969 and 70 the Chicago movement grew rapidly. New projects and groups seemed to be forming every week. For a while the four of us felt that we were finally working within an organization that reflected our politics and we played a leadership role within the union. We were deeply committed, however, to avoiding what we called the "star system."

Vivian remembers that our view of the organizer's role "was to be in the background, to build leadership from community to help issues emerge, empower people to take collective action and, as an organizer, to organize oneself out of a job." We tried hard in the early years of the Union to steer clear of rigid ideological positions, tried to involve people of various political persuasions, and emphasized action. The strength and intensity of our friendships during this period was a valuable resource for our work in the women's union. Sometimes, However, this very intensity made disagreement difficult and even the fear of disagreement would sometimes inhibit open discussion. For Naomi and me the clearest example was the CWLU speaker's policy. The CWLU was getting hundreds of calls for speakers. Rather than having the staff person or elected chair of the organization always represent the group we decided to rotate the speaking engagement. Everyone who belonged to a CWLU chapter would be expected to take a turn speaking. It was a wonderful way for people to deepen their political understanding of women's liberation since communicating ideas to others requires you to think them through yourself.

We recognized that most people are terrified of public speaking and that since we had all been silenced for so long we needed to train ourselves to become speakers. So we organized training sessions in which we would practice on each other, heckling each other and asking belligerent questions. We believed that, inspired by the ideas of women's liberation and nurtured by a supportive environment, everyone would become an adequate if not eloquent spokeswoman for our movement. In some ways it worked beautifully. People did develop a deeper understanding of women's liberation ideas as they figured out ways to present them publicly. But some people were a lot better at it than others. Naomi was the most brilliant speaker in the Union.

She remembers: my fame as a speaker was spreading, and I got a number of invitations. I spoke to 3,000 Loyola Catholics, insulted their favorite priest, and got a standing ovation nevertheless. I was hot. I also thought that this was the best work that I was doing for the Union. What I wanted to do, which is what I think preachers want to do, is to spread the word. I wanted to spread it as clearly and reasonably and passionately and in as visionary a manner as possible.

Nevertheless she began to turn down speaking engagements for fear that this was a breach of the egalitarian speakers bureau policy, and an offense to me. I thought, by arguing in favor of the turn taking policy, I was supporting her since she was the main architect of the policy. I didn't know until years later that she wanted desperately to use her new found eloquence and held me partially responsible for silencing her. I think our public role as leaders in the women's union may have made it more difficult to disagree with each other.

There was a fair amount of dissension within the Union and we were usually seen as a united force for an open, action oriented pluralistic group and didn't want to present any disunity among us. The dynamic, however, of women needing each others support and approval so desperately that we can't disagree with each other is one that has cropped up repeatedly in the women's movement and is an unfortunate by product of the intensity of our relationships.

After I left Chicago in 1971 we continued to write to each other about our personal and political lives and a profound sense of loss permeated our letters. I felt that I had lost my political home and I have never felt as personally and politically close with any group of friends since. Clearly much of the intensity of our friendship had its roots in the sense of power and urgency we all felt politically in the late '60's and early 70's. By the mid 1970's the action oriented, visionary women's liberation movement we tried to build had dissipated, hard to sustain in the changed political climate. The radical wing of the movement focused on building an alternative culture that was increasingly isolated from most people's daily lives while the mainstream women's movement led by NOW fought important battles but rarely engaged in sustained grass roots struggles. Painfully absent was the sense of both the necessity and possibility of a radically transformed world.

In 1973 Vivian wrote "It is so hard -- when we once felt we were making history and the lives of hundreds of people were dependent on our actions -- to resolve ourselves to less significant and far less ambitious work. I feel that shift tremendously. Now that I don't feel I'm making history I don't know exactly what to do with my life." (Vivian to Amy, January 1, 1973)

I floundered for a while, organizing women's studies conferences on the West Coast with the New University Conference. I then moved to Portland, Oregon where I went to graduate school and began to teach women's studies which I've been doing ever since.

Heather, founded the Midwest Academy which has trained countless leaders of mass organizations. She later became the director of Citizen Action, a national progressive organization with three million members which works on a variety of issues. She directed several short term campaigns including the National Mobilization for Choice and was field Director for Carol Mosely Braun's Senate race. She is currently doing organizational outreach for the Clinton health care plan.

Vivian continued to work as a community organizer, first moving to Colorado where she worked on international peace issues with the American Friends Service Committee, then as a pro choice coordinator for Planned Parenthood in North Carolina. Today she directs a California non profit which runs a network of shelters and services for battered women and their children , runaway teens and homeless adults and families. Organized on similar principles to the Chicago Women's Liberation Union, this $2.3 million agency is structured in a decentralized manner which encourages project-based leadership and decision making.

Naomi became Professor of Psychology at SUNY Buffalo where she did pioneering research on visual perception. In 1982 she contracted an extremely serious case of Chronic Fatigue Immune Dysfunction ( CFIDS) and has been confined to her bed ever since. Nevertheless she has remained active in her field and with the help of her husband Jesse Lemisch has been able to make her still eloquent and witty voice heard from time to time on various women's issues.

Friendships like our were not unique, they were formed among women's liberation activists all over the country and, in important ways, were central to the energy and insights that emerged among women's liberation activists in the 1960's. These friendships were made possible by the belief that sisterhood is powerful and, at the same time, were an important source of that belief. They are a central part of the history of the second wave of feminism. 

Aurora Levins Morales: My Life of Struggle

At the time that I joined my first consciousness raising group, I was fifteen, the youngest member of the CWLU, only two years in the United States, and a prolific journal writer, filling a hardbound notebook every three months. I’d been entranced with writing since my mother Rosario taught me the magic of the alphabet, and even more so when my first grade teacher Eleanor Jane West made a whole room of first graders understand that they were poets, but that year, 1969, I was writing for my life.

A young immigrant feminist girl, slammed up against the brutalities of day to day sexism, of the racism of Chicago streets, trying to find words of sufficient power to open a path through high school and dawning sexuality and a burgeoning activist life.  Then sometime that year, one of our group returned from a trip to California and brought me a mimeographed, illustrated book of poetry by feminist writers. It was during that moment of revolt in which claiming authorship was seen as individualistic, so the poems were unsigned, with a collective list of names at the back.  Now it’s easy to match Judy Grahn to the Common Woman poems, to recognize at a glance the works of Alta and Susan Griffin and Adrienne Rich, but then it was just a treasure trove of permission.  And nestled within those pages of words and drawings was a new name for myself: writer.

I leftChicago for the mountains of New Hampshire, where I wrote poetry and helped run a small town women’s center and birth control counseling service.  In 1976 I fled winter and whiteness and landed in Oakland, California , a hotbed of emerging women of color writers.  I joined the Berkeley Women’s Center Poets, did radio with the Third World News Bureau, and in the summer of 1978 was one of several dozen underemployed women writers to work as field interviewers for Diana Russell’s groundbreaking randomized study on the incidence of rape in San Francisco. 

That’s when I met Cher’rie Moraga, and after a brief attempt to start a press, and a while as writing buddies, became a contributor to This Bridge Called My Back.  That launched my thirty year career of lecturing, reading and leading workshops and trainings at colleges and universities. During that time I wrote several books, contributed to dozens of anthologies, did more radio work, got a doctorate in Women’s Studies, taught, and eventually, in 2005, collapsed as the toll of multiple undiagnosed chronic illnesses, and the sheer weight of being a disabled single mother of color artist living in poverty finally brought me to my bed. 

I’ve survived a stroke and a head injury since then, and am supported by my 82 year old father, with an extremely vulnerable future.  Seven weeks ago two discs in my spine slid out of place. I have been in close to unbearable pain, dealing with frightening levels of medical neglect and abuse, paying for attendant care out of my own small pocket and with donations from y community.  I have a lot of writing to do, essays and fiction and political theory about the place of our bodies in the task of liberation, but I can’t sit up, am struggling to eat, have lost so much muscle mass my scrawny legs won’t hold me up at all. I am thinking back to the spring of 1971, watching hand silkscreened copies of posters drying from clotheslines, declaring Sisterhood is blooming, springtime will never be the same.  I’m typing these words lying on my back, doped up on narcotics, and as afraid for myself as I ever remember being, praying that this winter solidarity will bloom for me.

The Life and Work of Naomi Weisstein

Naomi Weisstein: October 13th, 1939 - March 26th, 2015

Pioneering neuroscientist

Among the initiators of the Cognitive Revolution

See her “Neural Symbolic Activity” in Science, and many other papers


Co-founder, Chicago Westside Group (1967)

Many papers available at Chicago Women’s Liberation Union Herstory website

A sampling:

“Kirche, Kuche, Kinder as Scientific Law: Psychology Constructs the Female” (40+ reprints around the world)

“’How Can a Little Girl Like You Teach a Big Class of Men?’ and Other Adventures of a Woman in Science"

Weisstein essay in Feminist Memoir Project: “Our Gang of Four” 

Rock Musician

Founder of the Chicago Women’s Liberation Rock Band, 1970-73. Weisstein’s history of the band can be read at New Politics.

Brief clip of the band in Mary Dore’s film, “She’s Beautiful When She’s Angry.”

Two records: “Mountain Moving Day,””Papa, Don’t Lay that shit on me.”


Came this close to running off with Second City in the 1960s.

Beloved Wife of Jesse Lemisch 1965-2015

“Papa don’t lay that shit on me, I ain’t your groovy chick.
Papa don’t lay that shit on me, it’s just about to make me sick.”

          --Naomi Weisstein in the Chicago Women’s Liberation Rock Band

Naomi Weisstein was a fierce warrior for justice.  She was a passionate disrupter of the existing order.  She was a brilliant scientist.  She was a fighter for women’s liberation.  She was hysterically funny.  She had biting insights.  She was my beloved friend.

I first met Naomi when I was a student at the University of Chicago in 1963 or 64 and she was an adjunct professor in neuro-psychology.  Her national

 reputation preceded her, as one of the first people in the world to help identify how memory worked in the brain.  Her brilliance was apparent in almost every conversation and all she wrote.  But she couldn’t become a full professor because of the so-called Nepotism Rule that said relatives of professors could not become full professors in order to avoid a conflict of interest in such appointments.  Yet the Levi Brothers were able to be Dean and Professor at the same time.  The issue was obviously a means of keeping women off of a tenured track and getting wives at a discount rate when husbands were recruited to be faculty.  

Naomi’s husband Jesse was on a tenured track.  He was a remarkable radical historian who helped teach me and so many others how history was made by the people from the bottom up.  He did a major study of “Jack Tarr” a sailor in the Revolutionary War—showing how life was actually lived by the people most impacted by the history they helped to make.

So we protested the nepotism rule. And we worked together discovering and building women’s liberation voice at the University, in the city of Chicago and spread it throughout the country.

Jesse and Naomi were a remarkable  couple.

They mentioned that years later when they once went to a therapist they were reminded that they were really two separate people and needed to learn how to separate.  But they realized while they were separate, they also were deeply deeply connected and really did feel they were part of each other.

They were political and personal partners, in love and in shared struggle in the movement. 

On meeting  Naomi, I felt electrified.  She has such insights, outrageous assessments, and was willing to take bold action for women and a better society.  

She brought such wit to her words and actions.  When she was younger she had been influenced by Lenny Bruce, the sharp witted and often caustic   comedian challenging conventions and politics as usual of the 1950s.  Naomi sometimes described herself as a female Lenny Bruce.  But she was not an imitation anything.  She was pure Naomi.

We ended up teaching what I think became the first campus women’s liberation session in the country.

Naomi and I were part of the West Side Group that may have been the first (or one of the first) women’s liberation groups in the country.  We usually met at Jo Freeman’s house on the west side (therefore the name of the group).  It was a remarkable and exciting group.  The discussions were a bit like intellectual jazz—there was a riffing off of each other’s ideas with creativity on a common theme, often going to places that we never imagined we’d go before.  And we were all made better and smarter by our working together.  Among the people in the group were Amy Kesselman, Vivian Rothstein, Shulamith and Leah Firestone (for a little while), Fran Rominski and others.

We’d go from the group to create action and other groups.

Out of the effort we helped to convene the Chicago Women’s Liberation Union.  A remarkable organization with both work groups (Action Committee for Decent Childcare, Liberation School, abortion counselling with JANE, organizing Janitresses in City Hall—who finally won equal pay, high school students, WITCH and much more) and home groups for discussion and consciousness raising.   

After I graduated and Naomi and Jesse went to work at institutions in different cities, we lost contact with each other. Several years went by and we met in an airport by accident.  We connected so deeply as if we had seen each other just the previous week. And again we connected as if we were riffing.

We co-authored an article for MS magazine called Will the Women’s Movement Survive because we were becoming deeply concerned about the increasingly individual focus of the movement, away from organizing.   The movement began with the insight that the personal was political, meaning that problems we thought were ours alone were socially shared and needed a social solution.  By the early 1980s this started to shift to looking at individual problems and finding individual solutions--to raise feminists read non-sexist books to your children, to spread women’s liberation be liberated in your personal dress and style--all worthwhile, but not a substitute for social and large scale action.

Again, our lives interceded and we fell out of touch.

We lived in different parts of the country and our lives were busy with other things.

In the 1980s, at an SDS reunion, I met Amy Kesselman, who told me Naomi had devastating CFIDS (Chronic Fatigue).  Because of the vertigo she was on 24 hour bed rest and could not be in a room with lights very long and needed round the clock nursing care.  Because of her illness, she lost motion in her feet.  This very petite fire cracker, became bloated from her medication.  She lost many of her teeth.  Lost much of her hair.  Her body was destroyed.  And still her mind was sharp and her spirit resilient.

Jesse was there for her.  He was there to provide care and defend her when she could not defend herself against the insurance companies, trying to kick her off their coverage; against the doctors whose treatment and often mis-treatment sometimes made her worse; against the landlord, allowing noise that was devastating to Naomi in her condition, and more.  

Amy told me that she and her partner, Ginny Blaisdell, called Naomi every weekend and left a phone message for her, even though Naomi was too weak to hear the message and had it retrieved by the nursing staff or Jesse.

I followed Amy’s lead and started calling. And then visiting her every time I made a trip to New York.

Naomi was only well enough to visit for about 45 minutes and even then might need a week to recover her strength.

We kept doing this for perhaps 20 years.

By my bed, I have a shelf on a bookcase (positioned so that I see it every evening). It is filled with Naomi memorabilia, letters and gifts she sent.  Warm and endearing and love filled.  Rants that are filled with biting criticism, pain and anger.  A blue hippopotamus from the Metropolitan Museum of Art.  Meerkats of many sizes and kinds.  A lovely necklace.  Beautiful letters.

She valued meerkats.  They are animals who are fierce defenders of their families and those they care about.  They stand guard and watch over them.  Naomi was fierce in defense of what and who she loved and fought for them.

Naomi was often fierce in her anger and hurt. She was sometimes filled with rage. She sometimes lashed out at those close to her. She sometimes drove those who cared away. 

Perhaps her fighting spirit kept her going. 

Even when she was too sick to do much physically, she kept guard mentally and kept up.  She wrote. She thought.  Her mind and spirit so sharp even when her body was failing.

I came up when she was previously hospitalized with treatment that nearly killed her.

But still she kept on.

Then she found out she had cancer.

And intense pain.

And swelling.

She went to Lenox Hill.  It was a horrible experience even with Jesse and his wonderful sisters and two nursing aides providing care.

I came up again.

We laughed and cried and told stories.

We talked about how we would have a party to celebrate when Naomi beat this illness and combine that with celebrating their 50th wedding anniversary.

Just that week I visited, a book was published reissuing the pathbreaking research Naomi wrote on aspects of how memory works and where it is located in the brain.

And we told each other how we loved each other.

Naomi said she wanted to live.

She said that if she did not survive this illness and its treatment, she wanted to be remembered for how she loved

Science, women’s liberation, Jesse and her friends.

And she wanted us to carry on.

And so we do commit—to being fierce warriors for justice. Being passionate disrupters.  And remembering Naomi and we carry on with the values and the struggles that she fought and cared about throughout her life.

     --Heather Booth, March 29th, 2015

Survival and Death

Naomi fell ill with Myalgic Encephalomyelitis/Chronic Fatigue Syndrome in 1980 and became completely bedridden in 1983. We fought America’s most powerful insurance companies in court and in the press (see Lemisch, “Do They Want my Wife to Die?” New York Times, April 15, 1992) and defended her 24/7 home nursing, which continued until the day of her death. Among her most heroic works are her creative articles in science and feminism, written in this period, entirely from her bed. In March 2015 she was diagnosed with ovarian cancer at New York City’s Lenox Hill Hospital. In every way possible, LH expressed ignorance and contempt for her underlying ME/CFS. (See Gina Kolata’s “Doctors Strive to do Less Harm," New York Times, February 18, 2015, which, without naming LH, fit precisely the harms committed by the institution; not a soul who I encountered at LH took cognizance of this front-page article, published during Naomi’s hospitalization.) Whatever strength Naomi had assembled during her 30+ years of careful nursing fell victim to Lenox Hill’s abuse and utter inattention to this underlying condition. Discharged in grim condition on March 17, in agony, she required hospitalization only two days later. We chose Mount Sinai Hospital, a far more humane institution. But it was too late: she died at 11 PM Thursday March 26.  As death approached, I sang to her: “September Song,” “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot,” and, as she had always sung to me in troubled times, “Hush, Little Baby, Don’t You Cry.”

     --Jesse Lemisch, March 29th, 2015

Remembrance from Amy Kesselman and Virginia Blaisdell

Originally published at Wellesley Centers for Women Online

Naomi Weisstein was a multitalented, passionate, visionary feminist whose contributions to women’s liberation encompassed an insightful critique of psychology, creation of the Chicago Women’s Liberation Rock Band, and articles about science, music, comedy, and feminism. Naomi was a pivotal figure in the development of women’s liberation, both nationally and in Chicago. As an experimental psychologist, she exposed the misogynist assumptions of psychologists in her path-breaking 1968 article “Kinder, Küche, Kirche as Scientific Law: Psychology Constructs the Female,” which made a powerful argument for the effect of social expectations on women’s experience. 

In bed for thirty years with a severe case of a disease that has had many names but few treatments—chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS); myalgic encephalomyelitis (ME); and most recently systemic exertion intolerance disease (SEID)—Naomi battled heroically to keep herself engaged and productive. Information on the disease and its new name can be found here. Naomi died of a rapidly growing peritoneal ovarian cancer.

Virginia remembers:

The Tachistoscope Affair is what brought Naomi to New Haven in 1962. She was a second-year graduate student at Harvard, and her PhD research necessitated the use of a tachistoscope—a machine that flashes images for very brief times. Milliseconds. Harvard of course had one, but they wouldn’t let her use it. She’d break it, they said. She admitted that was probably true, since the machines broke all the time. Yale, however, graciously (or perhaps competitively?) allowed her to use theirs, so she spent her research time in New Haven.

During her first year at Harvard she was appalled by the fifties-era datingrituals, which required the girls to wait demurely for the guys to ask them out. In what was probably one of her first feminist actions, Naomi organized a group of women graduate students to take notes on the quality of their dates. They then constructed a ranking order of date desirability (including the guys’ names) and passed it around among themselves and to any other woman who was interested. All of a sudden they had the power: the guys wanted to improve their standing, and the women got to pick and choose and make the guys grovel.

Amy remembers:

I met Naomi in 1967 in Chicago, where we had both been involved in the radical movements of the period. After a movie we had an exciting conversation about the idea of agency in its various forms—Naomi in science, me in politics—both of us arguing against the idea of people as passive victims of circumstances. I was electrified by her brilliance. For more about our friendship and our political work in the Chicago Women’s Liberation Movement go here. In the galvanizing discussions in the Westside group, an early women’s liberation group in Chicago, Naomi’s radicalism, her irreverence, and her belief in our ability to generate a new world pushed our thinking deeper and wider. [Quote from Naomi]

In 1969 members of various women’s liberation groups in Chicago decided to form a city-wide organization to coordinate activities and help shape an independent women’s movement. Not all radical women activists in Chicago agreed with this project, and we worried that our founding conference would be disrupted by people who believed we should work within the male-dominated left. Believing that we needed an activity that would bring women together, a group of us, including Naomi and me, set about researching material for a play about the history of women’s resistance. The play began with Naomi and me dressed as witches, playing two different approaches to building a movement. Naomi was Witch #1, exuberant, inventive, and a bit wacky, and I was witch #2, humorless and a bit pompous:

Witch #1: I have an idea.

Witch #2: (turning around, walking away) Oh no, she has an idea.

Witch #1: (taps her on shoulder) Get the pot.

Witch #2: (wheels around) Get the what?

Witch #1: The pan, the cauldron. I’m going to throw in everything I hate, and then the revolution will happen. 

Witch #2: Wait a minute. Wait a minute. Two steps backward, one step forward.

Witch #1: All right. (walks 2 steps backward, 1 step forward)

Witch #2: That’s a metaphor.

We then threw various implements of women’s oppression into a pot outfitted with a smoke bomb. After it detonated, members of the audience read quotations from women rebels from around the world and several centuries. At the end of the play, in response to shouts of “Who are you?” the two witches recited a litany (which Naomi wrote) that began. 

"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."

After verses that described various feminist struggles, the litany ended

"And where there are women too beaten down to fight, I will be there; and we will take strength together. Everywhere. For we will have a new world, a just world, a world without oppression and degradation!” (See the full litany here).

Looking back, we developed an impressive collection of quotations, before the burgeoning of the field of women’s history. The play worked. Everyone was crying and laughing at the end, and there was no disruption. Full script is here

Virginia remembers:

Naomi brought her considerable musical and performance talents to her efforts to interrupt the sexist hippie rock and roll anthems of the various seventies liberation movements. “Every fourteen-year-old girl in America listens to rock,” she said. “They want to hear rock music that doesn’t degrade them.” So she formed a band in Chicago, with women who tended to be more feminist than musical, but totally turned on to play rock nonetheless. 

I visited her in Chicago and saw one of their early rehearsals, and I was turned on too. I went back to New Haven and found some women in our local feminist group who wanted to form a band. Naomi and I collaborated on everything about our bands: even our names were nearly the same: the Chicago Women’s Liberation Rock Band and the New Haven Women’s Liberation Rock Band. Names long enough to require a very big banner, we thought.

We also collaborated on figuring out our mission and how to convey it. Chicago outdid New Haven on performance, especially because Naomi was so good at presenting what the band was trying to do, in raps between the songs. I wouldn’t exactly call our music “polished,” but both bands succeeded in the area of Total Audience Involvement among the feminist and new left communities.

Amy remembers:

Naomi was an inspiring speaker who often brought audiences to their feet, as she mined her own experience with the entrenched misogyny of the scientific establishment. She described herself as “Naomi in wonderland, blunderland, plunderland,” as she told the story of scientists trying to steal her work. 

Virginia Remembers:

Even though I met Naomi the Serious Scientist, I came to know her as a hilarious, impish, adventurous, and deeply playful person. She loved Lenny Bruce’s way of shredding the hypocrisies of convention. She even had dreams of becoming a stand-up comedian. It was her pursuit of destabilization—of scientific conventions, cultural orthodoxies, expectations of “femininity”— that made it so invigorating to be in her orbit. 

Amy remembers:

A recent post on this blog by Laura Pappano exhorted readers to challenge the rape culture that nurtures sexual violence. Pappano describes the many ways women are faulted for “asking for it” by the way we dress and where we go. In 1974, Naomi evoked women’s experience in a wildly funny but powerful comedy routine about rape, which she performed in several cities. How can one do a comedy routine about rape? Naomi did it! It was hilarious because it tapped in to the common experience of living with ever-present menace

"I’m walking down the street and, as usual, my head’s a little bit to one side, because I won’t look guys directly in the face or they’ll think I want it, and I won’t look down at their pants or they’ll know I want it, so I’m looking at their necks."

The routine ends with a call to action to stop “a system that feeds itself on violence, on blood, on our blood.” (See the entire routine, “Saturday night Special: Rape and Other Jokes.”)

All of Naomi’s work—her comedy, her music, her organizing—was infused with a vision of a radically transformed, just and generous world, which would be brought into being by the collective action of many groups fighting together for their liberation. Her death leaves a cavernous hole in our lives.

Naomi’s papers are at the Schlesinger Library on the History of Women in America at the Radcliffe Institute. They provide a rich resource about her many interests and activities that we hope people will explore.

Amy Kesselman was involved with women’s liberation in Chicago. She is an emerita professor from SUNY New Paltz, Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies Program, where she taught women’s studies and women’s history for 31 years. She is currently working on a book about feminist activism in New Haven, Connecticut from 1969 to 1977.

Virginia Blaisdell is a photographer and a graphic designer for UNITE HERE International Union. She was active in the New Haven women's liberation movement during the sixties and seventies and was a founding member of the New Haven Women's Liberation Rock Band and an editor of "Sister," a local feminist magazine.