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 He'd like to give special thanks to Estelle Carol for helping him develop this memoir and to Becky Kluchin for her encouragement.