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.
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.