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".