Chicago Women's Liberation Union (CWLU, 1969-1977), an early women's
liberation group, organized around women's health and reproductive rights,
education, economic rights, visual arts and music, sports, lesbian liberation
and opposition to the war in Southeast Asia.
by women active in the anti-war movement, the civil rights movement
and Students for a Democratic Society, the CWLU was noted for both
its theory and its practice. The CWLU pamphlet," Socialist Feminism:
A Strategy for the Women's Movement" (1972), circulated nationally
in women's liberation circles. Apparently, the pamphlet first uses the
term "socialist feminism," which came to identify a section
of the feminist movement that drew upon Marxist and socialist ideas
while criticizing them for inattention to gender.
CWLU was organized as an umbrella organization to unite a wide range
of work groups and consciousness-raising discussion groups, called
chapters. Together the groups worked to develop people's consciousness
and skills, to provide free or inexpensive quality services for women,
and to challenge power structures through direct action. Members were
committed to democratic and decentralized structures. However, they
chose to develop leaders and hold them accountable, rather than dismiss
the notion of leadership, as did many in the early women's liberation
movement. A representative from each work group and chapter came to
monthly meetings of the Steering Committee, headed by two elected co-chairs,
to reach consensus on organizational policy and strategy. The Women's
Union published Outreach newspapers (Womankind, Blazing Star,
and Secret Storm) and
an internal newsletter connected the diverse membership.
portion of the CWLU's work was educational. The CWLU Liberation School
offered a bold mix of classes from VW mechanics, to "Our Bodies,
Our Selves" . The Women's Union also influenced the development
of college women's studies programs in the Chicago area. Secret Storm
organized high school girls. The Prison Project offered courses at
Dwight Correctional Institution while helping inmates organize to improve
conditions and expand family visiting rights.
worked in culture, sports and the arts. The Chicago Women's Liberation
Rock Band recorded Mountain Moving Day in 1972. The Graphics Collective
marketed silkscreen posters widely throughout the world. Another chapter
organized softball and volleyball teams and challenged sexism in the
Chicago Park District.
A key area
that combined education, service and direct action was healthcare.
Among the original groups that formed the CWLU, was the underground
Abortion Counseling Service (usually called "Jane" or "the Service"),
which provided abortion referrals and, later, clandestine abortions.
After abortion was legalized, the Abortion Counseling Service pressed
for access and safety at clinics and continued to provide inexpensive
pregnancy testing. The Health Evaluation and Referral Service (HERS)
monitored healthcare providers and provided referrals until 1989.
did not participate in electoral politics; instead work groups took
on city government to advocate for women's rights. Together with the
Chicago chapter of the National Organization for Women (NOW), DARE
(Direct Action for Rights in Employment) sued the city and eventually
won a major sex discrimination wage case on behalf of city janitresses.
Star, the lesbian chapter, spearheaded CWLU work for a lesbian and
gay rights ordinance. Action Coalition for Decent Childcare (ACDC)
won changes in licensing codes for day care providers. The Legal Clinic
offered advice and services on tenant issues and divorce.
most members were European American , the CWLU supported work by many
other movements. They supported the Black Panthers, celebrated International
Women's Day with the Puerto Rican Socialist Party, participated in
the Coalition to End Sterilization Abuse and other health work in Latino
communities,and organized against racial discrimination in gay/lesbian
Chicago Women's Liberation Union Archives, Chicago Historical Society.
DuPlessis, Rachel Blau, and Ann Snitow, eds. Feminist Memoir Project:
Voices from Women's Liberation. New York: Three Rivers Press, 1998.
Selections by Amy Kesselman with Heather Booth, Vivian Rothstein, and
Naomi Weisstein; Jo Freeman; Naomi Weisstein
Kaplan, Laura. The Story of Jane: The Legendary Underground Feminist
Abortion Service. New York: Pantheon Books, 1995.
Rothstein, Vivian, and Naomi Weisstein. "Chicago Women's Liberation
Union." Women: A Journal of Liberation, 2, no. 4 (1972):
Staggenborg, Suzanne. "Can Feminist Organizations Be Effective?" in Feminist Organizations: Harvest of the New Women's Movement,
edited by Myra Marx Ferree and Patricia Yancey Martin. Philadelphia:
Press, 1995. Pp. 339-55.
The Pro-Choice Movement: Organization and Activism in the
Abortion Conflict. New York: Oxford, 1991.
"Stability and Innovation in the Women's Movement: A Comparison
of Two Movement Organizations." Social Problems, 36, no.
1 (February 1989): 75-92.
Strobel, Margaret. "Consciousness and Action: Historical Agency
in the Chicago Women's Liberation Union," in Provoking Agents:
Theorizing Gender and Agency, ed. Judith Kegan Gardiner. Urbana:
University of Illinois Press, 1995. Pp. 52-68.
_____. "Organizational Learning in the Chicago Women's Liberation
Union," in Feminist Organizations: Harvest of the New Women's
Movement, edited by Myra Marx Ferree and Patricia Yancey Martin.
Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1995. Pp. 145-64.
_____. "Women's Liberation Unions," in The Encyclopedia
of the American Left, ed. Mari Jo Buhle, Paul Buhle, and Dan Georgakas.
New York: Garland Publishing, 1990. Pp. 841-42.
Chicago Women's Liberation Union Graphic Collective. A series of silk
screens produced by the Graphics Collective, both during the CWLU period
and after, is located at Special Collections, Deering Library, Northwestern
University. A founder of the Graphics Collective, Estelle Carol, 323
S. East, Oak Park, IL 60302, should be contacted for permission and
as a courtesy, if they are to be used.
Mountain Moving Day: The Chicago and New Haven Women's Liberation
Rock Bands and a caste [sic] of millions. Rounder Records (1972).
MARGARET "PEG" STROBEL is a professor of Women's Studies
at the University of Illinois.
SUE DAVENPORT is a former CWLU member. She is active in the
Chicago school reform movement.