Chicago was at center of feminist activities
(This article originally appeared in the November 24, 1999 edition of the Chicago Tribune.)
"In Chicago, we always felt the women's movement in New York thought it was the center of the world," recalls Vivian Rothstein, one of the founders of the Chicago Women's Liberation Union, a pioneering league of feminists who had been active in civil rights and anti-war efforts. "In terms of building an organization, we were first."
The Union was founded in 1969 by Rothstein and several other members of the "West Side Group." According to Susan Brownmiller, who chronicles the 1970s feminist movement in her new book, In Our Time: Memoir of a Revolution, the West Siders may have been the first women's liberation group in the nation. They met on Erie Street at the home of Jo Freeman, who also created the era's first national feminist newspaper, "The Voice of the Women's Liberation Movement."
Estelle Carol, who now lives in Oak Park, founded the longest-running organization in the Union, the Chicago Women's Graphics Collective. Remembering the early days, she says: "My entire dining room was a silk-screen studio, and we trained women in silk-screen techniques in my bathtub."
The collective produced more than 40 posters, including Carol's "Sisterhood is blooming, and springtime will never be the same."
Harvard-trained neuroscientist Naomi Weisstein was a West Sider who spent three years in the early '70s to organize the trailblazing Chicago Women's Liberation Rock Band, another link in the Union network. With three guitarists, two drummers and Weisstein at piano, the band played tunes like "I Got the VD Blues" all over the country, at women's festivals, college concerts and such offbeat venues as Chicago's second annual Third World Transvestite Ball. They also did their share of parody. "We imitated the Kinks' song, 'Girl, You Really Got Me Now,' " Weisstein says. "We didn't even change the lyrics. We just went around pretending to set fire to our instruments."
As for Rothstein, she was one of the main engines behind the Union's Liberation School for Women, which held a dazzling array of classes, from early childhood development to Marxism to auto mechanics, in churches all over Chicago. 'This was years and years before women's studies programs, and we had hundreds of women taking classes," recalls Rothstein, "There was incredible energy and interest."