Chicago Women's Liberation Union
(Editors Note: Women: A Journal of Liberation published this
article in 1972. Written by two of the founders of the CWLU, it is a
snapshot of the group's organizing strategies during its second year.)
The women's liberation movement in Chicago is in good shape. This is surprising, since in many places the womens movement appears to be in critical condition. We feel that we have learned certain things from our work in Chicago, and have ideas about why we have been relatively successful. We dont know exactly why the womens liberation movement here remains relatively healthy, and we are not arrogant about it.
However, we think it is important for us to begin to understand what has or has not happened to our movement, so we can figure out how to work to make it strong, stable and lasting. So, in what follows, we will try to characterize the Chicago womens liberation movement and discuss its health, its illness, and its recent history.
The Chicago womens liberation movement can be characterized in the following five ways:
Consider some of these in more detail:
We can think of two main reasons why we have avoided extreme sectarianism. The first has to do with CWLU. As we will describe below, it was founded in the midst of a sectarian storm, and it is possible that its initial response to that sectarianism laid the groundwork for handling later forms. Second, we think that our lack of sectarianism has also to do with the fact that the Chicago womens movement, although started quite early, was never in the vanguard in terms of ideas, situations, or life-styles. In particular, the politics of women active in CWLU have remained fairly consistent since it began. There have been no theoretical breakthroughs from Chicago; we didnt figure out very early about sexism, about violence toward women about nuclear families, and so forth. But when those breakthroughs finally arrived in Chicago, they didnt appear in the form of ultimatums.
As we have remarked, many of the characteristics discussed above follow from the presence of CWLU. We have provided structures and programslike the Liberation School and ACDCwhich are medium range things, in the sense that one doesnt have to have impossible revolutionary credentials to participate. None of this means that we hide our politics; but all of it means that we are able to keep broadening, rather than narrowing, our base, since the criteria for participation allows for entrance, development and choice. Finally, our understanding that people are at different places and that that fact adds to, rather than subtracts from, our movement, has helped us suppress our own individual sectarianism.
Since, as we have pointed out, we think that the presence of CWLU is the most important factor in the relative health of the Chicago womens liberation movement, we would like to describe its history. It started at a time when the organized mixed white left had just hit the fan (i. e. the collapse of SDS as a relevant political organization). We felt that the womens movement in Chicago was in danger of being destroyed in the wake of factional convulsions. We also felt very strongly that we needed an autonomous womens movement that would work towards its idea of the revolution. In fact, even if the mixed white left hadnt started to go crazy at that particular time, we still needed an organization for these reasons:
In essence, we wanted womens liberation to become a political force with a significant base, the ability to act and organize, and with a strategy and program to win power. In order to do these things we realized that we would have to build an organization which made sense to a large number of women.
There are reasons why this particular emphasis developed in Chicago, while other parts of the country focused more on the small group and on consciousnessraising as the major political thrust. It has to do with the population of Chicago and the kind of movement which the new left had built here prior to the womens movement. For one thing, Chicago has a relatively small university student population. As a result there are very few radical, counterculture enclaves in the city. Chicago also has a relatively small left-liberal adult population. Given these conditions, radicals were left with the task of building a movement out of new local constituencies, often centering on community organizing efforts, or activities around small colleges and high schools.
The composition of the left was largely people who had experience with serious fulltime organizing in one movement project or another. It was out of this base of committed movement activists that womens liberation began to grow.
It is in the context of this background that one can see the initiation of the CWLU. In the fall of 1969 a conference was called to organize an "independent, multiissue, radical womens liberation organization."Our first conference turned out to be largely a debate among various sectarian groups on the left, and a defense of the right to form an independent womens organization. All politically active women were invited. A number of political sects came to the conference intending to discourage the formation of an allwomens organization because it would be "inherently counter revolutionary." Our response to these attacks seems to have laid the basis for our response to sectarianism ever since. We were open to all women who wanted to work for an independent, radical, womens liberation movement and were eager to discuss the issues involved in anyones politics. In other words, we wanted, and still believe in, a pluralist movement.
The outcome of the conference, besides much frustration, was a tentative set of political principles around which to build a womens organization. The principles have remained essentially unchanged since then. They are:
We are committed to building a movement that embodies within it the humane values of the society for which we are fighting. To win this struggle, we must resist exploitative, manipulative and intolerant attitudes in ourselves. We need to be supportive of each other, to have enthusiasm for change in ourselves and in society and faith that people have unending energy and ability to change.
After the conference a series of large meetings were held which struggled over an organizational structure and program for CWLU. The structure which was decided upon was a general chapter structure with a steering committee made up of one representative from every chapter and work project. Two women volunteered to be part time unpaid staff until the Union could afford to pay two women for this work (which happened the next year). CWLU now hires two part time staff workers and pays them $50 a week each. The Union rented a small office and slowly set up the coordination center for our organization.
From the first conference to the present, CWLU has gone through several important struggles and changes. All have added up to a collective attempt to more adequately define the type of organization we need by making membership definitions clearer and making a more democratic structure, developing new democratic forms to ensure participation and the expansion of leadership functions, and more recently, by developing outreach program.
Two particular events in the history of our organizational forms seem to have been crucial was a democratic speakers bureau policy, and the other was a struggle with women from a Socialist Workers Party Orientation, who argued for a somewhat undefined, non-structured, noncentralized organization.
The speakers policy arose shortly after the CWLU was formed. It was the time when people were interested in getting a womens liberation spokeswoman on every talk show, church forum, and college campus in the country. When requests came to the Union we would at first suggest women representatives from our membership who volunteered to speak publicly. All this did, essentially, was reinforce the kind of elitism which had previously existed. By promoting women who already had the confidence in themselves as political speakers, a star system was developing. This policy was criticized, and a new speakers policy was suggested which still functions in our organization. The policy is that all women who are members should learn to speak about the womens movement. All speaking engagements are filled on a rotating basis. Each chapter has a turn to fill a request and must find a woman member willing to do it. This has ensured that most women in our organization have spoken at least once about women-related issues, and it has ensured a more active, committed, self-confident membership. The speakers bureau was an example to us all of how we could develop "liberating structures." It was popular to say then in the womens movement, and still is today to some extent, that structures can only be oppressive. The speakers policy is an example of how this is not necessarily true and how, in fact, one can structure out elitism. t was the first innovation to really bring our organization into existence.
The second year of life of CWLU was composed to some extent of its defense. At that time, in different parts of the country, women who belonged to the Socialist Workers Party or who adhered to SWP politics, began to get active in different womens liberation activities. From what we understand, similar arguments were made by these women in different cities, which were essentially that most of the existing womens organizations were elitist, that all structures must be wide open to "all women", that the womens movement must focus on mass rallies and demonstrations and popular "mass issues", and that womens organizations should not try to take over the Chicano, black or anti-war movements but should stick to "womens issues"(i. e. abortion, day care, equal pay for equal work, etc.) Many of the criticisms of the womens movement which were raised were important, and a political struggle began. In Chicago we were able to debate these criticisms in a relatively open way and the results were very positive ones for the CWLU. Through long meetings and a constant attempt to bring out the "real issues"involved, the majority position in the CWLU became that the SWP women were pressing for very nebulous, indistinct, "mass organizations"of women with little political definition and self-determination because they saw the political leadership for the womens liberation movement (and all left movements) coming from their party, the Socialist Workers Party.
But for the majority of women, there was no party to which we belonged, and we were committed to building an independent womens organization with enough political sophistication and centralism to make the necessary political decisions, have the important political discussions, and develop the needed political strategy to build a successful womens movement. The result of the long struggle (which was a losing one for several womens organizations in other cities) was a heightened seriousness about the CWLU among a large number of women, the tightening of membership requirements (including participation in program, dues, as well as public speaking), heightened responsibilities for the steering committee, and a new energy and commitment to developing outreach program.
there are many problems with our organizational structure. We have
by no means overcome all traces of elitism, intimidation and cliquish-ness.
Our structure never functions in as democratic a fashion as we always
hope. Our chapters are often changing and representatives are often
not responsible and consistent. And programmatically we have many of
the problems common to womens liberation throughout the countrywe
have developed virtually no struggle oriented programs which
are designed to gain power over institutions which oppress women. Nevertheless
we have a forum in which to constantly discuss, argue and debate these
problems. We have an ongoing communication network to keep us all in
touch and informed. We have a permanent womens liberation presence
in the city of Chicago. And our organization continues to learn from
its mistakes and to grow.