Heather Booth: Living the Movement Life
(Editors Note: Working from an interview originally
conducted by Becky Kluchin of Carnegie-Mellon University, UIC student
Gina Caneva edited Heather's interview into a memoir. In it Heather
Booth talks about her lifelong commitment to social justice.)
The beginning of the women's movement was a time a joy and excitement, of building a better world and finding ourselves.
I was raised in a loving family that believed in equality and taking action for what is right. I grew up in Brooklyn, but went to a suburban high school where I felt that I didn't really fit in. I was head of a lot of the social organization like chorus, history club and yearbook. There was a sorority in the school, and I quit it when I realized that they didn't accept anybody who wasn't conventionally pretty. I'd been on cheerleading, and I quit that because they weren't letting blacks onto the team. I was ready for the sixties, and the sixties weren't here.
Then I hit college, and the world burst open in the most wonderful possible way. I went to the University of Chicago in 1963, in part, because it had no sororities. And sports didn't dominate the scene. Within weeks, I became very active in the civil rights movement. There was a school boycott that would've been for integrating both integrated and neighborhood at quality schools. Blacks and whites lived near enough to each other; it was a time when you could have integrated schools. But instead, they created these wagons--like trailers--on the overcrowded black schools. And the wagons were named after the superintendent of schools, Benjamin Willis. The black kids couldn't walk across the street and go to the white school. I ended up coordinating the South Side Freedom Schools. That propelled me into the center of the civil rights movement in the city.
I became active in what was the citywide group called the Coordinating Council of Community Organization--CCCO. From that, I also decided to set up a campus chapter of SNCC: Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee. And at the time, I was volunteering at a mental institution, working particularly with a set of women on a locked ward. I ended up being involved in a tutoring project that SNCC was also involved with. It was for tutoring young African American kids nearby the university. I was also active in the documentary film society and the folklore society.
For raising all of the concerns that I was raising at that point, there actually was a lot of reinforcement from the university. Professors initially thought that this was exciting--there was a positive response initially. It was clear that the university itself had this double role--one being this extremely exciting place that taught me to think critically, brought people together and allowed certain kinds of freedom. In high school, I was just miserable because I couldn't figure out a way to express the concerns I had. At the same time, there were other forms of traditional social control, and the school explicitly function as what was called "in loco parentis" or in place of parents. In those years, there were dormitory hours when women had to check in and when men had to check in. I remember that a friend of mine was nearly suicidal. I spent time with him to talk his way through a broken romance he had with someone else, and when I came back after check-in, I was searched for contraceptives. I was outraged--but this was a very innocent time.
Later, there was a sleep-out to protest the hours. In 1965, a friend of mine was raped at knifepoint in her bed in an off-campus room. When she went to student health for a gynecological exam, she was given a lecture on her promiscuity. She was also told that student health didn't cover gynecological exams. So we sat with her and they called it a sit-in.
In 1964 at the end of first semester, I was recruited to go to Mississippi for the civil rights movement. I'd been very active in SNCC already, and I was also active in the emerging anti-war movement on campus and student government. And I became a leader of the Progressive Student Political Committee called SPAC. In the civil rights movement, women played these extraordinary leadership roles. A lot of things were happening at once.
When I got back to campus I traveled, talking about the civil rights movement, SNCC and I did fundraising and promotion for it. We did local organizing, and there were rent strikes in the black community It's not like there was just one strand. All of these strandS together meant being in the Movement. Women, civil rights, anti-war, students rights--it was all part of the Movement.
In 1965, my sophomore year, an ex-boyfriend told me that his sister, who had also been in Mississippi, was pregnant and needed an abortion. I don't know if I'd ever really thought about it before. On being told there was someone with a problem, my reaction was to try to do something to resolve it. I called doctors in the Medical Committee for Human Rights, the physician support team for the civil rights movement. I found a doctor who was on 63rd Street--in the heart of the Woodland black ghetto. That was successful. All I did was just make contact with someone. It turns out that the doctor, TRM Howard was a great hero of the Civil Rights Movement and left Mississippi only when he was on a Klan hit list.
Then, a few months later, someone else had heard about it and asked for some more help. I made another contact. And someone else called, and someone else called, and someone else called. I told people when they called they should ask for Jane.
For a while, there was just one doctor. Then he died. And I had to find another doctor. It was just talking to one person and then another. First I needed to understand the procedure. What amount of pain is there? What health risks are there? Is there emotional problems? Do they counsel? What's the cost? The cost was $500. Would they bring down the cost if we gave for every three people who came through? Would they give us one for free? Would they be there in an emergency?
I'd have conversations with the perspective doctors. If I ever heard any criticism, I'd tell them that someone said there was a problem and ask them what they were going to do about it. We just had back-and-forth conversations. He arranged for his assistant to meet me, both to check me out and for me to check them out.
I was petrified about everything. I think there's a tendency for when people talk about these conversations to think they are brave. In hindsight, you gain confidence as you do it. I was always scared. It's also easier to talk about it than it was to do, and I think we forget about how scary it was. I also was very insecure. I've been insecure my whole life. I don't know that it's so much that people who do this are more secure or confident. But I think there are just ways that you decide to take action in spite of lack of confidence. I met with his assistant in a downtown Walgreens and was pretty satisfied. We reached some terms with payments and at least felt we could trust each other. We had much more regular communication then, and a lot more people came through Jane. It was a few a month. There were a lot of students, many from the Midwest. There also were some housewives. At least a couple women, one of the housewives and a younger woman were related to the Chicago police. It made me believe that the police department knew about it, and for all I knew, was even referring people. It made me pretty scared.
But I kept on counseling women, preparing them for the abortion and doing the follow-up with them and the doctor. I'd meet with them in person, and we'd talk, then follow-up by phone, and I'd follow up with the doctor only by phone. Also, there were some public demonstrations about abortion. There were some organized speak outs, ads in newspapers and some meetings with the Clergy Consultation Service. But mostly, it wasn't a focus of the women's movement. A lot of other stuff was going on. There was still anti-war and the world was changing. Then in 1966, at a draft sit-in at the University, I met the person who became my husband. He had been the national secretary of SDS (Students for a Democratic Society), and their national office was in Chicago. We have been life partners in the movement.
We decided we'd get married when I graduated in 1967. Then we had a child right away in 1968. With all of that happening--and I was trying to get a doctorate, working full-time, had a Movement life full-time and I was expecting a child. There just a lot going on, and the number of people coming through Jane were increasing.
I decided we had to get more people involved, and I wanted to move on. Jane wasn't something that was really discussed a lot. I almost never talked about this with anyone. It was illegal; I didn't want to go to jail. I was willing to risk it if that's what it took, just like in the civil rights movement. But I didn't want to flaunt it. There had been exposes that the Chicago Red Squad was spying on people. The Red Squad in Chicago was different from CIA exposes but occurred at the same time. I remember when members of Jane were arrested (in 1973)--it was horrible. We needed to come to their defense. We had to do anything that we could do. We had to support them personally. We had to clarify that it was a political issue. We had to see if the abortion service could continue. It was a rush of many things at once. I remember going to meetings, trying to figure out what to do about it.
But I'd go to meetings and try to recruit people to be part of Jane. At the end of every meeting I went to, I'd ask if anyone wanted to talk. A few people were recruited--Jody, Ruth, Eleanor and a few others. Then we had conversations, and I led people in a training session before I gave the doctor's name. I used role play to make sure that they knew how to counsel. Then we went through all the questions and made sure that people would be attentive and responsible. I turned Jane over to the collective in 1968', and Jody rose to the leadership.
By then, I had one child, and we had another child right away. It was wonderful having these two great babies. It was also a bit overwhelming. I was in school. I was in the Movement. I was working. We had no money. I had been organizing, and I was fired in two different places for Union organizing. With money I Won from a back pay suit for organizing, I started the Midwest Academy, which is the activist training center. I helped organize some speak outs on abortion and was an active supporter, but it wasn't the main area that I focused on.
My start in the women's movement began after a national SDS meeting in Champaign-Urbana in 1965. I went to the meeting because they were going to discuss the woman question. One of my teachers, Dick FlackS, an SDS member who had been at Port Huron, told me about it. And I knew about SDS because it was allied with our political party on campus.
At first, men and women contributed to the discussion. It was very large, but it was clear that men were denying the women's experiences. The women would say, "We're made to feel that we're not equal partners, or we?re not given a chance to be leaders.? And someone would say, "Oh no, of course you're given a chance." It was ridiculous. But initially, I said, "Let's keep talking together. We can work this out." Just as I didn't want the civil rights movement to divide black/white, I didn't want this movement to divide men/women. We needed to deal with our common problem.
But then a guy named Jimmy Garrett, an SNCC and African American organizer and a boyfriend of one of the people I lived with in Mississippi, said, "Look, you women are never gonna get this together unless you just go off and talk by yourselves. You just have to do this." And he walked out. Later that evening, I realized he was exactly right. A number of us went off and talked alone. We committed that we would go and pursue these kinds of discussions
I went back to Chicago, and I set about and formed a group on campus for a year called WRAP--Women's Radical Action Program. One of the women in it was the assistant head of student affairs and government activities. Then we formed another group for a year called the Center City group that included not only people on campus but also people with campus connections who were organizing in the city. The campus group began as discussion. We did this study of significant response, looking at how often men or women teachers responded to students depending on whether they were men or women. The comment back was either that's stupid or that's wonderful, let's discuss it. It was like four to one more significant responses to men than to women students. The woman student would say her comment and then it was just passed over as if it never happened.
Then we tried to go to classes and discuss it as part of the subject. It needed to be discussed in sociology, but this was before there was a language--before women's liberation. I remind people it's when "chauvinism" meant intense national feeling. We put radical into our title because in the Movement, you were radicals because you tried to get at the root of the problem. But we didn't have a language. We were just figuring it out. I started WRAP because at an SDS meeting, I was talking and one of the guys yelled at me to shut up. And I was a really, really nice kid. And I stopped talking. I went around and tapped the shoulder of every woman in the group and we went upstairs and made a separate group. We basically pulled out half the numbers.
Then, in the Center City group, we started forming more consciousness-raising groups. I must have formed about ten myself, and the others did too. We started talking about a demonstration at Playboy, and helped to create a WITCH group--Women's International Terrorist Conspiracy from Hell--where we just basically did guerilla theater. There were four of us in the Center City Group were really good friends. Amy Kesselman, Vivian Rothstein, Naomi Weisstein and myself. We recently got together and wrote a chapter in The Feminist Memoir Project. But even in that we all had different recollections, and it was quite a stitch trying to even figure out how to write jointly.
Then the Thanksgiving conference came around in 1969. Our second son was born in October, so he was about five weeks old. And I took him with me. The women's movement really couldn't absorb children at that point, so I wasn't part of all the meetings. Partly everyone was a kid themselves, and many of them had trouble in how they had been raised. We weren't familiar with how to take care of kids as a group. Rather than have childcare, it was, "We really don't want your crying kid over here". Rather than, "Can I help you out?" it was "Can you go into another room when you're nursing?". I had gone to my women's group, with Jo Freeman, Amy Kesselman and others and asked them if we should have kids. My husband was going to be drafted, and there was going to be a punitive draft because he was an anti-war leader. One way to get out of the draft was to have a kid. We were only married three months before we had to face this decision--it's a pretty big decision. I went to the group. They said, "Yes, you should really do this." And then when I had the baby, most of them just couldn't deal.
This is a sad part of the movement, because having these children was so important and wonderful, but, as I said, in the movement, we were really children ourselves at this point. Our children are our future. My kids are a center of my life and concern.
Still, a lot of very exciting things happened at the conference. People left from it and formed the coordinating committee that I worked on which helped set up the Chicago Women's Liberation Union (CWLU). Through the Women's Union, I was in the Liberation School, and I set up the Action Committee for Decent Childcare. There were two kinds of groups in the CWLU. One was a workgroup and one was an affinity (usually geographic) group. I had also set up this city-wide organization called Action Committee for Decent Childcare in 1970.
There was a move to create nationally-funded childcare, and Walter Mondale promoted it. A number of states were trying to set up these childcare coordinating committees, which became semi-political operations. This was to get parents voices in the movement as well as to revive the childcare licensing laws.
We had tried to set up a day care center called Sojourner Truth in Hyde Park. But there was no city funding for childcare. The childcare licensing procedure was rigged in support of contractors, and twenty or thirty years before, this horrible fire burned down a church that had a childcare center. Because of the fire, the laws were changed to make it so you had to pay tens of thousands of dollars to create a childcare center--more than was probably needed. It just made the contractors rich. It was almost like there was a rule against being in a church basement. If you had kids who were under two, you had to have an on-site generator, and exit signs marked with a lighting system that would survive a blackout. But you could get glow-in-the-dark exit signs that were a dollar.
So, we formed the city-wide organization, created a multi-racial group and were part of an effort that finally won a million dollar city investment into childcare. It became one of the issues in the governor's race. We won new licensing procedure. There had been thirty-two stops, and they made one-stop licensing. We created a board made up half of clients and half of childcare providers that reviewed licensing and childcare problems. We won a lot of victories and also built a wonderful multi-racial direct action organization.
Again, it was all just part of the Movement work--all parts of the same thing. In my senior year in college, there was a move by the civil rights movement. Dr. King came to Chicago and said, "The way to secure civil rights is through union strikes." Remember that he was killed during a strike of sanitation workers. He believed that union strikes were front and center.) From that, there was then a move to unionize Chicago hospitals. While I was going to school, I was a full-time nurse's aide trying to build a union. I didn't just view that as healthcare work or civil rights work or women's work. It was just part of the Movement-civil rights, health care and women's movement all together.
Some final thoughts: I also think that recognizing the inside of the women's movement--the personal is political--is so powerful and important. In so many ways, I think it's just been stood on its head in this era. Before, ideas that we felt were personal we realized were political and needed political action to solve. Now it's been reversed. Things that we know are political, we treat as if they are only personal. You care about the environment; you get a green shopping bag. You're for the women's movement; read non-sexists books to your kids. All of which are good things. But it's missing this context that allows us then to actually change the society.
The Movement may have been a different experience
for different people and at different points. But it wasn't so much
that people took risks; it's that people decided to take action even
in the face of risks. I think there are some people who think they
are not good enough. They don't know enough. They won't do it right.
They won't be effective. But there's still this leap of faith that
says in the face of injustice, you need to act for justice and figure
out the best way. Even having all these concerns, we need to realize
that we actually do know enough--we can make this change happen- if
we organize. We need to reinstill in people this sense that regular
people acting together can make history. I think the loss of that belief
is the worst thing about this current period of time.