Why should anyone care about the Chicago
Women's Liberation Union?
(Editors Note: Sarah Bornstein is a former CWLUer and is now the
administrative director of the Chicago Junior League. This memoir
was originally a talk given by Sarah to the 3rd Unitarian Church of
Chicago's Sunday Forum in March 2002.)
should anyone care about the Chicago Womens Liberation Union?
The organization ceased to operate nearly twenty-five years ago, and
was only in existence for eight years. True, during that time, its rolling
membership included several thousand and the work it did touched the
lives of thousands more. Of course, those of us who were involved with
CWLU are nostalgic for those glory days of heady revolutionary fervor.
But beyond our sentiments, does the CWLU really matter?
I think it does.
Not only because it is important history, and we all know that we
should never forget our history. But also because the successes and
perhaps more cogently the failures of the CWLU can provide lessons
for us today.
Let me say at
the outset that the opinions and analysis expressed today are strictly
my own. There is no official line on the CWLU as
I said the organization no longer exists. It lives in cyberspace at
it lives in the hearts of the thousands who treasure the memories
of the work we did together. Young feminists today ask us What
was it like back then? And we tell them about the womens
union. But there is no official history, and so interpretations are
left to each of us who were there to tell it as we remember. So, thats
what I will do. Others who were members of the CWLU may challenge
my take on things. No problem.
First of all,
a little bit about the background of the Chicago Womens Liberation
Union. It was founded in 1969 and was typical of the socialist feminist
organizations that were being born in this wealth of activity that
of the second wave of the 20th century feminist movement. The founders
were leftists, new leftists I think would be accurate,
who were veterans of the civil rights and anti-war movements. The
principles of the CWLU included dedication to anti-imperialism, anti-racism,
and anti-sexism. These were women who had experienced discrimination,
belittlement, even abuse at the hands of their brothers
in the civil rights and anti-war movements. I think we all remember
Stokely Carmichaels famous statement that,".... the only
position for women in SNCC was prone."
These were women
who would no longer settle for being relegated to running mimeograph
machines (do we all remember mimeograph machines) or making coffee.
I distinctly remember my own moment of truth. I was taking a summer
school course at the University of Pennsylvania in between my junior
and senior year of college. Although I wasnt terribly active
in electoral politics, I decided to check out a McCarthy for
President meeting. I remember a guy standing in front of this
meeting saying, We need some girls to make some posters.
I had the good fortune to attend a womens college where I was
President of the Student Government. I said to myself as an ah
hah lightbulb went on: I dont make posters. I run
meetings. Similarly, a friend of mine, who spoke at a panel
commemorating the 20th anniversary of the Columbia strike in 1968,
remarked that perhaps the most significant change from 1968 is that
back then she never would have been on a panel. Like my friend, the
women who founded the CWLU were smart, dedicated, and feisty. They
differentiated themselves from the more mainstream womens
movement, represented by the National Organization for Women, defining
themselves as socialist feminists. They also differentiated themselves
from lesbian separatists who would not work with men. So, in 1969
a group of about 100 women, alumnae of various social justice movements,
created the CWLU.
From the beginning,
and this is the first lesson to be remembered, the CWLU was oriented
toward action and involvement rather than ideology and theory. They
wanted to make change and they wanted to make change by doing things.
Their strategies included service, direct action and education in
the arenas of concern for women: production, reproduction, sexuality
and socialization of children (this was a model adapted from feminist
writer Juliet Mitchell). While the group wasnt averse to study
groups, that was not what the CWLU was primarily about.
The union was
a federation of work groups each work group dedicated
to a different organizing task: Liberation School organized three
sessions of community-based classes on subjects like karate, auto mechanics,
and womens literature. WOMANKIND published a monthly newspaper.
Collective designed and silk screened original and beautiful works
of art as posters. DARE (Direct Action for Rights in Employment) worked
around job discrimination issues and successfully organized an action
by Janitresses at City Hall to gain wage parity with their male counterparts.
There was the China Group, which raised money to become
the first womens delegation to visit the Peoples Republic
of China. HERS (Health Evaluation and Referral Service), born in the
wake of the Roe v. Wade decision, worked to make sure that abortion
clinics were safe and economically (and physically) accessible. There
was ACDC, Action Committee for Decent Childcare, that worked to make
affordable childcare more of a reality for working class women. There
was a Legal Clinic and pregnancy testing, services that brought ordinary
women in contact with womens lib. There were chapters
that served as a combination social group/study group, but these generally
took on tasks such as sponsoring small fundraisers like a crafts fair.
charged dues (I honestly cant remember how much maybe
it was $25) and was run by a steering committee, made up of representatives
of the various work groups. And this is the second lesson about the
CWLU its governance and decision making process were embedded
in the work of the organization. For the most part, the CWLU was quite
decentralized, with each work group making most of the decisions that
affected what they did and how they did it. The Steering Committee
consisted of representatives from the work groups, and these representatives
changed on a fairly regular basis. That meant that leadership was
not entrenched and was fairly fluid. At some point during the unions
seven-year history, it was determined that the Union needed a identifiable
spokesperson and a Steering Committee Chair was elected. But this
position, too, changed every year, so there was not a lot of leadership
entrenchment. And our emphasis was on learning and sharing skills.
The motto of Liberation School what we dont know
we must learn; what we do know we much teach each other.
was something we truly lived. Another item to point out about our
governance was that we always tried to reach consensus in our decision
making. That was not always possible, but always desirable. And we
understood that consensus did not mean that we all agreed, but that
we could all live with whatever decision was being made.
The CWLU was
definitely not a detached membership kind of organization.
Certainly of the 1000 members, there were many who just sent in dues.
But of that 1000, there were probably 300 or so that were really,
truly involved in making the work of the organization happen. We were
So, with all
this wonderful work and with all these women involved, why did the
CWLU last only seven years?
I think there
is some controversy over why and how the organization ended and there
are certainly different feelings about what happened during that last
year or So. As I have said, the CWLU, while committed to broad, progressive,
let us say leftist principles, was very eclectic ideologically.
We prided ourselves on not being hung on the correct line
and doing a lot of naval gazing rather than working with women who
wanted to change their lives. Because we were relatively effective
in organizing and politicizing women, there were more factional groups
whether they were Stalinist or Maoist or Trotskyite
that wanted to co-opt the womens union and make it part
of their political sphere of influence. Sometime in 1976, members
of various groups began to show up at CWLU meetings and demanding
that we pay more attention to ideology and be more rigorous in our
discipline. I remember position papers flying left and right and endless
Sunday afternoons of discussions and arguments. I remember it all
as quite unpleasant and ugly and sad.
of internal factionalism, a majority of CWLU activists (including
me) decided to essentially conduct a purge. We believed that the members
of these other groups were attempting to co-opt our inclusive, relatively
diverse, action oriented, ideological purity averse organization.
Ill call these folks the mainstreamers. We had a
big meeting, and the mainstreamers wound up walking out in
the meantime the locks on the office were changed. We felt that we
were taking back our organization.
There were lots
of hurt feelings, and many political friendships were destroyed. I
confess that I have never forgiven those on the other
side and probably never will.
So, what happened
next? Now on the defensive about our ideology or lack thereof, the
mainstreamers began a series of study groups. We spent about seven
months in deep theoretical discussions. We emerged from that deciding
that maybe it was time to stop sitting around and time to start doing.
At about that time, were talking late 1976, early 1977, several
members became more and more interested in working with more
organizations labor unions in particular. I was also more interested
in workplace issues and began working with Women Employed.
made all kinds of decisions to continue being active politically but
with organizations that had a broader base. Single issue organizations,
especially around reproductive rights, were a draw. And, peoples
lives were changing we wanted to build careers and start families
and would have less time to devote to a volunteer driven organization
like the CWLU. Its my own interpretation -- perhaps only my
own that we became rhetoric weary and just wanted to make things
better for women and their families. It is my own opinion strictly
my own that after the purge we should have launched a new outreach
project rather than turning inward to figure out our correct line.
When we decided
to disband the Womens Union, we had a big party and all felt
good about what we had accomplished and felt good about the new direction
our political activism was taking. A personal note about that big
party. It was in late May, 1977. My son had been born on the 13th
of that month, and he came with me, in a snugli, to the party. For
years afterward, when I went to meetings or demonstrations or benefits
or whatever, if Kevin were with me, people would say, I remember
you when you were in a snugli. So, when he was about eight,
hed just pre-empt everyone sand say, I know, you remember
me when. . .
For me, my years
in the CWLU taught me so much about facilitation, about sharing skills,
about understanding that power, like love, is strongest when shared.
reasons, my entire adult life has been dedicated to working with women
around womens issues. Probably part of that is because of how
much I learned, believed I accomplished and how much fun I had as
part of the CWLU.
So, to recap
what does this experience have to teach us, those of us interested
in social change, economic justice and making a difference. Again,
this is my view, not the correct line of the now defunct CWLU.
First, to be
effective and meaningful, an organization should be geared toward
action, not ideology. Of course you need a point of view and of course,
nothing is so practical as a good theory. But groups thrive on what
they do, not what they believe. Second, the governing of an organization
should be imbedded in the working process of the organization. Those
that do the work make the decisions.
should be routinely rotated, not entrenched or owned by a few, no
matter how talented they may be. Fourth the best decision making processes
lean toward consensus, not power plays. And decisions are made in
the room with all present, not in the hallway, the subway station
or in a sidebar. And once the decision is made, there is organizational
discipline about upholding that decision.
is the bias toward action. Above all, do something. While
I wouldnt quite go so far as to say ready fire aim, too many
organizations get stuck in ready, aim, ready aim, ready aim. One final
thought Id like to share. Back in my CWLU days, I thought revolution
was just around the corner. I really really did. My paradigm for that
was the Bob Dylan song, When the Ship Comes In. I truly
believed that the foes would rise with the sleep still in their
eyes and jerk from their beds and think theyre dreaming. . .
and like pharaohs tribe, theyd be drowned in the tide,
and like Goliath theyll be conquered. I dont believe
that anymore. I now believe that real, true meaningful change is gradual
and takes root slowly. Remember the parable of the boiled frog
if you put a frog in a pot of boiling water, hell jump out.
But put a frog in a pot of water where the temperature is rising imperceptibly,
hell be cooked to death without knowing what happened. Social
change, real social change I think is like that. You dont necessarily
feel it while its happening, but one day you notice things are
different and forever changed.
So, now my anthem
is not Dylans but Holly Nears. That we as social activists,
creators of change, purveyors of justice, we shall be like drops
of water, falling on the stone. Laughing, dancing, dispersing in air
weaker than the stone, by far, but be aware that as time goes
by, the rock will wear away. So day by day, bit by bit, I believe
we change the world.
I hope you have
found this useful or at least entertaining. Thank you.