Chicago Women's Graphics Collective
by Estelle Carol
Editors Note: In 1970 Estelle co-founded the Chicago Women's
Graphics Collective which distributed thousands of feminist
posters world wide. This photo was taken at a 1999 fundraiser
for the play "Jane: Abortion and the Underground".)
1973, we worked in an old run down second floor office on Belmont
Ave that we shared with the main offices of the Chicago Womens
Liberation Union. They call it New Town now, but in 1973, there
wasnt much new about it. We werent the only artists
in the building though. Downstairs was a tattoo parlor.
it was better than having the studio located in my apartment
on Newport Street where there were silkscreen tables in the
dining room and a bathroom that doubled as a darkroom. My bedroom
door opened directly into the dining room and usually reeked
of the foul chemicals we used to make the posters. Just one
OSHA inspection would have shut us down forever, but it was
not until later that we learned about the dangers of long term
exposure. On Newport Street, the Ravenswood El train was right
next to the apartment and shook it like the aftershock of a
California earthquake. But we were in the midst of a womens
revolution and our priorities were clear.
you look at our posters youll rarely see a persons
name on it because we decided that modern art had been done
all wrong by men. It was based on egotism and the cult of the
individual-the "great men of art" syndrome. So we
decided to throw all that out, and art now had to be a collective
experience. So every poster that we created had to be done by
committee. Every one.
had a system where any member of the Collective would get a
subject area or an idea, or a phrase or an image and decide
to do a poster. They would ask two or three members of the collective
to be their assistants and to help develop the idea. And then
in little teams they would physically create the poster in silk
it had to be a collective process. Theres no way that
one single woman could really do it because we were using very
primitive reproduction methods and in silk screening we needed
at least three people to run the silk screen. The silk screened
ones were all hand printed. No machines.
a poster was more than one color, it had to be handprinted for
as many kinds of colors as we had, so it was very, very labor
intensive. And we could only print at a maximum, two hundred
at a time because that totally taxed our physical strength and
our space. Eventually so many orders came in that we actually
made a some money from the sale of them. We were then able to
hire Salsedo Press, our favorite worker owned printshop, to
offset print in larger quantities.
was a very important part of the CWLU in general and helped
give the organization a national presence. We were socialist
feminists. Making women "equal" to men in an exploitative
capitalist society was not our goal. So besides the clearly
feminist posters, we did posters about healthcare, the Third
World, labor and other issues. It gave people a lot of good
feelings about what they were doing, and all the other work
groups looked forward to the next poster coming out. The posters
gave the CWLU a credibility, a presence and an image. I guess
youd call it marketing today, but back then that was a
had a a distribution network that was fairly extensive. We shipped
them out to organizations, political bookstores and womens
groups all over the world, sometimes as many as 20,000 posters.
Some of them were physically really big, so when people put
them up on walls, they were hard to miss.
course collective art had its high points and its low points.
Wed have these "Grumpy Sessions" where wed
get our gripes out in the open. When we were feeling positive
about each other other wed call it giving each other "warm
fuzzies". When we were feeling negative toward one another,
wed call it giving each other "cold pricklies".
I know it sounds like ridiculous psychobabble, but somehow visualizing
our interactions helped to get us through a lot of the inevitable
conflicts. In a story that Linda Winer of the Chicago Tribune
did about us, Tibby, who was one of the most active members,
said,"Criticism is so much easier to take when the poster
is not one persons creation." She was right.
been a while, but I still remember some of the women from the
Belmont Ave days. Tibby was my best friend then. She gave me
the emotional Prozac I needed when I was too wound up, which
was often. She would always tell me,"Estelle, never tell
people 'You need to' ,'You ought to', or 'You should '."
I tended to be very outer directed and task oriented. Ok, I
was very bossy, but I tried to do it in a sweet way. I like
to think I was successful most of the time.
was also my roommate and taught me yoga. She was very nice,
but her earnest efforts to turn me into a lesbian ended in abysmal
failure. Susan had come from Jane, the underground illegal abortion
group. She had faced a possible 110 years in prison because
of her abortion activities. After the charges were dropped,
I guess she really needed to do something different. Barbara
was the serious one under the big floppy hippie hats that she
wore more or less constantly. Actually we were all a bunch of
hippie artists. Except for Leslie. Leslie had a real apartment,
with real furniture, a real husband, and a real kid. She also
had real talent. Leslie did some of our most beautiful posters,
like the Maternity Center one and the Farmworkers poster.
the posters I directed, my all time favorite is "Sisterhood
is Blooming". This was a very common feeling at the time,
because it expressed the love we tried to feel for one another
and to some extent, actually did. I think it was this attitude
that was undermined towards the middle of the 1970s. And
when this kind of attitude was undermined, thats when
a lot of the womens movement began to fall apart.
is powerful, but sisters do fight. We didnt know how to
fight and have that make us come out stronger rather than weaker.
Many of us were getting real power for the first time and we
didnt always handle it well. People were very suspicious
of leaders, probably because they thought leaders would just
reproduce the same old sick male power structure, only with
women in charge. We had tensions over sexual orientation, race,
and social class. We had honest, but often bitter divisions
over political strategies. Considering the odds against us,
I think we did pretty well keeping things together as long as
eventually moved out of the Belmont Ave building and into an
old corner store on Southport Ave, with a full kitchen in the
back. It was a much a bigger space and had the advantage of
a wonderful German bakery across the street. We didnt
obsess about diets back then. Things were ok for a while, but
by 1975, I was feeling very uncomfortable in the group.
people who had started the Collective with me had largely moved
on. We had always tried to reflect the diversity of the womens
movement, but the newer people coming in seemed to have a narrower
focus. I felt an uncomfortable pressure on me because I was
not a separatist. Female separatism had become a growing force
in the women's movement and the Graphics Collective was no exception.
Meetings became tense. Except for one woman who had a visceral
dislike for me, nobody trashed me or anything like that, but
it was clear that my socialist feminist vision was now in a
minority of one.
was physically exhausted from the sheer effort required in silkscreening
and I had begun to fear that the chemicals we used might be
damaging my health. Leaving the Graphics Collective was one
of the most painful and wrenching experiences of my life, but
I did it.
Collective continued until 1983 and did some stunning posters
that are among my most treasured possessions. I am so grateful
to former coordinator Julie Zolot who recently gave me copies
of the artwork that had been created after my departure.
I am a graphic artist, a cartoonist and an illustrator. I love
doing work for the labor movement and for various non-profit
human service groups. I illustrate childrens books and
work on a magazine for gay parents. About a year ago I decided
that the history of the womens liberation movement in
Chicago needed to be shared with a new generation and I helped
organize the Chicago Womens Herstory Project. I taught
myself enough about the Internet to become the site designer.
want to communicate the excitement of that period so that young
women today have a foundation upon which to wage the struggles
they need to wage. I am hopeful that a new womens liberation
movement will arise to finish the job that we worked so hard
on, and if it does, I have every intention of becoming a part
of it. And if the movement wants some new posters..........