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The Chicago Women's Liberation Union: An Introduction by Margaret "Peg" Strobel and Sue Davenport (1999)

The Chicago Women's Liberation Union (CWLU, 1969-1977), an early women's liberation group, organized around women's health and reproductive rights, education, economic rights, visual arts and music, sports, lesbian liberation and opposition to the war in Southeast Asia.

Founded by women active in the anti-war movement, the civil rights movement and Students for a Democratic Society, the CWLU was noted for both its theory and its practice. The CWLU pamphlet," Socialist Feminism: A Strategy for the Women's Movement" (1972), circulated nationally in women's liberation circles. Apparently, the pamphlet first uses the term "socialist feminism," which came to identify a section of the feminist movement that drew upon Marxist and socialist ideas while criticizing them for inattention to gender.

The CWLU was organized as an umbrella organization to unite a wide range of work groups and consciousness-raising discussion groups, called chapters. Together the groups worked to develop people's consciousness and skills, to provide free or inexpensive quality services for women, and to challenge power structures through direct action. Members were committed to democratic and decentralized structures. However, they chose to develop leaders and hold them accountable, rather than dismiss the notion of leadership, as did many in the early women's liberation movement. A representative from each work group and chapter came to monthly meetings of the Steering Committee, headed by two elected co-chairs, to reach consensus on organizational policy and strategy. The Women's Union published Outreach newspapers (Womankind, Blazing Star, and Secret Storm) and an internal newsletter connected the diverse membership.

A significant portion of the CWLU's work was educational. The CWLU Liberation School offered a bold mix of classes from VW mechanics, to "Our Bodies, Our Selves" . The Women's Union also influenced the development of college women's studies programs in the Chicago area. Secret Storm organized high school girls. The Prison Project offered courses at Dwight Correctional Institution while helping inmates organize to improve conditions and expand family visiting rights.

Other chapters worked in culture, sports and the arts. The Chicago Women's Liberation Rock Band recorded Mountain Moving Day in 1972. The Graphics Collective marketed silkscreen posters widely throughout the world. Another chapter organized softball and volleyball teams and challenged sexism in the Chicago Park District.

A key area that combined education, service and direct action was healthcare. Among the original groups that formed the CWLU, was the underground Abortion Counseling Service (usually called "Jane" or "the Service"), which provided abortion referrals and, later, clandestine abortions. After abortion was legalized, the Abortion Counseling Service pressed for access and safety at clinics and continued to provide inexpensive pregnancy testing. The Health Evaluation and Referral Service (HERS) monitored healthcare providers and provided referrals until 1989.

The CWLU did not participate in electoral politics; instead work groups took on city government to advocate for women's rights. Together with the Chicago chapter of the National Organization for Women (NOW), DARE (Direct Action for Rights in Employment) sued the city and eventually won a major sex discrimination wage case on behalf of city janitresses.

Blazing Star, the lesbian chapter, spearheaded CWLU work for a lesbian and gay rights ordinance. Action Coalition for Decent Childcare (ACDC) won changes in licensing codes for day care providers. The Legal Clinic offered advice and services on tenant issues and divorce.

Although most members were European American , the CWLU supported work by many other movements. They supported the Black Panthers, celebrated International Women's Day with the Puerto Rican Socialist Party, participated in the Coalition to End Sterilization Abuse and other health work in Latino communities,and organized against racial discrimination in gay/lesbian bars.


Chicago Women's Liberation Union Archives, Chicago Historical Society.

DuPlessis, Rachel Blau, and Ann Snitow, eds. Feminist Memoir Project: Voices from Women's Liberation. New York: Three Rivers Press, 1998.
Selections by Amy Kesselman with Heather Booth, Vivian Rothstein, and Naomi Weisstein; Jo Freeman; Naomi Weisstein

Kaplan, Laura. The Story of Jane: The Legendary Underground Feminist Abortion Service. New York: Pantheon Books, 1995.

Rothstein, Vivian, and Naomi Weisstein. "Chicago Women's Liberation Union." Women: A Journal of Liberation, 2, no. 4 (1972): 4-5.

Staggenborg, Suzanne. "Can Feminist Organizations Be Effective?" in Feminist Organizations: Harvest of the New Women's Movement, edited by Myra Marx Ferree and Patricia Yancey Martin. Philadelphia: Temple University
Press, 1995. Pp. 339-55.

The Pro-Choice Movement: Organization and Activism in the
Abortion Conflict.
New York: Oxford, 1991.

"Stability and Innovation in the Women's Movement: A Comparison of Two Movement Organizations." Social Problems, 36, no. 1 (February 1989): 75-92.

Strobel, Margaret. "Consciousness and Action: Historical Agency in the Chicago Women's Liberation Union," in Provoking Agents: Theorizing Gender and Agency, ed. Judith Kegan Gardiner. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1995. Pp. 52-68.
_____. "Organizational Learning in the Chicago Women's Liberation Union," in Feminist Organizations: Harvest of the New Women's Movement, edited by Myra Marx Ferree and Patricia Yancey Martin. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1995. Pp. 145-64.

_____. "Women's Liberation Unions," in The Encyclopedia of the American Left, ed. Mari Jo Buhle, Paul Buhle, and Dan Georgakas. New York: Garland Publishing, 1990. Pp. 841-42.


Chicago Women's Liberation Union Graphic Collective. A series of silk screens produced by the Graphics Collective, both during the CWLU period and after, is located at Special Collections, Deering Library, Northwestern University. A founder of the Graphics Collective, Estelle Carol, 323 S. East, Oak Park, IL 60302, should be contacted for permission and as a courtesy, if they are to be used.

Mountain Moving Day: The Chicago and New Haven Women's Liberation Rock Bands and a caste [sic] of millions. Rounder Records (1972).

MARGARET "PEG" STROBEL is a professor of Women's Studies at the University of Illinois.

SUE DAVENPORT is a former CWLU member. She is active in the Chicago school reform movement.




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