A view from the Loop: The Women’s
Health Movement in Chicago
CHICAGO WOMEN’S HEALTH MOVEMENT 1969 - 1975
How does a movement grow? How does strength develop? How do we learn? How do we survive? The following is a look at one city - Chicago - to see what has happened in the six years since the women’s movement started working on the issues of reproduction and health.
In 1969, a group of Chicago women pooled their information on illegal abortionists and set up an underground abortion counseling service. “Our political goal became to provide a positive alternative and, in the process, to organize women to fight for their own rights,” they later wrote.
“This is Jane from Women’s Liberation calling” was their response when returning women’s urgent calls - and the service became known as JANE. It provided direct personal counseling and information about the abortion procedure in members’ homes and then referred women to illegal abortionists. As far as possible JANE’S operations were kept secret by using code names, changing the counseling places and the places where abortions were performed. Gradually special relations were developed with particular abortionists and JANE women began to actually assist in the procedures. As the group got more involved, the price of abortion went from $500 to $200 and the quality of care improved.
Even deeper changes occurred when the group discovered that their main abortionist was not a doctor, but a skilled health worker. “If he can do it, why not us?” was the obvious question and several women began to learn and, eventually, to do procedures themselves. By 1971, the entire operation was in the hands of JANE. Aside from first trimester abortions, Jane undertook the responsibility of dealing with the more desperate circumstances of “long terms” (women over 14 weeks pregnant). They set up their own system of late abortion and post-abortion care for about 200 women each year. When the Supreme Court finally legalized abortion in 1973, JANE was performing over fifty abortions a week for an average fee of $50.00 although the group never denied an abortion to a woman without money. The income was enough to pay fifteen of the women who worked a living wage.
Eleven thousand abortions were done through JANE in four years and increasingly they were for poor women. After 1970, when many women could afford to get legal abortions in New York, the women coming to JANE were those in greatest need. This daily contact with women’s desperate needs was a crucial factor in keeping JANE women committed to maintaining their service at all costs.
In May, 1972, seven of the women were arrested and charged with “committing abortion” and “conspiracy to commit abortion.” The service resumed as usual after only one week of inactivity. The charges were dropped after the Supreme Court decision.
In all, about 115 women were involved in JANE. The illegal nature of their work required self-reliance and mutual trust. They developed strong collective ways of working together and making decisions. Their commitment to collectivity and their skepticism of the mystique of professionalism were two important messages they transmitted to the women’s movement in Chicago and to groups in which they were subsequently involved.
JANE’S illegal status and its necessary absorption in the details of its work made it impossible for its members to work on other aspects of the abortion struggle. It was the task of others to build on JANE’S work without endangering it.
As JANE was starting in 1969, another group of feminists was meeting to develop a women’s free clinic, the Alice Hamilton Clinic. These women were highly influenced by the strong free clinic movement in Chicago. They hoped to develop a multi-issue center providing health and day care. Despite much hard work, this project never got off the ground, in part because of differences in the group and within the women’s movement as a whole as to whom the center should serve. Should it be in a white working class community or in a racially mixed community? Should it be a fixed center or should it be a mobile clinic? Moreover, financing was beyond the resources of the group. So after a year of research and discussion, the group moved on to other work.
In any other city, the experiences of both these groups might have been lost to the women’s movement - of the first, because of its underground nature; of the other, because of its short life. However, since 1969, Chicago has had a city-wide radical women’s organization, the Chicago Women’s Liberation Union (CWLU), concerned with mass based, multi-issue organizing across race and class lines. Despite many internal struggles and debates, the CWLU has provided continuity for projects and links between women working in different areas for over six years. Both JANE and the Alice Hamilton group were formally affiliated with the Union, but the former had little to do with central organization, while the latter worked closely with it.
The Alice Hamilton women started pregnancy testing and counseling at the CWLU office on the North Side of Chicago. When the group folded, this activity was taken over by other groups and has continued until the present, providing a much needed low-cost service, day-to-day contact between feminists and other women, concrete work for new women, and a fund of experience for other women’s groups to draw on. One group affiliated with the CWLU subsequently started a pregnancy testing service on the South Side. And, a women’s group at Wright Community College on the Northwest Side has begun doing pregnancy testing through contacts with CWLU’s “0utreachWorkgroup”and Liberation School.
The Liberation School, one of CWLU’s most successful projects, provides courses on many subjects concerning women. Since the summer of 1971, “Women and Their Bodies” courses have been convened by many different women, including women from JANE and Alice Hamilton. As students and teachers, they have also developed courses dealing with the health system from worker and patient perspectives. The Liberation School has an active outreach program, sponsoring courses in local Y’s, community centers, two public high schools and at the Dwight Penitentiary for Women as part of the CWLU Prison Project.
The CWLU also provides a meeting place and continuity for non-affiliated groups in which CWLL members participate. Towards the end of 1971 several women from the Alice Hamilton group became involved in an attempt to save the Chicago Maternity Center (CMC) which had been providing prenatal care and home delivery service for seventy years. The CMC. which was located between working class Black, Latin and Italian neighborhoods on the near West Side, was to be replaced by a new Women’s Hospital on the more affluent North Side, an area already well supplied with hospital beds, but convenient to and dominated by the Northwestern University Medical School. The fight to save CMC was carried on by WATCH (Women Act to Control Health Care), which included some CMC staff, activist medical school students and patients, several of whom were CWLU members. Fifteen women organized support from old patients and community organizations. More than 200 women worked with the group over the two years of its existence. In December, 1972, and again in November 1973, major confrontations occurred between WATCH and the CMC Board of Trustees. WATCH was defeated. The Home Delivery Service, the last of its kind in an American city, was closed in December, 1973. Once the service ceased, the focus of the work was lost, and the group fell apart.
While it lasted, WATCH effectively sparked interest in home delivery and other home-oriented services, impersonal hospital care and teaching hospitals expansionary tendencies. Furthermore, it was important because it combined third world community groups, feminists and activist students working together to pressure a major health institution.
One of the recurring debates with Chicago health groups and the CWLU is over how much energy should go into providing concrete health services, how much to go into direct pressure on institutions and how much to organize in the community around issues with a broad appeal. Many women in CWLU felt that the issue of home delivery did not have a broad appeal and that energy should not be expended on a dying institution. Some believed that a broad movement could be built by “direct action” campaigns against institutions.
In November, 1972, the latter joined with women from the Medical Committee for Human Rights (MCHR) to form the Women’s Hospital Project (WHP). They hoped to organize the community to pressure for a role in shaping the new Women’s Hospital that was replacing the CMC. However, it was hard to focus activity around a hospital that did not yet exist, and in the absence of action, the group split apart over questions of ideology and strategy.
ABORTION TASK FORCE
The CWLU did not put much energy into struggling for the legalization of abortion. In part. this may have been because JANE’s existence took the worst edge off illegal abortion horror stories of the kind which galvanized women into action in other cities. But more important was the CWLU’s reluctance to pour its energies into reform on a single issue. “Many women felt that groups like the Clergy Consultation Service, the Illinois Committee for the Medical Control of Abortion and NOW were doing an adequate job of lobbying. Also, women from the Socialist Workers Party were building a nation-wide coalition and organizing demonstrations on abortion. The CWLU was committed to multi-issue organizing and saw dangers of co-option of its radical demands by conventional or single issue politics. Yet, most members of CWLU felt abortion was an important issue and some worked within other organizations.
When the seven JANE women were arrested in May. 1972, a defense committee was formed which, after the Supreme Court decision in 1973, became the Abortion Task Force (ATF). Drawing on the JANE expertise in defining standards, ATF surveyed and evaluated the new abortion services and met with state and city agencies attempting to have some impact on the tangled regulatory system. It used many tactics to keep abortion a live issue over the next year including publicizing their statistics in the media, taking over an Illinois Medical Society conference and performing guerrilla theater in front of the College of OB/Gyn. First trimester abortions were soon available in Chicago, but most hospitals refused to perform second trimester procedures. ATF threats of a lawsuit and additional pressure forced the public Cook County Hospital to give way and perform two per week - a minimal response to the need. A lawsuit launched against the Board of Health in an effort to strike down a 24-hour waiting period between the application and the procedure was successful, but had the doubtful effect of quashing all regulations on health standards. However, after the first year this level of activity could not be sustained and the ATF disbanded early in 1974, leaving an offspring in HERS.
Some women in the ATF recognized the need to help Chicago women get abortions and to monitor the hospitals and new profit-making abortion clinics. In the summer of 1973, they started the Health Evaluation and Referral Service (HERS) focusing initially on abortion, with plans of becoming a broader women’s patient advocate organization. For two years, the fifteen to twenty women in the group have met a constant demand for information and counseling. One HERS member writes:
We were instrumental in closing down a Michigan Avenue clinic that was telling nonpregnant women they were pregnant and needed a $150 abortion. Three of us went to the clinic (with witnesses) and each was told she was pregnant by the director who was posing as a doctor. Only the day before we had all been certified as non-pregnant by the University of Illinois Gyn clinic. We took our information to court and to the press, and the clinic was closed down. Our other successes have been less exciting. Clinics we’ve referred to have improved counseling and expanded waiting areas in response to our criticisms.
HERS does many non-abortion referrals and has tried to evaluate other areas of women’s health care, but for most of its life, the group has lacked the woman power or money to use its referral power as it would like.
The work of HERS and of other groups has shown that the demand in Chicago - for information and counseling on all types of health care is enormous. At present. CWLU women, including HERS, women from Latin organizations involved in health education in their communities, and women from Free Clinic are discussing ways to develop a broad, bilingual health referral and education service as a base for further political action.
When JANE folded in May, 1973, there was no possibility of the group setting up its own legal abortion service for they were “paramedics,” not MD’s, and could not meet the state’s professional requirements for abortionists. However, at this time a group was forming to set up a women’s services clinic. It included women from JANE, Alice Hamilton and the South Side Pregnancy Testing Service. Armed with four years of experience and skills and a growing involvement in gynecological self-help, the women opened a store front center close to the northern border of Chicago and called it the Emma Goldman Health Center. For almost two years, EMMA has offered gyn services to women in the immediate community and all over the city. The special emphasis has been on preventive care and in-depth health information. Pregnancy tests. Pap tests, “Bodies” classes, self-help sessions and counseling in an atmosphere congenial to both gay and straight women have all been part of the work. They also have been able to obtain an official dispensary license. Patients pay for the costs of tests and materials and the work, carried on with some help from feminist nurses and doctors, is supported by donations.
Recently, some women have left EMMA to open a new self-help oriented women’s clinic. They plan to build a strong community base in a racially and ethnically mixed neighborhood with community women as trained and salaried health workers. The center will offer a full range of health care services for women and children and will be financed by Medicaid and a “suggested fee” schedule.
THE PAST IN THE FUTURE
The two projects in the planning stages - the new clinic and the bilingual health referral and education service -have the dual goals of providing services and acting as political pressure groups. This seems to be a significant development in the women’s health movement in Chicago. Some groups have focused on specific services - JANE, Pregnancy Testing, EMMA, HERS and several others not described here, such as the Rape Crisis Lines and the Women’s Services in Free Clinics. While service qua service does not create political change, it does give a group legitimacy and a base for political pressure. It can also provide an entry into the movement for new women. JANE. with its emphasis on information, counseling and collectivisim, is a superb example of service organizing which provided a model for health care delivery.
The groups which set out to be purely political pressure groups acting as advocates for women, patients or a specific community (ATE, WHP, WATCH) found, even where they had some success, that they could not sustain their work on a long-term basis. Many feel that such groups were probably not sufficiently rooted in a community. The two planned projects suggest a new appreciation of the need for service, referral and pressure tactics rooted in a community.
From a perspective, the jigsaw pattern of the women’s health in Chicago makes some sense; service groups and pressure groups complementing each other, linked together in time and space by the network of the CWLU and the Liberation School. Sometimes it has seemed this way to us in Chicago also. But things have not been so neat. As in other cities, we in Chicago have had numerous political differences which have taken time and energy and affected ongoing work: which constituency to try to reach; what strategies to follow; the differences between “radical feminism” and “socialist feminism”; the question of service or “direct action” organizing; the conflicts between professionalism and anti-professionalism. However, what we can see in Chicago is that in the last six years we have taken on many of the political issues, the needs of women and a range of tactics, all of which must be integrated in our work if we are to build a strong and successful women’s health movement here.
The information and analysis for this article come from the following sources:
Working papers written by Chicago women. Contact: Jenny Knauss, Chicago Women’s Liberation Union, 2748 N. Lincoln. Chicago, III. 60614
“Jane - The Most Remarkable Abortion Story Ever Told,” Hyde Park Kenwood Voices. June-November, 1973.” Contact Jenny Knauss, CWLU. 2748 N. Lincoln, Chicago, III. 60614.
“Unalienating Abortion, Demystifying Depression and Restoring Rape Victims,” by Pauline Bart. Available from P. Bart. Dept. of Psychiatry, Abraham Lincoln School of Medicine, U. of Ill. at the Medical Center, Chicago, Ill.