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Why should anyone care about the Chicago Women's Liberation Union? by Sarah Bornstein

(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.)

Why should anyone care about the Chicago Women’s 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

And 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 women’s 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, that’s 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 Women’s 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 Carmichael’s 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 wasn’t 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 women’s college where I was President of the Student Government. I said to myself as an “ah hah” lightbulb went on: “I don’t 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” women’s 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 wasn’t 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 women’s literature. WOMANKIND published a monthly newspaper.

The Graphics 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 women’s delegation to visit the People’s 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 “women’s 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.

The organization charged dues (I honestly can’t 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 union’s 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 don’t 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 engaged.

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

or whatever – that wanted to co-opt the women’s 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.

After months 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. I’ll 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, we’re talking late 1976, early 1977, several members became more and more interested in working with more

“mainstream” organizations – labor unions in particular. I was also more interested in workplace issues and began working with Women Employed.

Other members 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, people’s 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. It’s 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 Women’s 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, he’d 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.

For whatever reasons, my entire adult life has been dedicated to working with women around women’s 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.

Third, leadership 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.

Most important is the bias toward action. Above all, “do something.” While I wouldn’t 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 I’d 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 they’re dreaming. . . and like pharaoh’s tribe, they’d be drowned in the tide, and like Goliath they’ll be conquered.” I don’t 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, he’ll jump out. But put a frog in a pot of water where the temperature is rising imperceptibly, he’ll be cooked to death without knowing what happened. Social change, real social change I think is like that. You don’t necessarily feel it while it’s happening, but one day you notice things are different and forever changed.

So, now my anthem is not Dylan’s but Holly Near’s. 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.

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