Encounters with the Chicago Womens Liberation Union
by Bob Simpson
(Editors Note: Bob Simpson first came in contact with
the CWLU through his relationship with Graphics Collective
co-founder Estelle Carol. The photo shows Bob and Estelle
at the Lincoln Ave Commune in Takoma Park, Md-1974.)
was an unusual agenda item, even for one of our communes
house meetings. Usually house meetings discussed items like
dirty dishes, leaving peoples vinyl LPs out
of their cases, or why someone had bought 6 bags of pinto
beans when everyone was sick of them. But Barbara looked
a little more serious than usual and aimed her comments
directly at the commune men. Two heavy feminists from Chicago
were going to be staying at our Lincoln Ave Commune in Takoma
Park, Md and we had better be on our best behavior. The
implication seemed clear to me, the reputation of the DC
womens movement was on the line, and wed better
not screw up.
knew better than to say anything, but I was a little offended.
The Lincoln Ave Commune had hosted a variety of movement
visitors from the Viet Nam Veterans Against the War to the
American Indian Movement. I hadnt remembered any complaints.
And it was 1972 after all. The womens liberation movement
had been around since at least 1968 and memories of being
thoroughly trashed as men behaving badly were
still painfully fresh in our male minds. We knew we were
a long ways from the ideal non-sexist revolutionary man,
but at least we were men behaving a little better.
Barbara, Susie, and the other women in the commune really
were our sisters in struggle. Some of us were in a mens
conscious-raising group that the local womens liberation
network had encouraged us to organize. Our mens group
had even done the day-care at a major DC womens conference.
We could handle this.
As it turned out, the two heavy feminists from
Chicago didnt stay at our tree shaded commune on the
Md-DC border. They decided to stay downtown someplace. The
women from the Lincoln Ave Commune and our neighboring commune
on Piney Branch Road met them there. The next day huge colorful
feminist posters appeared all over the walls of our house.
Women declaring war on rape, women holding hands in front
of a love poem, the Statue of Liberty coming out in favor
of daycare, a woman bursting out of a constricting medical
cadeusus, a blooming sisterhood flower and an ingenious
complex diagram that showed how man and woman could become
a person. They had been hand silk screened by the Chicago
Womens Graphics Collective. Id loved posters
since the day Id bought my first one of Malcolm X
in the mid 60s. I was genuinely disappointed that
the visitors from Chicago had decided to stay elsewhere.
got a report back about something called the Chicago Womens
Liberation Union (CWLU). I dont remember the details,
but besides doing these gorgeous posters, the Womens
Union was into a whole lot of organizing among working class
women. Chicago had a reputation in the DC movement for bold
innovative grassroots organizing. We could learn from these
people. Believe me, women werent the only people disillusioned
by the antics of the male dominated Left. A surprising number
of men were quietly associating themselves with the womens
liberation movement through informal personal and political
alliances. How that happened is a small piece of hidden
history. Extreme caution seemed to work the best.
forward to 1974. I was in Cuba on the Venceramos(We
shall win) Brigade. The Brigade had been organizing
volunteer work trips to Cuba since 1969. The Brigade had
started out cutting sugar cane, but had switched to building
houses sometime in the 1970s. We all lived at a big
work camp in separate men's and womens dorms and went
out to work in buses. Along with a healthy dose of exhausting,
but exhilarating physical labor, the Cubans explained their
version of socialist revolution. There were programs and
presentations from a variety of people including an especially
moving one from the National Liberation Front of South Viet
Nam who was still at war with the U.S. and its Saigon allies.
North Americans, we were expected to plan our own public
programs as well. When it came time for the various movements
of the Left to give public presentations to the camp: Black
liberation, anti-war, Third World solidarity, labor etc.,
somehow the womens liberation movement was conveniently
left off. After some tense behind the scenes discussion,
the womens liberation activists were finally allowed
to give a public presentation. Even so, a female Brigade
leader made a disparaging comment about it directly from
the stage. It was an ugly moment.
1974, most of the North American Left at least paid lip
service to the womens liberation movement. The public
hostility of the Brigade leadership was unusual. It was
an open secret that the North American Brigade leadership
came mostly from the Communist Party USA, which despite
its revolutionary sounding name, was actually considered
pretty conservative by the rest of the Left.
cant be sure, but I suspect the Cubans were pretty
embarrassed by the whole thing. One of the Cuban women in
our work group was pretty high up in the Communist Party
of Cuba, and she was helluva lot more sympathetic to womens
liberation that our erstwhile North American leadership.
Although the Cubans tended to be skeptical of the U.S. womens
movement, they also seemed genuinely curious and willing
to talk about it, at least privately.
last 2 weeks of our 8 week excursion were spent on a tour
of the island which included a lot of parties, beaches and
banquets. After 6 weeks of doing hard construction labor
under the unforgiving Cuban sun, it was a welcome vacation.
The Cuban college students who had worked along side of
us seemed to be enjoying it at least as much as their North
day about a week into the tour, we were having a picnic
next to a large lake. After a stone skipping contest with
some other Brigadistas, I wandered over to an animated political
discussion. A number of people were sitting and standing
around debating womens liberation. There was one woman
patiently defending the womens liberation movement
with everyone else (mostly, but not solely men) roundly
criticizing it. She held her ground with quiet determination.
I finally said something that basically agreed with her
after most of the people had begun to drift away. We talked
for a little while until we all had to go back to the buses.
I was impressed. She was self-assured, but not arrogant
and self-righteous like so many of us were.
following day I noticed an empty seat next to her at lunch.
We were at a mountain resort popular in Cuba as a honeymoon
spot. I believe it had been previously owned by the Rockefeller
Family. I sat down and we talked for a long time about
radical politics and science fiction. Something was happening.
A long walk on the beach at Veradero, more chance
meetings and a late night talk after a dance(which I skipped
because I cant dance) and we were madly in love. It
took less than a week. Her name was Estelle Carol. She was
a co-founder of the Chicago Womens Graphics Collective,
and one of the heavy feminists from the CWLU
who had nearly stayed at our commune 2 years earlier. She
laughed when I told her that story. Our last night in Cuba
together was sheer emotional magic and we vowed to continue
course Estelle lived in Chicago IL and I lived in Takoma
Park Md which presented a serious logistical problem. Determined
to lure her to the DC area, I invited her to stay with me
at our commune for a month. It took about 3 months of letter
writing and long distance phone calls but we finally arranged
it. I did my best. She agreed that the DC art museums and
the Blue Ridge mountains were breathtaking, but there was
one small problem. The womens movement in DC was in
disarray. The jewel in the crown for DC was the Rape Crisis
Center, the first in the nation. There was the Off Our
Backs newspaper and a diverse lesbian feminist community.
But years of infighting had taken its toll and there was
nothing like the broad array of projects that the CWLU was
involved in. She loved me dearly, but Estelle felt that
there was no place for her in the DC womens movement.
If our relationship was going to survive, I was going to
have to come to Chicago. It was not an easy choice.
friends and family were in DC. All of my political activities
had happened there: SDS, the student strike at the University
of Maryland, numerous anti-war demonstrations, street riots,
the Washington Free Clinic, a year working with the Black
Panther Party, solidarity work with the American Indian
Movement, union organizing with AFSCME, the Spark underground
newspaper and so on and so forth. Our neighbors included
the Piney Branch Commune, and the United Farmworkers house.
There were good natured jokes about the Peoples
Republic of Takoma Park.
love is a powerful motivation. So in the dead of winter-1975,
Estelle flew down from Chicago, we loaded my earthly possessions
into a Volkswagen squareback and drove all night through
a snowstorm. We reached Chicago sometime the next morning
and there I was in a huge old apartment in Uptown with Estelle
and her roommates.
introduction to the CWLU came swiftly since most of her
closest friends were in it. I was impressed. The CWLU was
real. They had a liberation school. They had a health program.
They had a sports program. They had a daycare coalition.
They had a legal clinic. They had women working as union
organizers. They had a lesbian group which I thought had
one of the coolest names on the Left- "Blazing Star". They
had even had a rock band for a while.
Jennifer told me about Jane, the underground
abortion group. I had helped refer people for abortions
when I had worked for the Washington Free Clinic in 1970,
but these people had actually performed the abortions themselves.
Cynthia was a teacher in Universidad Popular, a politically
aware school for Spanish speaking immigrants and was a CWLU
link to the vibrant Puerto Rican independence movement.
Working closely with the radical community group Rising
Up Angry, the CWLU fought to get women sports teams into
the city parks, despite the stiff opposition of the Park
told me about DARE( Direct Action for Rights in Employment),
which was trying hard to organize women against employment
discrimination. The CWLU had actually helped women janitors
win a major discrimination case against City Hall. They
had taken on the dreaded Mayor Richard J. Daley political
machine and won. Incredible.
CWLU joined an alliance with Operation Push to support Jo
Ann Little, a young North Carolina woman charged with murder
for defending herself from a brutal jail guard who tried
to rape her. We rode down to North Carolina in a rented
bus to demonstrate at her trial. When Little was finally
acquitted, we really had something to celebrate. Of course,
not everything was bread and roses, Jennifer, Suzanne and
Gordon told me the story of the Chicago Maternity Center,
an innovative home birthing center, which finally closed
after a long struggle to keep it alive. But there was going
to be a movie about it by Kartemquin Films, so that at least
that piece of history wouldnt be easily buried.
attended forums, protest meetings and social events sponsored
by the CWLU. I quickly discovered that these people were
networked everywhere. My first job in Chicago was in a particularly
nasty factory. They wouldnt issue us protective gloves,
so in my naiveté I bought some Playtex living gloves.
The chemicals I was working with ate through them in less
than an hour. I hastily scribbled down the names of them
and passed them on to Victoria, a CWLU leader whose husband
was studying occupational health at the University of Illinois.
After reviewing my little list, he chuckled and said if
I worked there another 10 years Id make a great case
study for multiple cancers.
decided to go back to teaching and through CWLU contacts
found a unique alternative high school for adults located
on the West Side of Chicago where Suzanne, another CWLUer
was working. It was only a few blocks from where Black Panther
leader Fred Hampton had been assassinated. One of teachers
was a former Black Panther, another an ex-nun devoted to
liberation theology, and it seemed like everyone there was
some kind of rebel. Many of the students were women trying
to get off welfare and they were some of the most motivated
and hardest working individuals Ive ever met. When
the Maternity Center film was finished, Jennifer arranged
for me to use it in my English classes. It was a hit. But
Im getting ahead of my story.
after my arrival in Uptown Chicago, gentrification came to our end of
Clarendon Street. For a couple of months we crowded into Karens
attic apartment on George St. Estelle and I then decided to moved to
the Roscoe Village area, then called West Lakeview. There were meetings
in our tiny apartment of some of the CWLU s most active members.
were trying to develop a socialist-feminist strategy that
would build on the practical nature of the CWLUs grassroots
programs while keeping an eye firmly on a longterm revolution
in American society. Nobody had any illusions that this
going to be easy, but many hours of intense discussion produced
a cautious optimism. Perhaps socialist-feminism could chart
a course between the self-destructive tendencies of the
sectarian left and the bland liberalism of the Democratic
Party and the corporate feminists.
a male observer and frequent participant in the CWLUs
public events, this was pretty heady stuff. I joined the
New American Movement(NAM), whose guiding ideology was socialist
feminism. Maybe, after years of inane bickering, sectarian
splits and rhetorical bullshit, we were finally on track.
was wrong. My first warning that something was amiss came
when Estelle invited me to visit the Graphics Collective
studio on Southport Ave. I was reluctant to go as I was
actually very shy about going into womens spaces,
even when invited. Of course I couldnt tell her that
so I went. There were a few other women there and you could
have cut the tension with a knife.
woman named Helen started to argue with me about feminist
astrology, a topic she brought up and which I had
no interest in discussing. I soon figured out that she must
be one of the separatists that Estelle had told me were
now in the Collective. I tried to beg off, but she became
increasingly rude and continued to bait me. I was mystified.
In DC I had come in contact with a number of women who were
drawn to separatism. I knew that their public rhetoric often
didnt match their private behavior. Some of them had
male friends and I dont remember anyone going off
on a complete stranger without provocation.
we left, I talked to Estelle and tried to make sense out
of what had happened. She wouldnt talk about it in
any detail and I was reluctant to probe. It wasnt
long before she left the Chicago Womens Graphics Collective.
She was vague about the reasons, but it didnt take
much political savvy to figure that the wave of separatism
sweeping the womens movement had played a part.
Graphics Collective without Estelle Carol? How could such
a thing have happened? But I looked at their new posters
about goddesses and Amazons and actually sort of liked them.
I was a history buff and had read about matriarchies, prehistoric
female figurines, Amazon warriors, and the Mother Goddess
worship of Neolithic Europe. I had no doubt that such things
had once existed, but I was skeptical that they could provide
us with much in the way of political direction now.
got worse. Jennifer and I drove to the New American Movement
(NAM) convention in 1975. I think it was at Oberlin College.
NAM was overwhelmingly white and had the political atmosphere
of a sedate graduate seminar. After some of the things I
had witnessed on the Left, NAMs political culture
was seductively relaxing. At the convention, a Marxist-Leninist
caucus raised issues of race and class. I found myself agreeing
with the substance of their criticisms. My politics were
pretty muddled and my experience with actual Marxist-Leninist
groups had been very negative. But these people were raising
real issues that the NAM leadership seemed to be avoiding.
At the convention, they were treated politely, but it was
clear they had raised their hands out of turn.
was well aware of the totalitarian direction that the Russian
and Chinese revolutions had taken, so I looked at Leninism
with deep reservations. Still, I figured we had better learn
more about it so we wouldnt repeat the mistakes of
the past. I genuinely liked the people in NAM, but felt
that they were naive about the realities of political power
and the bitter racial and class divisions in America. I
stopped going to meetings and began to wonder if socialist
feminism was the white middle class club its critics were
was a huge socialist feminist conference in Yellow Springs,
Ohio. 1500 women attended. Estelle came back very excited
and my doubts about the viability of socialism feminism
receded for a time. While few non-white women had actually
been there, the issues of race and class had been discussed.
Maybe on the way to becoming a mass movement, socialist
feminism would mature and work out its race and class problems.
again. In 1976, the CWLU was rocked by a dangerous schism.
Differences over the issues of race, class, sexual orientation
and political ideology resulted in an overflow of extravagant
confrontational rhetoric. Political intrigue escalated out
of control. The details are hazy in my mind, but at some
point there was a mass expulsion. People who thought the
mass expulsion was precipitous and ill advised left the
group. Friendships were shattered. Estelle felt caught in
the middle and hoped for a reconciliation that never came.
The Womens Union died shortly afterward.
a few short years I had seen Students for a Democratic Society
self destruct, the Black Panther Party destroyed and the
American Indian Movement decimated. Now the Chicago Womens
Liberation Union, which I felt represented real hope for
the American Left, was gone too. By the late 1970s,
the New Right was on the rise, promoting a terrifying vision
of America with definite fascist overtones. With the Left
in ruins, who could possible stop them? I felt a terrible
sense of loss. I still feel it.
nearly a quarter of a century later, Im helping with
the production work on the Chicago Womens Liberation
Herstory website. We more or less survived the New Right
and many of the ideas of the womens liberation movement
are so commonplace today that people appreciate them about
as much as a fish appreciates water. While nobody I know
talks much about socialism anymore, my friends and associates
from the Womens Union days are still working for a
more humane and decent America through their careers and
their volunteer activities.
some ways the CWLU was a vast social laboratory where people
could study, experiment, build and share their results with
like minded individuals. Can't find a decent place to get
an abortion? Start an abortion service. No women's studies
programs? Start a Liberation School. You can't play softball
in the park? Start a sports program. You feel discriminated
against and exploited at work? Organize a women's union
caucus. You hate the preening sexism of corporate rock?
Start your own rock band. Don't whine-organize.
used to complain about the revolving door nature of the
CWLU membership, but when people moved on with their lives,
they could apply what they had learned in the CWLU to an
astonishing variety of life experiences.
want new generations to understand how the womens
liberation movement enriched peoples lives today by
winning the freedoms we take for granted now. I want a new
generation to know that the 60s generation didnt
all turn into predatory stock traders and poll chasing politicians.
I want a new generation to share their vision and experience
with my generation so we can continue to grow as well.
and large the women of the CWLU were people of strong conviction
and excellent character. Yes, they had all the weaknesses
associated with our imperfect species, but it's not a perfect
world. Get to know them. You won't be sorry.
Bob Simpson is a partner in Estelle Carol's
graphic design and illustration business. He invites you
to visit their labor cartoon website at www.cartoonwork.com
. He'd like to give special thanks to Estelle Carol for
helping him develop this memoir and to Becky Kluchin
for her encouragement.