Chicago Women's Liberation Union Herstory Website
Created and maintained by the Chicago Women's Liberation Union Website Project
Reviewed May 2005

Reviewed by Gretchen Cassel Eick

In America of the late 1960's, it was perfectly legal for women to be paid less than men. There were no women bus drivers, welders, firefighters, news anchors, CEO's or Supreme Court Justices. Women professors, doctors, scientists or lawyers were rare. Gays and lesbians were forced to live "in the closet" for fear of vicious persecution. Women were denied credit by banks and states could bar women from sitting on juries. Women knew next to nothing about their bodies and were afraid to honestly discuss their sexuality. Terms like "domestic violence" or "sexual harassment" did not exist and rape victims had probably "asked for it". Abortion was illegal and women seeking them risked death and injury at the hands of incompetent quacks."

       The Chicago Women's Liberation Union Website Prjoect would have done well to feature these words promniently on the homepage, rather than several paragraphs in, as it provides essential perspective on why this website is so valuable. The Chicago Women's Liberation Union formed in 1969 and lasted until an internal fracture caused it to dissolve in 1977, and for nearly a decade it provided grassroots leadership for women who found the limits placed on their citizenship as females unbearable and who organized self-consciously as feminists to challenge the status quo. This website relates the history of the organization through the personal stories of the women who led the CWLU, documents they read, studied, and used, and archival materials from the organization itself. Even for women who lived through that time, the changes of the past 35 years in part through the radicalism of women like those involved in the CWLU are astounding.

       The breadth of activism of the CWLU is well documented in the website materials. Women in the CWLU could "learn to fix your car, play on a sports team, join a protest at City Hall for decent childcare, volunteer at Dwight Prison, organize a women's caucus of your local union, draw a feminist poster, or even go to Communist China." The founders came out of the civil rights and anti-Vietnam War movements to focus specifically on the inequality of women. They worked in coalition with many groups, including the National Organization of Women, Operation Push (Jesse Jackson), the League of Women Voters, the National Black Feminist Organization, the YWCA, the Midwest Academy, Mujeres Latinas en Action, Mountain Moving Coffeehouse, Coalition of Labor Union Women, Women Employed, and others.

       The CWLU's agenda was inclusive, expanding to include issues brought to the group by women with particular energy and interest around whom a working group would form. Exposing prison conditions, securing day care, liberating women from Freudian theories of sexuality, welcoming lesbian women, promoting sports leagues for women, making abortion safe and legal, ending the war in Vietnam, educating women about their bodies and health, building bridges between women of color and white women, providing rape crisis centers and help to victims of domestic violence, and fighting gender discrimination in the workplace were all causes worked on by CWLU women. They also formed a Graphics Collective that created posters for women's organizations and provided shared studio space, a rock band (an audio recording of one song, "For All Women in Struggle," is available on the website), and an abortion counseling service called "Jane." Jane performed 11,000 illegal abortions (three films on Jane have been released and are available on videotape for $29-39 each or $69 for the trilogy). Articles, documents, stories, and videostreamed interviews are at the site under Special Features.

       This website is an excellent resource for high school and university teachers, providing a plethora of resources and personal stories to make the late 1960s and 1970s come alive for students. Biographies of women involved in CWLU, photos and feminist buttons in the Galleries section of the site, and an array of archived articles and papers on classic writings, consciousness, sexuality, [women's] health (including lack of access to safe abortions), family, organizing, work, and internationalism provide a rich archive for students to explore. For example, under classic writings are 31 articles that shaped the women's movement: the NOW and Bitch manifestos; the memo on sex and cast in the civil rights movement by Casey Hayden and Mary King (1965); The Politics of Housework by Pat Mainardi of Redstockings; The Woman Identified Woman by RADICALESBIANS (1970); Sexual Politics by Kate Millett (1968); issues of Voice of the Women's Liberation Movement, the first national women's liberation newsletter (published 1968-1969); a comparative history of the 1835-1920 women's movement with the women's liberation movement of the 1960s by historian Ellen DuBois (1971); and Frances Beal's "Double Jeopardy: To Be Black and Female" (1969).

The website of the Chicago Women's Liberation Union is a gem whether you are interested in U.S. history, popular culture, psychology, social movements, health care, unwanted pregnancy, or any number of additional topics. The site is designed to promote activism, providing networking links--academic, cultural, contemporary activist, and historical--to enable an inspired visitor to immediately get involved. This website is a good example of a community study that provides texture and depth to our understanding of the larger topical issue of the women's movement of the late 1960s and 1970s.

I found myself emailing articles--for example, Naomi Weisstein's (1968) "Psychology Constructs the Female" and interviews with Black women imprisoned in Davidson Prison for selling drugs--to colleagues, suggesting they might want to use them in their psych courses. As much as one is impressed by how far women have come since 1960, some of the classic writings included at the CWLU website remind us of how far we have yet to go.

Gretchen Cassel Eick is Professor of History at Friends University in Wichita, Kansas. Her book, Dissent in Wichita : the Civil Rights Movement in the Midwest, 1954-72 (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2001), won the 2003 Byron Caldwell Smith Book Prize, the 2003 William Rockhill Nelson Award for non-fiction given by The Writers Place, and the Richard L. Wentworth Prize/Illinois (2002).

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