CWLU’s Place in Second Wave Feminism

Coming out of World War 2, America in the 1950s was primarily characterized by the homogenization of suburbia. The booming post-war era reshaped the cultural landscape, emphasizing domestic revival.[footnoteRef:1] Mainstream media encouraged women to marry and have children in order to become the quintessential housewife and fulfill familial obligations. As a result, 74% of American women married before the age of 24, and the birth rate rose for the first time in the century. The idea of the picture-perfect suburban family, consisting of a husband, housewife, and children, was perpetuated by magazines and television and promoted as the “American Dream” with little resistance.

[1: Leslie Reagan, When abortion was a crime: the legal and medical regulation of abortion, Chicago, 1880-1973 (Ann Arbor, Mich: University Microfilms, 1992).]

However, in 1963, a woman by the name of Betty Friedan boldly commented on the state of suburban housewives in America, drawing attention to “a sense of dissatisfaction, a yearning that women suffered in the middle of the twentieth century in the United States”.

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[footnoteRef:2] With her book The Feminine Mystique, Friedan highlighted an underlying discontent shared by suburban women who wanted a life beyond tending to the family and taking care of the house, articulating “the problem that has no name”. Millions of suburban women were relieved to know that they were not alone in their unhappiness, and were consequently galvanized to fight for women’s rights. [2: Betty Friedan, Feminine Mystique (W.W Nortion, 1963).]

Betty Friedan’s Feminine Mystique is credited with sparking the beginning of the second feminist wave, inspiring women to mobilize on issues previously considered private and ultimately altering the political terrain of the US.

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[footnoteRef:3] The subsequent increase in women’s political activism from 1968 to 1975 resulted in Congress passing more legislation for women than it had for decades with the judicial system also advancing women’s rights. [3: Sara Evans, Tidal wave: how women changed America at century’s end (New York: Free Press, 2003).]

From the mainstream feminist movement, hundreds of individual organizations emerged to advocate for women’s rights. The Chicago Women’s Liberation Union (CWLU), however, distinguished itself by becoming one of the first groups to champion socialist feminism. Upon further investigation, it was found that the CWLU approached several aspects of second wave feminism differently than the mainstream women’s liberation movement. Consequently, the question of interest sought to examine the CWLU’s strides in the 1970s in the context of the mainstream second feminist wave prompted by Betty Friedan in regard to racial inequality, abortion rights, and lesbianism in the United States in order to determine the extent to which such disparities resulted in third wave feminism, a movement arguably still in progress. It was awe-inspiring and compelling, especially as a female Asian-American and self-proclaimed feminist, to explore an organization with such bravely distinct policies amid a movement in the United States generally deemed by the revisionist perspective as ignorantly exclusive. The investigation shed light onto the faults of the past worth learning from, enabling the investigator to be more conscious and driven in a time where the #MeToo movement is gaining momentum in perpetuating gender equality, thereby validating and even necessitating the study of second-wave deficiencies for the betterment of the current fourth wave.

With Friedan’s heavy emphasis on the dissatisfaction of the suburban wife, a major criticism of the overall second feminist wave is that it primarily focused on a select group of college-educated, middle and upper class, married white women.[footnoteRef:4] As a result, the struggles of women who were either poor or of color who were concerned with issues such as economic survival or racial discrimination were largely ignored. In fact, at the time of the Feminine Mystique, more than one third of all women were in the work force. Bell Hooks, a black feminist, argues the perspective that Friedan saw a specific type of white woman as victimized and erroneously portrayed this condition as universal to all women when, in reality, many women would’ve considered the lifestyle model condemned in the Feminine Mystique to be a luxury. Thus, the very premise that made the movement successful, “the personal is political”, also served as one of the movement’s deepest flaws in that it discouraged an inclusive understanding of women’s political reality.[footnoteRef:5] [4: Bell Hooks, Feminist theory from margin to center (Boston, MA: South End Press, 1984)] [5: Ibid.]

As a result, many black women were reluctant to join the predominantly white feminist organizations. Black feminists perceived a strong race and class unconsciousness in the mainstream movement, believing that these organizations either disregarded or inadequately addressed the oppression experienced by women of color that was drastically different than the oppression of suburban wives discussed by Friedan. The nearly exclusive focus on gender oppression as it pertained to white, middle-class women didn’t resonate with women of color. Middle-class white women desired to be more than housewives, whereas many women of color had always had to work to support their families.[footnoteRef:6] Middle-class white women felt exploited by family obligations, while many minority women found their families to be a respite from racist institutions. Middle-class white women sought to deconstruct the “nuclear” family which imprisoned them, but many black women felt that their family structures were under attack due to the Moynihan report written by the Assistant Secretary of Labor under President Lyndon B. Johnson. “The personal is political” became divisive because there were discrepancies in “the personal”: it wasn’t universal. Many women were also far more concerned with bridging the economic gap than changing the cultural meaning of womanhood, the latter viewed as an issue of interest for women who were financially comfortable enough to consider it. [6: Benita Roth, Separate roads to feminism: Black, Chicana, and White feminist movements in America’s second wave (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2004)]

There was a rift in the movement because women of color or poor women viewed white feminists as having failed to effectively address issues applicable to women of other races or classes. In fact, Carolyn Handy, an early member of NOW (the National Organization for Women founded by Friedan) went on to found the National Black Feminist Organization for this reason. Several Latina organizations were also founded because their issues were not being recognized in the mainstream movement. Additionally, many black women were wary of joining these feminist organizations because they were worried that black liberation goals, both social and economic, would be forced to take a back seat to women’s cultural liberation.

The CWLU, however, separated themselves from liberal feminists like NOW that focused strictly on women’s rights by connecting women’s equality to the economic system. The organization refused to label gender as the primary source of all oppression, which was a prominent criticism of the main women’s liberation movement held by women of color or poor women. Consequently, instead of solely focusing on gender equality as NOW did, the CWLU also targeted capitalism as a source of oppression. One of the CWLU’s primary concerns was to build a movement that reached beyond the middle class to include issues affecting poor and working-class women,[footnoteRef:7] making the organization more inclusive and comprehensive in its efforts and in turn, more applicable to more women. Its explicit linking of women’s oppression with other systems of economic and racial inequality addressed a perceived shortcoming in the movement initiated by Friedan. Even in her article “An analysis of the difference between radical and socialist feminism”, member Barbara Ehrenreich stated that “there are crucial aspects of capitalist domination (such as racial oppression, circumstances of poor and working class women, third world women, etc.,) which a purely feminist perspective simply cannot account for or deal with--without bizarre distortions, that is…Hence the need to continue to be socialists and feminists”.[footnoteRef:8] [7: Evans, Tidal Wave] [8: Barbara Ehrenreich, “An analysis of the difference between radical and socialist feminism,” ssic-feminist-writings-articles/what-is-socialist-feminism, (1976)]

Additionally, the CWLU recognized the importance of directly engaging with diverse groups of women. Many of the people helped through different CWLU projects were women of color; however, the CWLU was acutely aware that its membership was mainly white, so it collaborated with other organizations where women of color were active like the Committee to End Sterilization Abuse, Mujeres Latinas en Accion, and the Puerto Rican Socialist Party.[footnoteRef:9] [9: CWLU Herstory Editorial Committee, “The Chicago Women’s Liberation Union: An Introduction,” (2000)]

In the 1960s, abortions could enable women to determine their own futures, pursue further education or even a job, and delay marriage at a time when women were pushed to start families as soon as possible. However, in 1969, according to statutes that had been in place for most of the century, permitted licensed medical practitioners would only perform abortions if they were deemed to be necessary to preserve the life or health of the women.[footnoteRef:10] Furthermore, different hospitals established different criteria to determine whether or not a woman could qualify for an abortion legally. A 1971 study showed that Chicago hospitals made inconsistent decisions with respect to performing therapeutic abortions: different women would arbitrarily receive different treatment at different hospitals for the exact same problems. Leslie Regan, a professor at the University of Illinois, even claims that hospital abortion committees were also shown to deny abortions to unmarried women as a way to punish them for their sexual behavior.[footnoteRef:11] [10: Stephanie Gilmore, Feminist coalitions: historical perspectives on second-wave feminism in the United States (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2008)] [11: Reagan, When abortion was a crime]

Access to abortions was also made inequal because often times, private hospitals and physicians’ offices would have relatively lenient requirements to grant abortions. Thus, those who received safe, legal therapeutic abortions in hospitals were almost all white women with private health insurance.[footnoteRef:12] In contrast, public facilities meant to serve low-income patients required extensive, time-consuming, and expensive documentation from these patients in order for an abortion to be considered. Overall, abortionists also charged anywhere from hundreds to thousands of dollars to carry out the procedure. With all of these policies, poor women and often women of color were extremely disadvantaged and frequently denied abortions. Unfortunately, this forced many women to turn to illegal, back alley abortions. In fact, in the year 1969, while DC General Hospital performed 21 therapeutic abortions, the facility admitted more than 900 women who suffered complication from botched abortions.[footnoteRef:13] A majority of these patients were poor black women. Another horrifyingly racist element to the abortion policies was that physicians tended to sterilize low-income women of color without their consent, with ward patients sterilized more than twice as often as private patients.[footnoteRef:14] [12: Ibid.] [13: Gilmore, Feminist Coalitions ] [14: Reagan, When abortion was a crime ]

With such fatal flaws in the healthcare system, many women turned to illegal abortions, which included being blindfolded and taken to a secret location where an unknown person would carry out the operation. As evidenced by the previous statistic, often times these procedures were done improperly and endangered the health of the individual. Moreover, some abortionists took advantage of their clients’ vulnerability to sexually harass them.[footnoteRef:15] [15: Ibid.]

Because of these abortion policies, in February 1969, Friedan spoke at the founding conference of the National Association for the Repeal of Abortion Laws, furious that “men, whether they be legislators or priests or even benevolent abortion reformers, should be the only ones heard on the question of women's bodies and the reproductive process, on what happens to the people who actually bear the children in this society”.[footnoteRef:16] Because women’s voices had been largely ignored when it came to their own reproductive rights, the mainstream movement encouraged women to be visible and speak out about their abortion experiences. That same year, the feminist group Redstockings held the first abortion “speak out” in New York for women to publicly discuss their illegal abortions. Similar speak-outs subsequently began to take place nationally. [16: Leela Yellesetty, “The Struggle that Won Legal Abortion,” (2013)]

Soon, there was strong popular support for legislation to allow women the right to control their reproduction, with advocates including the elite, medical and legal professionals, religious denominations, and militant and leftist feminists.[footnoteRef:17] Activists utilized the public momentum to pressure the government and other institutions into supporting abortion rights. For example, in the case of Abele v. Markle, which challenged Connecticut abortion laws, activists organized speak outs, meetings across the state, large turnouts at all the court hearings, and recruited more than 800 women who had undergone abortions as plaintiffs to win.[footnoteRef:18] By prompting women to speak out and actively protest in the public eye, the women’s liberation movement was able to successfully evoke change in the system, and ultimately the Supreme Court ruled in favor of legalizing abortion with the 1973 case Roe v Wade. [17: Reagan, When abortion was a crime] [18: Yellesetty, “The Struggle that Won Legal Abortion”]

The CWLU addressed the accessibility of abortions by starting the Jane Collective, formally known as the Abortion Counseling Service of Women’s Liberation, in 1969 to more directly help women seeking abortions. Jane referred to an underground organization that provided illegal abortion services with the intent of reducing the number of unsafe abortions being done. Jane offered abortions at significantly lower prices, thereby eliminating the profit in illegal abortion. Services were offered to women of all races, ages, and social classes without requiring them to justify the reason for their wanting abortions, making the process substantially more accessible and simultaneously eliminating judgment (especially male scrutiny) from the process. To further improve access to abortion, the Jane Collective created a charity fund, eventually becoming the Chicago Abortion Fund, to help low income women afford the procedure.[footnoteRef:19] After the legalization of abortion in New York in 1970, Jane ended up serving mainly poor women or women of color since wealthy white women could afford to fly to New York to get the procedure done. Also, the CWLU was cognizant of the struggles of black women when it came to reproductive rights and it adopted firm positions against sterilization abuse.[footnoteRef:20] [19: Rainey Horwitz, “The Jane Collective (1969-1973),” (2017)] [20: Reagan, When abortion was a crime]

Additionally, Jane sought to empower women since, as noted by Friedan, the abortion process had always largely been controlled by men. With this in mind, during consultation appointments, patients were given mirrors and taught self-examination techniques so that they could better understand their bodies and reproductive anatomy.[footnoteRef:21] Jane members learned how to perform abortions from a gynecologist to ensure they were performing safe abortions and also be able to treat more people. [21: Horwitz, “The Jane Collective”]

Jane members prepared a woman for her abortion by taking her temperature, explaining the procedure, providing antibiotics to prevent bacterial infections, and also providing patients pamphlets containing information on what to do if there were any complications with the abortion.[footnoteRef:22] The experience provided by Jane starkly contrasted the therapeutic abortions performed in hospitals because Jane sought to empower women and promote self-determination among women. While men on hospital abortion committees scrutinized women’s sexual activity, Jane took in all patients without this judgment and attempted to humanize the process, showing understanding and compassion when such a procedure was associated with stigma and shame. Instead of trying to rally support on a large scale and influence public policy, the CWLU covertly aided women with abortion on a more grassroots level through direct intervention. From 1969 to 1973, the Jane Collective was able to help nearly 12000 women have abortions. In 1973, police arrested seven members of Jane, but their case never went to trail because of the Supreme Court ruling in Roe v Wade. The group disbanded shortly thereafter. [22: Ibid.]

Many feminists were hostile or antagonistic towards those advocating for lesbian rights, often viewing them as undesirable recruits to the feminist movement as a whole. In fact, at the 1969 NOW meeting, Friedan dubbed lesbianism as a “lavender menace”, concerned that inclusivity of homosexuals would taint the cause or undermine the credibility of the women’s movement.[footnoteRef:23] Moreover, Friedan went to great lengths to exclude and/or silence lesbians. She deliberately cut ties with lesbians that were out and avoided working with lesbian organizations. Del Martin, a longtime feminist activist and founder of the Daughters of Bilitis (the first official lesbian organization in America) recalled, “Betty Friedan was such a homophobe. She was so afraid of the stigma lesbians might bring to the organization…As soon as I was on the board [of NOW] she was on the phone to the New York Times saying that lesbians are ruining the movement and that some of them had tried to seduce her.”[footnoteRef:24] Friedan and NOW leadership even excluded the Daughter of Bilitis from the press release listing of institutional sponsors at the 1969 Congress to Unite Women. The editor of the New York NOW newsletter Rita Mae Brown was also fired for trying to discuss lesbianism. Brown noted that there was enormous prejudice against lesbians within NOW. Friedan reportedly went on to prevent lesbians from being elected to office in the 1970 NY NOW election.[footnoteRef:25] [23: Alice Echols, Daring to be bad: radical feminism in America, 1967-1975 (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1989)] [24: Nina Renata Aron, “Lesbians battled for their place in 1960s feminism,” (2017)] [25: Echols, Daring to be bad]

In response to the prejudice prevalent in the mainstream feminist movement, lesbian feminists attempted to disconnect the idea of lesbianism from its sexual component so that heterosexual feminists felt more comfortable and would consequently be more inclined to accept it. However, lesbian feminists still had to distance themselves from the stereotype of being masculine in order to address the accusation that this stereotypical masculinity was somehow complicit with men and the patriarchy.[footnoteRef:26] To combat the vilification of lesbianism among the mainstream movement prompted by Friedan, lesbian feminists countered by arguing that heterosexual intercourse involved the oppressor and depended on men, consequently portraying lesbians as the vanguard of true feminism. Eventually, NOW passed a resolution supporting lesbianism but at that point the issue had become extremely divisive. Many heterosexual women felt driven out of the movement when it seemed that lesbians were too aggressive or overbearing in their agenda or treated heterosexual women like second class citizens for being straight.[footnoteRef:27] Thus, the feminist movement as a whole was weakened by the gay-straight split in the early 1970s. [26: Yamissette Westerband, “Lesbian Feminism, 1960s and 1970s,” ] [27: Echols, Daring to be bad ]

The CWLU, on the other hand, worked with lesbian groups from nearly the onset of their organization. There were lesbian groupings within the CWLU’s history and lesbian members were connected with other organizations in Chicago’s lesbian and gay communities even early on in CWLU’s history. In 1970, CWLU became more involved with the Gay Women’s Caucus, regularly meeting with the group and hosting a citywide meeting on the subject of gay liberation.[footnoteRef:28] [28: Elaine Wessel, “Blazing Star Newspaper,” ]

Instead of discouraging or shaming lesbianism out of fear or prejudice, the CWLU addressed gay and lesbian issues head on in its Liberation school. Diversified courses were offered to promote open discussion, and the meetings and classes created a set of informal networks in which lesbian and bisexual CWLU members could foster relationships and familiarize themselves with the community. However, CWLU activity in regards to lesbianism wasn’t limited to within the organization.[footnoteRef:29] [29: Christine R. Riddiough, “Strategy and Action in the Chicago Women’s Liberation Union: The Example of the Lesbian Group” (2014)]

The CWLU encouraged their Speaker’s Bureau to talk about these issues at high schools and community events when discussing women’s oppression.[footnoteRef:30] Additionally, the CWLU Lesbian Group began publishing a newsletter called Blazing Star addressing lesbianism and lesbian rights, played an active role in the creation of the Lesbian and Gay Coalition of Metropolitan Chicago,[footnoteRef:31] and became active in several other lesbian and gay organizations including the Lesbian Feminist Center and the Chicago Lesbian Liberation, trying to reach out and network with all segments of the lesbian community.[footnoteRef:32] Besides integrating with and collaborating with various lesbian groups, the CWLU activists also strived to secure lesbian rights politically. The organization became very involved in organizing petitions and collecting signatures to pass gay rights legislation with the Illinois Gay Rights Task Force, which ended up being a major presence behind the passage of Chicago's Human Rights Ordinance. The group also conducted interviews, both print and on radio, and continued writing articles to bring publicity to the issue and prompt greater awareness and understanding among constituents. [30: Ibid.] [31: Elaine Wessel, “Blazing Star Newspaper”] [32: Riddiough, “Strategy and Action in the CWLU Lesbian Group”]

The second feminist wave emerged in a post-war era that marketed “domestic bliss”, resonating deeply with many women who were unsatisfied with the role they had been pushed into. Consequently, Friedan’s book successfully connected with a class of American women and motivated them to combat the social obligations imposed onto them. However, numerous historians have retrospectively criticized the movement for not addressing the intersectionality of female identity, focusing solely on gender oppression, and thereby inadvertently marginalizing poor women and women of color. In contrast, the CWLU was founded on the basis of socialist feminism, targeting both the economic and social systems in place that oppressed women of various backgrounds. Because the CWLU recognized how distinctions in race and class impacted women’s experiences with oppression differently, it was very deliberate in working with other groups towards their goals as well as helping these underserved populations through various projects. The CWLU addressed a major fallacy in Friedan’s “the personal is political”.

Both the mainstream movement as well as the CWLU were cognizant of the need for greater access to abortion and supported the idea of self-determination for women to have control over their reproductive rights. Big organizations, including NOW, used their visibility to encourage women to share their personal experiences openly. By bringing these issues into the public eye via massive speak outs and court trials, the women’s liberation movement sought to put pressure on government institutions to legalize abortion and increase access to abortion services. Eventually, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of legalizing the procedure in Roe v Wade. The CWLU, instead of being politically active, decided to make abortions more accessible through the covert Jane Collective. Members of Jane provided the service themselves, helping nearly 12000 women over the course of 4 years. With this service, Jane didn’t demand any explanation or much money so that women, especially those of color or in poverty, didn’t have to depend on the judgment of men on hospital abortion committees. Both the mainstream movement and the CWLU wanted abortion to be legalized and made more accessible, with only their approaches differing. NOW and other groups targeted governmental institutions for abortion reform on a massive scale, whereas Jane was an underground group that aimed to help as many women have safe abortions as possible and continued to do so (illegally) until the Roe v Wade ruling.

Unfortunately, the movement instigated by Friedan was particularly hostile towards lesbian feminists. In fact, it’s been noted that Friedan herself actively worked to exclude lesbians from the picture out of fear that a lesbian presence would tarnish the reputation of the movement. Ironically, Friedan’s efforts to ensure that lesbianism wouldn’t undermine the movement are what led to the gay-straight split of the early 70s. The CWLU, in comparison, was always very cooperative and freely integrated with lesbian and gay communities even outside of the movement. The CWLU worked extensively with various lesbian and gay organizations and even sought to educate and reach out to others through projects like the Speaker’s Bureau and Blazing Star. Furthermore, the CWLU became politically active and visible, much like the mainstream movement for abortion rights, to secure gay rights in Chicago. While the mainstream movement ignored and even vilified the lesbian community, the CWLU was extremely inclusive and even proactive in fighting for lesbian rights and recognition.

[bookmark: _Hlk534391839]Although both CWLU and the mainstream second feminist wave favored abortion rights, the former’s concerns particularly for racial inequality and lesbianism appeared to juxtapose the largely discriminatory nature of the latter. The CWLU distinguished itself from the mainstream second feminist wave with its determination to recognize a multitude of diverse experiences rather than Friedan’s homogenous perception of the “personal”, establishing the basis of the third feminist wave.

The third wave’s emphasis on coalitional politics, acknowledging and organizing based on shared but differing experiences of oppression rather than a specific identity, is considered one of its defining characteristics.[footnoteRef:33] In fact, Kang et al. argues that “third wave feminism’s insistence on grappling with multiple points-of-view, as well as its persistent refusal to be pinned down as representing just one group of people or one perspective, may be its greatest strong point”.[footnoteRef:34] As a “hybrid” of second wave feminism, Black feminisms, transnational feminism, and queer feminism, the third feminist wave seeks to address the fallacies of its predecessor by stressing the interplay between sexism, racism, classism, and imperialism as well as striving for more inclusive sexual cultures and communities, a reflection of the very principles actively pursued by the CWLU in the 1960s and 1970s in the midst of the mainstream second feminist wave. Thus, the discrepancies in the 1960s and 1970s between the CWLU and the mainstream second feminist wave in the US facilitated the rise of the third feminist wave in the 1990s to a greater extent. [33: Miliann Kang’; Donovan Lessard; Laura Heston; Sonny Nordmarken, Introduction to Women, Gender, Sexuality Studies (Amherst: University of Massachusetts, 2017)] [34: Ibid.]


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Updated: Jan 20, 2022
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CWLU’s Place in Second Wave Feminism essay
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