THE VFA PIONEER HISTORIES PROJECT
“If We Organize, We Can Change the World. You Need to Do it with Love at the Center.”
Interviewed by Mary Jean Collins, VFA Historian, June 2022
HB: I’m Heather Tobis Booth. My date of birth is December 15, 1945.
MJC: Talk a bit about your family, what it was like and what inspirations you might have received for the work you’ve done in your life.
HB: I have two brothers, and the three of us often say to each other: “How lucky we were to have been born into the family we were born into.” Our parents, Hazel Weisbard Tobis and Jerome Sanford Tobis, knew how to give and share love. And so we grew up knowing what love was and that we were loved, and showed us how we could love other people and for all the insecurities and fears of our lifetime. And I’ve had at least my share or more than my share, which is one of the things I want to talk about.
I am grateful for the love and the values of the family I was born into. Not only did my folks believe we should be a good person, and I’ve tried to be, in general, law abiding, cross at the green, not in between. I don’t litter. But also that we should try to make this a better world.
Some relatives going through their files recently have come across various stories or have shared various stories of my folks who also shared their stories. We talked about almost everything in our family. And just two examples. One, in a recent talk I was giving an interviewer, had a letter that must be online for my mother when she went to lobby in support of the northern students who were in Mississippi in the summer of 1964. And it’s a letter she wrote me about the response of the government basically saying they couldn’t provide additional support even after the three young volunteers, Andrew Goodman, James Cheney and Michael Schwerner, were killed by the Klan. But she was down there and lobbying and doing what she could.
MJC: Where did you grow up, Heather?
HB: I want to tell one other story about my father. He was a physician, and when we were growing up, both my parents had been smokers, and he told us at dinner one night that he was offered a great deal of money to go on TV and be a doctor who would certify that smoking was good for you. And he told us he wasn’t going to do that and crushed his pack of cigarettes and never smoked again. And it was a message to us about not smoking without his saying you can’t smoke. But it was a level of his own commitment because he said there were scientific studies that weren’t yet fully acknowledged, but that smoking was harmful. But those are just two stories, so that’s on my family.
I was born in Brookhaven, Mississippi, because my father was in the army in World War II. He worked in a hospital treating patients who had venereal disease, from what I understand, probably army personnel. And we quickly moved to New York to Bensonhurst in Brooklyn, which was largely a Jewish and Italian Catholic community at the time.
And then we moved in a migration that happened for many people in my social circles to the north shore of Long Island. And we lived in Manhasset, and I went to school in Port Washington. And I was pretty unhappy in those areas, and then I came to Chicago to go to college, and I lived there for 38 years. And then I moved to DC in 1989 and have been living in DC ever since.
MJC: Were your brothers older or younger?
HB: I have one older brother and one younger brother. Middle child. Tortured by them through my high school years, and I love them dearly.
MJC: Your parents, were they involved in politics in any way?
HB: They were part of and more supportive of the social movements of the 40’s and 50’s in New York and morally committed. But when we were growing up, my mother was more, she was active in the PTA. She was active in a Jewish community group, I think, American Jewish Congress. My father was very active in different medical professional organizations. Toward the end of his life, he ran a national discussion group. He never really retired, but I’d say in his semi-retirement.
MJC: When did you start to get involved in politics?
HB: It depends on different ways you count and think about these things. When I was in high school, we already had moved from Brooklyn, my first grade teacher came to visit us. Her name was Mrs. Greenfield. And the reason she tracked me down and visited us is she described how I was in first grade, which I totally did not remember. But in an all white class, there was one African-American boy whose name was Benjamin. And one of the girls in the class said that he had stolen her lunch money and they formed a circle around him and were taunting him, and he was crying.
And I went into the circle and put my arm around him. And later on in the day, she found her lunch money in her shoe. So Mrs. Greenfield came out and described that story and how it made an impression on her. So there are some other stories like that, but I could partly say maybe it was always how I was. In Brooklyn, I had felt very much at home. And then on the north shore of Long Island, I felt I didn’t really fit in. And I so didn’t fit in that I fled to New York City almost every weekend, and one of the groups I found was the American Friends Service Committee.
And from there, they had demonstrations or we were handing out flyers. I think this is in the end of the 1950’s against the death penalty. And that’s the first demonstration I recall being in. It wasn’t even a demonstration; it was handing out flyers against the death penalty. Someone was scheduled to be executed in New York. I was extremely frightened, but I had a community to provide support for me in American Friends Service Committee. I also had met some friends in summer camp, two of which of whom I’m still close to now. We’re really quite good friends.
MJC: Would you like to mention their names?
HB: Linda Carver is one, and her story is interesting. Her name now is Linda Hoyes. Her name had been Linda Cohen. And this is relevant about why the name changed. So she and I became very close friends when I was eight years old, in summer camp. They came to visit my parents, thinking they were not going to like my parents because we lived in an upper middle class house. They were really working class family and did not have a lot of money, and they thought we were going to have airs and different things.
And as they enter, Mr. Carver, whose name had been Mr. Cohen, embraced my mother as my mother and he realized she had been his student in high school. He was fired in the red-baiting scares because he was accused of being a Communist. He was fired from his job. And my mother, as a high school student in New Utrecht High School in New York, led a demonstration in support of him. So they changed their name from Cohen to Carver, so they didn’t know each other. My mother’s name had changed from Weisbard to Tobis. They didn’t know each other.
My other friend is Annie Popkin, and we met when we were 13. I am extremely close friends with her, and in fact, her husband is now staying at my house for a few days. They now live in Portland, Oregon, because he came in for the Reverend Barber March with a friend of his. And for Annie, we were friends as teenagers, lost track of each other, meet on the way to Mississippi in 1964, lose track of each other again, and in the early women’s movement, she’s part of Bread and Roses in Boston, as well as allied with the Our Bodies, Ourselves Women’s Collective.
She comes through Chicago and I’m in the Chicago Women’s Liberation Union. So we reconnect then, and we’ve reconnected at different points in our life. From the Friends Service Committee, I found my way to the Congress on Racial Equality or CORE, which did demonstrations in the north in support of the sit-ins at Woolworths in the south, where African-Americans weren’t allowed to sit at the lunch counters. And from CORE, I found my way to support the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee, which in the north was called Friends of SNCC.
And by the time I went to college, I felt I really found my movement home. I was involved in some other things. I went to hear Dr. King speak, and I couldn’t find anyone. He spoke in the next community called Great Neck on the North Shore, which was a very liberal, predominantly Jewish community, and I couldn’t find anyone to go with me to that talk. I went on a march on Washington against Strontium-90 in milk, which was against nuclear testing. So I was active in a number of things in high school, but I really didn’t fit in. I was an odd duck.
But on reaching college, I found my home. So I went to college in 1963. Well, before then, in 1963 on graduating from high school, I went with a friend to Israel, and lived on a kibbutz to see what would communal living be like. Was this the remaking of a land? I did not understand the full history of Israel and what’s become the occupation of Palestinian territory. But I was on a kibbutz called Lahav, which still exists, and the kibbutz ran an Arab for mayor of Beersheba and had busses that they ran on Saturdays. So it was a very, small “d”, democratic, participatory kibbutz.
But during the summer of ’63, I came home to go really… partly, this was my country, the US, but I also wanted to be part of the civil rights movement. Within a couple of weeks of going to college, there was a school boycott in the city because the African-American schools were overcrowded, the white schools were vacant classrooms.
MJC: And you’re in Chicago. At the University of Chicago.
HB: And in the city, the superintendent of schools was Ben Willis. And rather than integrate what would have been neighborhood schools, integrating the black schools and the white schools, and the black schools had second class used textbooks. They didn’t have often a chemistry lab, they didn’t have a pool. A white school might have all of that. But rather than integrating the schools, he built movable wagons onto the grounds of the black schools, which then were named Willis Wagons to keep the black students contained.
So there was a school boycott called by the Civil Rights Movement for integrated schools. A guy named Meyer Weinberg was the coordinator of it. Al Raby, who was the head of the Coordinating Council of Community Organizations, was a sponsor of it. And SNCC and Friends of SNCC in the north was a coordinator of it. I threw myself into that, and I loved the participation, I loved the impact that it seemed that we were having and the spirit of people together. And one thing led to another, and I was driven for greater involvement.
It was then a campaign against a Chicago Mayor Daley machine candidate, Dawson, who was the black candidate, kind of keeping what we call plantation politics, not really delivering services into the black community. And there was a campaign against him by A.A. “Sammy” Rayner; Alice Trigger ran that campaign. I assisted her in the campaign, and I just threw myself into one activity after another, as well as being active on campus, and became head of the Friends of SNCC and also joined the student political organization and became head of the student political organization in the student government called the Student Political Action Committee.
And then there was an alliance. SDS, Students for a Democratic Society, sent two organizers to my campus. Steve Max was one of them, and I met him, and our student political committee decided to join SDS. And Bob Ross and Lee Webb, who were on my campus, were amongst the people I connected with for that alliance. And one of my teachers, Dick Flax, was also in the founding group of SDS, as were Steve Max, Bob Ross, Lee Webb, and then my future husband, I didn’t know at the time, Paul Booth.
With that connection in 1963, our campus was visited by two representatives from SNCC, Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, Casey Hayden and Dee Gordon. They describe the summer project that was developing. I wanted to go. I signed up. It was a whole application process. I almost wasn’t accepted. I think Dee thought I didn’t have the maturity to go.
I was also interviewed by an African American member of SNCC, Curtis Mohammad. His name then was Curtis Hayes, and he thought I should go, so I ended up being allowed to go. I was 18 years old. You had to raise $500 to go. It was an enormous amount of money. I did everything I could. I went door to door. I went back to the synagogue I was brought up in.
By the way, that’s also probably relevant. I feel like I didn’t belong in high school. I, at one point, wanted to be a rabbi, and I was told women couldn’t be rabbis. I wanted to get a bar mitzvah. I didn’t even know there was a bat mitzvah, which women would get. But women were confirmed, and I was confirmed in the book of Amos and my rabbi was a social justice rabbi.
I had other things in my background that led me more and more in this direction. I also had gone to a summer camp, Putney Summer Camp, where I read left wing and progressive material, as well as went hiking, worked on a farm, and saw a culture of people trying to make this into a better world. That brings me up to Chicago, in ’64, I go to Mississippi. I returned to my campus in ’65. I don’t know if you want me to describe Mississippi.
MJC: I think you should. I think that would be helpful. Your parents were obviously willing to have you go.
HB: Well, the first and maybe the only big conflict I ever recall having with my parents was the night that I spoke to them before I left for Mississippi. It had just been reported that day that Goodman, Schwerner, and Chaney were missing and presumed dead. They were so frightened. My mother was so frightened. She couldn’t talk on the phone. She could only cry. I loved them dearly and actually felt I was carrying out their values.
My father, who was so gentle, was yelling in the phone, “How could you do this? Are they going to teach you how to use a gun? Will you know how to kill?” And it was just so painful, and he must have been just so frightened. In fact, later he ended up helping to form the medical committee that supported the civil rights movement, the Medical Committee for Human Rights. He was in amongst the founding signatories of that group. I knew he had the commitment, which actually I didn’t find out during that summer, only later. But I was 18, and they didn’t stop me from going.
I also had an aunt who was a nurse in the Spanish Civil War, Helen Feinberg, and I felt it was a comparable situation I was entering. Sometimes you risk your life, I very much wanted to live, but for a cause that you really believe in, if that’s what is needed.
I went to Mississippi. I was in three towns. The first was Ruleville, the second was Shaw, and the third was Cleveland. Each one had a remarkable history. In Ruleville, that’s where Ms. Hamer lived, Fannie Lou Hamer. Part of her story is she had been a sharecropper. When she told the landowner that she was going to vote, he said he was going to throw her family off the land. The house belonged to them, the store they bought food in belonged to the landowner. The landowner said, “If she goes to register to vote , he will throw her off the land.”
She said to him, “I’m registering for myself, not for you,” and they were thrown off the land. But it’s just an act of the level of courage that she had. After she registered, she was beaten in a jail where she was arrested and was lame for the rest of her life, but went on to become the co-chair of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, which was formed when it was clear that the White establishment was not going to allow voter registration of African Americans, who I believe at that point would have been the majority of the vote in Mississippi had they been allowed to vote.
I then went to Shaw. There’s a fairly famous picture now that Wally Roberts, who was the head of my Freedom School, took of me playing the guitar at 18 for Fannie Lou Hamer in front of her house with two of her friends. I then went to Shaw. I stayed with the Hawkins family, with Mary Lou and Andrew Hawkins. Their story is so remarkable. Much of it I didn’t know at the time, but not only had he helped to build a Sharecroppers’ Union, but he testified before Congress about the need for sharecroppers to make more than a few cents. Not only did he take in several white volunteers into Shaw, but he sued the town of Shaw in a case that went to the Supreme Court, and they won. The case, many people think, is as important as Brown versus Board of Education.
MJC: What was the case, Heather?
HB: It’s Hawkins v. Town of Shaw, though there were some other families involved. What he did is an analysis, with legal help, what were the accommodations in the black part of town versus the white part of town? The black part of town had no paved streets, or sewer system, or street lights, or very little indoor plumbing. It had outhouses. The white part of town had all of that, and tennis courts, and a pool. And he won.
Later on, after the summer, because of his activism, his home was firebombed twice. On the second time, a son, Andrew Jr., and two of his grandchildren were killed, and daughters were burned, were scarred for life. Later, a policeman in town challenged, shot, and killed Mrs. Hawkins, so four people in one family were killed, and almost no one knows about it.
There has been a celebration organized by the staff of Congressman Benny Thompson, who is the congressman from that area, the one Black congressman remaining in Mississippi, and they got a piece of the highway renamed in the name of the Hawkins family. They had a celebration of the family and are trying to recognize them. There are other stories from Mississippi. It also was the first time I was arrested for supporting a voting rights demonstration. I want to say the takeaways I had for Mississippi.
In Cleveland, that was the town that Amzie Moore was in. He was the person who saw the importance of doing voter registration as the focus as opposed to either housing or employment, as important as that was, but to create a basis for political power.
The three big takeaways that I had from Mississippi while being scared for my life and scared that for the lives of others that I would harm others. One was because within a year, we won a voting rights act. I learned that if you organize, you can change the world, but you’ve got to organize. Two, sometimes you have to stand up to illegitimate authority; and three is that you need to trust local people. You need to listen to what they say, that how courageous and smart they were about what they needed for their lives.
Those lessons, I’ve tried to stay true to them for the rest of my life. It would be a longer story if this was on civil rights. Those are lessons I took from Mississippi and took back to Chicago, where I was very active. I was head of Friends of SNCC. I was active in the student government, but I was also active in the Folklore Society, in the theater group.
MJC: So you’re in your sophomore year, is that correct?
HB: I’m now going into my sophomore year.
MJC: What were you studying at the university? What was your major?
HB: Undergraduate with social sciences.
MJC: When you had time to study, I realize.
HB: No, I actually studied a lot. I was a very studious person. I graduated with many more credits than you need, even. So that’s ’64. I then was doing national traveling for SNCC and Friends of SNCC in the north and speaking about it and trying to raise money. We raised money for Dick Gregory, did a big event on our campus, the very socially pointed and conscious comedian.
Then into ’65, to give a sense of life on our campus, there were different hours for women and men on campus, when you could come in, there were parietal hours. Part of what was developing in the country as a whole is not only did the civil rights movement provide an impetus for all movements in the country, and also there was a rising middle class. Even for people who were poor and even with discrimination, there was some more spendable income. You could sit at a lunch counter and try to eat. You could have money to pay for a bus.
There was a rising middle class who had disposable income, and youth had some disposable income, as well as colleges were a new socializing force in the country. For the first time, a majority of college-aged population, I believe, was in college of some kind. The result was there was a youth movement developing that had some disposable income, some additional education, and some socializing experience separate from the families and the congregations and the neighborhoods that they originally grew up in and were learning different things.
Every movement in this society had an adult movement and a student movement. It was a time of movement. There was a civil rights movement, NAACP, and Southern Christian Leadership Conference, which was a church-based organization. There was the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. Women were in all organizations but a youth organization. But also during the summer project, there was a paper circulated that Casey Hayden and Mary King circulated. That was called “On the Woman Question.”
It raised the issue of how come if we’re so active in all these organizations, why aren’t we in the leadership positions more often? Though, there was some attempt from it with SNCC and the civil rights movement, and that’s why I mentioned that Fannie Lou Hamer and Ed King were the co-chairs of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party.
I get back to my campus. The campus has what are called parietal hours functioning in loco parentis, in lieu of parents, the campuses governing young people. Women had to come in at 11:00, men could come in at midnight. There were separate dorms then for men and women. I had been trying to comfort and support a friend of mine who had just been in a broken love affair, love relationship, broken romance, and I came in after 11:00. I was investigated for birth control pills, and they looked into my purse, and I felt so violated. Also, I felt just think of the innocent time, “How could you think that I would have birth control pills?” That was at that moment.
Then a teacher, Naomi Weisstein, an extraordinary neurobiologist and later got many accolades, more articles in Science Magazine than I think, Nobel Prize winners, and she was on campus and a teacher, but she wasn’t allowed to be on a tenure track because her husband, Jesse Lemisch was a history teacher. He’d been one of my history teachers teaching history from the bottom up. He wrote a book called Jack Tar about a view of the American Revolution from the view of a naval shipman, someone just on the boat. But Jesse could be on a tenure track, but Naomi couldn’t because of what they call the nepotism rule.
I organized demonstrations against that. This was bubbling up. In 1965, there was a meeting in December in Champaign Urbana of SDS. My professor, Dick Flax, as I said, was in the founding group of SDS, suggested that I go to that because they were going to discuss the Woman Question. I didn’t really know people there. I was intimidated in almost everything I’ve ever done. I am, in many ways, an insecure person.
It’s become part of my own philosophy of how you act and how you treat people, believing that people are not confident, and that we act out of our lack of confidence either to fall victim to it and say, “I’m a victim, I’m no good, I can’t do anything,” and you become a victim and have a sadder life; or you deny it, you say, “I did it, you can do it,” and you can become a kind of bully; or you can live with that insecurity and know everyone is insecure. Everyone feels we’re not good enough, we don’t know enough. The society tells us you’re not smart enough, you’re not pretty enough, you’re not enough. Rather than denying it to say look, “We all may feel that way, but together we are stronger.”
I mentioned it because I once almost wrote a book about this. It was going to be called Organizing Women, and it was about women organizers. I was going to write it with an author who was an established author, Joyce Kornbluh. I did all the research. I spoke to many women leaders. Mary Jean, I probably spoke to you as one of the leaders. I spoke to Bella Abzug, and Betty Friedan, and I spoke to Gloria Steinem, and I spoke to grassroots organizers. This is later, this was in the ’70s that I did this study.
Then Joyce said she couldn’t write the book. She had to do something else. She was occupied. Though I had done a lot of the research in the interviews, I wasn’t confident enough to write the book on my own, and so I never wrote the book. But I have many theories, and it’s informed my entire view of how you build supportive organization and what I now call the need to have love at the center of our organizing.
But going back to the SDS meeting in 1965, there are a few hundred people having this discussion about the Woman Question, and it’s going on for hours, as many of these movement meetings did, interminable. At one point, one of the SNCC organizers, Jimmy Garrett, who had been a friend, got up with two of his friends, one of the black organizers, and said, “Look, you women aren’t going to get it together unless you talk amongst yourselves,” and so he was leaving.
As he left, I thought at that moment, “Oh no, black and white together, men and women together. Oh no, we could make this work.” Another hour goes by, and the women are just being denied. One woman says, “I don’t think you listen to me.” And a man says, “Oh no, that’s not true. We listen.” And at that point, I took a group of women and we met and talked and agreed we would come back to our home base, in my case Chicago, and organized women’s discussion groups that became part of consciousness raising groups.
Back on campus, several things happened. I’m a little bit confused on the sequence, but there was a conversation on my campus where while I’m talking, a guy who has since died, but a guy, while I’m talking in the group and I would say I was very active. I was doing the work. I was a leader on campus. He says, “Shut up.” I was so shocked that he would treat anyone that way, but also that he would treat me that way. After I was done talking, I tapped every woman on the shoulder and I said, “Let’s go upstairs.”
We were in the Ida Noyes Student Lounge, and we went upstairs and we formed the WRAP, the Women’s Radical Action Program. The name was taken because there had been ERAP projects, which were the community organizing efforts of SDS. There was one in Chicago called Join Jobs or Income Now that organized in a White Appalachian area, but there was one in Newark. Tom Hayden was part of that. There was one in Oakland. There were a number of these around the country. We were forming Women’s Radical Action Project, and it was the WRAP group, which I think was the first campus women’s liberation organization in the country.
We did a number of things from that group. One was a study of what we called significant response. Women felt invisible in classes, and our own insecurity was reinforced if you feel invisible, if you’re treated as invisible. We had measured how often did a teacher – and almost all the teachers were disproportionately men. I’d be actually interested to know, but I bet the students were, too. But I don’t know what the balance was at that point. A teacher might say, “William, what do you think?” William says something and the teacher might say, “Oh, that was very insightful, William, and you might consider this.” Robert, what do you think?” Then Robert might say something and the teacher would say, “Oh, I think you’ve missed the main point,” and have a back and forth.
“Susan, what do you think? George, what do you think?” There was just no interaction with the woman student, and we called it significant response. It was a four to one significant response to men students versus women students. We then trained the women students, and we would prepare for classes, and people would say, “Okay, they’re going to discuss Thucydides. Why don’t we prepare a little?” “When you go in, what are you going to say?” “I was going to say this.” “Okay, can we reinforce it?” Or then in the class we would say, “Oh, I thought what Susan said was very interesting. Can we go back to Susan’s point?” We were reinforcing each other.
Then we asked the teachers to provide time in the class to review the study that we had done, because, after all, we were students in a university whose theme was the life of the mind, so we were talking about our research. We did other things. We had demonstrations, and were supporting what was becoming an emerging women’s movement. That was ’65.
In ’65, also, a friend of mine, and this story now is very well known, that a friend of mine told me that his sister was pregnant, and nearly suicidal, and wanted an abortion. I hadn’t thought about the issue before, but he asked me could I help her find someone to provide an abortion. I didn’t really know anything about this, but I went to the medical arm of the civil rights movement, MCHR that I mentioned before, Dr. Quentin Young, who lived in Chicago, had initiated. My father, I only learned around this time, had also helped to support.
I found a doctor, Dr. T.R.M. Howard. He is an amazing story. He had been a civil rights leader, Black civil rights leader in Mississippi, until his name appeared on a planned death list because he did such things as stand up for the investigation of the murder of Emmett Till, who was a teenager from Chicago who was visiting his aunt in Mississippi, when a white woman in a store said he had whistled at her. Years later, she recanted and said he hadn’t even whistled at her.
But his battered body was shown first in African American magazines like Jet and then shown around the country. His mother, Mamie Mosley, had the courage to say his battered body should be shown, so that people could see what it meant. It had a profound effect on me, the original picture, this is years before, of Emmett Till’s murder. I know there are a number of white people in the north who were deeply affected by that because it brought home what the brutality and terror that existed about racial discrimination.
Dr. Howard came to Chicago. I didn’t know this at the time, but he set up a clinic on 63rd Street, and it was called Friendship Clinic. I only learned that many years later. But he agreed to the procedure. It was going to be $500. I made the arrangement and mostly I gave the information to my friend and I thought that was it. I thought it was simply an act of goodwill, something you do for a friend. The golden rule, you treat others as you want to be treated. I was just going to move on.
Then someone else called, and either my friend or the woman involved told someone else, because I wasn’t talking about it. I made the arrangement again, and then someone else called. By that time, I realized, gee, there’s a need. I better set up a system. Those three rules that I learned from Mississippi, that you need to organize and take action if you want to change the world, that you need to stand up to illegitimate authority, and that you need to listen to what people need.
I didn’t realize it at the time. This was before Roe, which was 1973. I didn’t know that three people talking about an abortion was a conspiracy to commit felony murder. I knew it wasn’t legal, so I wasn’t talking about it. I’ll finish the story on Jane and then go on. But over time, more and more women were coming through.
By 1966, I met the person who was going to be my husband. We got married in ’67. We had our first child in ’68. I was pregnant with my first child. I was in grad school, and I was also working, and I couldn’t manage it. More women were coming through. I recruited other women into what we called the “service.” Because we were telling people to call at a time when it was illegal, the decision was to say, “Call Jane.” It was called the “Service for Jane.”
Over time, there were about 100 women who were in Jane who did initially counseling and then were providing assistance. Dr. Howard was no longer in touch. I didn’t know what had happened to him, but it turned out he had been arrested for providing an abortion. But he didn’t turn me in, so it just shows what a remarkable person he was. I found someone else. His name was Mike. The procedures were going on.
I had learned what was involved in the abortions. What do you do before? What do you do after? Is it painful? How do you support the women? How do you follow up with them? I passed all that information on to about 12 women who I recruited to carry on this service. Over time, so many women were coming through at the height, maybe 100 a week, would be signed up wanting an abortion.
Mike decided, at some point, he was going to leave doing the work. The women were already assisting, and then it turned out Mike wasn’t a doctor. At that point, the women felt if he could do it, they could do it. The women learned how to do the abortions and performed over 11,000 abortions before Roe. There’s much more to the story. There’s now several movies about it.
There’s a recent HBO film called “The Janes.” There’s a Sigourney Weaver and a Hollywood version of it that’s culturally quite effective though not a documentary. The name of that is “Call Jane,” and Sigourney Weaver plays a combination version of two of the women who really headed it up while they were doing the procedures, and me, only in that I started it, but it’s a composite vision.
There’s another movie called “She’s Beautiful When She’s Angry,” that Mary Dore made, whose husband is Ethan Young, who’s the son of Quentin Young. Another film that was made on my life in organizing called “Heather Booth: Changing the World,” that Lilly Rivlin made, that was made about Jewish women, activists and cultural figures. She made a series of films on those themes.
There’s another film called “Jane: An Abortion Story.” There actually is a book, a play, other movies about Jane that’s gained increasing visibility as the Supreme Court is about to make its decision.
Just a couple more things in college, and then we get to post college. I’ve told this story a fair amount, and that is that it actually happened later, but a friend of mine was raped at knifepoint in off-campus housing. When we went with her to get a gynecological exam, she was told that student health didn’t cover gynecological exams and she was given a lecture on her promiscuity. We sat with her. It was called a sit-in.
Over time, because people organize, of course, you’d say you now get, not only gynecological coverage, you get comforting care. You’re told in your orientation about… Men are trained about rape and what’s consent. There’s a whole cultural and legal change, the rise of the Me Too Movement and other things, but it’s only because people took action and organized. Nothing is natural if there’s not this approach.
That goes through college. There are other examples, other things that happened and helped us start the first campus-initiated women’s groups and taught it with Naomi Weisstein and also with a woman who I became very close to, Marlene Dixon, who then wasn’t allowed tenure. I went into graduate school. I went on an NDEA fellowship, which means that the National Defense Education Act believed that people like me should have a full fellowship to go to grad school. It paid for everything for me.
Originally, Marlene Dixon was my advisor. She was not retained. She was not given tenure, and so was leaving the university. I started over again. I went in to change schools and majors. I went into educational psychology. My theme was on democracy in the classroom. I did all my research and finished all my classes. My doctorate professor went to England for a year. When he came back, this was before the Internet, before Zoom, and so we were in touch only by carbon copy papers and letters were sent to each other. I finished the research, I finished all my classes.
In our first meeting, my subject is democracy in the classroom. What forms of teaching engage students or don’t? I actually think I came up with some interesting insights just about engagement, about whether students were bored or not and what it did to students. His comment to me was democracy is spoiled when it’s given to the masses. He was the head of the lab school at the university, I think. I realized I would have to start again. This would be the second time I would be starting.
I had had it. I couldn’t keep going. I was a teaching assistant. I was teaching some classes already, sections of classes, and I decided to leave the university. I gave my materials to another friend who got her masters at the University of Illinois. I was no longer going to be teaching.
Meanwhile, in ’66, there was a sit-in at the university against the war in Vietnam. I was a campus activist and helped to design the sit-in. The university was ranking male students in rank order and grade point average order, and they gave that to the Selective Service. We knew there was a relationship between race and class and grade point average. We felt the university shouldn’t be cooperating or collaborating with the Selective Service. We had a petition about it. It started to rain. We went into the administration building. We sat down. It went on for several days.
We invited an outside speaker. His name was Paul Booth, who was the national secretary of SDS, which was based in Chicago. Paul came over. He says he was looking for me. A former boyfriend, who actually was the guy who told me his sister was pregnant, said he should look for me. Paul sat next to me. Three days later, he asked me to marry him. We were talking, talking, talking. After five days, I said I would, but wait for a year. We got married in 1967, the week I graduated from college. That was college.
Then I was teaching at a school for the Loop YMCA High School. It was a school for drop-outs, thrown-outs and people under court supervision. Amy Kesselman taught there and Robin Kaufman did, who are also two friends from the women’s movement. Number of things happened at the school also, but one of them just on the women’s issues.
At school, I had helped, too. I did student-initiated classes. We took the kids to see the conspiracy trial. I did political education with the Black Panthers, who formed a grouping at the school. When I asked for a pregnancy leave for my first child, which is only going to be six weeks leave—actually, with the summer vacation would have been, and it was 4-6 weeks that I was going to take.
When I returned, the principal, who I have had many run-ins, we tried to form a union and other things, wouldn’t let me come back because it was not part of the law that you had to be allowed to take a maternity leave. Even though he had given me a verbal agreement, I didn’t have it in writing. It just shows that life changed. Now, it’s against law to fire someone who takes a maternity leave.
During that time, I had been forming these consciousness-raising groups in Chicago. In 1968 there was a National Conference for New Politics, and Paul, my husband, was actually a lead staffer, or maybe the lead staffer before the guy named Pepper, was the head of it. It was designed to have a national convening to run a King-Spock ticket, Dr. Spock and Dr. King for president and vice president. Not that they had accepted it, but that was the purpose of it.
That weekend became a very complicated weekend because my brother was getting married that weekend. It was early September, 1968. There were negotiations. My husband worked for the Packinghouse Workers, and there were swift negotiations in the same hotel as the convention, and he was the lead researcher for the Packinghouse Workers. A lot was going on. My brother was getting married in New York, so I couldn’t be at the conference, even though I had helped organize for it. So this was in ’67 because it was to prepare for the ’68 election.
During that convention, it was the first time there was a Black Caucus that had non-negotiable demands. The convention ended up in dissolution and very contentious. One of the things that happened is that Shulamith Firestone and Jo Freeman had been at a Women’s Caucus. I wasn’t there because I was in New York at my brother’s wedding, though I knew Jo prior and knew Shulie, Shulamith Firestone prior. I may have that sequence mixed up, but I don’t think we had been meeting as a group before, but we may have been.
They called for a resolution of the Women’s Caucus. A woman named Shirley Lenz introduced a fairly conventional, women in support role resolution that was accepted. Shulamith Firestone kept trying to raise her hand and say, “We have another resolution.” They weren’t recognized. And when they went up to Pepper afterwards and said, “You didn’t recognize us, how could you do this?” He basically said, “Go away, little girl.”
Jo and Shulie were so furious that they decided to organize, and we formed what was the West Side Group. I was a very active part of that, that’s why it’s possible the West Side Group was formed before. But it was one of the first women’s liberation organizations in the country. We called it the West Side Group, we met at Jo’s house, and the women in it included Naomi Weisstein, Shulamith Firestone, her sister Laya. Shulie later wrote The Dialectics of Sex. Amy Kesselman was in the group, Vivian Rothstein. There were about 15 or 20 women in the group.
From that group, we also formed other groups – consciousness-raising groups and other action groups, and I had already started the WRAP group on campus, that also had been community groups that we were forming. The group would have both internal political discussions, like Is Jackie Kennedy more our sister, or What does sisterhood mean? What’s the role of class and race? And across differences. We convened a demonstration at Playboy. We had a little sign that said, “This abuses women.” Or something like that. They were stickers, and we’d stick them on people, we stick them on posters that we thought abused women.
I was in grad school till ’73. I got a job at a group called Urban Research. I was treated very well. I had two little kids. They let me basically come and go as I wanted; I was an editor. I was in graduate school, I was still trying to get the doctorate. I left with a master’s, but I was trying to get my doctorate then. The clericals, who were all black, were really not treated fairly, though there was a liberal head of it.
One day when I came to work, one of the clerical women was crying. When I asked her why, she said her pay had just been cut and she didn’t have enough to support her and her daughter. She was a single mom and she was going to quit. I said, “Why was it cut?” Because the woman who used to sit next to her was going to become her supervisor and needed a salary increase. This had not been discussed at all. I said, “Don’t quit. Let’s make a list of concerns.”
They were all non-financial concerns. What is the sick leave policy? I could come and go on sick leave. All I had to do was call and notify people. Others didn’t know what the sick leave policy was. Is there a procedure if you have an issue so you can even discuss issues like this? We had 10 issues that were all non-financial, but were about process. Management said they would agree to all the demands, but I had to be fired, that I was treating them like GM.
I was in tears. I didn’t know what to do, we had no money. My husband didn’t have a job. We had two little kids. I did have the grad school fellowship, but we had almost no money. I was encouraged to file an NLRB suit. Two and a half years later, I won that suit, and with that money, I started Midwest Academy. There were two, which Mary Jean Collins was on the first board of, because I had already connected with NOW by 1970.
There are three things I want to say that bring us to 1970. In ’66 and ’67, when I’m in my senior year of college, there was a joint civil rights labor organizing drive to organize 50 hospitals in the city. I became a full-time nurse’s aide while I was a senior. My professor was Dick Flacks, who let me get college credit for a report I would write about my experience organizing.
There’s a whole set of lessons I learned from that. I did organize it. I had over 50% signed up on cards, which is very hard in a union situation when in a hospital which has a lot of turnover. One day I go downstairs and I see there’s someone handing out cards that have the same name called Help. The same name as our card, but there’s a different address and they weren’t my cards. I had cards I was giving out internally, secretly on staff. And it was a joint SEIU Teamster organizing effort when the Teamsters and SEIU had a handshake deal with the mayor and not a robust union activity. It was a raid.
I call up my contact and say, what’s happened? They say, “Oh, my God! We didn’t know you were still inside. We didn’t know you were still organizing.” The plan was to have a strike on Labor Day across 50 hospitals, and that’s what I was building toward. “We didn’t know you were still inside, we’ve called off the drive because one of the organizers, Gene Tenure, one of the coordinators who came out of CORE, was charged with being a communist.” The anti-communism of the Labor Movement meant that they called off the drive because of that. That was an education.
The second thing, as we’re getting to ’73 is, I’m in women’s liberation. There’s a National Conference on Women’s Liberation. There’s the Lake Villa Conference and I’ve actually now gotten them confused which was which.
There were two conferences. One was a National Women’s Liberation Conference. One was in 1968 because I went with a newborn child. Maybe he was three months old. Gene, my oldest child, was born, and his name is Gene Victor, after Eugene Victor Debs. He was born in July of 1968. After I got married, three months later, the Selective Service came to our house looking in trench coats like FBI or something and basically said my husband would get drafted into the Army.
But this was a notice, it wasn’t his draft number. They draft him into the army because of his leadership in the student movement, in the anti-war movement. He had headed up the first march against the war in Vietnam. One of the ways that you could get out of the army is if you didn’t have a student deferment – and he hadn’t taken one because he felt they were discriminatory – was if you have a child.
At first I said, “No. Go into the army, fight from within.” He said, “Are you crazy?” I said, “Go to jail. And I’ll move up, there’s a women’s commune that’s in New England. I’ll move up to the women’s commune.” He said, “No.” I take to my women’s group. “Should we have a child?” They say, “Yes.” Then when I had a child, no one would accept us. I couldn’t nurse in the group, the child was distracting. Remember, we were so young. Very few had children at that point.
I very much wanted children. And I loved Gene as he was born with all my heart. Perhaps my love for our kids was almost the most precious of my life. Paul and I had two children—Gene and Dan. They each are remarkable. Both their own people as well as a combination of Paul and me and our times. We all have shared values. And I think they are among the most insightful and caring people I know.
Many had bad experiences in their birth family. I had a good experience. But it meant we didn’t know how to deal with children. Many of us were not much more than [children] ourselves. I brought my child to, I think it was the Lake Villa National Conference. I may be getting these two mixed up. I couldn’t nurse in the room, I had to nurse in the dormitory. One of the women who was in Jane, told me recently that in the group, I’m about to speak and I turn to her and give her my child and say, “Could you hold him? I’m about to speak.” There was a sisterhood. The early women’s movement was just filled with sisterhood, and it was part of the great joy in my life.
There was a Lake Villa Conference that was a national gathering of people from women’s liberation, including Redstockings in New York. There was a group in California. There was a group in the South, I think, in Chapel Hill. A lot of them were campus-based. It was the youth based part of a women’s movement. Then there was a second conference. That was the conference to form the Chicago Women’s Liberation Union.
During this time, we were already doing actions. We had a guerrilla theater group called WITCH, Women’s International Terrorist Conspiracy from Hell. We would run into the AMA Conference and tell them how medicine was controlling our lives and we would be dressed like witches and then run out. We did one on the Mercantile Exchange in Chicago. We did one at the University of Chicago. We did a number of these guerrilla theater.
Then formed the Chicago Women’s Liberation Union, which really was my base organization for many years. The joy of being in the women’s movement in the early years was really seeing love in action. That sisterhood, finding others who had shared values, who were so smart, who had shared concerns. It was a joy.
We had two kinds of groups. We had a home group, which was our discussion group. And we took personal, and social, and political discussion issues and then work groups.
At one point, my home group, which had Christine Riddiough I think at one point, Margaret Schmidt was in one. I was in a couple of different home groups. One was called Brazen Hussies, to play on the name if you’re a Brazen Hussy. I didn’t actually even know what a hussy was – someone told me. Then the work group I was in, Action Committee for Decent Childcare, by ’68 when I was having my first child, I tried to build a child care center, and we finally built one called Sojourner Truth in a unitarian church that was across the street from where I lived on 50th and Dorchester.
The regulations in the city were such that you couldn’t basically get a child care center built. It’s partly that there had been Our Lady of Angels Church, which had a fire, and children were killed in it because there had been inadequate regulations. What they did then is they gave the control of the regulations to two contractors. It was very expensive to build child care, including that they had rules you couldn’t build below ground. You couldn’t build it in a church basement, you had to have a generator. Not just a sign that said “exit” that could glow in the dark. But you had to have rules that were not needed for the safety of children.
It meant that two contractors could make a lot of money, but women were re-entering the workforce, they needed more child care, and there was no city-funded child care in Chicago. We built an organization, we called it the Action Committee for Decent Childcare. And over time, we won. First of all, it was multiracial. It was black and white, 50-50, which was quite remarkable for those days. We were very self conscious about doing it. We worked with the YWCA, Day Creamer (now Day Piercy), who was one of my closest friends then.
We finally won a revision of child care licensing laws, a panel of parents and child care operators that could control and review the budget. We had community control on it. We also won a million dollars for child care when that was a lot of money. Those embodied the principles.
During the labor organizing drive and the hospital organizing drive, one of the people who was a researcher for the effort was Pat Novick. She then married Al Raby, who was the head of the CCCO, the Community Council on Community Organizations. I was the youth liaison to that because I was head of Friends of SNCC on campus. I was also in Friends of SNCC in the City, which was quite remarkable. Fannie Rushing was the staffer, so there was a woman’s staffer. There were co-chairs, Sylvia Fisher and Monroe Sharp. There were men and women. There was a consciousness about that within SNCC and Friends of SNCC, even though things weren’t fully equal, but it was more conscious.
Pat and I stayed friends. Then after Paul and I got married and we had our first child and Al and Pat got married, we moved into the same apartment on 50th and Dorchester. We had nothing. Everyone had a bed, a spindly chair. We had a table on which we could eat. We had a little table in the kitchen, and we had Al’s pool table up front. That was the one beautiful thing in the whole house because he had been a street hustler before, but he was a remarkable person. That friendship with Pat still sustains. Pat was part of the Jane network, and she and I are still very close friends.
By 1970, Mary Jean Collins and some other people from NOW, I was in touch with them. At the urban research company where I worked and then had been fired and I guess… But anyway, Susan Davis worked there, and she tried to create a national women’s news magazine that would have been called Woman Kind. For issues of control, they ended up not accepting the financial deal that had been arranged. But I would have been an editor of Woman Kind.
Susan and I are still friends, by the way. She now lives in Ecuador and has a remarkable international network. So many of these friendships have endured. By 1970, Mary Jean Collins and others, but I think it was a connection, perhaps with Susan Davis that led me to NOW. I met Mary Jean and fell in love with her the minute I met her, as I think most people did and do. She also came out of the civil rights movement with Father Brothy in Milwaukee.
We had a fire, a positive spirit. She was engaging. She believed in organizing. I learned from her. I love her, and she connected me with NOW. In 1970, when there was the women’s strike, August 26, we had someone from the Action Committee for Decent Childcare speak. By the way, Action Committee for Decent Childcare was ACDC.
We were trying to show we were for everyone. Partly I want to mention it because the parts of the movement don’t remember that there were other things going on. I think Pat Novick was our speaker from the childcare effort at the August 26 demonstration. But on seeing it, and seeing more people than I could imagine.
Oh, then we helped to organize Women Employed. Oh, no, that was later. But there was a woman from Kraft Foods who was thrown out of her job because she took her daughter to work. You [Mary Jean] went down to Kraft Foods. Was that the same day, August 26th, or was it a different day?
MJC: It was another. It wasn’t Kraft Foods. But the incident happened that she took her daughter to work, but it was a different company. Morel. I think it was Morel. Yeah, whatever. Anyway, she marched over there.
HB: You marched over there. This was the exact spirit, it was like I found my sister. I found lots of sisters in the movement. Amy Kesselman, who I’m still in touch with. We are on a monthly call. Vivian Rothstein, Vivian, and Amy, and I are on a monthly call together. There are many of these people who are deep connections. But on seeing NOW’s explosion in the country, this was the leading thrust of the movement. Though I was in women’s liberation, which was the youth branch, we didn’t see it that way, but that was my core.
I decided to make an alliance between the two, if we couldn’t even merge the two. They were culturally different enough, some of the issues were different. I loved the Women’s Liberation Union at that point, 1970. We had a women’s liberation school that Vivian fostered. There was youth organizing that Amy helped to foster. There was a graphics collective that Estelle Carol did. It was a very robust and great operation. NOW had a group that looked at textbooks, it had a group that looked at sex education. We all worked also with the Loop Y, so it was sort of a parent entity institution that helped us all. We were all friends together.
But not everyone was a friend together and not everyone felt that those cultural mixes would work. Over time, that rift with the Women’s Liberation Union became greater and greater. The Women’s Liberation Union faced left sectarian battles
This was happening within other movements also. The destruction of SDS, was largely caused by the factional and sectarian battles within it and the leadership did not have the experience or tools to deal with it and the rapid growth it faced.
By 1967, Paul and I left SDS. We had gone to a Clear Lake, Iowa conference. On driving back, two things happened. One, there was an expose that the National Student Association and SDS had been part formed out of, it had been a meeting place where SDS helped to form, that it had been controlled by the CIA and had CIA operatives in it, and that there were also police informers who were living with people from SDS and destroying the organization from within.
There also became both left sectarians coming into it. Then the organization had such growth over time that it was too fast and you couldn’t acculturate people adequately. There became divisions that had we had time or experience to integrate better, perhaps we could have overcome. But they were really a crisis of democracy. I felt both the organization was becoming mean-spirited and undemocratic in the name of democracy.
Anyone could come to a meeting and vote, but it meant you didn’t have to have been active, so you didn’t do the work, but you voted. Later on, that very principle was part of the undermining of NOW and was part of the way in which we then tried to save the Women’s Liberation Union, saying you could only come to a meeting facing these left sectarian fights if you had done the work and had been in it for a length of time.
But that decision to set those rules created a division within the Women’s Liberation Union because it meant we were going to have rules. It meant some people would be excluded. That decision – and I wasn’t skillful enough to know how to navigate the inclusion of people while we’re trying to make this decision, while we’re working full time, while I have two little kids. And the result was the Women’s Liberation Union started to fracture. The SDS certainly fractured by 1968. There were metal detectors to see if you were carrying weapons to go into its convention. We were out of it by that point, though I went to the convention. It was a horror show.
With all of these groups fracturing, with the money that I won from the back pay suit from Urban Research, I started a training center, Midwest Academy. It was the third time I was fired for union organizing. I’ve been fired at my teaching from Urban Research and from another place that I had worked. I decided I just couldn’t ever be fired again. We had no money. I started a training center for organizers.
Mary Jean was on the first board. Mary Brunder, who since died, who worked at South Shore Bank, was on the first board. Paul Booth was on the board. Bob Creamer, Day Creamer was on the board. It was a group of friends. The academy is still going on, and the first training was to train women organizers. I had been hired by a group of social workers to write a manual for organizing women, and we called it “Direct Action Organizing.” I put the principles in writing, and they in part were principles that I had learned from reading Antonio Gramsci, who wrote a book called Strategy For Labor.
If the youth movements of the ’60s in some ways hope for a social revolution, this provided a strategy for non-reformist reforms. That was one way it was talked about. The three key principles were that based on our values, you want to improve people’s lives, so this is about that which actually was novel for some. “Oh, you mean you’re not just for democracy, justice, freedom? You actually want to improve lives?” Okay, well, that was rooting it in real change.
The second was that you give people a sense of their own power. It’s not just winning things for others, but people are part of the struggle. That’s the direct action component, and they feel they won it themselves. The third is you get structural change. You build organizations that hold those in power more accountable, and you have a restructuring of power that builds non-reformist reforms, that move you towards a better place in the society.
An example, cameras on police is a very good reform. It exposes what’s there. A Police Civilian Review Board is a non-reformist reform in that it gives power to a community to review budgets, to review policies. The Action Committee for Decent Childcare became an embodiment of that, with winning a million dollars for childcare as a concrete improvement. We won it through direct action, lots of stories about that. Then won a parent client review board that could review the policies, so it put it into practice.
One way to advance those ideas, I helped to initiate a paper, it was written by about five of us called “Socialist Feminism.” We circulated that paper, again, this was before the Internet and we built socialist feminist women’s organizations maybe in 20 places around the country and would go around the country and talk about it.
That brings me to ’73 in the forming of the academy and the first class of the academy. Oh, I had gone through the Industrial Areas Foundation, I think the third woman who went through. Many of them had come out of church traditions and the Jesuits, so they were men largely that Alinsky had helped to organize and had initiated. I learned a great deal from them. But they also to toughen me up, I now realize, they challenged me.
At the last section of the training session, each person had, I don’t know, 15 minutes to describe their story. Then I was the last person. I kept saying, I’m willing to tell my story about the organizing I’m doing. In some ways, I was doing the Action Committee for Decent Childcare then, maybe this was ’71. My husband had been the co-chair of the Alinsky Organization in Chicago with Father Len Dubi. That was an Alinsky organization. It was the first metropolitan multiracial organization, as opposed to one community that was only one race. It was a pretty remarkable development, and they were winning victories.
I also had this Action Committee for Decent Childcare which was also winning victories. In the session—maybe there were 30 people in the session—I kept offering to tell my story about my organizing. And they said, “No, let’s wait till after lunch.” I was the only person left. After lunch, they spent the entire time, I felt, as an attack. “Women can’t be organizers. Women aren’t organizers. Why are you doing that?”
I’m crying, crying, crying in front of this mostly men’s group. I’m saying, “What about Dolores Huerta? What about Fannie Lou Hamer? What about Grace Lee Boggs? What about the woman who started Catholic Worker?” Dorothy Day. I remember raising that. Then afterward, I went to them and I said, “I think you’re missing something. We can join together. I think you should need another perspective here.”
They rejected it. I used that money to set up Midwest Academy, which was initially to train women organizers in the context of this and in an emerging women’s movement. We tried to embolden a women’s movement and provide additional strategic direction with deeper power bases and grassroots organizing.
We helped to create working women’s organizations, supported 9to5, who had organizers in our first class, helped to support the creation of Women Employed. My closest friend in Chicago, Day Creamer, now, Day Piercy was the founder of that, and Kate Blunt, who worked for them also, and a network of working women’s organizations that later became 9to5.
Then we worked with NOW and other groups. There was Wheel, there were other women’s groups that were starting at the same time. There was Stewardesses for Women’s Rights who provided one of the first cases that the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission wouldn’t take up. Because they wouldn’t take it up, it’s one of the reasons NOW was formed, one of many reasons when the Equal Opportunity Commission wasn’t responsive to women as well as to race.
And we worked with NOW to build a campaign against Sears, Roebuck. NOW had a lawsuit against Sears. You couldn’t get a credit card in your own name. The women who worked at Sears, you got a percentage of what you sold. The men could sell the brown goods like furnaces and you got a percentage, refrigerators. Women could sell notions, and ribbons, and candy, and you got a percentage. Which one made more money?
We thought if we took Sears as a target, this allowed us to create a worker community, consumer alliance, have a women’s focus and also be broader. There’s a Sears in every community. There was a lawsuit going on. We could have this campaign. Mary Jean would be our heroine. She was the champion. She knew about organizing, we supported her. Then on the basis of that, we thought as there was an opening for the presidency, catapulted to the presidency of NOW, Mary Jean has more of that story, where basically Sears, Roebuck stole the election, and in my view, changed the course of the women’s movement not for the better.
I believe that there could have been a self-conscious race class alliance at an early point in the women’s movement that was guided by the needs of women’s lives and less of abstraction of equality, as important as that is and as important as the vision is. I think it’s one of the unfortunate turning points of the women’s movement and Mary Jean still has my loyalty. Anne Ladky, who was then working for years, was the director of Women Employed, was the campaign manager for Mary Jean’s campaign. I was an adviser. I’ve loved Mary Jean and Anne Ladky and others since then.
The movements of the ’60s are starting to crash, though the women’s movements and the environmental movement are going full bore and a consumer movement with Nader is going full bore.
So we created a training center that’s designed both to pass on strategic planning, how to think about strategy in this new period, to pass on the skills of organization when many groups don’t know how do you even have a meeting. Like you were saying, how do you create publicity for an earth-shaking event or whatever. Then also a strategic planning center to design strategies for the new period. We created a number of new organizational trusts.
Working women’s movements beyond 9to5, that was one; created an alliance to build a unity between labor and community groups that had been broken after the McCarthy era, the Citizen Labor Energy Coalition. I tried two other issues that could do it, but that was the one. Then created Citizen Action, which was the model of statewide multi-issue grassroots organizations and some other things. It became a center. We had an annual retreat which would gather the forces of the progressive movement together.
At our height of the retreat, we had 2000 people and almost all of the Democratic candidates came. By 1980, Reagan is elected. I realize we need to do politics. I gave a talk, left with a ballot box, and I decide to learn about elections that I had thought were such a corrupted arena. I wasn’t sure that it was at the arena I wanted to operate in. But I decided, as Alice Palmer says, “If you don’t do politics, politics does you.” So I learned a lot about elections.
I set up a national organization to train people in how you do elections, and hired Sophie Ann Aoki and Paul Tully and Gina Glance, who went around the country and we helped to train groups. I mean, we should remember not only NOW, but Sierra Club. None of the groups did elections. Not really. Then I also set up one of the largest voter registration efforts. This is into the early ’80s, I became active in Chicago politics, was in the Mayor Washington campaign, working for Jackie Grimshaw. Learned a lot about the discipline of ethical politics, where you treat people not based on patronage, but based on skill, and do you do the work. That’s 1987, I’m co-chair of Citizen Action. I was chair of Citizen Labor Energy Coalition.
Then I did, I think, three years of international pro-democracy work. In 2000, I’m hired to run the advocacy arm of the NAACP through my relationship with Julian Bond, who I met through SNCC and the civil rights movement. He’s now the chair of the board of the NAACP. We ran a $23 million program, and actually, it was a $46 million program because I had 23, they had 23. It was a great deal of money at that time. We ran a disciplined operation. We had, I think, 15 or 17 key states, and in some ways spearheaded certain kinds of techniques that are now more commonly used.
I was hired to run a group to reinstall social justice into the heart of the Jewish community called Amos. Though it didn’t survive, a lot of the Jewish social justice work came out of that that is now flowering. Then I started to get recruited…
Oh, I’m sorry, in 1988, I came to Washington. I was hired to run the grassroots operation of the March for Women’s Lives that had a million people around the country, or so we said. In activities around the country, I ran that, while Alice Cohan ran the DC one, but Bella Abzug ran the national coalition, and I was directing it. There’s a whole set of stories with Bella.
Then I started to run large-scale issue campaigns. I was hired to set up one of the early immigration reform campaigns, ran the campaign for financial reform, worked at the AFL-CIO, and I ran their healthcare campaign. I was hired by the National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare, to run part of the campaign to save Medicare and Social Security, which is being undermined, privatized.
I ran, 10 years ago, for the campaign for financial reform that won the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and the Dodd-Frank bill. I ran the marriage equality campaign around the Supreme Court decision working out of the task force. What happened is, because I wasn’t necessarily in the community, the ways in which people know each other’s stuff when you’re in the community and might have made enemies with others – I didn’t have enemies.
I wasn’t pushing any agenda. So I could let everyone get the respect they wanted. I didn’t need the attention. I ended up running a lot of these campaigns. I was the senior adviser to the Campaign for Immigration Reform with the Alliance for Citizenship and ran the campaign to stop the Trump tax cuts.
Then four and a half years ago, my husband died. A big life change. A movie had been made about my life in organizing. Where I put my energies was I went around the country for three years after Trump was elected to promote the film, which in part is promoting a women’s and a movement agenda with the main thrust where those lessons from the civil rights movement of that, “If you organize, you can change the world.” I’ve added, “You need to do it with love at the center. You need to stand up to illegitimate authority and listen to people.” That film, “Heather Booth: Changing the World,” shown on PBS and World Channel. There were a couple of other films, “She’s Beautiful When She’s Angry.”
Then I did the progressive and seniors’ outreach for the Biden campaign. It was after I went back to Chicago I ran the field operation for Carol Moseley-Braun. I was doing a lot of elections. In ’93, after Clinton was elected, I went to the DNC. I did many different things there. I did women’s outreach. I initiated the idea called the Women’s Leadership Forum, which they’ve completely forgotten. It’s now a fundraising arm, but I did the labor outreach. I did many kinds of outreach. Then I became the training director.
Then I did the outreach for the Hillary healthcare plan. Then I became the training director. That was ’93. ’94, terrible election. ’95, I became the training director, and I did that till ’98. That was just another thing in there. Then I started to run statewide coordinated campaigns, or parts of them in Pennsylvania, New Jersey, New Mexico, and other places. I was running statewide. Illinois, I did twice, New York. I inserted the DNC stuff because I forgot that.
Then I ran the outreach for the Biden campaign, progressive and seniors’ outreach. We set up an extraordinary operation in 17 states. Since then, I took on a role, I was a strategic adviser for a campaign to advise demand justice that was on addressing the Supreme Court and its problems before it became as notable as it is now, and then worked on a campaign to tax the ultrawealthy and have that included in the Build Back Better effort. I’m still working on that. There’s some hope that something will still be passed.
As a continuation of the work on the outreach of the Biden campaign, there’s a twice-a-week progressive mobilization call that I assist in the hosting, Bob Creamer runs, who’s been my friend since Chicago days. Three families bought a house together so that we could raise our kids together. Margaret Schmidt, Bob and Day Creamer, and Paul and me. Bob and I have stayed partners. We’re in a group that he really initiated called Democracy Partners. It’s a political consulting firm. That’s an interesting website. I mean, it’s interesting people in it. There’s this twice-a-week call, Mondays and Thursdays at 2:00.
I’m still working on Build Back Better. I give a lot of advice to different organizations. I’m doing now, particularly with the HBO film on Jane that’s come out, “The Janes.” I was doing two press calls a day. Now it’s more like one a day or three times a week, so it may pick up again. I’m probably doing 10 talks a week of different groups, indivisible chapters, pro-choice groups, groups in different states.
Often now when I say, “What do you want me to speak on?” The most common answer is, “We want you to inspire people into action because people are so dispirited.” I’ve written a memo on 10 reasons why we still can win. But it all is based on, do we organize? Those three lessons of the civil rights movement that if you organize, you change the world, but only if you organize, sometimes stand up to illegitimate authority and you have to trust and listen to what real people need and want and care about.
Then these are my two watchwords. I made these buttons in the Biden campaign, I told you about this, that one was We Have To Organize. It says “Biden-Harris” at the bottom. And the other is With Love At The Center. Those are my watchwords. That’s where I am.
I have two grown children in their 50’s. I’m both proud of them and think they are pretty remarkable, very ethical people with shared values. I have five grandchildren. They’re a big part of my life. The oldest just graduated from high school. I do a weekly call with my kids. We do a monthly call with my family. I do a weekly call with the grandkids. I do a every other week call with different family sets. So family is a big part of my life. Friends are a big part of my life.
Here’s a list of 14 people who are frail or in need of support, and I’m trying to stay in touch with them as we are all in need of support. I’m going to have very extensive foot surgery, with a year’s recovery, six months of intense pain, three months of where I can’t walk on my foot. We’re all aging, trying to deal with that.
I have regular friend calls. I have a call with Vivian and Amy every month. I have a call with my two best friends from high school every month. A periodic call with this very good friend from camp I mentioned, Amy Popkin. I see Mary Jean and Jane Plitt every now and then. I’ve got regular, intense friend networks. I’m in three theater series, so I see some friends going to the theater.
There are three different series. One is Shakespeare with Celinda Lake and Kathy Hurwit, one is Mosaic sort of modern theater with two other friends (David Reed and Andrea Kutter), and then the Arena Stage with two other friends (Carol Oppenheimer and Morty Simon) who are also very good friends of calls. Anyway, I’ve got these two book clubs that I’m in, have been in 35 years. So I feel I’ve got a very rich life. Often too much is going on. But I’m very grateful for my life, and I’m grateful to know Mary Jean Collins.
MJC: I’m grateful to know you. I wanted to go back and ask about that book that you were wanting to write 30 years ago. Will that book ever be written? It sounds like an interesting book.
HB: I’m not going to write it. Here was one main thrust that I had, that there are at least three ways to respond to the fundamental, the insight that young people, especially women in particular, but I think all people, want to be loved and want to be recognized and feel we are not necessarily good enough and beat up on ourselves for that. There are three main ways that I saw that at least women respond to it. One was as a victim, and then you can’t move forward. You say, “I really am not good enough.” The second is as a bully, and you decide, “I did it. You could do it.”
MJC: And that describes our opposition.
HB: Then the third is that you create sisterly leadership. And I did. I wrote a paper on sister-lead leadership, of what it means to create a sisterhood that reflected the feelings of the civil rights movement. We called it A Beloved Community.
It was the sense of sisterhood that I felt was a joy in whatever’s written. I don’t know that I went into this enough, but the joy of finding other people who were so smart and made you feel smart and were so positive about life and made you feel positive about life and wanted to take action, not just to talk, but to do things. The joy of being in a women’s movement like that was just one of the greatest joys of my whole life. That was going to be the thrust of the book.
In almost every talk that I give, and no matter what the subject, let’s say my subject was healthcare, but it could be anything, if I mention this in the talk, and I often do the thing that people wanted to talk with me about after the talk was about insecurity and feeling not good enough, and how do you survive.
It’s certainly what all the women want to talk about. It’s the most notable thing about the talks I give, Social Security…
MJC: Whatever it is.
HB: Whatever it is. One example, when I was running this large mobilization, a countrywide mobilization, we thought a million people came out. Bella Abzug’s the head of it. This is after I was going to do the paper, but it’s just one key example that really the light bulbs went off in my head. I was working night and day. Bella is very demanding. I did everything I think she could want. She’d often call me up, like at 1:00 AM or 2:00 AM with a new idea. I try and do everything.
We had a meeting of the board, and the board was of all the women’s organizations that themselves were very contentious. She had again called me up at 1:00 AM or 2:00 AM. We had a final plan. We had a plan going into the meeting. She was chairing the meeting, but I staffed it. I had the major reports. In the middle of the meeting, an idea occurred to her, or it occurred to her between 2:00 AM and then and she raised it, and she wanted to know why I hadn’t done something that we had never discussed before. She rammed me about it. “How the hell could you not have done this? Why didn’t you do this?”
MJC: Is this in front of the whole meeting?
HB: In front of the whole meeting. It was a conference call. I’m sitting there, I’m crying, crying, crying on the phone. I’ve done everything I can. I’m totally exhausted. The day is coming up. So many things have been wonderful. With tears in my eyes, I gather myself after the call. I call her up and I say, “This is how you treated me. You will never treat this way like this again, or I won’t be here. I don’t deserve to be treated this way. You should not treat me this way. You should not treat anyone this way.”
At which point, I think she may have been crying, or at least she became very vulnerable. She said, totally softened, she didn’t say she’s sorry, but she said, “You don’t know how I’ve been treated my whole life. I’ve been kicked in my gut, I’ve been kicked in my head, I’ve been called such terrible things. I’ve had to swallow my pride. I’ve been made to eat shit. So I learned you have to be so tough to get ahead.” I said, “You also need to be kind to get ahead. I live in a world where I want kindness. I want to treat people kindly. I want to be treated kindly.”
From then on, we were extremely close, caring friends. She treated me almost like a daughter. Now, this is 1989, I don’t remember when she died. It wasn’t much longer. She lived in New York. I was in DC at that point. We didn’t see each other a lot, but we had an affinity. But it also raised this lesson to me.
MJC: The bully.
HB: The bully. Because you yourself feel so vulnerable, and you yourself are so mistreated.
MJC: She had that reputation, and the more she behaved like that, the more people pushed her away. I mean, it’s just such a self-defeating way to behave.
HB: Betty Friedan had some of those characteristics.
MJC: Definitely Betty had. Definitely.
HB: I really do believe kindness is one of the things we need to do. It’s like I got into abortion work, not out of ideological commitment, but I’m wanting to do a good deed for our friend with Betty Friedan, who I didn’t know except I met her through you. But when she was living in DC. Many of her friends had disappeared or died or she had alienated them, and she herself was quite frail. I think she was on a walker. I’m trying to remember exactly. Hilde who was her assistant.
I would go, I would talk with Betty or see her or take her out to lunch, just on a friendship basis. She wanted to have a role within the Women’s Movement, she’d say, “Where’s the young leaders of today?” But it was mostly just as a friend. Anyway, I’ve tried to do that with a number of people.
MJC: I can’t even imagine you’re trying to do this, but is there anything that stands out as the major accomplishment that you want to be remembered for? There’s so many of them.
HB: I would want to be remembered as someone who built other people’s confidence in themselves. I’ve had many assistants and people I’ve worked with who have gone on to wonderful careers, who I feel I value my work with them. They’ve been wonderful to me. I think creating a systematic way of looking at organizing that addresses issues of power and not just demonstrating. I think looking at organizing as a way to transform the world. Because the three principles I actually think that’s been a contribution I’ve made. I have people all the time who say that they’ve adopted it or it influenced them, that they’ve gone on to very different kinds of work.
To an extent, the model of my own life that when I was young, I decided I would be in this for the rest of my life. That on the trip I took to Israel, on seeing the Holocaust Museum in Israel when I was 17, on seeing the Warsaw Ghetto aspect of the memorial, I said, “In the face of injustice, I’ll struggle for justice.” And do it for my whole life. It wasn’t just going to be a summer or when I was young, but I do it my whole life.
I figured out some ways inadequately, a little bit crazy, but ways to have a balance in life so that I could continue my whole life. It meant spending time with friends, having a long-term relationship and putting time into that relationship. It’s not easy to live with someone else, even when you love each other, but you have to think about it. You can’t take it for granted.
Trying to cultivate and support friendships even when I don’t have a lot of time. I never feel I have enough time to engage as I want to. It means taking vacations. It means now I try to schedule, when can I have a nap? My favorite thing in the world, taking a nap. I think that’s important.
Having a life in the movement, building caring relationships, being kind. I believe we should treat people with dignity and respect and even build a movement with divergent ideas, ideas I don’t 100% share, but as long as I feel they’re not destructive, it’s part of what we either learn from or part of the movement.
One dynamic I had, one of many things I haven’t mentioned, I’m sure is, when I had conflict with someone in the movement, I would go out of my way to try and become friends with them, or very good friends. Some of whom I’ve stayed friends with for many years. I’m aware of the disagreement, and sometimes I’m aware of very unkind, unjust or unfair things I think they’ve done.
I’m mindful because I feel they could always do this again, but I go out of my way to try and be in relationship with them. If they are committed overall to trying to build a movement, however it means to them. I have a fairly long list of people like that. Really, the theme of organizing, it’s not one issue. The Women’s Movement, which really helped form me, reflects my values. Civil rights movement, antiwar movement. I didn’t even really address that.
I’ve been arrested, I don’t know, eight or 10 times. One in a fast with civil rights against the war in Vietnam. A labor struggle, I was the first non-mine worker to say I’d go to Pittston for the mine worker strike when we were asked to do that. Forced Lane Kirkland to be involved in his first civil disobedience that he ever was involved with in his life.
The whole alliance with the labor movement, we’ve discussed that. I was arrested with Jane Fonda on the Climate. More recently, I was arrested in the money and politics one. I was arrested in, I think, three, immigration ones, and there was one Jews for Dreamers. That was the day that my husband died. He wanted me to go off. I did the demonstration, came back and was in his room as he got his final infusion for cancer, which then killed him.
Anyway, those are all different parts of life. But it’s not one thing. It’s the concept that if we organize, we can change the world. We need to with love at the center, with a lifelong commitment that cares about ourselves, that cares about others, that acknowledges the insecurity and vulnerability that we have and finds ways to gain greater strength through our friendships and our shared commitment and work.
It is how I really try to live, imperfectly certainly, but aspiring to live my values. Just thinking about my weaknesses, which are myriad, because I’m insecure it gets up and messes me up. For example, I’d give a speech, I wouldn’t recognize someone because I thought, who am I to recognize that person because I’m so little and the person was hurt because they were not recognized.
MJC: Oh [enough]. Okay.
HB: I’ve done versions of that many times. People are sitting at a table. I don’t want to sit in the middle of the table because why would anyone want to sit near me? I’ll sit near the end, but then someone says, “Why didn’t you sit there?” I’m so conscious of the number of people I’m not responsive enough to, I don’t see enough. I don’t talk to enough. I don’t engage enough. I feel I don’t do enough. I wanted to give one example also on these weaknesses.
I’ve mentioned some personal weaknesses and challenges. I’ve also experienced organizational weaknesses and challenges
In one part of the Women’s Liberation movement in Chicago, it was a period where the left was infected with something called criticism/self-criticism. At the end of the meeting, out of a good initial thought, you say, “How did the meeting go?” I’m for debriefs. I’m for briefing action and then debrief always. But in the debrief, you have to say how did the meeting go and self-criticism of what you did that was not good in the meeting.
Then many people used it to get you to say, “Well, you really you cut me off.” But it was not kind. It was so severe after we had this vote in the Women’s Liberation Union to deal with sectarian attempt to take over the union. If anyone could come in and vote, it meant you could pull people off the street who weren’t invested. They basically wanted to use the structure to recruit for their own purposes and take over the organization. This included Progressive Labor and Socialist Workers Party. They were disciplined political organizations and we did not have that tradition and skill and background. So it was easy to fall prey to their attacks.
If you come in and you’re a disciplined force and everyone’s going to say the same thing, you can more get your way if you’re against people who aren’t as organized. We did win the fight to allow the rules that we would have what I think is a more structured, democratic organization where you had to be part of it, you had to be in a workgroup in order to vote, things like that.
We adopted the socialist feminism paper, and in doing it, people felt bent out of shape. There was a period of criticism/self-criticism, and I hadn’t been skillful enough to know how to make people feel part of it again. I had two kids, I had a job. I wasn’t full-time staff on this, and I wasn’t skillful enough to know how to do it. I learned lessons from this.
I felt I was going to be driven insane. I told Paul that if I’m driven insane from this endless self-criticism, criticism/self-criticism. I keep going back to the meetings to get criticism, that he shouldn’t give up on me, that he should give me three years, I will come out of this. But that’s how brutal the movement itself could be to ourselves. I’m partly mentioning it. I didn’t want to give an impression of a movement and a life that is endlessly joyful. So much is joyful. I do want to convey that. I wouldn’t have stayed in this work if not.
There were struggles in other organizations. When I joined Friends of SNCC I did feel it was a beloved community, shared purpose and commitment and driving to make this a better society. By the late 1960s there was a rising Black consciousness and there was insensitivity by many whites to the needs of the Black members. Whites were asked to leave SNCC so that African Americans could exert their own leadership in their own organization. The Women’s Union fractures. I no longer can be there. SDS fractures. I can no longer be there. I’m in the labor organizing drive. It’s destroyed over anti-communism. I still decide to stay with the labor movement.
And other efforts that happened like this, so that there’s been also a life of internal struggle. I’ve tried to learn from those struggles the importance of both taking responsibility that all of things happen partly because I wasn’t skillful enough to know how to deal with it, and what are the things that I have to learn at each point – I try to learn from. Even if I didn’t cause the problem. What could have been done so that we didn’t have the problem. What could I learn?
The second thing is just the value of being kind to each other because we all make mistakes. When people make mistakes, it’s not common that I get angry because we all make mistakes. I do then immediately go into and what do we do about it? If I feel I can turn that anger into action, it’s why I don’t often get depressed. Things are sad or rough or not winning. But I try and figure out how do we move forward?
I think it’s one of the important lessons for how to survive in this for the long haul, especially in a period that’s very difficult and very challenging and also to be kind to each other and as much as I do.
MJC: I know, I know what you’re saying.
HB: I fall victim to the same weaknesses that we all do. I’ve got my own version. But I do believe that the movement makes us strong, and we need to find ways to stay together, value each other, value our relationships and a movement to make this a better world. This quilt behind me, it’s a quilt I was given by on Valentine’s Day of this year, February 14.
Four women showed up at my door with this quilt. They called me before. They are in a group called Wrapped in Love for Justice. A wonderful woman named for Cassandra McKee had helped form this group of quilters. Each square represents a square of my life in organizing.
One is Action Committee for Decent Child Care. One is Chicago Women’s Liberation Union. But there are other things. This is a quote from Amanda Gorman. This is what Paul said, my husband said when he met me at the sit-in at the University of Chicago. “Can I sit here?” Each one though is a square of my life.
It gives a sense of just the breadth. It’s called Wrapped in Love for Justice. I was the second quilt they made. It took six months with 20 women working on it.
MJC: Good company.
HB: I love that quilt. But it also says there are a lot of squares in my life. Thank you for doing this, Mary Jean.
MJC: Of course. I’m thrilled to do it. I’m enjoying it, every minute of it.
HB: You’re a key part of this history.
MJC: Well, aren’t we lucky? We’re so lucky. That’s the lucky part of being part of this movement, right? Love you.