THE VFA PIONEER HISTORIES PROJECT
An Interview with Heather Booth: “If We Organize, We Can Change the World”
Interviewed by Heather’s grandson, Henry Booth
Henry: Hi, I am Henry booth and I am the grandson of Heather Booth and I am going to be interviewing her on her involvement in the Women’s Movement. So, to start off, where were you active in the women’s movement? How did, what role did you play?
HB: And I love you Henry Booth and I’m so glad that you’re doing this interview. I grew up in New York and I moved to Chicago to go to college. And I became active while I was in Chicago in the early 60s. Though I came out of a tradition and a family that believed you treat all people with dignity and respect. And that all people should be treated equally. And so that was a background basis for any future involvement. So that’s how I became active in the women’s movement in Chicago. I had the values as part of my life from my parents when I grew up in New York.
Henry: How did you get involved? How did you get to where you are now in the women’s movement?
HB: I first was involved in the civil rights movement. And I think it’s important to recognize that because so much of the work that we do for social change and for justice in the society is really formed by the experience that we in America have had from the Civil Rights Movement, which challenged unjust laws and laid the basis for the modern concept we have of building movements for justice and democracy. Though the struggle for justice democracy is still present and also goes back as far as history goes back. But I was in the civil rights movement in New York, Chicago and Mississippi.
The Freedom Summer Project
I was part of the Freedom Summer Project in 1964 where there was a recruitment of Northern students to go South to Mississippi to shine a spotlight on how poor black people were treated at a time when black lives didn’t really matter in Mississippi and the summer became notorious because three young men, Andrew Goodman, James Chaney and Michael Schwerner, 3 volunteers were killed that summer at the hands of the clan. And while they were looking for the bodies of those three young men, they found the bodies of other black men whose hands had been bound or were killed in different ways and those murders at the time weren’t even really investigated.
But because people organized, within a year there was a Voting Rights Act. And Mississippi ended up with more African American elected officials than any other state in the country. And I mention it because that was really the lesson that I learned. That if you organize you can change the world, but you need to organize. And many of the leaders of that movement, great women like Fannie Lou Hamer I got to know that summer.
When I returned to my campus, a friend of mine had been raped at knifepoint in her bed in off-campus housing. And when we went with her to Student Health to get an exam she was told that those gynecological exams weren’t covered by student health. But we sat with her having learned from a civil rights movement. And overtime, of course now that kind of coverage is provided by student health. But it’s only because people organized. Later a friend of mine was pregnant and wasn’t ready to have a baby. And wanted to find a way to end that pregnancy and get an abortion. I was asked to find someone to help her.
And I found a doctor, Dr. T.R.M. Howard. And he had been a great civil rights leader in Mississippi who came to Chicago when his name was on a clan death list. And he provided the abortion. He had a clinic called Friendship Clinic in Chicago on 63rd Street. I didn’t think much more about it, but then word spread. And someone else called – and I made the arrangement with Dr. Howard. And then someone else called. And I realized that I better make a system of it.
And I created a system and we called it JANE. And between 1965 when my first friend went through and 1973 – when Roe versus Wade became the Supreme Court decision that made abortions legal under certain circumstances – the women of JANE themselves performed 11,000 abortions. So that was at a time when it wasn’t legal. So all of those are activities I started to do in the beginning of the women’s movement.
Students For a Democratic Society
In 1965 a teacher of mine on-campus Dick Flacks my sociology Professor told me there was going to be a national meeting of the Students for a Democratic Society which was the largest student organization of the new left, which was the movement on campus for democracy and Justice and equality. And at that meeting there was going to be a discussion of what they called “the woman question”. Because it was a time when there wasn’t a language yet about women’s Liberation or feminism. It was early enough.
And so I went to that conference, which was held in Champaign-Urbana. And the men and women were together discussing it. But when the women would talk the men often shouted down the women. The women would say, well you’re not really listening to me and then would say oh, yes, we are. But it sort of denied by the reaction and so the women split off.
How Women Were Treated
And we agreed that when we went back to our hometowns that we would organize women. And I went back and I was organizing women into consciousness-raising groups. And then on my campus I was in a campus meeting. And while I was speaking one of the guys on campus said – shut up. And I was so – I thought it was so not right. Then I tapped all the women when I was done speaking on the shoulder and I said let’s go upstairs. We left the meeting and we formed what became the first campus women’s organization in the country of the new women’s movement on campus. And we call it WRAP – women’s radical action program. And we got the name because SDS had ERAP projects – Economic Research and Action Projects.
And we did studies on campus of how women were treated and supported women and one study for example was called Significant Response. We did a study of how often does a teacher respond to a man student or women student? So the teacher might say Henry, what do you think? And then they would say that was interesting – and Joe, what do you think? Oh, Joe – I don’t think that really makes sense if you consider this? And then Sue – and Sue would speak. And then they just go – Robert. And so it’s as if Sue didn’t exist. And we found that men got a 4 to 1 significant response by teachers.
So then would prepare the women to get into the class and say let’s discuss it beforehand. Or when Sue speaks would say – I thought what Sue said was very interesting. Let’s go back to that point. So we could reinforce Sue, give her confidence and make her a full part of the class. So those were some of the things that we did with the WRAP group on campus. We also created some classes on women, which didn’t really exist before. And we ask teachers to also include women’s perspectives in some of their classes.
So that was the story of how I got involved initially.
Henry: Amazing. Another question. What inspired you and who inspires you when you were growing up to do what you did and are still doing in the woman movement?
HB: Who inspired me? To some extent my mother. She was a wonderful woman who was just filled with love and I really believe that love needs to be at the center of what we do.
One of the reasons I love you Henry is that you’re very filled with love yourself.
Henry: Thank you.
A Problem Without a Name
HB: There also were women in the women’s movement. And in the civil rights movement. I mentioned Fannie Lou Hamer who was the co-chair of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic party. Or Ella Baker. And then as the women’s movement was starting, I started to learn about other women. Betty Friedan who wrote the book The Feminine Mystique and help to kick off a women’s movement helped raise questions about what she called the problem without a name because there wasn’t even a way to describe it. I also think my friends in the movement itself were among the people who inspired me. I saw their courage. Day Creamer – now Day Piercy. Margaret Schmidt – just other friends.
Henry: All the woman who helped you makes what you’ve done possible. I mean it’s a group effort.
HB: Exactly. And also men. My husband I met in the civil rights in the anti-war movement. We met at a sit-in against the war in Vietnam. His name was Paul Booth and we were partners in the movement too. And, so there were many women and also men of good will. And I’m glad Henry that you’ll be a man of good will as you grow up and will carry on these lessons.
Henry: And what do you think – to you – what was your most memorable and important experience on the women’s movement?
HB: It’s sort of hard for me to think of one thing because each thing I was involved with I thought was important and that’s why I spent time on it. I’ll give a couple of examples. I had built an organization and was chair of an organization and many women helped to build it and some men of good will called Action Committee for Decent Child Care. And we fought for child care because in Chicago when I had two little kids – who now are grown men, but in 1970 when the kids were two and three years old I was looking for a child care because I was returning to work. And there was no city-funded childcare in Chicago. And that’s because the licensing code was designed in a very restrictive fashion that just supported to construction companies that wanted you to hire them to build very expensive centers as opposed to making it available so you could have a center in a church or synagogue basement.
So we changed the licensing codes from the Action Committee for Decent Child Care. And we changed the codes, we got a board setup so that parents and childcare providers could have input into how childcare centers would run. And the third is we won $1000000 for childcare. So that was all very significant.
I also I ran the National – Local demonstrations for the 1st march Mobilized for Women’s Lives. We thought we had half a million people in DC and half a million people around the country in hundreds of demonstrations all across the country and I was the coordinator for that.
But I also think there’s a way in which I’m glad to spend time on and proud that I’m working on mentoring and supporting young women and young men now who are committing their lives to build a better Society.
Henry: Another question, when you were growing up you all already have the mindset you wanted to be an organizer? Or did you discover that later on?
HB: You know when I grew up I didn’t know an organizer was a thing you could be. I thought maybe I wanted to be a teacher or social worker or psychologist. Maybe an organizer combines all of those things.
In the Civil Rights Movement. I realize they were people who were organizers. I was part of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. And they were organizers who are part of that group called SNCC. So I realized I wanted to be an organizer. And in 1973 I set up a training center for organizers. And the first class was of all women because I had gone through another Training Center. And a back Training Center, they said women couldn’t be organizers. And so I thought well – Yes they can and I made this training center Midwest Academy which still exists and the first training was designed to train women organizers. And among the things we helped to do was we helped to create the first and support the working women’s organizations that were developing at that time and many other projects.
Henry: Awesome. One more question. If there was anything you can do besides being an organizer for the women’s movement what would that be? What would that job be?
HB: Something other than that. Well right now I work on many different issues. So it’s not only women’s issues as important as it is.
Henry: Just organizing in general, if there is anything other you could do.
So Much Work Still to be Done
HB: Just to share with the archive. So I’ve been organizing on for financial reform to stop the big banks from undermining the country in people’s lives. I’ve worked on marriage equality and I ran the Coalition on marriage equality around the Supreme Court decision. I ran a very large African American voter effort with NAACP national voter fund. I was director of that. I worked on saving Social Security and Medicare when it came under attack.
So I’ve run or been the advisor to some very large campaigns including one on immigration reform where I was strategic advisor to the alliance for citizenship. Their number of other issues that all affect women but effect men also. If I weren’t doing organizing, I think the next the thing that I love even more than that you spending time with my grandchildren like you Henry and our other grandchildren Sophie, Max, Oscar and Hazel. I’m in book clubs. I love that. I love going to the theater. So I like having a rounded life doing a lot of different things.
Bringing People Together
HB: Traveling. And we’re going to travel together to France this summer. But I’ve done some other jobs. I was a teacher for a while. I worked as an editor for a while. But I’ve never loved doing anything quite as much as I love organizing because I see that it’s bringing people together and helping them find their own power and confidence. I also see that we can change the world, but only when we organize.
Henry: Heather Booth – Henry Booth. Thank you.
HB: Thank you.