The other Booth

“I believe calling someone an organizer is the most flattering thing you can say,” Heather Tobis Booth, AB'67, AM'70, told a group of 20 activist students last Friday while discussing her own “life in the movement” and offering tips for campus and community work. Booth has been an organizer for more than 40 years and while at the University was the founder of the women's collective JANE, a group that provided anonymous abortion services.

The first flyer Booth ever handed out, she said, was about ending the death penalty. She was 13 years old, in New York City, and terrified: “I was so nervous dropping flyers everywhere,” she said. “I learned how important it is to train people for that sort of thing.” By the time she reached the University of Chicago in the early '60s, Booth was prepared; within a week she staged a sit-in with fellow students to protest the city's school segregation. Then she helped organize Chicago’s Freedom Schools, free learning centers that taught empowerment and techniques for social change. As the head of Friends of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, she went to Mississippi to respond to the “sanctioned lynching” of three young African American men.

“Back on campus,” Booth said, an acquaintance was accidentally pregnant and suicidal. “I didn’t know it at the time,” she said, “but three people discussing abortion were considered conspiring to commit murder." Booth found a doctor who would perform an abortion. A month later, another woman contacted her about the doctor. And then again. The underground abortion service known as the JANE Collective was formed and ultimately served more than 11,000 women throughout Chicago. “I wasn’t even thinking about it as something political,” she said.

Women's issues hadn't been widely politicized; for instance, contraception was not considered a right at the time. Booth was once searched for contraceptives upon returning to the dorm after “parietal hours,” designated hours after which female students were required to be home. The dorm managers assumed she was engaged in "illicit" activity, when in fact she had been comforting a friend about a breakup. Booth was outraged, she said, not by the curfew or the fact that contraceptives were contraband, but at being suspected of having them. “That was a different time,” she said.

Booth encouraged the students to change the world through organizing. She cited three principles from the manual of the Midwest Academy, a "training institute for the progressive movement," which she founded: organize in a way that gives people a sense of their own power, fight for concrete changes, and work to change the relations and structure of power. Now organizing a national grassroots campaign to “regulate the financial industry,” Booth can’t foresee how successful her current project will be, but she believes the economic crisis may make the time right. “You can’t create a movement,” she said. “You can only seize what’s there.”

Shira Tevah, AB’09

The embedded video is a selection from Jane: An Abortion Service by Nell Lundy and Kate Kirtz (1996).

June 16, 2009