I grew up in a family that had good social values, reflected in our Jewish heritage, culture, and history. When I was growing up, at one point I wanted to be a rabbi, but was told (at that time) women couldn’t be rabbis. I went to Israel when I graduated from high school in 1963, and the experience of Yad Vashem (the holocaust museum) had a transforming effect on me: I promised myself that in the face of injustice I would struggle for justice.
In 1964, at the end of my first semester of college, I went to Mississippi for the civil rights movement and the . I'd been very active in already, and I was also active in the emerging anti-war movement on campus.
The photo shows me playing the guitar for Fannie Lou Hamer – one of the great heroines of the civil rights movement – and some of her friends. Fannie Lou Hamer was a sharecropper who became a leader of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, fighting for dignity and the right to vote. In the civil rights movement, women played extraordinary leadership roles. Returning from Mississippi, I took with me the lesson that you need to stand up for justice and help others in need – a lesson that resonated deeply with my Jewish beliefs.
In 1965, a friend of mine was pregnant and needed an abortion. Upon being told there was someone with a problem, my reaction was to try to do something to resolve it. I called doctors in the civil rights movement and found someone who could help my friend. A few months later, someone else had heard about it and asked for help. I made another contact. And someone else called, then another, then another. I told people when they called they should ask for Jane. I would counsel the women, preparing them for the abortion and doing follow-up with them and with the doctor afterward.
Many of the women who called me were students. Some were housewives. At least a couple of women were related to the Chicago police. It made me believe that the police department knew about it, and might even be referring people. The law did not change until 1973, and until then abortion was illegal; I didn't want to go to jail. I was willing to take the risks because I thought I was fulfilling the Golden Rule.
In 1966, I met my husband, a leader of the student movement, at a sit-in against the war, and we decided we’d get married when I graduated in 1967. Then I was trying to get a doctorate, working full-time, had a Movement life full-time, and I was expecting a child. And the number of people calling upon Jane was increasing. I decided to recruit other women to take over the project and turned Jane over to the collective in 1968. Jane ultimately served over 10,000 women before Roe v. Wade made abortion legal in 1973.
One of the great insights of the women's movement was that "the personal is political." This means that problems that you felt were yours alone – you couldn't advance in a career, you weren't treated well in relationships – were actually social problems shared by other women, and as such needed social solutions. To recognize these problems meant that we needed to act together to correct them.
Now too often that insight is turned on its head. Often problems that we know are political or social are treated as if they are only personal. We care about the environment, so we recycle. We support the women’s movement, so we read non-sexist books to our kids. It is a good start, but more is needed to change society. We need to act on the principle of Tikkun Olam (repairing the world). If we organize, we can change the world.
Heather Booth has been building and consulting with large-scale volunteer efforts for 40 years. In 1963, at Yad Vashem in Israel, she made a commitment that in the face of injustice, she would work for justice/tikkun olam. Booth was active in the women's movement, founding the first campus women's movement organization in 1965 and beginning JANE, one of the country's first abortion counseling services. She has organized for childcare, health care, and women's rights in many arenas. In 1989, she directed the national March for Women's Lives. Booth was the founding Director and is now President of the Midwest Academy, a national center that trains leaders building citizen-based organizations. She was a founder, Co-Director, and former President of Citizen Action, and is now a Vice President of USAction. She has worked on electoral campaigns and with the Democratic National Committee, and was the founding director of the NAACP National Voter Fund.
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