Heather Booth began speaking out against injustice. In her early twenties, she founded an underground network called Jane. The network eventually helped over 11,000 women get safe, illegal abortions before it was made legal in the U.S. with Roe v. Wade.
Heather grew up Jewish and was raised by loving parents. Her mom and dad shared an important Hebrew idiom with her and her brothers: “Tikkun Olam,” which means, “heal the world.” And that’s indeed what she’s been doing her whole life.
In 1966, Heather led a sit-in against the war in Vietnam, becoming the first college campus in U.S. where the students took over an administration building. She co-founded the Chicago Women's Liberation Union.
Her husband Paul Booth was also an activist and her partner in justice.
Today she’s 78 years old and still giving talks, press conferences and showing up physically when the movement calls.
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Produced by Jamie Yuenger and Piet Hurkmans. Our show’s musical intro and outro is taken from the track “Thursday” by the independent artist Nick Takénobu Ogawa. You can listen and support his music on bandcamp here.
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Host Jamie: Hi, it's Jamie. This is If You Knew Me, a podcast where we share powerful stories from the inner lives of women, however they identify. Most weeks, we share one woman's story about an experience that she felt deeply but rarely speaks about.
Other weeks I invite experts on the show to discuss timely topics that are relevant to women's lives, And very occasionally I speak solo on a topic and I invite all of you to leave me voice memos with your thoughts, ideas, and experiences around it. That way together we create a collective wisdom.
This week we share a story from Heather Booth, one of the most influential feminists and activists in the history of the United States. Before we get to Heather's story, I wanna invite you to seriously consider something, especially if you've been listening to the show for a while.
Host Jamie: But even if you haven't, you have a brain and a heart. So here's the thing, women's voices, women's stories, they are undervalued. They are under published. I mean, we call it history, right? This show is a platform for elevating women's voices, and even if you aren't the type of person to ever share your story publicly on a show like ours, I think you feel how tremendously important this work is.
Otherwise, you wouldn't be tuning in One of our League of Women members, a woman named Kara Pass, told me something when she joined The League and it stopped me in my tracks.
She said: "I believe wholeheartedly in the power of story and that all we can really share as human beings is our experience, not our judgments, not our concerns, not our opinions. Just share our life experience in order to help others. I love the vulnerability and candor of this project and the magic that happens when you hear your story in another person."
So Kara got behind the podcast and this movement, so if this is your first time listening to the show or your 15th, I wanna invite you to join us and to support us.
To be completely honest, this work is really hard, emotionally. It's hard to build on a dream all on your own. And our dream, me and my husband Piet's, is to start an unstoppable flame that ignites and lights up the world with women's true stories.
But that unstoppable flame, it starts somewhere. It starts with a spark, which then becomes a campfire, and that turns into a bonfire, and finally it erupts into the night sky with flames that leap up and reach the moon. But it starts with a spark and that spark, friend, it's you. It's just you. So do me a favor, or actually do yourself a favor.
Do your mom, your sister, your daughter, a favor. Tell people about this show. Join us on Patreon with a monthly donation. Leave us a rating or a written review. Subscribe to the show. Do something sparky. I know you want to, and I know you can.
Okay, onto Heather Booth and her story that, as it turns out, includes a fire.
Heather Booth is the sweetest, kindest, badass I've ever met. Starting when she was a preteen, Heather began speaking out against injustice. When she was in her early twenties, one of her friends mentioned that his sister was pregnant and nearly suicidal.
She wanted an abortion, so Heather helped her find a doctor. A few weeks later, someone else called. The word had spread. Heather was living in a college dormitory, so she told people to call and ask for Jane. In those days, three people discussing an abortion was a conspiracy to commit a felony murder. Over time, Heather's organizing efforts turned into an underground network called Jane
The network eventually helped over 11,000 women get safe illegal abortions before it was made legal in the United States with Roe v. Wade. Heather grew up Jewish and was raised by very loving parents. Her mom and dad shared an important Hebrew idiom with her and her brothers, Tikkun Olam, which means heal the world, and that's indeed what she's been doing her whole life.
It's really impossible to share all of the activism that Heather has done in this short introduction. But here's a tiny taste. In 1966, she let us sit in against the war in Vietnam, becoming the first college campus in the United States where the students took over an administration building. She co-founded the Chicago https://share.descript.com/view/mS8XpqPldP5 Union and they eventually won 1 million in support for childcare and the revision of childcare in the United States.
She was the founding director of the NAACP National Voter Fund, which helped to increase the African American vote by nearly 2 million voters in 2000.
She's been an activist her whole life. Her husband, Paul Booth, was also a tremendous activist and her partner in justice Today. Heather is 78 years old and still giving talks, press conferences, and showing up physically when the movement calls.
This episode is entitled Organize With Love at the Center.
Heather: If you really knew me,
you'd know that I have tried to
Heather: lead my whole life, both trying to make this a better world in a broad social way and in a personal way. and there's a tension between it because they're only 24 hours in the day. But to give a sense of it in a personal way, I have by my desk a list of 14 people who are dear friends. Who are ill, are dying, are in great need in emotional turmoil, and I try to be in touch with them. Some daily, some by text, some by visits, some just to check in every few weeks, but so that we keep the circle and the relationships connected.
And that's in addition to my children and grandchildren and, family connections, neighbors and coworkers. So the personal matters to me a great deal.
And there's an equal portion, and that's the social and political work.
I started work in the Civil Rights Movement, was in the early women's movement, movement against the war in Vietnam, always looking for where is there an opening. With a greatest number of people can make the greatest advance where my skills can be used at that time.
Heather: I grew up in a very loving and caring family. It was such a remarkable family. Everyone was so wonderful. Would I be wonderful enough? My brothers were. High school president, you know, president, the student government and I was a bit of a weird duck. I was a moody teenager. I think I was looking for the sixties before the sixties was starting.
I wore black. every day in school. I, I was a beatnik I was a leader in the high school. I was the head of the yearbook and the choir and the, history club But for example, I was on the cheerleading team. I noticed that they weren't letting small number of black, girls in the school beyond the team. It was a predominantly white high school.
And so I quit the team. I asked could they be in and they didn't let them in. And they were certainly better cheerleaders than I was. And so I quit the team, or there was a little sorority in my high school. called 16, the only 16 girls who were allowed in, and I recommended some people to come in when they were openings but one had a lot of pimples.
One was, overweight. and they wouldn't let them in. And I really thought it was based on how they looked and the style they had, not how nice or good they were. And so I quit the sorority. this was a north suburban New York.
High school.I was looking for a life with greater meaning. And so I ended up, going to Greenwich Village every weekend to find other people who would be weird like me. And I started to identify that I was an outsider and I made my part of my group of friends were with those who were outsiders who didn't look exactly the same people, of different races, people of different, cultural backgrounds and those who wanted to change the world.
I think that that in large part came from my parents and my family who really believed that we should treat each other with dignity and respect.
We used to have in my family, um, family council meetings, and in part they were funny. Like we'd say, okay, who's gonna be the president? Who's gonna take the minutes?
and it was sort of a joke. But it also was serious. We would discuss issues that would come before the family. Should we get a dog? Should we move our house? where would we go on vacation? But it was also a way to have a discussion about what was going on in the society what was happening in the world and what did it mean to us.
as well as personal things that were going on within our family. My brothers and I, like smoked one cigarette. My mother smelled it, . and so we had a discussion and my father, and mother both smoked and my father at that dinner crushed his cigarette and said he will never smoke again. And he never did.
and he didn't tell us we couldn't smoke, but it was his moral example. He was trying to be a, good person in the world and not only be a good person, but to make this a better society for others. So that's where I think the moral upbringing really came from. I'm also Jewish and Part of Judaism is not only a justice theme, and I think every religion has some of that as part of its core, but in Judaism is there's an activist Justice Core.
So I think there were elements in my own background that led to that direction.
And so a theme in my life has been to organize, to make this a better world and to do it with love at the center. when I had been the Progressive and seniors Outreach director for the Joe Biden and Kamala Harris campaign in this last election, I had a large number of volunteers in my unit .
There were about 250 who worked almost full-time, really quite extraordinary. And because I would brief them by Zoom, regularly, my catchphrase was, we need to organize with love at the center and then we will change the world. and at the end of the campaign, I made two buttons and one says organize, and one says love at the center.
And I gave those buttons to everyone of those 250, full-time volunteers.
So these two themes Of doing the work to change the world. I think that matters because then people feel they're part of something bigger than themselves and it helps give life meaning and value and purpose.
And there are other ways to find meaning and value and purpose, but I find it so rewarding. and also I see we make change in the world.
I began organizing in the Civil Rights Movement and when truly people were being terrorized and murdered in the south in Mississippi, where I went in a Freedom Summer project in 1964. Gained notoriety when three of the young volunteers, Andrew Goodman, James Chaney, and Michael Schwerner were killed at the hands of the Klan.
And even the family I lived with the Hawkins family, their house was fire bombed after the summer and in a second fire bombing one of their sons and two of the grandchildren were killed.
So people lived in fear and terror, and acted with great courage, but it seemed like you couldn't make a change. But because people organized, within a year we had a voting rights act and we have made change.
We do make change, but only when people do the work, take the steps, recruit others, talk to others, have podcasts like this, use social media. Raise the funds show up,
So the social part in the society and the personal part in how we treat each other are both extremely, integrated in my view and are great priorities. In fact, in the early women's movement, we used to have a phrase that said 'the personal is political'.
And what it meant then is, what you were feeling on your own and hadn't really discussed with others, and you thought was your fault.
You weren't getting ahead in your job. Was it because you weren't smart enough or good enough you were having trouble in your relationship because maybe you weren't doing enough for your husband or your partner? wasn't your fault, but then when you shared it with others, without judgment and with support, and you found out others had the same or similar experiences, and so what you felt was personal, actually was shared and was social.
Others had a similar experience, and if it was social, it needed a social solution, as well as a personal solution. And so the personal was political.
so amongst the things that I felt was that in almost any situation, I often felt I just wasn't good enough. I wasn't smart enough, I wasn't pretty enough. I wasn't, working hard enough. I wasn't doing enough, I wasn't enough. And what I found in these discussions, is that others felt very similar ways when in fact we were working as hard as we could.
Heather: We were trying to be the best selves we could be. We also had our own frailties and imperfections. but I was haunted by a level of just insecurity, and I realized others felt the same way. It wasn't one thing. It's would I be scared in, making a presentation. I now give lots of talks, just as an example, several months ago because, There were two movies that came out about an underground abortion service.
I had started before Roe in the United States. I was giving perhaps three talks a day and maybe five press interviews a week and before many, almost all of them maybe. I don't know if everyone, but I often was so anxious and I would rewrite the outline. I talked more extemporaneously or I had notes, but I would be nervous before each one. In the early days when I was giving talks, I, often would throw up before I was giving the talk, and I'd come into the hall and I'd have to think, well, where could I go? So that I didn't upset anyone else, that I didn't make them sort of spooked by my throwing up.
I was so anxious. but it's just a, a manifestation of how scared I was just of being in the world
in 1965, I had started an underground abortion service, because it was illegal for three people to even be talking about planning an abortion in Illinois.
And in most states in 1965 in the US and it was a conspiracy to commit a felony, which I didn't quite know at the time, but trying to help a friend who was in need, who was pregnant and. I was told by her brother that she was nearly suicidal. So I found a doctor to provide an abortion, word spread, and I set up a system as other women started to come through and to ask for the same help.
And because it wasn't legal, we named the system Jane. And so we tell people pregnant, don't wanna be, call Jane. and over time the women of Jane, I recruited others to provide this service. And between 1965, when I started it in 1973, when Roe became the law of the land in the US, which meant that people could have access to and abortion and to the most intimate decision of our lives about when or whether or with whom we have a child.
The women of Jane learned how to do the procedures and themselves performed 11,000 abortions.
I say that background because it means I've been involved in this issue on and off for quite a while, since 1965 and for 50 years.
many women, many people had this option of controlling their own bodies,
And then just this last year, there was a Supreme Court decision that overturned that freedom, and that was called the Dobbs decision.
Because I had anticipated that it was coming. I had seen how there had been chipping away at this reproductive freedom state by state, rule by rule, law by law.
And because I had seen that there had not been the level of organizing and turning it into political power that we needed to do, I wasn't shocked by the decision. I was horrified by it though because I knew that it meant that there would be people who would face such trauma in their life.
Many would do damage to themselves. Many would find ways that were illegal, that were, in unscrupulous providers who might do harm to the people involved. So I was horrified, if not shocked, and my first reaction was then to move ahead. What's the meeting we call? Where do we turn to? What do we say?
Where should we raise money? And I felt I'm driving forward .
that night, unrelated. I had theater tickets with a friend to see a play To kill a Mockingbird. And the play based on the book To Kill A Mockingbird is about a lawyer in the South who's defending a black man who's innocent and could not have committed the rape that he's charged with.
He could not have committed it, and he's not only charged, but he's. , then to be executed
and murdered. And I knew the story before I went into the play. I even thought, gee, I'm sorry. I'm seeing the play. Dobbs just came out. We've gotta do this work. And I was sort of irritable about even seeing the play and I see the play and in the middle of the play,
I just was overwhelmed and I burst into tears. Even now thinking about it, I'm just, it's very emotional and I burst into tears and I was sobbing so heavily that I even felt I better stop sobbing or they're gonna throw me out of the theater. This isn't how you act in a theater, and I think what happened was, It wasn't just the Dobbs decision, it partly was a remembering what happened to the Hawkins family and what happens to poor people and just the meanness and the increasing violence in the society to people who are just trying to get ahead. and it all came crashing down and it was, the weight was just too heavy.
And so I still feel that, and I also know that the way out
is through doing the work to try and change that meanness, that violence, that hatred.
and to build those relationships. And so yes, there are times.
Anguish, horror, despair, and there also are ways out, and I believe that that is through organizing with love at the center.
his name was Paul Booth. Um,
when I was, 19. I was active as a student on campus at The University of Chicago, it was a time of great activity. this was in 1966, and one of the areas we were active in was against the war in Vietnam. And the University of Chicago was ranking men's students by grade point average.
Heather: And if you had a lower grade point average, it was likely you would be drafted for Vietnam. And those with the higher grade point average were less likely to be drafted. And we knew there was a relationship between class and race, and grade point average.
And we felt that the university should not. Cooperate, collaborate with a selective service system for a war that we felt was unjust and was not supported by the American public. And we raised those issues to the administration when they didn't respond. We had the first sit-in on a campus against the war in Vietnam.
We invited in some outside speakers and one of them was the head of the largest student organization. on campus, And Paul Booth was the national secretary of that group, and he came over to speak and he knew about me and I knew about him. We had actually talked on the phone once, and he was a national figure, so I knew about him and he asked to sit near me.
and we talked intensively for the first three days of the sit-in and then he asked me to marry him. And at five days I said that I would, but we would wait a year
We had an amazing life an amazing alignment so that was 1966. We got married in 1967, right after I graduated from school. And we were married for 50 years. And then very unexpectedly, he died of complications related to a, cancer that became active very quickly. He had about a week, uh, in fact didn't even have a week.
we never thought that he was. In danger of dying.
Heather: the day that he died, which we didn't know he was gonna die. He was in the hospital for a week and every day they said, well, you'll go home today. Oh, well you'll go home tomorrow.
Well, just after this last treatment. And we expected that he would be leaving the next day from the hospital.
That morning, many months ago. I had committed to being part of a civil disobedience on an immigration reform, demonstration that was in the capitol. and I said, I, I wouldn't go that I'd stay with him in the hospital.
And he said, no, no, no, you've really gotta go. And then just, you know, come back when you're done. And so I was at the demonstration. I came back to the hospital and he started his treatment and then must have had a heart attack in the middle of the treatment and died.
so our life was intimately together. and bound and the
great joys of our life and struggles with, you know, life as , so many unexpected developments, and the shock of his dying just left me not knowing. How to go on, especially when I am insecure. I really believed I could go on because we were partners. Even if we didn't
say something or do something in support of each other, we were partners. You know, if I gave him a talk, I'd have him look at it before. Gave it often, and he often wouldn't make a comment or he'd say, here's a typo, , you know, but I felt there was someone else there and I suddenly was bereft of that.
Now, what did happen is I did have a community, a deep and loving community that really rose up. Certainly my family. my brothers came out, my kids came out, my grandkids came out. I'm grateful for a loving family, loving children, grandkids and loving friends, and they rose up in support, but it also means that I've taken the effort to build those supports.
I'm in two book clubs that I've been in for over 30 years. , each of them. So both of those, it's more than a book club. It's a loving community. I'm. Three theater series I have friends who we go to the theater and then we get lunch before or after or dinner. it's a structured way to have a life where I'm engaged with other people it means I've structured my life for how to build in the support. That I need and want and cherish.
just last August I had some surgery, foot surgery that had been recommended to me to have for 40 years and I kept putting it off cuz it was pretty dramatic surgery.
and it would take nearly three months where I wasn't able to walk on my foot.
So my husband had died. I'm living alone. I was quite concerned about it. how would I get my food? How would I go to a bathroom? How would I get outside? And for nearly three months, my friend signed up on one of these Caring Bridge sites to come for lunch and dinner and bring me lunch and dinner for nearly three months.
As well as a neighbor came over almost every morning, friends flew into town to stay with me
and so we can build our loving community. And so how did I go on with life after Paul? Part of it was by continuing the work that we both believed in because we lived these shared values, we were movement partners, we were a movement couple, a movement for building a better world.
And I've also structured those personal relationships.
That also are a source of great personal and social support, and so the personal is political and we need to organize with love at the center.
Host Jamie: Thanks so much for listening to this week's episode. Heather Booth has been an organizer for social and economic justice, freedom, and democracy for over 50 years.
You can find a link to a recent documentary film made about Heather in our show notes. This episode and all of our work is supported by our monthly show supporters. You can become one and also by our incredible League of Women who give their time, talent, and resources to expand our mission. Our League members include Fredda Herz Brown, Carrie Ahern, Christine Shook, Sister Monica Clare, Dawn Roode, Elizabeth Doerr, Kara Pass, and Karen McNeill.
This podcast is produced by me, Jamie Yuenger, and my husband Piet Hurkmans. Thanks so much for listening to 'If You Knew Me'. We'll be back with you next week.