The Most Influential Woman You Might Have Never Heard Of

She organized a safe underground abortion service when abortion was still a felony in the 1960s. She ushered America to demand consumer protection and financial reform after the global economy melted down in the later 2000s. She personally knocked on doors and ran campaigns to increase voter registration of African-Americans by triple digits. Meet Heather Booth, the activist and community organizer who has been the go-to strategist for everyone, from Julian Bond to Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.)

Filmmaker Lily Rivlin of “Heather Booth: Changing the World,” airing on Link TV, says Booth is the most influential person you might have never heard of. This anonymity is very likely to change with Rivlin’s documentary and "Call Jane," a new Hollywood film starring Elizabeth Moss.

Read our interview with Booth to learn more about her guiding principles, her source of inspiration, and the issues she supports in what she calls "these perilous times."

What does a “typical” day in the life of Heather Booth look like?

Heather Booth: I wake up fairly early. At 6 o’clock. And I get right onto the computer to see what’s come in overnight. Around 7 o’clock I exercise for at least a half-hour on weekdays, on an exercycle, and on weekends with an exercise routine, while I watch Fox News on Sundays because I look at that to understand what the opposition is saying.

On weekdays I go to work. My average day is either talking on the phone or doing email, attending some meetings, chairing some meetings. But as an organizer, I’m mostly behind the scenes, talking to people and getting to know them, and helping them take leadership. In the evenings, I often go to receptions or organizational meetings, then come home and work again.

On weekends — no matter what else I’m doing — once a month we visit our grandkids who don’t live in the D.C. area. I visit one set that’s in Chicago and one set lives in Massachusetts. They’re a deep part of life. I’m in two different book clubs, they both occur on different weekend days. I have two theater series with friends, so it’s a chance to structure in seeing friends while seeing some good theater and movies. So, I have a life that’s not so different from other people, focused on trying to build a better world. 

Your first bout with organizing was in New York City. What moved you to do it and how did it feel?

I heard early on about Emmett Till, the teenage boy from Chicago who...was brutalized, beaten and killed...I realized this isn’t how anyone should be treated. This isn’t how America should function.

HB: When I began my involvement in social change, I didn’t think of myself as an organizer. I didn’t think about myself very much at all. I was compelled to work for the values that I’d been brought up to believe in of freedom, justice, equality for all, democracy. My family believed in living our values and not only in trying to be good people but actually trying to make this a better world in which all people could live decent lives. We really believed in the golden rule — not as it’s currently practiced, “he with the gold makes the rules” — but that we should treat others as we’d like to be treated.

I heard early on about Emmett Till, the teenage boy from Chicago who went to visit his aunt in Mississippi and he was supposed to have whistled at a white woman and was then brutalized, beaten and killed. There were pictures of him in an open coffin and looking at it, I realized this isn’t how anyone should be treated. This isn’t how America should function. And it was one part of convincing me I wanted to do something to make change in the society.

In the first activity [I participated in] I was handing out fliers against the death penalty. I was very frightened. I was a young teenager. I didn’t know how to hand out fliers. I dropped them, I’d give more than one to a person. I didn't know what to say. Someone actually spat on me. It was frightening to me. And then I realized I was in a group who was supporting me and was supporting others taking the first step and that we need to train people and explain to them why it’s important to do what we do and support them when they don’t know what to do. And work with them until they learn and then can train others. So, that was one of my first experiences. And I felt the community that was there supporting me was so strong and the values were so strong that I kept at it despite feeling so insecure and uncertain.

Organizing is a mutual process. It’s the part of people connecting with others, hearing each other’s stories and finding ways together to build power, knowing that we are stronger together than we are apart. And coming to understand each other so that any person who might say I mentored them, they have mentored me. It’s a mutual relationship.

Heather Booth and Fannie Lou Hamer | Jewish Women's Archive
Heather Booth playing the guitar in front of Fannie Lou Hamer’s house with some of her friends. | Wallace Roberts/Permission to use granted by Heather Booth/Jewish Women's Archive/Some Rights Reserved

Who have you looked up to and drawn inspiration from throughout your career?

HB: To some extent, I guess the basics of who I am come from my loving parents and family. They really were good people who believed that people should be treated with dignity and respect. I also find that I’m inspired by people I meet every day; people I work with; people I socialize with; people who I meet and don’t know well. I had a conversation tonight with a person who cleans up at night in an office where I work [with] a fascinating immigrant history. They’re making their way in the world. And I did find it inspiring to hear about their courage.

There also are some more prominent heroes, sheroes and heroines. Fannie Lou Hamer was a great civil rights leader in Mississippi. I stayed with her in 1964. She lived in Ruleville, Mississippi. She’d been a sharecropper and was beaten when she registered to vote and then became a leader in the Mississippi Summer Project and became the co-chair of it.

The people who I meet everyday
I’m inspired by what they’re doing and what they’re doing particularly now in these perilous times.

Ella Baker was one of the initiators of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee who believed that it’s strong people who we need even more than strong leaders.

Dolores Huerta, who was with Cesar Chavez, who founded the [National] Farm Workers. They also were remarkable leaders. There’s a wonderful movie about Dolores that is out now about a wonderful organizer.

The people who I meet everyday — I’m inspired by what they’re doing and what they’re doing particularly now in these perilous times.

What's been your proudest accomplishment?

HB: There’s so many wonderful things. I feel really blessed to have the life that I have. But the things I may be most proud of, though I deserve no credit, is our grandchildren. I think they are just smart, funny, loving.

Usually the project that I work on at any one point of time is the thing that I am most engaged with and most inspired by. Right now I’m the field director for Americans for Tax Fairness. It’s the attempt to prevent the Trump tax cuts for the millionaires, billionaires, and largest corporations that will lead to cuts in Medicare, Medicaid, education, child nutrition, and more. So I’m working on that effort and hope many people reading this will also join us. And there are some ways that all the work that I’ve ever done goes back to the civil rights movement so maybe the proudest or the work I’ve been most affected by is the courage of poor people who join together for justice and equality, and even in times when it seems the most hopeless, were able to gain voting rights because people organized.

We need to remember that even in perilous times like these, when people organize, we will make this a better world.

Heather Booth, Director of Americans for Financial Reform, poses in her office in Washington. | Bill Clark/Roll Call/Getty Images
Heather Booth, director of Americans for Financial Reform, poses in her office in Washington. | Bill Clark/Roll Call/Getty Images

Would you say working mothers today face the same pressures as when you were carrying your own children at protests and advocating for access to childcare?

HB: There’s some things that are harder, some things that are easier and the struggle still continues. When I had our kids, women were just re-entering the workforce in large numbers and there wasn’t childcare. I tell the story of our organizing for a childcare center that led me to help organize to change the childcare laws and funding in Chicago and we were successful. And now there are incredible efforts that are winning childcare, that are winning paid sick days, paid family and medical leave, fighting for more decent wages, the Fight for 15 — which is led in large part by low-income women, low-paid women who are working very hard trying to raise their families. So there are many struggles going on now that are needing local victories. We are also in a period of time when there’s a pushback on so many of the victories that we’ve had before. Wages themselves are being attacked. It’s not just jobs that we need. We need good-paying jobs. Partly those jobs are being destroyed as unions are being attacked, as ways for people to join and get together to have a voice at work, are being undermined. People having the freedom at work to join together. There are attacks going on now that undermine that, undermine women in the workforce. But again, when we organize, we will find that solidarity, come together, build on that freedom at the workplace to build a better life but only when people come together and organize.

What do you look for in groups and causes to work with?

HB: I choose to work with people with shared values, who are passionate about their work. I choose to work with others who love people and hate injustice and that’s the nature of social change organizing. One of the exciting things now that people should know is that there’s been an explosion of opportunities. You may not be an organizer full time; whatever other job you have, if you’re home and your job is caring for your kids, or whatever it is you do, there are ways you can support organizing. From online groups, MoveOn, MomsRising, and Color of Change and groups like Indivisible, which rose up after the election. There are organizations on every kind of issue, from environmental groups working on climate; Planned Parenthood and NARAL working on a woman’s right to decide when or whether to have a child. For women’s health, for tax fairness, and for decent jobs and the economy; whether it’s the fight for 15 or United We Dream. And maybe some of these groups are not your prime group but you still can join together to support each other.

We hear about a Muslim Ban, we need to be there and say in effect, “I am Muslim.” We hear about a tax on unions, we need to be there and say “I am union.” We hear attacks on black lives, we need to say “Black Lives Matter” so that it’s about all of us and we are stronger together.

What are the biggest similarities and differences you see between the movements of the 1960s compared to today?

There’s also much more money that’s been dumped in by the opposition. Really millionaires and billionaires doing astro-turf organizing and buying popular influence. We need to confront it with our own grassroots and shoe-leather organizing, using our head, our hands and our hearts. 

HB: Well the similarities that are enduring are that people are still organizing when they face an injustice and want to work for justice.

The three principles we look at in the kind of organizing I encourage: One is that we’re actually about winning improvements in people’s lives based on our values so people will have cleaner air to breathe, safer streets, better education, whatever particular issue, so that there will be benefits for them in their lives. The second principle is that they themselves are able to take more power and learn greater confidence. So many of us are held back because we aren’t confident but together we can win when we organize together. The third principle is that we try to change the relations of power, building organization to last, not just for one fight or one activity, but building for the future and holding those in power more accountable. Those principles are enduring.

So many things have also changed. Technology has changed. Online activism has been developed. It’s an important part of organizing and I think needs to be combined with the face-to-face connection that we make. There’s also much more money that’s been dumped in by the opposition. Really, millionaires and billionaires doing astro-turf organizing and buying popular influence. We need to confront it with our own grassroots and shoe-leather organizing, using our head, our hands and our hearts. That’s one of the things that still endures.

The film ends with your reaction to the U.S. presidential election results of 2016. What do you think about the way America has organized in response to the current administration?

HB: On the one hand it’s a frightening and perilous time every day. It’s not just one attack, there’s multiple attacks. We may be facing a World War III rather than negotiation on many fronts. There’s a pushback on rights people have struggled for. The expansion of democracy is being pulled back. A commission is called to investigate voter fraud that itself is a fraud to undermine democracy. Every day there is one pretty terrifying development from the White House and also from state houses and from local activity.

At the same time there is inspiring activity. You see the DREAMers standing up, undocumented and unafraid. You see people standing up with each other: the fight for a living wage; the fight for quality education and quality public education; the fight to ensure that the environment is sustained and that we don’t deny the science that says “there is global warming.” So, I think that we make enormous progress, change public opinion and change who we are when we organize. I think we will come out of this period. It’s not a question of if; it’s only a question of when.

Whatever your job, all of us can be part of this rising resistance and beyond resistance, a rising movement, to build organization, to build a loving community that calls for change.

Still from "Heather Booth: Changing the World."
Still from "Heather Booth: Changing the World."

A new movie Hollywood film will tell the story of the Call Jane program you founded. Why do you think it's an important time for this story to be told?  

HB: Jane was the story of an underground service that provided abortions for women at a time when it was against the law to even have three people talking about providing that service. It supported many women and we need to keep that safe and legal and it will be when we organize. The attacks on Planned Parenthood are outrageous. That is the largest provider of health care for women, of all kinds of women’s health. And now even the attacks on birth control…it’s almost an attack on civilization itself; of allowing women full participation in this society. So, I think it’s important to tell a story of where we came from and where we are now. The Hollywood story may or may not reflect exactly what happened and I’m not involved in the story itself but I think it’s important that the story is told.

What are you focusing on right now in addition to Americans for Tax Fairness?

I also try to support other efforts. I just came out in support of the DREAMers, there was another effort around Fight for 15 near where I am, and D.C. statehood — D.C. should become a state. But there are different issues. I believe the worst legacy of this period is the diminished hope people have that they can actually change the world…Lilly Rivlin made this film in part to bring hope to people that when we organize. We can change the world. That’s what you all can do. You can be agents of hope.

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