Born in 1945, Heather Tobis Booth was raised in a liberal Jewish family in New Jersey. In high school, she joined the Congress of Racial Equality in New York City. From 1963-67, she attended the University of Chicago and became active in the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. In 1964 Booth participated in the Freedom Summer Project, a voter-registration initiative for African Americans in Mississippi. During her college years, she served as chair of the Student Political Action Committee, a leftist campus organization that was active in the antiwar movement. In this role, Booth worked with members of the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS). She also founded the Women’s Radical Action Program, one of the first gender-based “consciousness-raising” groups in the United States.
In 1965 Booth organized the clandestine group “JANE,” which helped approximately 11,000 women find abortion providers in the years prior to the 1973 Roe v. Wade Supreme Court ruling that legalized abortion nationwide.
At a May 1966 antiwar protest, Heather met Paul Booth, a national secretary with SDS. On the third day of the protest, Paul asked Heather to marry him. Two days later she agreed, and they were wed in 1967.
In 1969 Heather and Paul Booth, along with onetime SDS field secretary Steve Max and radical community organizer Harry Boyte, published a pamphlet titled Socialism and the Coming Decade. This screed said that because the U.S. had entered a “non-revolutionary period,” socialist activists should eschew confrontational tactics in favor of a stealth, incremental approach to social change. It further advised community organizations to agitate for concrete issues like urban redevelopment and health care, thereby giving “the socialist movement relevance to the daily lives of the people.”
In 1971, Heather Booth co-authored Socialist Feminism: A Strategy for the Women’s Movement. Asserting that community organizers should strive to “weake[n] the power of the ruling class,” this pamphlet promoted such radical agendas as free universal healthcare, the disarming of police officers, and collective societal responsibility for childrearing. Nonetheless, Booth in her personal life was cautious not to reveal too much, too quickly, about her radical agendas to women who were not “conscious socialists” like herself, preferring instead to use a gradualist approach with such people.
In the summer of ’71, Booth enrolled in Saul Alinsky‘s Chicago-based, organizer-training institute, the Industrial Areas Foundation (IAF). According to Booth, “Alinsky is to community organizing as Freud is to psychoanalysis.” One of Booth’s classmates at IAF, Jerry Kellman, would later serve as a training mentor to a young Barack Obama in the mid-1980s.
In April of 1972, Heather and Paul Booth, along with Day and Robert Creamer, taught an organizer-training workshop sponsored by the fledgling New American Movement (NAM), a group that advocated radicalism and revolution rather than quiet infiltration into establishment politics.
By 1975, Heather Booth would leave NAM and ally herself instead with Michael Harrington’s more pragmatic Democratic Socialist Organizing Committee, a predecessor to the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA). Booth subsequently belonged to DSA as well.
In 1973, Booth and Steve Max co-founded the Midwest Academy, a training institute for leftist activism and socialist ideology. There, Booth taught the Academy’s continuing “socialism session,” which included lessons covering everything from Marx, Engels, and Lenin through Michael Harrington’s democratic socialism and SDS.
In a 1975 address to a conference of socialist feminists, Booth cited Ralph Nader’s methodical anti-corporate campaigns as useful models for the types of activities that could lay the groundwork necessary for a revolutionary showdown. Notwithstanding her commitment to incrementalism, Booth confided to those in attendance her secret belief that “truly reaching socialism or feminism will likely take a revolution that is in fact violent, a rupture with the old ways in which the current ruling class and elites are wiped out.”
In April 1978, Booth became co-leader of the newly formed Citizen/Labor Energy Coalition (C/LEC), which used popular discontent vis-a-vis the era’s energy crisis — typified by high gas and oil prices — as a pretext to justify nationalizing America’s energy industry and, eventually, socializing the entire economy.
In August 1979 in Pennsylvania, Booth participated in a Conference on Alternative State and Local Policies, an event associated with the Institute for Policy Studies.
That same year, Booth helped organize five state activist groups into Citizen Action, a consumer-advocacy organization that focused also on such issues as environmentalism and socialized medicine. Booth served as Citizen Action’s co-director until 1988. By 1999 the group had become moribund, and Booth helped resurrect it that year under the name USAction, where she served on the board of directors.
In January 1985, Booth took part in an anti-apartheid protest organized by Alice Palmer. After the participants forced their way into the South African Consulate in Chicago, Booth and several others were arrested at the scene.
On May 9, 1987, the Chicago Democratic Socialists of America presented Booth with its annual Norman Thomas / Eugene V. Debs Award, named after the famed American socialists.
In 1990 Booth became director of the Coalition for Democratic Values, a partisan group of leading left Democrats, formed as a counterweight to the centrist Democratic Leadership Council.
In 1992 Booth was the director of field operations for Illinois Democrat Carol Moseley-Braun’s successful run for the U.S. Senate.
In 1993 Booth became a training director for the Democratic National Committee. She also served as a legislative aide to Democratic Senator Howard Metzenbaum before he retired in 1995.
In 1996 Booth was one of the original 130 founders of the Campaign for America’s Future. Other notables included Mary Frances Berry, Julian Bond, Robert Borosage, John Cavanagh, Richard Cloward, Peter Dreier, Barbara Ehrenreich, Betty Friedan, Todd Gitlin, Tom Hayden, Denis Hayes, Roger Hickey, Patricia Ireland, Jesse Jackson, Joseph Lowery, Frances Fox Piven, Robert Reich, Mark Ritchie, Arlie Schardt, Susan Shaer, Andrew Stern, John Sweeney, and Richard Trumka.
In January 2004, Booth spoke at the National Conference on Organized Resistance (NCOR) at American University. There, she participated in a panel discussion with Elaine Brown (a former Black Panther Party leader) and Cathy Wilkerson (former editor of the SDS magazine New Left Notes and a former member of the Weather Underground). Popular themes at NCOR conferences included anarchism, anti-capitalism, black nationalism, animal rights, global warming, revolutionary strategy, classism, “indigenous resistance,” prisoner rights, and immigrant rights.
In 2007, Booth asserted that the conservative movement in America was on the decline, and that if leftists could unite and seize the moment, “the extraordinary work which has been tak[ing] shape over the last 30 years really will pay off.” Booth’s vision of uniting various leftist factions was also the subject of her books, Toward a Radical Movement (1968), and Citizen Action and the New American Populism (1986).
In June 2009, Booth praised the scandal-plagued ACORN as an organization dedicated to “building a better society and a better world.” Also that year, she appeared at ACORN’s 39th anniversary celebration.
That same year, Booth served as director of the AFL-CIO’s Health Care Reform Campaign in Washington, D.C., and also as a board member with the Center for Community Change.
In 2010 as well, Booth was one of the 148 speakers who addressed the “America’s Future Now” Conference hosted by the Institute for Policy Studies and the Campaign for America’s Future. When the event was renamed as the “Take Back the American Dream” Conference in 2011, Booth again was a featured speaker.
On March 21, 2012, Booth co-hosted a fundraiser for U.S. Senate candidate Elizabeth Warren at the Boston headquarters of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers.
In early 2013, Booth was one of dozens of prominent leftists who urged President Barack Obama to award, posthumously, the Presidential Medal of Freedom to the late Fred Ross Sr., a Saul Alinsky-trained radical who mentored both Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta.
On April 16, 2020, Booth, along with 80 fellow former leaders and activists who had been affiliated with SDS in the 1960s, was a signatory to “An Open Letter to the New New Left From the Old New Left.” Exhorting moderate and radical Democrats to unite behind presidential nominee Joe Biden — rather than squabble over disagreements regarding policies and tactics — the letter stated:
“On April 13, 2020, Senator Bernie Sanders urged his supporters to vote for the presumptive Democratic nominee, former vice president Joe Biden. Writing as founders and veterans of the leading New Left organization of the 1960s, Students for a Democratic Society, we welcome Bernie’s wise choice—but we are gravely concerned that some of his supporters, including the leadership of Democratic Socialists of America, refuse to support Biden, whom they see as a representative of Wall Street capital. Some of us are DSA members, but do not believe their position is consistent with a long-range vision of democracy, justice, and human survival.
“Now it is time for all those who yearn for a more equal and just social order to face facts. All of us have charged for years that Trump is the leader of an authoritarian party that aims for absolute power; rejects climate science; embraces racism, sexism, homophobia, and violence; holds the democratic process in contempt; bids to take over the entire federal judiciary; represses voting rights; and violates plain human decency on many fronts. These are the grounds for our solemn determination: A common effort to unseat him is our high moral and political responsibility.
“In our time, we fought—for a time successfully—against the sectarian politics of the Cold War. We were mindful then of the cataclysm that befell German democracy when socialists and communists fought each other—to death—as Hitler snuck by and then murdered them all. Now we fear that some on the left cannot see the difference between a capitalist democrat and a protofascist. We hope none of us learn this difference from jail cells.
“We have dedicated much of our lives to the fight to extend democracy to more people, more institutions, more places. We continue this work in diverse ways motivated now as then by a spirit of community and solidarity. But now the very existence of American democracy is in jeopardy. Some of us think ‘endorsing’ Joe Biden is a step too far; but we who now write this open letter all know that we must work hard to elect him. This is an all-hands-on-deck moment…. We salute Bernie Sanders and our friends and comrades in DSA and in the diverse movements for social justice and environmental sanity that enabled them to rise. We look forward to joining together to build on and defend our accomplishments. And now we plead with all: Get together, beat Trump, and fight for democracy—precious, fragile, worth keeping. Now it is time for all those who yearn for a more equal and just social order to face facts.”
In addition to her aforementioned activities and affiliations, Booth has also:
Over the years, Booth has contributed a great deal of money to Democrat political candidates and left-wing activist organizations. Among the recipients of her donations were: Barack Obama, Tammy Baldwin, Steve Cohen, Al Franken, Ralph Neas, Tom Harkin, Hillary Clinton, Chellie Pingree, Russ Feingold, John Kerry, Jan Schakowsky, Barbara Boxer, Tim Kaine, Elizabeth Warren, Richard Blumenthal, Jesse Jackson Jr., Lane Evans, Mazie Hirono, Joe Biden, Kirsten Gillibrand, Kweisi Mfume, Al Gore, Donna Edwards, Keith Ellison, Tammy Duckworth, Sherrod Brown, Patty Murray, MoveOn.org, Progressive Majority, 21st Century Democrats, EMILY’s List, and the League of Conservation Voters.
Further Reading: “Heather Booth” (Keywiki.org); “The Progressive: For over Forty Years, Heather Booth Has Worked to Build a small-d Democracy” (Chicago Weekly, 1-7-2010).