The first Women’s Conference

The opinions expressed on this webpage represent those of the individual authors and, unless clearly labeled as such, do not represent the opinions or policies of TBS.

Today’s selection — from My Life on the Road by Gloria Steinem.The first Women’s Conference was held in 1977 in Houston, Texas. But before the main event, 56 mini conferences took place across the United States: 

“The 1977 Na­tional Women’s Conference in Houston … may take the prize as the most important event nobody knows about. … 

“It all began in 1972, when the United Nations declared that 1975 would be International Women’s Year — right up there with the Year of the Child or the Year of the Family Farm. In 1974, President Gerald Ford appointed a thirty-nine-member delegation to repre­sent U.S. women, and named a man from the State Department to head it.

“But the one who took on this task of finding out what issues and hopes really did represent the female half of this country was Con­gresswoman Bella Abzug, a woman who never thought small. She enlisted Congresswoman Patsy Mink as coauthor and Congress­woman Shirley Chisholm as coconspirator in writing a revolution­ary piece of legislation.

“It called for federal funding for fifty-six open, economically and racially representative conferences over two years, one in every state and territory. Delegates elected and is­sues selected at each meeting would then go to a national confer­ence in Houston. There, a National Plan of Action would be voted on. The purpose was to represent U.S. women not only to the rest of the world, but also to our own leaders in Washington and in state legislatures. At last, there would be democratic answers to the clas­sic question: What do women want? …

“In Vermont, more than a thousand women slogged through ice and snow to create the biggest women’s conference ever seen there. If most hadn’t supplied their own brown-bag lunches and child care, our organizing goose would have been cooked at this first of all the state conferences.

“In Alaska, an auditorium designed for six hundred had to make way for seven thousand. Fortunately, most of the women good­naturedly sat on the floor.

“In Albany, the capital of New York State, more than eleven thou­sand women — four times more than we planned for — lined up out­side government buildings in the sweltering July heat, then waited most of the night in an airless basement to cast ballots for delegates and issues.

National Women’s Conference of 1977 in Houston. Courtesy of Sam C. Pierson Jr. and the Houston Chronicle. Image available on the Internet and included in accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107.

“Events in some other states made us realize that we’d been living in a fool’s paradise. To represent majority views was definitely not everybody’s goal. For instance, only about 2 percent of the popula­tion of Washington state was Mormon, but nearly half the women attending that state’s conference were. Such disproportion also turned up in Michigan and Missouri, part of a massive Mormon ef­fort to head off the Equal Rights Amendment … Though over 60 percent of Americans supported it, one Mormon woman was about to be excommunicated for campaigning for the ERA. Some said this opposition came from a fear that the ERA would take women out of a traditional role by offering them equality outside the home; others pointed out that Mormon-owned insurance com­panies would lose money if gender-rated actuarial tables were out­lawed, as race-rated ones had been. (For instance, a woman who didn’t smoke often paid higher premiums than a man who did smoke. Why? Because on the average, women live longer.) …

“In Missouri, church buses brought five hun­dred or so Christian fundamentalist women and men to the state conference — in time to vote but not long enough to be tainted by open discussion. In many states, Catholic groups brought anti-abortion and anti-birth-control pamphlets and picket signs, even though — or perhaps because — Catholic women were at least as likely as non-Catholics to use both. In Oklahoma, Christian funda­mentalists voted to call homemaking ‘the most vital and rewarding career for women’ and then to end the meeting. ….

“In Mississippi, the Ku Klux Klan grew so alarmed at a multiracial conference that its members called in reinforcements and elected an almost totally white delegation in a state that was at least a third African American.

“Finally we ruled what we should have in the first place: regis­trants for the conferences had to sign up individually in advance, not at the door by the busload. …

“On a hot November day in 1977, two thou­sand elected delegates and about eighteen thousand observers began to fill the biggest arena in Houston. With issue areas from the arts to welfare, and three days to vote on them, there was a feel­ing of urgency, excitement, and even a little fear that we couldn’t pull it off. …”