Women Unite! Lessons from 1977 for 2017

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Forty years ago, in a very different political climate, when the Republican and Democratic Parties supported the women’s rights movement, tens of thousands of women converged on Houston, Texas, for a National Women’s Conference mandated and funded by Congress to find out what women wanted the government to do.

Really.

Participants in the conference, which took place November 19–21, 1977, included famous feminists, such as Gloria Steinem and Betty Friedan, and leaders of venerable women’s organizations such as the League of Women Voters and newer groups such as the National Organization for Women created to focus on women’s rights. Celebrities were also eager to participate: Billie Jean King was one of hundreds of relay runners who carried a “Torch of Freedom” from Seneca Falls, New York, the scene of the first women’s rights conference in U.S. history. Maya Angelou read a poem she had written for the occasion. Margaret Mead gave a major address. Jean Stapleton lent her television character Edith Bunker’s popularity and middle-American image to the conference.

Women politicians from either party would not have missed it. First Lady Rosalynn Carter and former First Ladies Lady Bird Johnson and Betty Ford appeared together on the podium, symbolizing the strong bipartisan support for the women’s movement. Steinem called it a “Constitutional Convention for Women.”

Delegates elected at open meetings in 56 states and territories were there to vote on a National Plan of Action to guide future federal policy. A feminist-dominated, presidentially appointed commission had organized the gathering. Former New York Congresswoman Bella Abzug, champion of scores of women’s rights bills adopted earlier in the decade, had been named Presiding Officer by President Jimmy Carter.

While in Congress Abzug, inspired by the United Nations’ International Women’s Year (IWY) conference in Mexico City in 1975, had sponsored an act that mandated state and national IWY conferences in the United States. The stated purpose was to make recommendations that would remove remaining barriers to gender equality and improve women’s lives. But Abzug and other feminist leaders also hoped that participation in the National Women’s Conference and the IWY state meetings leading up to it would build grassroots support for the women’s rights movement, expand and diversify its base, and make women even more of a force in American politics. A liberal and a longtime supporter of the civil rights movement, Abzug was eager for underrepresented groups of all kinds to enhance their political clout by joining forces. She saw the IWY as an opportunity to reach out to minorities and the poor, to develop grassroots support for the feminist movement, and to unite American women behind a feminist agenda that served them all.

The 1975 Congressional act that established the state and national IWY conferences specifically mandated that elected delegates have records of involvement in “groups which work to advance the rights of women” but they must also reflect the full racial and ethnic diversity of their states. Though women of color had played important roles in the modern women’s rights movement, much of its early support had come from white, middle-class women—a situation IWY leaders were determined to change. In every state, organizers went to great lengths to reach women who had never participated in women’s meetings before, and get them to turn out for the state IWY meetings where issues would be debated and votes taken on recommendations and delegates to go on to the National Women’s Conference. They distributed literature in many languages, visited farm workers in the fields, worked with welfare rights organizations, and leafleted beauty parlors. They offered childcare and transportation to the state meetings, and paid registration fees for women who needed financial assistance. So successful were these efforts that, in Houston, participation rates for some minority groups exceeded their percentage in the nation’s population.

IWY leaders also hoped to move beyond the internal ideological wrangling and disputes over goals and strategy which had characterized the women’s movement earlier in the decade. By the early 1970s women’s rights supporters were united in support of the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) in a way feminists had not been since Alice Paul first suggested it in 1923, and most feminists supported women’s right to choose abortion. But there were other issues about which feminists had been deeply divided—most notably, whether or not to include protection of lesbians’ rights as a goal of the women’s rights movement. Many feared this would alienate the public and make it harder to get the three remaining states needed to ratify the ERA. As they arrived in Houston, women’s rights advocates worried as much about divisions within their own ranks as they did about disagreement with anti-ERA or anti-abortion forces.

There was tremendous pressure on IWY leaders for the conference to be a success. The nation—indeed the world—was watching. Back in May, as the state meetings began, the press had paid little attention, since by 1977 women’s rights conferences were nothing new. But that changed dramatically over the summer as conservative women organized to challenge feminists for control of the meetings and the right to speak for American women. The state IWY meetings quickly became lightning rods for cultural conflict. Phyllis Schlafly, the most prominent leader of the movement to block ratification of the ERA, and her allies in Congress, most notably Senator Jesse Helms, had tried and failed to block passage of Abzug’s bill. Once it was clear the state IWY meetings would go forward, however, the conservative women urged their supporters to turn out in large numbers and challenge feminists regarding the resolutions and delegates that would advance to Houston.

As the state IWY meetings progressed in the spring and summer of 1977, as feminists united in support of a sweeping feminist agenda that included the ERA and reproductive rights, and as lesbians mounted a determined effort to have protection of their rights added to the proposed recommendations to be voted on in Houston, women in the anti-ERA and pro-life movements and a new anti-gay movement came together as never before to create a large and powerful conservative coalition pledged to defend “family values.” Forming an IWY Citizens Review Committee to coordinate their efforts, they reached out effectively to conservative religious and patriotic organizations.

Opposition to what Schlafly dubbed a “Federally Funded Festival for Frustrated Feminists” proved to be a powerful organizing strategy for conservatives. Religious organizations, bent on defending the traditional, male-headed family, and conservative political groups, intent on ending federal support for social change as well as curbing spending and reducing taxes, began working together. The surprisingly successful effort to unite conservative Catholics, evangelical and fundamentalist Protests, orthodox Jews, and Mormons—groups traditionally hostile to one another—in a coalition in opposition to feminism was the beginning of what would soon be known as the Religious Right.

The strength of the conservatives’ challenge surprised feminists, politicians, and the press. Across the nation, even in liberal-leaning states such as New York, conservatives mounted a serious challenge. In some states, including Utah, the Mormon stronghold, and Mississippi, where white conservatives remained bitter at being “overcome” by a civil rights movement aided by the federal government, conservatives turned out in huge numbers. After gaining control of the conferences, they sent conservative resolutions and delegates to Houston. Mississippi elected an all-white delegation including several men and the wife of the Grand Dragon of the Ku Klux Klan. But after recognizing they had only succeeded in electing 20 percent of the National Women’s Conference delegates, the leaders of the IWY Citizens Review Committee decided to organize a counter-rally—billed the “Pro-Life, Pro-Family Rally”—designed to compete in size and spectacle with the conference and to make it clear to the nation that the feminists did not speak for them.

As feminists and conservatives converged on Houston, the press predicted conflict, disruption, and even violence. The Washington Post editorialized that the conference “was a poor idea” as it might “create a public impression of even more discord than actually exists.” If that occurred, Americans watching on TV would witness a brawl that would “confirm the most harmful stereotypes of women in politics.” Columnist Ellen Goodman, unquestionably sympathetic, nonetheless expressed fears that the conference could “end in total chaos and disaster, with nothing accomplished except the performance the national media is expecting.”

Feminists worried that the conservatives, who had proven to be skilled in parliamentary maneuvers and disruptive tactics at the state meetings, might cause chaos. But IWY leaders were even more worried about disunity among themselves. Gloria Steinem told the press that in some state delegations “there are signs that coalitions between whites and minorities, gays and non-gays have become strained” though feminists desperately needed a strong show of unity behind the conference’s anticipated outcome, a National Plan of Action. Later she recalled that, while she worked hard on the preparations for the conference, at the same time she “would have given almost anything to be able to avoid the possible conflict, to stop worrying, to stay home, to delay this event that I cared about too much.”

But the women’s rights supporters came through—because they had to. More than anything else, the need to present a united front in the face of the strong conservative challenge encouraged feminists to put aside their differences. The opportunity to hold such a conference, to make recommendations that the President and Congress by law were bound to take seriously, was unprecedented. The National Women’s Conference would be an event unique in American history. Participants would have the attention of the nation, a chance to present their movement at its best. Texas Congresswoman Barbara Jordan, who lent her oratorical brilliance to the conference as the keynote speaker, urged them not to allow themselves “to be brainwashed by people who predict chaos and failure for us. Tell them they lie—and move on.”

In the end a spirit of compromise and expansiveness prevailed, leading the IWY Commission to entitle its report to Congress and the President, The Spirit of Houston. The National Plan of Action adopted that weekend reflected the goals of the moderates who had launched the movement and new issues raised by their younger, more radical associates. It also represented a consensus that the federal government should direct its power and resources to resolving the problems faced by American women of many different circumstances as well as promoting equality.

The Plan’s twenty-six adopted recommendations or “planks,” IWY leaders noted, “ran the gamut of issues that touch women’s lives.” They called for ending discrimination in education and employment and for opening up new opportunities to women in every field, including elective and appointive office. They urged greater participation and recognition of women in the media and an end to sex-role stereotyping in both the media and schools. They demanded equal access to credit and programs to provide counseling and support for “displaced homemakers.”’ Other planks endorsed aid to elderly women, disabled women, rural women, and women in prison; assistance for “battered women”; and action to prevent rape and child abuse. They demanded an end to the deportation of immigrant mothers of American-born children.

The Plan also recommended comprehensive child care facilities, pregnancy disability benefits, jobs and training for poor women, and reform of the welfare system in ways beneficial to recipients. Reflecting the IWY’s ties to the United Nations, the Plan called for a greater role for women in formulating foreign policy and for international cooperation to advance women’s rights worldwide and to promote peace.

The most controversial plank, the one calling for equal protection under the law regardless of “sexual preference,” also passed. The harshness of the anti-gay movement started by Anita Bryant in 1977 that coincided with the state meetings led many straight feminists to conclude that their lesbian sisters needed their support. When the plank was adopted, lesbians in the balconies erupted with cheers of “thank you, sisters!” One reporter described a great sense of satisfaction that she detected in the feminist delegates, proud of themselves for having adopted the lesbian rights plank in bold defiance of the right. This, she wrote, seemed to confirm that they were, in fact, better than men. It was “impossible to imagine a comparable group of men conquering their sexual fear of each other and rising to embrace male homosexuals, and these women knew that.”

During the conference representatives of African American, Asian, Hispanic, American Indian and other groups came together to form a “Minority Caucus”—a momentous convergence during which the term “women of color” was coined. Rejecting as tame and inadequate the plank proposed by the IWY Commission, these delegates drafted a new plank addressing their varied needs that the conference approved enthusiastically. Delegates were overcome with emotion when Coretta Scott King, speaking for the Minority Caucus, declared: “Let this message go forth from Houston and spread all over this land. There is a new force, a new understanding, a new sisterhood against all injustice that has been born here. We will not be divided and defeated again.” Spontaneously, and as cameras rolled, delegates rose, clasped hands, and began singing, “We Shall Overcome”—for many, the emotional highlight of the conference. Jean Stapleton declared this event and the whole Houston conference had been “a tremendous experience,” and that as the major resolutions were passed she felt so moved that “the spirit of it just washed over me.”

Over the next forty years, feminists would need the spirit of Houston to sustain them as the forces of their adversaries grew stronger. Just three years later, feminists—especially Republican feminists—would be shocked and dismayed as their party chose to abandon its long record of support for the ERA, embrace a pro-life position, and cast its lot with the “pro-family movement.” To feminists in both parties, it was inconceivable that in 1980 the GOP presidential candidate, initially opposed by establishment Republicans, disdained by liberals, and discounted by the press, won the election. In the end voters responded overwhelmingly to Ronald Reagan’s slogan, “Make America Great Again.”

Coretta Scott King’s declaration that “a new understanding, a new sisterhood against all injustice” had been born, and that feminists “will not be divided and defeated again” was inspirational in 1977. These words, and the spirit of Houston generally, are well worth remembering in 2017, as women’s rights advocates—badly shaken by election results that threaten the gains of the previous half century, and confronted by the media which highlights and amplifies every hint of discord among them—put aside differences and prepare for a massive display of unity and determination on January 21, 2017.

Marjorie J. Spruill is the author most recently of Divided We Stand: The Battle over Women’s Rights and Family Values That Polarized American Politics, forthcoming next month. A professor of history at the University of South Carolina, she is also an OAH Distinguished Lecturer and a participant in the OAH’s new initiative, Historians’ Perspectives on the Rise of Donald J. Trump.

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