FeatureReviewsSex & Gender

Looking Back 40 Years at the National Women’s Conference

Reviewing two recent books on the 1977 National Women's Conference

Coinciding with the 40th anniversary of the National Women’s Conference in Houston in 1977, are two recently published books about that conference. They are:

Shelah Leader and Patricia Hyatt
American Women on the Move: The Inside Story of the National Women’s Conference
Published by Lexington Books, Paperback 2017, xxi, 169 pp, photos

Marjorie Spruill
Divided We Stand: The Battle Over Women’s Rights and Family Values That Polarized American Politics
Published by Bloomsbury USA, 2017; 437 pp, 16-page black and white photo insert

Although they obviously cover some of the same ground, they are very different books. Leader and Hyatt write from an insiders’ perspective, as they were both on the conference staff. Their book is short and descriptive. Although they rely on documents and press stories, it’s their insider stories that make the book interesting.

Spruill is a historian; she didn’t attend. She puts the conference into the larger context of American politics in the 1970s, giving equal time to the “other” conference organized in opposition. She sees the division among women between those who wanted change in women’s roles and those who did not as emblematic of the widening division in American politics.

After the UN declared 1975 to be International Women’s Year, President Ford appointed an IWY Commission and Congress voted five million dollars to hold a US conference to propose a Plan of Action for American women. Held November 18-21, 1977 this conference was preceded by 56 state and territorial meetings, which elected 1,442 delegates. Each book devotes a chapter to these 56 meetings, though an entire book could be written about them.

The IWY Commission tried to avoid the feminist label, which the opposition used as a smear. Phyllis Schlafly, already well-known as a conservative Republican and supporter of Barry Goldwater’s 1964 Presidential campaign, denounced the National Conference as the “Federally Funded Festival for Frustrated Feminists”.

Organizing the opposition was primarily done by several lesser-known women. They brought together mostly religious women who believed that the man was the head of the family and that women should defer to men in all things. After Congress passed the Equal Rights Amendment in 1972 these women (and their men) thought the ERA would bring such horrendous practices as same-sex marriage and women in combat. The 1973 Supreme Court decision legalizing most abortions scared them even more. They wrote Phyllis Schlafly and other women they knew, eventually leading to the formation of several organizations opposed to anything labeled feminist, or which (they thought) might undermine the traditional family.

Denouncing the IWY meetings as “anti-family”, opponents organized the IWY Citizen Review Commission to stop the conference from going forward. When that didn’t work, they brought their adherents to the state meetings where they elected 15 percent of the delegates to the national meeting. While they dominated nine of these meetings and split two, feminists ran the rest. Feminist organizations adopted the same hardball tactics to win their resolutions and elect their delegate slates that political parties had long used.

The Commission had planned to appoint a few hundred more delegates to make sure there was adequate ethnic diversity. Ironically, when the final count was in, it was white women who were underrepresented. In state meetings dominated by feminists, black women and other ethnic groups had 50 to 100 percent more elected delegates than their percentage of the female population. This was not true of the nine states where the “antis” elected the delegates. The elected Mississippi delegation was all white, including five men and the wife of the state’s Ku Klux Klan leader. The Commission appointed as at-large delegates women well known either locally or nationally who were not elected delegates. Betty Friedan was one of those.

In its short life, the IWY Commission had three chairs. The last and best known was former Congresswoman Bella Abzug (D — NY). She was a dominant figure but the different books tell different tales of how she dominated. Spruill sees her as “battling Bella” who fought fiercely for her causes. Leader and Hyatt remember how nasty she was to her staff, constantly yelling at anyone who disagreed with her and putting people down. Frankly, I think they danced around Bella’s treatment of underlings very lightly, as anyone who ever worked for Bella knows all too well. This led to a high staff turnover and a little civil disobedience.

In the weeks between the state and national conferences, Commission staff put together a National Plan of Action based on the resolutions and recommendations of the state meetings. Its 26 planks covered the gamut of women’s concerns, but some were not happy with their wording. The presence of the antis forced disparate feminist groups to work together. The press was looking forward to a fight over how to include lesbianism, welfare, and some other issues in the Plan. Instead, feminists worked out their differences so they could unite.

Roughly 20,000 “observers” came to the National Conference, where they watched the delegates debate, attended workshops and visited exhibits. There were many prominent women on the stage and off, including three first ladies, Mrs. Martin Luther King, Jr., tennis star Billie Jean King, actress Jean Stapleton and poet Maya Angelou. President Carter, who didn’t like Bella or IWY, did not attend. His wife and daughter-in-law did. (On January 12, 1979, he fired Bella Abzug.)

Across the city 15,000 “antis” held their own rally, full of pro-Life, anti-feminist speakers. According to Spruill, Shlafley had originally opposed such a rally, thinking it couldn’t be done and would make them look weak. Instead, it was a “stunning success,” garnering a great deal of press coverage. Many felt that it launched the “pro-family” movement.

Published 40 years after these opposing events, both books devote a final chapter to consequences. Leader and Hyatt look at each of the planks in the National Plan, assessing what has changed and what hasn’t. Spruill pays more attention to politics, following the ways in which feminists and anti-feminists polarized party politics and presidential elections. She finds that both the Democratic and Republican parties were substantially changed by the feminist and anti-feminist blocks within them. In the 2016 election, Phyllis Schlafly endorsed Donald Trump long before he won the primaries, while organized feminism turned out the troops for Hillary Clinton. Abortion has become a litmus test in each party, and women, both feminists and anti-feminists, write the relevant planks within each party’s platform.

There may never be another national conference on women, but 1977 left its mark.

Jo Freeman is an American feminist, political scientist, writer and attorney. This article was originally published by SWW.

Also for you:

Jo Freeman

Previous post

Charlottesville in the Mediated Public Sphere

Next post

The Canadian Option