“It was the early 1970s and the women’s movement was on a roll. The 92rd Congress…passed more women’s rights bills than all previous legislation sessions combined, including Title IX…the 1972 Supreme Court case Eisenstadt v. Baird gave unmarried women legal access to birth control, and in 1973, Roe v. Wade made abortion legal across the country…even the 1972 Republican Party platform included feminist goals, including federal childcare programs…” — Smithsonian. com
“Like ERA, the women’s meetings are turning out to be a sterile battleground between those who want to see inequities redressed and those who want to turn the clock back to a world that never was…” —The Louisville Kentucky Courier-Journal, July 21, 1977.
My most important souvenirs from the November 1977 National Women’s Conference in Houston are wrapped in tissue paper, safe in a bottom drawer. One T-shirt faded, worn and washed to death, with the “to form a more perfect union” symbol and text “Women on the Move” barely legible. The other bright turquoise, new, never been worn, saved for the daughter I thought I would have (I happily had a son). The shirts were the same ones worn by Billie Jean King and the women who carried the torch from Seneca Falls, site of the first women’s rights convention in 1848, to Houston to open the conference.
As an editor at the Reno Evening Gazette and the Nevada State Journal, I had covered the Nevada State Women’s Conference and traveled with the Nevada delegation to the national conference. I saved speeches handed out in media briefings, clippings and photos from Houston. I knew I was a witness to history.
It was an important time for the women’s movement. The Equal Rights Amendment was passed by the U.S. Senate and sent to the states for ratification in 1972.
The United Nations proclaimed 1975 as International Women’s Year and sponsored a conference in Mexico City. By executive order Republican President Gerald Ford established a National Commission on the Observance of International Women’s Year “to promote equality between men and women.” There were state and territorial conferences before the national gathering in Houston; they were federally funded and not without controversy.
It is well documented that the Mormon Church opposed the ERA and worked to elect anti-ERA delegates. A coalition of conservative groups led by Phyllis Schlafly and supported by her Eagle Forum (which still exists today), the KKK and John Birch Society, among others, met across town. She opposed the ERA, she said in part, because it would allow women to be drafted and allow unisex bathrooms.
Schlafly, who had predicted on television, “Houston will finish off the women’s movement. It will show them off for the radical, antifamily, prolesbian people they are,” was wrong. However, the ERA was never ratified by the last three states needed prior to the deadline.
Houston was a watershed moment in the women’s movement and in individual lives. For many it was a baptism into politics. Seeing the torch arrive from Seneca Falls, being on the floor and photographing Bella Abzug, Gloria Steinem and Betty Friedan, seeing First Ladies Rosalynn Carter, Betty Ford and Lady Bird Johnson together on stage with Coretta Scott King and Maya Angelou, was breathtaking.
“We may have different interests, but we shouldn’t be dismayed by the clash of opinion and ideas. It has been said the ‘evils’ of controversy will pass, but its benefits are permanent,” Betty Ford told the meeting on Nov. 19.
From Rep. Barbara Jordan, who gave a keynote speech, to a speech by Margaret Mead, the delegates were inspired and challenged. Dr. Helen Caldicott and Dr. Benjamin Spock were there; nuclear disarmament and peace were also topics. There were lighter moments as well; “All in the Family” actress Jean Stapleton (“Mrs. Archie Bunker”) spoke to applause.
“What we must present to every woman in this country today is that if we will act unitedly, forget every other consideration on earth, as we do when our children are at stake, we may be able to turn this world around and produce a world in which our children and other people’s children will be safe,” Margaret Mead said on Nov. 20.
The importance of electing more women to public office, the portrayal of women in the media and the number of women in leadership positions in media, were acknowledged then and are still a concern today.
Houston was rich in diversity. Nationally, efforts had been made to reach out to the underrepresented, and amazing strength came from that diversity. Women passionate about issues from spousal violence to homemakers’ social security, from employment to welfare reform, discussed and debated; it was not always easy. The only resolution that passed unanimously was one on credit.
Memorable, especially meaningful moments, included the passing of the minority women’s resolution and resolutions on reproductive freedom and sexual preference. Women learned from each other, supported each other. For every big nationally known feminist there, and they were all there, there were hundreds of “average” American women of every age and hue. A farm wife from the Midwest, who had never been on an airplane until she flew to Houston, sat next to an activist from the East Coast. They cheered together when the ERA plan item passed. Feeling the energy, hearing the spirited debate, seeing the respect women with opposing views had for each other, was awe-inspiring.
That was the magic of Houston.
That is what I remember most about Houston. And now, more than ever, with the 40th anniversary, it is time to reaffirm that commitment and support each other.
Eleanor Smeal, then president of the national Organization of Women, said “Houston was a rite of passage.” Since Houston, we have lost many of the leaders of the women’s movement. Some items from the national plan of action presented after Houston were realized; others were forgotten. The legacy of Houston has been debated. A documentary was produced for the 30th anniversary. This year a conference was hosted at the University of Houston to mark the 40th anniversary.
On this anniversary, we must think about goals still not reached and future generations of women. How can we involve and inspire more young women and men today to work for equality?
Some “old” issues are still in the news; women are finding a voice and finding strength in numbers.
And 40 years ago, I’m not sure anyone could have predicted the current political climate. Or that a candidate for president could be caught on tape demeaning women and still get elected.
My souvenir shirts from Houston say “Women on the Move.” This past January a record number of women and men protested all over the country. According to the Women’s March website, “The mission of Women’s March is to harness the political power of diverse women and their communities to create transformative social change.” Marches are already being planned for January 2018, the anniversary of the inauguration. Maybe I’ll wear my Houston shirt to that march.
(Napa native Betty McCormick Malmgren was supervising editor for the Lifestyle Department of the Reno Evening Gazette and the Nevada State Journal. In 1978 she was named “Outstanding Young Journalist” by the Nevada State Press Association. She now publishes Easy English Times, an educational newspaper for adult literacy and immigrants learning English as a second language.)