1977 National Women's Conference
In the spirit of the United Nations' proclamation that 1975 was the International Women's Year, on January 9, 1975, U.S. President Gerald Ford issued Executive Order 11832 creating a National Commission on the Observance of International Women's Year "to promote equality between men and women." Congress approved $5 million in total tax-payer contributions ($22.7 million in 2017 dollars) for both the state and national conferences as HR 9924 sponsored by Congresswoman Patsy Mink, which Ford signed into law. In 1977 President Jimmy Carter chose a new Commission and appointed Congresswoman Bella Abzug to head it. Numerous events were held over the next two years, culminating in the National Women's Conference in November 1977. Historian Marjorie J. Spruill argues that the anti-feminists led by Phyllis Schlafly had a more successful follow-up. They moved the Republican party to the right and defeated the Equal Rights Amendment.
During November 18-21, 1977, between 17,000 and 22,000 people took part in the National Women's Conference in Houston, Texas, some 2,000 delegates and 15-20,000 observers. The goal was to hammer out a "Plan of Action" to be presented to the Carter Administration and Congress for consideration and/or adoption. Each of the twenty-six Resolutions on Women's Rights in the Plan was proposed to the attendees and voted upon collectively. The Conference was chaired by Congresswoman Bella Abzug.
The opening ceremony speakers included: First Ladies Rosalynn Carter, Betty Ford and Lady Bird Johnson, activists Coretta Scott King, Bella Abzug, Betty Friedan, Barbara Jordan, Liz Carpenter, and Jean Stapleton. Maya Angelou read the Declaration of American Women 1977.
Heated debates ensued over 26 major topics addressed at the conference, such as the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA), reproductive rights, the nuclear family, child care funding, sexual orientation, education reform, and the rights of disabled, minority, and aging women. At the conference, there was also a lengthy discussion about nuclear disarmament and a series of talks featuring women who had reached important positions of responsibility in government such as chair of Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), Assistant Secretary for the United States Department of Commerce, and head of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
On the other side of Houston, almost fifteen thousand conservative women under the leadership of Phyllis Schlafly held their own counter-conference in which they vowed to uphold traditional pro-family values. The competing Houston conferences demonstrated the discord among women over key issues, and Schlafly’s message that women had something to lose, not something to gain, from feminism continued to resonate in the increasingly conservative political climate. Nowhere was this clearer than in the battles over reproductive freedom and the Equal Rights Amendment, the issues most associated with feminism in the public mind in the 1970s.
The Spirit of Houston, the official report on the first national women's conference, was submitted to President Carter and Congress in March 1978. A month later, Carter established the National Advisory Committee for Women. The Senate granted a three-year extension for ratification of the ERA within a year of the Houston meeting; this unprecedented move was viewed as a major post-conference achievement, despite the final failure of the amendment in 1982, at which point only 35 of the required 38 states had ratified the amendment. Under political pressure, President Carter fired Abzug from the Commission. No further action was taken by the Administration or Congress on the Plan.
National Plan of Action
Included in the official conference report, the conference produced a National Plan of Action, a culminating document that comprised a series of demands for more revisions, changes in enforcement, and new policies to improve the living conditions of women in American society. The National Plan of Action included 26 planks representing issues and concerns of interest to American women. The planks were discussed at the state-level women's meetings that preceded the 1977 conference and were then open to debate on the floor at the Houston conference. Seventeen of the planks were adopted by conference delegates by wide majorities, and only 20% of delegates opposed certain planks, representing a consensus among conference delegates and attendees on "what American women need and want to achieve equal rights, equal status, and equal responsibilities with men."
The 26 planks contained in the National Plan of Action are:
- Arts and Humanities
- Battered Women
- Child Abuse
- Child Care
- Disabled Women
- Elective and Appointive Office
- Equal Rights Amendment
- International Affairs
- Minority Women
- Older Women
- Reproductive Freedom
- Rural Women
- Sexual Preference
- Women, Welfare and Poverty
- Continuing Committee of the Conference
Although the Equal Rights Amendment was a significant stride towards demanding the reforms called for in the National Plan of Action, the states ultimately failed to ratify it, and therefore it did not pass into law. Even so, its momentum produced significant ripple effects on the many facets of society that the National Plan of Action sought to change. One such facet is education. Mostly attributed to the outspoken efforts of Betty Friedan, reforms in education policy and enforcement became notably prominent.
Other prominent organizers for education reform from women present at the conference were:
- Patricia Alberjerg Graham, a representative of the National Institute of Education, who advocated for holding the federal government accountable to efforts that reduce inequality in educational opportunities.
- Eileen Shanahan, the assistant Secretary for Public Affairs in the Health, Education and Welfare Department during the Carter administration, who advocated for an emphasis on the ways in which funds are allocated for government programs in education.
- Beth Abramowitz, Assistant Director of the Domestic Council Policy Staff during the Carter administration, who proposed an increase in funds for women involved in higher education and academia.
- Mary F. Berry, Assistant Secretary of Education, who emphasized the potential of the recent Title IX efforts to increase educational opportunities and to assist women to pursue higher education.
Organizing around identities
Concerning the aforementioned rights of disabled, minority, and aging women, the National Plan of Action included separate planks devoted specifically to several such groups of women based on identity. These separate planks were intended to create a space in which women who fit distinctions such as 'Minority Women,' 'Rural Women,' and 'Older Women' could address concerns uniquely related to these identities.
Hundreds of women sought to have their voices heard and to be included in the document. Maxine Waters, a black woman, worked ceaselessly to pass the 'Minority Women' resolution. Waters described the moment of its passing: "Everyone joined in singing 'We Shall Overcome' and women were crying and hugging each other. It was an especially big moment for me because I led off the reading of the resolution we had spent three days and nights drafting." Waters also explained the importance of including minority women's perspectives in all of the planks, ensuring that they did not simply become isolated within the 'Minority Women' section. She wrote: "There is a black perspective in all the feminist issues in the National Plan. Battered women, for example. There's a special black perspective because of the frustration of men in the black community. Black women have been able to get jobs when black men could not, and are often hired under affirmative action plans because they meet two criteria: 1) as women, and 2) as blacks. The frustration of the men in seeking employment added to other sexist socialization, often leads to wife-beating. When I was growing up, I often saw women beaten in the streets."
The diverse nature of the women who attended the Conference contributed to many debates between individuals and between various groups of women. Women had to organize and debate across identity in order to reach solutions. In Sisters of '77, Jane Hickie commented: "I don't believe that Anglo women had heard directly... those sorts of frustrations from other women who were Mexican American or Puerto Rican American [or] Latinas ever before.” Of significant importance to Latina attendees were the discussions revolving around deportations of mothers of American-born children and rights for migrant farm workers. Vera Brown Starr, a member of the Yavapai-Apache Nation and Lorraine White, a Quechan-Pueblo woman of the Fort Yuma Indian Reservation, were especially gratified that the resolution against discrimination included language regarding removal of Native American children from their homes and tribes. Women from Asian-American communities brought up issues regarding sweatshop labor practices and discriminatory practices towards wives of U. S. servicemen.
The Conference thus helped many women achieve a broader intersectional lens through which to view women's issues. Maxine Waters elaborated on her experience with this: "I try to explain to white women the reasons why black women can't support some of the feminist issues. For example, in California, we have a midwifery bill. Midwives were very common in the history of the black community. Because they were too poor to go to the hospital, black women's babies were delivered at home by midwives. The new mothers suffered torn tissues... the scar tissue is still there... Black women just don't understand white women who say they don't want to go to sterile hospitals to deliver their babies." These differences emphasized the importance of injecting multiple perspectives into every plank. As stated in the beginning of the 'Minority Women' plank: "Every recommendation of this National Plan of Action shall be understood as applying equally and fully to minority women."
Kimberle Crenshaw explains the necessity of intersectional approaches to address women's issues: “Where systems of race, gender, and class domination converge, as they do in the experiences of battered women of color, intervention strategies based solely on the experiences of women who do not share the same class or race backgrounds will be of limited help to women who because of race and class face different obstacles.”
First Ladies at the conference
The conference was attended by former First Ladies Lady Bird Johnson and Betty Ford, as well as Rosalynn Carter, wife of then-president Jimmy Carter. These women were not the only political figures in attendance, but their position as direct connections to the president made their presence significant.
The position of First Lady, which originally consisted of being a good hostess to guests of the president, has become more politicized as women began to receive more rights and more access to power. Martha Washington, who several consider to be the first First Lady, was often referred to as Lady Washington because of her social standing and was known for being a lovely hostess to guests of the White House. Dolley Madison, wife of former president James Madison, was the first woman in this position to use her political power to push for change, thus becoming the basis for the modern day First Lady. Several First Ladies from the late nineteenth century aligned themselves with various political movements, such as temperance and war, but few were known for their active political involvement. It wasn't until 1932, when Franklin Delano Roosevelt was elected into office, that the idea of a politically active First Lady began to form. Roosevelt's wife, Eleanor Roosevelt, became an important figure of the Great Depression and the Second World War because of her dedication to her country and her interest in social and political issues. Although there were several First Ladies who actively supported the country, none of them did so with the passion and commitment of Mrs. Roosevelt, who would often appear on the radio and in press conferences and had a friendly and comforting demeanor. Roosevelt is seen as a feminist icon to this day because of her use of political power to drive change.
After President Lyndon B. Johnson entered office, his wife Lady Bird began to focus on social issues of the time rather than social status or being the ideal American housewife. Johnson was a key component in her husband's political career, serving as an adviser and working to present herself in the best way possible. While in the White House, Johnson sought to link her political influence with the traditional roles and responsibilities of the position of First Lady. During President Johnson's second inauguration, she became the first wife to hold the Bible while her husband was sworn in. During her term as First Lady, she focused on beautification of natural areas which stemmed from a lifelong love of nature.
Betty Ford took the office of First Lady in 1974 following the resignation of President Richard Nixon, and would spend the rest of her term pushing for greater rights for women. She was an advocate for the Equal Rights Amendment and campaigned for it whenever her schedule allowed. It was during the Ford administration that the idea for a women's conference began to surface, and many believe that Betty Ford was largely responsible for this. She was the main voice leading her fellow First Ladies to attend the conference, and would continue to use her political power to advocate for women's rights after the conference.
Rosalynn Carter, who was First Lady when the conference took place, was a strong proponent of feminism and the Equal Rights Amendment. She was the first First Lady to use the office in the East Wing, and was a known advocate for several social issues such as mental health and services for senior citizens. She attended the conference with Johnson and Ford, stating that Ford was the major force in bringing them all together. The First Ladies all delivered speeches during the opening ceremony and accepted the torch when it arrived onstage.
The 21st plank of the National Action Plan was titled "Reproductive Freedom." In this plank, the women of the National Women's Conference stated their full support of women's reproductive freedom and encouraged all levels of government to comply with the Supreme Court's decisions to guarantee it, such as Roe v. Wade. The plank also included the support of abortion and pregnancy-related care being available to all women as well as encouraging organizations to hold the government responsible for maintaining these principles. The delegates also called for the requirement of consent for all sterilization procedures, concomitant to Department of Health, Education and Welfare's April 1974 regulations. Repeatedly holding all levels of government responsible, they insisted on developing sex education programs and programs for teenage parents in all schools.
Delegates' articulation of women's reproductive freedom encompassed a variety of reproductive rights and family planning issues confronting women around the time of the conference in 1977. The goal of the Reproductive Freedom plank was to ensure that every woman had the fundamental right to access the available means to control her reproduction. Before the legalization of abortion, women, and often disproportionately poor women and women of color, were not able to obtain safe abortions and often resorted to self-procedures. These illegal abortion procedures frequently resulted in complications and sometimes death. In 1972, an estimated 88 abortion-related deaths were reported and about 63 were associated with illegal abortions.
One of the landmark decisions that affected the reproductive freedom movement was Roe v. Wade, in which the Supreme Court held that the constitutional right to privacy includes a women's right to terminate her pregnancy and affirmed the right for a woman to choose abortion. Between the Supreme Court decision in 1973 and the National Women's Conference in 1977, the number of safe and legal abortions steadily increased from 744,600 to 1,270,000; however, in 1977 approximately 560,000 women were not able to obtain the abortion services they needed. Women still faced many obstacles in obtaining abortion services. In 1976, approximately 458,000 women who were able to obtain services had to travel outside of their counties to do so, and 118,000 had to travel to different states.
Though one of the goals of the plank was to ensure the availability of safe and legal abortions, it encompassed a wide variety of concepts that the delegates also recognized as necessary for reproductive freedom. The plank also emphasized the opposition to involuntary sterilization and upheld that spousal consent should not be a requirement for sterilization procedures. Sterilization abuse was an issue that gained attention in the 1970s and activists called on the women's movement to incorporate the concept into their fight.
The 21st plank also presented the need for confidential family-planning services and sex education programs in schools. The plank read "Federal, State, and local governing bodies should take whatever steps necessary to remove existing barriers to family planning services for all teenagers who request them."
Ultimately, the delegates called for the freedom of all women and girls to be able to be informed about and control their own reproduction.
Today, challenges surrounding reproductive freedom are still being addressed, and women are still fighting to obtain the reproductive freedom they called for in 1977. Many of these challenges have centered around abortion debates involving the healthcare provider Planned Parenthood. The debates have become a focal point of the political and legal sphere, with members of Congress deliberating on government funding allocated to the organization. Supporters of reproductive freedom and Planned Parenthood argue that defunding the organization, which provides a variety of healthcare services to women, men, and young people including safe and legal abortions, would detrimentally affect preventative and reproductive care.
Liberal feminist analysis of "Plank 8"
All of the demands from Plank 8 can be analyzed through a liberal feminist approach. Feminist concerns with education focused on reallocation of government funds. The delegates of the conference decided that the ways in which money was being dispensed into education opportunities for women in academia was not enough.[clarification needed] This sentiment is echoed in Adrienne Rich’s Claiming an Education, where she writes,
"One of the devastating weaknesses of university learning, of the store of knowledge and opinion that has been handed down through academic training, has been its almost total erasure of women's experience and thought from the curriculum, and its exclusion of women as members of the academic community."
Liberal feminist theory grounds itself on the firm belief in education. Donovan says that education is an imperative tool that must be available to women so that they can impact society, without access to it, the patriarchy continues to makes women "civilly dead".[dubious ] In asking for educational opportunities to be expanded to women, the attendees of the 1977 conference were in agreement with Wollstonecraft’s thought. Wollstonecraft asserted that only through proper education would women be able to free themselves from patriarchal oppression. The delegates of 1977 were asserting the rights they felt were guaranteed to them as citizens of the United States.
- Seneca Falls Convention
- International Women's Year
- World Conference on Women, 1975
- World Conference on Women, 1980
- World Conference on Women, 1985
- World Conference on Women, 1995
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- Jo Freeman's Photos of the 1977 National Women's Conference
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- Women on the Move: Texas and the Fight for Women's Rights, digital documents, audio and video related to the conference.