SISTERS OF '77

The Movement

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The Conference

L-R: 

Rosalyn Carter, Bella Abzug and other conference attendees hold a lit torch, up on stage. 

Conference attendees Bella Abzug, First Lady Rosalyn Carter, Betty Ford, Lady Bird Johnson, Linda Johnson Robb, Maya Angelou, Coretta Scott King, and Judy Carter applaud onstage.

“We strengthen all of society by giving women equal rights. And this conference was so crucial, because this was the first time in my lifetime that it was recognized, that there was a social movement happening in this country.”
—Suzanne Ahn, conference attendee

Resolution Topics

The plan of action adopted at the 1977 National Women’s Conference featured 26 resolutions, or planks, on the following topics:

Arts and humanities: Women should have equal opportunities in federal posts and equal access to arts grants.

Battered women: A national clearinghouse must be created to support local organizations helping battered women and working to prevent domestic violence.

Business: More government contracts to women-owned businesses, which numbered less than one percent in 1977.

Child abuse: More prevention, treatment and protective services.

Child care: Care must be low cost and high quality.

Credit: The Equal Credit Opportunity Act must be enforced to make sure that women are no longer denied credit on the basis of gender.

Disabled women: Equal access to education, training, employment and child custody rights.

Education: More women in leadership positions and in textbooks. Title IX must be enforced.

Elective and appointive office: More representation of women.

Employment: More job opportunities and less discrimination.

Equal Rights Amendment: The ERA must be ratified.

Health: Health insurance benefits must include family planning and other concerns relevant to women.

Homemakers: Must be covered under Social Security and have greater economic security, especially in the event of divorce or the death of a spouse.

Insurance: Eliminate practices that deny women coverage on the basis of gender.

International affairs: Increase the number of women in the departments of state and defense, aid women in developing nations and promote nuclear disarmament.

Media: More women in media jobs, especially in leadership positions.

Minority women: Eliminate discrimination, support affirmative action, guarantee tribal rights and prevent deportation of mothers of American-born children.

Offenders: Improve health services and educational and vocational training.

Older women: Help older women live with dignity.

Rape: Expand the definition of rape to include married men who abuse their wives and reduce legal burdens on victims.

Reproductive freedom: Support Roe v. Wade, promote family planning and allow Medicaid payments for abortion.

Rural women: Create a federal rural education policy and expand ownership rights for farm wives.

Sexual preference: Implement legislation to eliminate discrimination on the basis of sexual preference and repeal state laws restricting private sexual behavior between consenting adults.

Statistics: Federal agencies should collect and analyze data in ways that assess the impact on women.

Women, welfare and poverty: Improve social security and retirement systems, raise minimum wage, provide child care and focus on welfare and poverty as major women’s issues.

Continuing committee of the conference: Create a committee to follow up on recommendations and take steps to convene a Second National Women’s Conference.

Sources

The National Women’s Conference in Houston, Document List

SISTERS OF ’77: A Teaching Resource Guide


The Road to the Conference

In 1975, a United Nations conference in Mexico City celebrating the International Year of the Woman laid the groundwork for the first and only national women’s conference to ever be sponsored by the U.S. government. That same year, President Gerald Ford established a 35-member national commission to make recommendations on promoting gender equality.

Two years later, President Jimmy Carter tapped New York state representative Bella Abzug and Carmen Delgado Votaw to head another commission, which introduced a bill to hold a national women’s conference that would formulate and pass a national plan of action. Congress allocated five million dollars for the event and for pre-conference state conventions, which were open to all females over the age of 16. Many of these state conventions—involving 130,000 participants between February and July 1977—also featured scholarships to encourage attendance. The conventions elected 2,005 attendees from the 50 U.S. states and six territories to participate in the National Conference.

In the weeks leading up to the National Conference, a team of relay runners carried a torch to Houston from Seneca Falls, New York, the site of the first U.S. women’s rights convention in 1848. A Declaration of Sentiments, written by poet Maya Angelou and signed by thousands, accompanied the torchbearers, who presented it to current and former first ladies Rosalyn Carter, Betty Ford and Lady Bird Johnson at the conference’s opening ceremony.

The Plan of Action

For the 20,000-plus people that gathered in Houston for the National Women’s Conference from November 18-21, 1977, the weekend was history in the making. In addition to the delegates, more than 15,000 observers were present. Although the conference was not a lawmaking body and could only propose recommendations, its primary goal was to create a national plan of action towards gender equality, which would then be given to the president and Congress. Discussions at the pre-conference state conventions established 26 topics, or planks, to consider for the plan, including resolutions on abortion, lesbian rights, minority rights, education, rape, healthcare and the Equal Rights Amendment.

Of the 26 planks, only one, on equal credit—which called for an end to discrimination in consumer credits practices—was approved unanimously. Large majorities passed another 17 planks. But debate on topics such as abortion rights and sexual preference was often intensely heated. The event was one of the first times that the issue of sexual orientation within the women’s movement was discussed on such a large scale. Conference attendees were fiercely divided over lesbian rights, and opponents to gay and lesbian rights did not want the movement to be associated with lesbianism. In the end, the delegates passed the plank on sexual preference. As Gloria Steinem says in SISTERS OF ’77, “Everybody came together and said no issues of sexual orientation that oppress the percentage of women who are lesbian, who are bisexual—those are absolutely crucial issues, and any rebellious woman will be called a lesbian until the word lesbian becomes as honorable a word as any other.”

The conference also illuminated the challenges of creating a national plan that addressed the needs of all American women, not just the white majority. Many minority women in attendance criticized the U.S. women’s movement for not better representing, or working to understand, the interests of women of color. As Jane Hickie explains in SISTERS OF ’77, the conference was a learning experience for many participants: “I don't believe that Anglo women had heard directly expressed those sorts of frustrations from other women who were Mexican American or Puerto Rican American, Latinas, ever before.”

The Legacy

Debates over the national plan of action were not the only controversies involved with the National Conference. The conference itself was under attack from anti-feminist opponents such as Phyllis Schlafly and the hundreds of protesters that proclaimed it “anti-family,” which attendee Virginia Whitehill referred to as “very disturbing” in an interview in SISTERS OF ’77: “If anything, [the conference] was pro-family and pro-strengthening the bonds of relationships and to be supportive of each other, of all genders, and to make the world a better place for men as well as for women.”

Despite these controversies, conference delegates eventually approved a plan of action that called for federal involvement in 26 areas, including the Equal Rights Amendment, or the ERA, which at the time was only three states short of ratification. In March 1978, the plan was submitted to Congress and President Jimmy Carter, who in response established the National Advisory Committee for Women. The Senate also provided a three-year extension for the ratification of the ERA, which was regarded as a major achievement. Although the amendment ultimately failed to be ratified in 1982, the conference succeeded in increasing U.S. women’s political activism and membership in groups such as the National Organization for Women and expanding dialogue in the arena of U.S. women’s rights.

Meet the conference attendees interviewed in SISTERS OF ’77 >>

Learn more about the Equal Rights Amendment >>

Learn more about the U.S. women’s movement >>


Photos
Top (L to R) Bella Abzug, First Lady Rosalyn Carter, Betty Ford, Lady Bird Johnson, Linda Johnson Robb, Maya Angelou, Coretta Scott King, and Judy Carter
Photo courtesy: jofreeman.com

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