It was important, from the beginning, to connect to history. Two months before the First National Women’s Conference was held in Houston in November 1977, a torch was lit 2,600 miles away in Seneca Falls, N.Y., site of the first women’s rights convention in 1848.
Carrying the torch was Kathy Switzer, who had broken the gender barrier in the Boston Marathon a decade before. She passed it to Olympic swimmer Donna deVarona. Over 51 days, the torch traveled through Central Park and down Park Avenue in Manhattan; to Washington, D.C., and into Lafayette Park across from the White House, scene of many a suffrage protest; to Montgomery and Selma Ala., civil rights landmarks and to the Beaumont, Texas, birthplace of multi-talented -Olympic track athlete “Babe” Didrikson Zaharias.
The torch-bearers, of every ethnicity in the country, also linked past to present: They were descendants of 19th century women’s rights activists; outstanding athletes and girls from local high schools; grandmothers, moms and kids; pregnant women; women in wheelchairs. More than 1,000 women, holding U.S. flags aloft, came out to walk the last mile to the conference hall.
“The road to Houston started more than a century and a half ago, when American women began organizing to win the rights of citizenship,” presiding officer Bella Abzug, the congresswoman from New York, said in her opening remarks.
Texas Rep. Barbara Jordan, who in 1976 had been the first woman and African American to keynote the Democratic convention, galvanized nearly 2,000 delegates, thousands of other guests and the worldwide media. The conference “mission” was to create a national plan of action toward full gender equality.
Scholarships, subsidized transportation and day care–funded by $5 million from Congress–assured that non-white and working-class women could participate. For three days, ladies in pearls and students in T-shirts wrangled well into the night. The final plan of action endorsed the Equal Rights Amendment, demanded an end to discrimination against lesbians and asserted reproductive freedom. A special plank authored by “minority women” included actions to address racism, poverty and forced sterilization.
Thirty years later, many of the most vocal women at the conference are gone. Barbara Jordan died in 1996, Bella Abzug in 1998. The ladies in pearls are mostly gone and the students in T-shirts are middle-aged. Is the inclusive and optimistic spirit of Houston alive today? Is the plan of action relevant? Will the torch be carried by new hands?
On Nov. 10 and 11, women will gather in New York City to mark the 30th anniversary of the Houston ’77 conference and answer those questions. At the National Conference for Women and Girls: Freedom on Our Terms gathering, women will honor the past and define the future.
One chief organizer is Liz Abzug, Bella’s daughter.
Louise Bernikow is the author of seven books and numerous magazine articles. She travels to campuses and community groups with a lecture and slide show about activism called “The Shoulders We Stand On: Women as Agents of Change.” She can be reached at email@example.com.
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For more information:
Bella Abzug Leadership Institute:
Girls Speak Out:
“Disappointments Gathered in the Shadows of Victory”:
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