(WOMENSENEWS)–For spectacle, there had been nothing like it. Even the pageantry of the early 20th century suffrage parades paled beside a three-day national extravaganza about women’s equality that started with fiery torches, featured three first ladies, was presided over by the colorful and outspoken Congresswoman Bella Abzug of New York, and attracted the world media. The First National Women’s Conference was held in Houston, Texas, from Nov. 18 to 21, 1977.

Each U.S. state and territory had met over the preceding two years to choose delegates. But “women” came in all political persuasions. In Washington state, Mormon women tried to pass a resolution condemning women’s suffrage. Elsewhere, the conflicts were more modern: gathering supporters and opponents of the Equal Rights Amendment, abortion rights, lesbian rights and every other issue imaginable in 1977, including nuclear testing and world peace. For many, the meeting provided a first look at organized opposition to the women’s movement.

Government-sponsored and supported by a $5 million congressional appropriation, the event was shunned as a sham by some radical feminists. But scholarships, subsidized transportation and day care generally assured that a wide swath of U.S. women, including large numbers of non-white and working-class women, could participate.

Runners carrying lit torches started from Seneca Falls, N.Y., site of the first women’s rights convention in 1848, passing the torches hand to hand across 2,600 miles. First ladies Rosalynn Carter, Betty Ford and Lady Bird Johnson were present at the opening session. Congresswoman Barbara Jordan of Texas, who had been electrifying as keynote speaker at the 1976 Democratic convention, the first woman and first African American to do so, galvanized nearly 2,000 delegates, thousands of guests and the worldwide media in Houston.

Charged with assessing women’s progress and presenting a plan of action, the conference ended, after heated debate and night-long politicking, by approving the Equal Rights Amendment, demanding an end to discrimination against lesbians and asserting reproductive freedom. A special “plank” authored by “minority women” included action needed to address racism, poverty and forced sterilization.

What did it add up to? The resolutions were presented to President Jimmy Carter and Congress amid much hoopla the following year, but Ronald Reagan’s election to the presidency in 1980 showed the growing power of opposition to its proposals. A stop-the-ERA campaign would prevent ratification of the constitutional amendment and an anti-choice movement would only go on to gather momentum.

For some who were there, Houston ’77 represented unprecedented victory. For others, it was the end of the radical women’s movement, the “mainstreaming” of women’s liberation. From the perspective of history, it was a warning that a reactionary counter-force was already up and running and to be taken seriously. An event to organize around the “unfinished agenda” of the 1977 Houston conference is being planned by the Bella Abzug Leadership Institute and the National Women’s History Project for 2007.

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 protected].

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For more information:

Jo Freeman, Discussion and Photos of 1977 Conference:

Bella Abzug, Jewish Women’s Archive:

University of Texas at Austin, Barbara Jordan,
“A Voice That Could Not Be Stilled”:

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