Liz Abzug

NEW YORK (WOMENSENEWS)–The Freedom on Our Terms conference at Hunter College in New York this past weekend drew about 600 people from 21 states and offered a glimpse at what a difference three decades can make.

Sponsored by more than 60 women’s organizations, it was the first women’s gathering to look back at Houston ’77, the landmark National Women’s Conference.

Held at a high point of the women’s movement in the United States, Houston ’77 marked the only time the federal government ever sponsored a gathering of women for equality. With $5 million in funding from Congress organizers drew more than 20,000, including three first ladies–Rosalynn Carter, Betty Ford and Lady Bird Johnson.

This time only a few politicians made the event.

Presidential candidate Sen. Hillary Clinton sent her regrets from her campaign in Iowa.

Media coverage was thin, with most of the coverage going to comedian, television and film star Rosie O’Donnell. And the attention wasn’t on what she had to say on the subject of women. It was more about her losing the deal to host a talk show on MSNBC.

Houston ’77 served as a beacon that lit up the organized women’s movement of its time, and Freedom on Our Terms was designed to rekindle those sparks and galvanize activists across the generations.

“There has to be a re-energizing, a re-igniting between younger women, older women and women in between,” conference leader Liz Abzug said as the two-day event wound up. “I want you to spread the word: Feminism is alive and well and moving into the 21st century.”

10-Point Action Plan

To that end participants have agreed to develop a 10-point “feminist action plan” to present to the presidential candidates, who will be asked to commit to implementing it during their first 100 days in office.

Among the issues that could make the top 10 list: elimination of abstinence-only sex education; paid leave for family care; improved child care; ratification of the international Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women; national single-payer health care; reform of the Federal Communications Commission to reverse media consolidation; changes in the tax code to put a value on labor spent for homemaking; and renewal of the fight to pass the Equal Rights Amendment, reintroduced into Congress this year.

Attendees took stock of some disappointments: the federal Equal Rights Amendment, which looked certain to pass three decades ago but had failed by 1982; continuing evidence of discrimination against women in wages, top jobs and health care; and the still small minority of elected female leaders.

The conference was the conception of Abzug, whose mother, Bella Abzug, obtained the federal funding for the 1977 conference and presided over it.

Bella Abzug, who died in 1998, was a flamboyant and outspoken congresswoman from Manhattan instantly recognizable by her voice, which cut like a rasp, and for her collection of hats with wide brims.

‘A Need to Mentor Leaders’

Liz Abzug, an attorney with a consulting and lobbying business, teaches a course on women and leadership at Barnard College and Columbia University. She founded the Bella Abzug Leadership Institute in Manhattan three years ago because, she said, there is a need to “mentor girls who feel and express that they haven’t had good role models” for leading the fight for women’s rights.

Lala Wu Bali, a member of the board of the Bella Abzug Leadership Institute, and her colleague Kate Collier assessed the impact of the 1977 event, contrasting conditions then and now.

They found the percentage of female-owned businesses has increased nearly eightfold. On the other hand, 1 in 8 women is poor, little changed from 1977.

In 1976, 31 percent of U.S. women with infants were in the work force compared to 55 percent in 2004. But working mothers still have trouble finding quality child care at a price they can afford, and full-time work commands 77 cents for every dollar earned by men, up from 60 cents in 1976.

In 1977, there were reportedly 30 shelters for battered women in the United States, while today there are more than 2,000. Every two and a half minutes, someone is sexually assaulted.

“I was very shocked at just how little progress has been made,” said Wu. “It seemed improbable to me that there were still such large disparities and that people are not conscious of them.”

Keynote speaker Gloria Steinem proposed that a dollar value be put on the unpaid labor of homemaking then creating a tax deduction or tax credit for it.

Learning What Happened Then

Bella Abzug

Wendy Vargas, 22, of Escondido, Calif., who attends California State University, San Marcos, was among the younger women in Steinem’s audience. “We don’t get taught that women got together to fight,” Vargas said. “This is a great opportunity to learn about Bella and take it back to the Latina community.”

Stefanie Lopez-Boy, director of the Metro New York Chapter of the Younger Women’s Task Force, talked about credit card and college loan debt, and then told the older women that the younger generation is ready to continue the fight. “It’s about letting go of the wheel and letting someone else drive,” she said.

Steinem, whose appearance seemed to electrify the younger women, urged the audience to think of the 1977 conference as “simply one step” forward, which transformed individual groups and activists into a “national, populist movement with an agenda.”

But, she pointed out, “No movement that lasts less than a century stays in this culture, so we have at least 60 to 65 years to go,” as she dated the ongoing women’s rights movement to the 1960s.

Elizabeth Holtzman, a delegate to the Houston conference, the youngest woman ever elected to Congress and a former Brooklyn district attorney, confessed that she had not realized how much time would be needed to effect change. “We thought it was going to be an easy struggle,” she recalled. “We were wrong.”

In her remarks, Rosie O’Donnell spoke against corporate-controlled media, called for the impeachment of George W. Bush and expressed her “horror beyond words that we have to fight again for our right to choose.”

O’Donnell spoke about having sustained strong public criticism for everything from her weight and lesbian orientation to her anti-war stance.

“I’ll take it, anything they dish out,” she declared. “Because if not now, when? I’m here because I still have hope in every little girl I see, in every wizened 65-year-old.”

Frances Cerra Whittelsey is a life-long feminist and co-author of “Women Pay More” (New Press, 1993), an examination of gender discrimination in the marketplace. She freelances from her home in Huntington Bay, New York.

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Women’s eNews Spotlight on 2008 Presidential Election:

Bella Abzug Leadership Institute:

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On the 1977 National Women’s Conference:

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