Remembering Houston’s National Women’s Conference Forty Years Later
Looking back at a crucial weekend seen as the high-water mark of the 1970s women’s movement
What happens to a dream deferred? Ask anyone who attended the National Women’s Conference in Houston forty years ago.
For four days beginning November 18, 1977, a diverse group of 2,000 women—elected as delegates at state conventions across the U.S.—debated planks in a bipartisan, federally-organized effort to draft a plan of action to deliver to President Jimmy Carter on the subject of women’s rights. More than 15,000 additional women attended as observers. Delegates emerged with a platform that included controversial and forward-looking support for gay rights, abortion rights, minority rights, and the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA)—a proposed addition to the U.S. Constitution that, at that point in history, still seemed likely to be ratified, and which would have guaranteed women equal protection under the law.
The Houston convention had been envisioned by its leaders—including feminist icons like Gloria Steinem, Bella Abzug, and Coretta Scott King, as well as prominent Texans like Barbara Jordan, Liz Carpenter, Sissy Farenthold, and Sarah Weddington—as the second coming of the Seneca Falls Convention, the 1848 gathering that kicked off the fight for women’s suffrage. Planners even organized an Olympic-style torch relay from Seneca Falls to Houston.
But that weekend in 1977 is more often remembered for the birth of a unified anti-feminist movement. Another large rally across town, mobilized by legendary anti-ERA campaigner Phyllis Schlafly, commanded equal media coverage and laid the groundwork for a right-wing “family values” movement that would be ascendant throughout the 1980s. Thanks largely to Schlafly’s efforts, the ERA would eventually fail just three states short of ratification.
Earlier this year, Marjorie Spruill, professor of history at the University of South Carolina, published Divided We Stand, a history of that crucial 1977 weekend in Houston. This month, Spruill visited Texas to participate in events commemorating the National Women’s Conference. She spoke to us by phone from Houston.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
Texas Monthly: The National Women’s Conference strikes me as something that many younger Texans are not aware of. Was that part of your reason for writing the book?
Marjorie Spruill: The year before last, Gloria Steinem was giving an interview with the New Yorker. She called it “the most important event that nobody knows about.” It’s really kind of amazing to me. It was such a media extravaganza at the time. All three networks plus PBS were covering it. A lot of them ran their morning news shows from Houston. It was on the cover of Time; all the major magazines ran feature stories on it. If you were going to ask me why it has been so forgotten, I do not understand it. I can’t tell you.
TM: The convention featured a who’s who of national feminist leaders, including several prominent Texas women. Would you say Texas put its distinct imprint on the conference?
MS: Yes. In fact, it became so identified with the city that most of the time people just refer to it as “Houston,” not even the Houston Conference. They chose Houston in part because Texas had so many highly visible feminists. The conference brought women together from the whole spectrum of the women’s movement, from its left, its right, and its middle. That included younger, more radical feminists who came into the women’s movement from the New Left or the civil rights movement, and older professional women who had become part of the movement in the sixties as an outgrowth of the Kennedy Commission on the Status of Women. Ann Richards at the time was a county commissioner. She wasn’t very well-known at all. It kind of launched her. Bella Abzug chose her to put the plank endorsing the Equal Rights Amendment into play. Richards says that she was summoned to Bella’s suite, and she was so nervous, it was like a Catholic being asked to meet with the Pope. And Bella says to her, “Well, hello, Tex.”
TM: Your book also tracks the story of Phyllis Schlafly and her allies in Texas—especially the late Lottie Beth Hobbs of Fort Worth—as they put together the enormous Pro-Life, Pro-Family Rally near the Astrodome to protest the convention.
MS: Historians don’t give credit where credit is due to Lottie Beth Hobbs. I had been working on this book for some time before I found out that the Pro-Life, Pro-Family Rally was her idea. Schlafly was initially opposed to it. Schlafly was a very careful strategist, and she was afraid that, if they held this thing and not enough people came, it would make them look ridiculous and weak. But once Lottie Beth Hobbs said, “Well, we’re going ahead with it,” then, of course, Schlafly agreed to help, and she came and spoke.
Prior to 1977, the pro-life movement had deliberately remained a single-issue movement and had not joined forces with the Stop ERA movement. But in the spring and summer of ’77, the National Commission on the Observance of the International Women’s Year sent out its sixteen core resolutions to be voted on in the states, and that included the right to legal abortion. That inflamed a lot of pro-life people. The old principle of “the enemy of my enemy is my friend” went into effect. The Pro-Life, Pro-Family Rally was important for bringing them together and making them see themselves as a movement. From that time on, they began to speak of themselves as the “pro-family movement,” and, under Schlafly’s leadership, to really push for power through the Republican party.
TM: One of your chapters is titled “The Crest of the Second Wave.” Do you think that if this conference had been held in Seneca Falls, New York, say, and not in the Bible Belt, that the history of this era might have turned out differently? Did Texas itself play a role?
MS: That’s a very good question. Lottie Beth Hobbs was inspired to do this in part because, earlier in the summer, the state meeting in Texas had attracted large numbers of women’s rights supporters, and fewer conservatives. That got her so angry that she said, “Okay, now this national conference is coming here. We’re going to make it clear that these women don’t speak for us.” Perhaps, had it been held somewhere else, there wouldn’t have been a Lottie Beth Hobbs nearby, and most likely she would not have traveled to another state to do it—nor could she have pulled it off, because she had help from lots of local people through her connections. One wonders.
TM: In retrospect, it can appear that the backlash against the conference was perhaps of greater significance than the conference itself. What exactly did the conference achieve?
MS: When I was working on this, early on I noticed that both sides claimed it as a victory. That was one of the things that really caught my attention and made me want to explore this. Schlafly called it a victory because she believed it was crucial in polishing off the Equal Rights Amendment, which was already in trouble. On the other hand, Gloria Steinem thinks Houston really strengthened the women’s movement by building strong grassroots support and diversifying the movement, and also by establishing a clear agenda. Houston unified and strengthened both movements. That sets the country up for the strongly polarized political culture we have now. Issues that are loaded with moral and religious significance come to the top of the political agenda, and the two parties choose sides between the two movements.
TM: Should Texas feminists be proud to have this event as part of their history, given the mixed results?
MS: I definitely think so. There were all kinds of formal and informal conversations and exchanges of information among the delegates and the participants who came to observe, about things like, “How do you change the laws in your state such that women are better served in terms of their legal rights?” Or, “What kinds of programs and resources can you establish that will help victims of domestic violence? What are the laws regarding rape and the treatment of victims in your state? And what have we done in our state that has really worked and that you ought to try?” A very high percentage of the people who attended went back and gave interviews to the media. Even if there was political backlash, it really helped bring about reforms, even at the local and state level, that improved women’s lives.
TM: Are there lessons, perhaps for those trying to build on events like Women’s March earlier this year, that can be taken from theNational Women’s Conference?
MS: I actually wrote a blog that was published the morning of the Women’s March in January that specifically addresses that question. That is: For the women’s rights movement to be very effective, they need to achieve the kind of unity across race, class, and, I would add, generational lines, like they achieved in Houston. I emphasize the generational in part because many women’s rights advocates belong to the Democratic Party, and there are lingering tensions between the supporters of Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders, and there was an unexpected generational divide there that still has an impact. That’s one of the challenges I think that they need to address. There’s a wonderful quotation from Coretta Scott King: “Let this message go forth from Houston and spread all over this land. There is a new force, a new understanding, a new sisterhood against all injustice that has been born here. We shall not be divided and defeated again!”