It’s hard to believe it now, but once upon a time, about 40 years ago, 2,000 delegates (all but six, women) and more than 15,000 spectators descended on Houston, the site of the first ever National Women’s Conference, a federally funded four-day convention created to bring American women together to figure out what the government could do to improve their lives.
Everyone was there. Famed tennis player Billie Jean King helped carry a torch that had been lit in Seneca Falls, New York, the location of the first women’s rights convention in the U.S., held in 1848. Attendee Maya Angelou wrote a poem, “To Form a More Perfect Union,” that thousands signed and presented to First Lady Rosalynn Carter and former First Ladies Betty Ford and Lady Bird Johnson. Barbara Jordan, who had grown up in Houston and, just four years before, become the first African-American woman from the South elected to the U.S. House of Representatives, opened the convention with a rousing keynote address. Also present was anthropologist Margaret Mead, who declared that the conference was going to change the lives of women, the fate of the country, and, possibly, the world.
But things didn’t play out that way. Houston was chosen to host the conference because it was one of the only cities in the nation that had created a position for a women’s advocate to watch over female interests in city business. However, the city’s second advocate, Nikki Van Hightower, was pushed out of her position—the all-male Houston City Council cut her salary to a single dollar bill before eliminating the position entirely—shortly after Houston’s selection was announced.
When the conference opened at the Sam Houston Coliseum on November 18, 1977, city officials provided law enforcement and other basic services required for such a large event, but they weren’t exactly welcoming.
As delegates and spectators crammed themselves into overbooked hotels across the city, a Harris County Republican official complained that the conference was bringing “a gaggle of outcasts, misfits and rejects to Houston.” Then–Gov. Dolph Briscoe went one better, responding to conservative pleas to take a stance against the women’s movement by declaring the week of the conference Family Week in Texas. Meanwhile, other conservatives ran ads in the local newspapers attacking the push for lesbian rights.
Still, conference attendees were almost giddy as they got down to work caucusing and deliberating over the various positions and recommendations they were considering—the main task of the delegates was formulating a National Plan of Action that would help promote equality between U.S. men and women. Fiery discussions ensued over everything from child-care funding to sexual orientation, the nuclear family, education for the disabled, rights for women who were minorities, disabled and aging, reproductive freedom, the Equal Rights Amendment, even nuclear disarmament. Speakers included the chairwoman of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and the assistant secretary of the United States Department of Commerce.
While delegates were duking it out over their final report to President Jimmy Carter’s administration, thousands were gathering across town at the Astro Arena for the Pro-Life, Pro-Family Rally, an alternative conference organized by ardent conservative Phyllis Schlafly.
Schlafly, a carefully quaffed blond who’d spent the early ’60s supporting Barry Goldwater before training her laser focus on opposing the Equal Rights Amendment, originally tried to prevent the conference from happening at all. When she found it was impossible—the legally mandated event was the end result of a push to focus on women’s rights that had been supported by both Presidents Ford and Carter, and Congress had already provided $5 million in federal funding—she decided to gather together conservative and far-right Christian groups. In a masterstroke, she encouraged them to ignore their differences and focus on what they had in common, which was the many things they all opposed: feminism, abortion rights, the ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment, and any acceptance of homosexuality.
On one side of Houston, women were taking part in debates, spontaneous bursts of song, and lectures on self-defense and consciousness raising. On the other, Schlafly started things off by thanking her husband for allowing her to be there, winning a roar of approval from the 15,000 or so people who’d gathered to hear her speak. When the women’s movement started out, it had crossed parties, class, race and sexual orientation, but clearly, a divide was opening up. Schlafly took full advantage of the opportunity.
“It was a moment of tremendous hope, but one that was already being truncated by the reality of the times,” Nancy Beck Young, UH history professor, says of the gathering today.
The conference had risen out of the progressive movement, stemming from faith in the ability of the federal government to alter society for the better. But by 1977, that conviction had been corroded by the Watergate Scandal, the loss of the Vietnam War, and a struggling economy. “For a movement to really have a chance of being implemented, you need an expansive, powerful government where the citizenry believes in the government’s ability to do good things and to improve their lives,” Young says. “But by the late ’70s, the government was no longer expanding or taking the approach that led to FDR’s New Deal and LBJ’s Great Society, and the public’s trust had been severely shaken by Vietnam, by a president who lied.”
Even within the conference itself there were clashes, as Martha Cotera, longtime activist and member of the Texas delegation, remembers. Cotera was already wary going in, concerned that organizers’ all-embracing approach, taken to gather together delegates from all 50 states and six U.S. territories, was going to allow conservative attendees to block the convention from taking a stand on issues like abortion. “I think they wanted to be very inclusive, but they didn’t realize that not everyone would have the same motivations and that some of those women were there to vote us down. You’re not going to invite a rattlesnake into your home because you want to be inclusive of all animals,” Cotera says now. “We couldn’t make them understand that.”
As the weekend unfolded, the event devolved from an initial lovefest, complete with conference chairwoman Bella Abzug blowing kisses as she bid the delegates goodnight, into bitter arguments that Abzug struggled to keep control from her seat on the dais.
Melba Tolliver, a TV reporter from New York who covered the conference for NBC, was convinced she was witnessing history, proceedings that would be remembered the way the March on Washington and the Apollo 11 moon landing were already being commemorated. “I was in awe. I really felt this was the beginning of a new political party,” she says. “It didn’t turn out that way.”
Ultimately the convention delegates cobbled together a platform with 26 planks, each detailing issues the federal government should work on. But they had missed the window. The plan and the report, “The Spirit of Houston,” were submitted to the Carter administration in March 1978, but nothing was done and little was heard of it afterward.
Why? Marjorie Spruill, author of Divided We Stand: The Battle Over Women’s Rights and American Values That Divided a Nation, explains that while the conference united feminists from across the ideological spectrum and from all walks of life, it was not the start of something bigger. Meanwhile, the opposite happened on the conservative side. “Before Houston, the religious right was divided, because everyone was trying to win for their own religion, essentially. But Phyllis made it clear you didn’t have to agree on everything, that they had more reasons to unite than to stay divided,” Spruill says. “Houston built their confidence. When they saw how impassioned people were and that people were coming from all over the country to support these ideas, they realized that if they just hung together, they could become a real political force.”
Spruill contends that that Houston weekend, held two years before televangelist Jerry Falwell founded the Moral Majority political action committee, was the true birthplace of the Christian right and its influence over the GOP. As for Schlafly, she remained a force to be reckoned with, helping to secure the 1980 Republican presidential nomination for Ronald Reagan and, decades later, shortly before her death, bring the Christian right around to Donald Trump.
Last year, Gloria Steinem attended a two-day reunion conference at UH, an event commemorating the conference, which her magazine, Ms., had described as “four days that changed the world” back in the afterglow 40 years ago. But beyond a few local news stories, the reunion was barely a blip on Houston’s radar, and received no national coverage to speak of. Steinem now describes Houston as “the most important event that nobody knows about,” according to The New Yorker.
“They won, really. We knew Phyllis Schlafly was going to try to disrupt the conference, and we expected that women in the conference would stage a walkout—none of that was a surprise,” Cotera says. “The only thing we did not expect, in retrospect, is how successful women like Phyllis Schlafly were after the conference in defeating the women’s agenda. They helped the Republicans get power and eroded equality over the next three decades. They won and we lost, and you can see that in how things are now.”