A couple of months ago–at the annual convention of the Veteran Feminists of America–I saw the most marvelous documentary. It’s called “Sisters of ’77,” and it’s about the National Women’s Conference that took place in Houston from November 18-21, 1977.
Who knows, some of you might even have been there. But for those of you who weren’t, it was a VERY big deal. It was the first and only time the federal government ever sponsored a conference on women’s rights. 20,000 people attended, including 2,000 delegates representing women from all over the country. The conference was chaired by the redoubtable Bella Abzug, and was attended by such magnificent folks as Barbara Jordan, Maxine Waters, Coretta Scott King, Sissy Farenthold, Ann Richards, Gloria Steinem, Betty Friedan, Lady Bird Johnson, Betty Ford, and Rosalynn Carter.
A lighted torch was carried by women runners all the way from Seneca Falls, New York–site of the nation’s first women’s rights convention in 1848–to Houston. For the last mile, it was carried down Allen Parkway to the Albert Thomas Convention Center by a group of women that included Wilma Rudolph and Billie Jean King. (The Albert Thomas Convention Center is now an arts complex called Bayou Place, by the way.)
26 resolutions regarding women’s rights were proposed and debated, and 25 were passed. In March of 78, these resolutions were submitted to President Carter, who proceeded to act like a total wimp, and back away from his commitment to women’s rights, in order to strengthen his chances for reelection in 1980.
And we all know how well that turned out. (Perhaps there’s a lesson to be drawn from this, President Obama?)
Nevertheless, the National Women’s Conference was a major event in Women’s history. In Texas history. And in American history. At the time, women represented only 5% of the US Congress. The conference helped create a clearly defined agenda for the women’s movement. And according to Ellie Smeal, it helped to launch the movement globally. It also built self-esteem in the women who took part in it. Towards the end of the film, Ann Richards (who was chosen by Bella Abzug to present the ERA resolution) says the conference “caused a spark in so many women [who knew] the fight was worth it…and that there were thousands of women who would help them.”
But the very best line in “Sisters of ’77” is delivered by Gloria Steinem. She says that, at the time, the women’s movement was still defining itself, still formulating its consciousness. “You can’t create change until you have the imagination of change,” she says. (Isn’t that fabulous?) And the National Women’s Conference helped women to do that–together and democratically.
It’s an inspiring, much-forgotten moment in history. In Houston, there’s not even a plaque to commemorate it–which is something I intend to do something about. (Is there anybody out there who knows how you go about getting a plaque put up?)
AND through the magic of Youtube, you can now see this marvelous documentary for free! Here’s a link, courtesy of PBS.