The following articles offer perspectives on two historic events - the National Women’s Conference in Houston in 1977 and the National Women’s 20th Anniversary Conference in 1997. If you are interested in seeing a copy of the Plan of Action, please contact the WWN office.
The National Women’s Conference
Houston, November 1977
by Connie Threinen
It is almost time for a 25th anniversary celebration of The National Women’s Conference that was held in Houston in November 1977. It deserves a celebration - it was the highpoint of the Decade for Women (1975-1985), an extension of International Women’s Year (1975). The Conference gave the impetus that led to the creation of the Wisconsin Women’s Network. It was big; it was overwhelming; and feminists can always be proud of the event and what was accomplished there.
By 1975 feminists had already made considerable progress at both state and federal levels in reforming laws that had denied full citizen rights to women. For example we had the 1963 Equal Pay Act, Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, Title IX of the Education Amendments, and in Wisconsin we had changed such laws as those on employment advertising, sexual assault, and credit, and were well on the way with family law. In April 1975 President Ford appointed a National Commission on the Observance of International Women’s Year which was to prepare a progress report for him. With considerable pressure from national leaders like Bella Abzug and Jill Ruckelshaus, Congress appropriated $5 million for a national conference to do this.
Women had never before or since had $5 million to further our cause - it was very exciting. The funds were distributed to every state to use for meetings to consider the report and to elect delegates to a National Women’s Conference. In December 1976, the National Commission, with advice from leaders in each state, appointed the State Coordinating Committees. The job of chairing that committee fell to me when it appeared that my office in University Extension provided a good base of operations. It turned out to take every bit of energy I had, but it was a fantastic learning experience.
Much credit goes to the National Commission for the guidance and assistance they gave to the state committees; and we had money, a $50,000 grant! We had funds for staff and for services such as printing. Norma Briggs, executive director of the Governor’s Commission on the Status of Women, was very helpful.
Our Wisconsin State Meeting was held June 3 - 5, 1977, with 1,200 women coming to Madison. Supreme Court Justice Shirley Abrahamson, as the highest ranking female State official, gave a keynote address; there were workshops and a host of other events. Over 150 candidates were nominated for the 26 delegate and 3 alternate positions who would go, all expenses paid, to Houston. Among the participants there was a wide range of ages and locations, and 11 delegates were women of color. There were even a few who opposed the women’s movement. The last line on our program said “On to Houston…”
For me, the Houston event was something of a relief. I felt like a very small participant in a huge event, as we Wisconsinites - 29 delegates and many supporters - found ourselves among almost 2000 national delegates and about 18,000 visitors and observers.
Kathryn Clarenbach had become the executive director of the Conference when the initial coordinator resigned. At booths in the huge exhibit hall were women from all over the world. On stage were notables from all the living First Ladies to poets, authors, actors, musicians and athletes. Barbara Jordan’s keynote speech brought tears to many of us. Everyone who was present was elated and emboldened by our experience.
The advance planning for the business of the conference-preparing a National Plan of Action-was excellent. With many amendments, the Plan was passed. The high tension that everyone felt over the resolution on rights of lesbians exploded with the release from the balcony, where non-delegate visitors sat, of hundreds of balloons marked “We are everywhere.” It is difficult now to believe how controversial that resolution was at the time. It passed easily. WWN still has a booklet that lists both the national and Wisconsin Plans of Action.
As we parted, we looked forward to finding that our communities had paid attention, that we had impressed the nation with our cause and our spirit. After all, all the big news media been there in Houston with us! But on that very weekend Egyptian President Anwar Sadat made his famous first visit to Israel by an Arab leader-world news that preempted everything else. Since then the mid-east crisis has had its ups and downs. Perhaps the women’s movement has too. But the effects of International Women’s Year and the Decade for Women continue to raise the status and lives of women here and around the world. We have something to celebrate next year.
Connie Threinen is a past chair of the Wisconsin Women’s Network.
National Women’s Conference 20th Anniversary - 1997
by Sunshine Hedlund
There I stood in a room full of 2nd Wave feminists, waiting for my turn at the microphone, with my heart racing and my hands shaking. They were the well-known women I had learned about in my Women’s Studies courses, women such as Betty Friedan, Bella Abzug, Charlotte Bunch and Faye Wattleton. And they were women I had never learned of before; the lesser-known women of the 2nd wave whose stories were more inspiring and tangible to me, women such as Sarah Harder, Gene Boyer, Mal Johnson, Mim Kelber and Rita McCullough.
I was at the plenary session of the 20th Anniversary Celebration of the National Women’s Conference in 1997. It was an opportunity for participants to respond to the Beijing Platform for Action. As I was looking through the book I came to a section, “Make efforts to ensure self-acceptance and self-esteem in young women who realize that their sexual orientation is not heterosexual.” As soon as I read this statement, I knew that I had to challenge it. How can we begin to talk about promoting self-acceptance and self-esteem in lesbian and bisexual girls and young women, if we can’t even say the words “lesbian” or “bisexual”?
I was sitting with two women students from California, and we all had something to say. The theme of the conference was “Looking Back, Moving Forward.” It was supposed to be about celebrating women’s accomplishments and honoring the past, and about passing the torch to the younger generation of feminists. Our experiences at the conference, however, made us believe the idea of passing the torch to a younger generation of feminists might remain an idea never translated into action. So we went to the mic and stood one behind the other - nervous, trembling, searching for the right words.
By the time I spoke, I had rehearsed my statement over and over again in my head. I was brief, to the point, and scared as hell. But when I finished speaking a few people started clapping, and soon others were clapping and standing up. I was shaking, excited and scared and still recovering when a woman came to tell me that she wanted us to come on stage so Betty Friedan could pass us the torch - literally and symbolically. She would be passing us the actual torch carried from Seneca Falls to Houston for the first and only federally funded National Women’s Conference. And she would be passing the symbolic torch of feminism to the next generation. It was all too much - this was the last thing I expected after challenging that room full of 2nd Wave feminists.
The main thing I remember from standing on stage was looking at Sarah Harder, my mentor, and thanking her for all she had done for me. She was the Coordinator of the Women’s Studies Program at UW-Eau Claire, and I was her clerical assistant. Sarah brought me with her to the conference, and she changed my life. Attending the National Women’s Conference changed my life as well. Sarah found her feminist voice at the National Women’s Conference in 1977, and I found my feminist voice at the National Women’s Conference in 1997.
I returned to UWEC inspired and ready to do all I could to become a feminist activist and to start a feminist group on campus. Currently, I am the Women’s Issues Director at United Council of UW Students, and am also serving as Director-at-Large for the Wisconsin Women’s Network. Next year I hope to pursue a Master’s degree in Women’s Studies at UWEC.
Sunshine Hedlund is a past women’s issues director for the United Council of UW Students and past member of the WWN board of directors.
This article first appeared in the March 2001 issue of the Wisconsin Women’s Network newsletter The Stateswoman.