Last Mile (1977)
Edith Grinnell sent this account of the torch arriving
for the Houston Conference. Her daughter Peggy was one of the torch bearers.
weather was not good that day. The crowd waited patiently at Memorial
park in the spattering rain, but it didn't dampen the spirit of the occasion.
Hundreds of us anticipated the arrival of three torch bearers who would
carry the torch the last mile to the opening ceremony of the first National
Women's Conference at the Albert Thomas Convention Center, November 18th,
of volunteer women runners from 15 states ran across America to carry
the torch, relay style, a segment of the 2610 miles from Seneca Falls,
New York to Houston, Texas. On September 28 it had left the birthplace
of the first women's rights convention that had been held in July 1848,
and would arrive soon today, November 18.
I left my office well before lunch to be there when the torch bearers
arrived. We cheered as they came together for the final mile run. They
were dressed in shorts and blue T-shirts which were emblazoned with the
logo of the Women's Rights Movement: "A FLAMING TORCH SYMBOLIZING
WOMEN ON THE MOVE TO LAUNCH THE WOMEN'S CONFERENCE".
These three young runners from Houston represented women of all races
and ages with the common goal to celebrate women's rights. These women
were Hispanic, African American, and Caucasian. I was there to see my
daughter, one of the three, carry the torch. I wanted to shout, "That's
Together they raised the torch and began the last mile. Everyone in the
crowd fell in behind them. I recognized Bella Abzug, IWY Commission Chair
— at the head of the line in her famous oversized hat. Betty Friedan
and tennis star, Billie Jean King. Liz Carpenter, former Press Secretary
for Lady Bird Johnson was up ahead. We followed the flame to the doors
of the Coliseum. Billie Jean King waved to the thousands women who waited
at the entrance to the Convention Center. She, too, held the torch as
they entered the building where thousands were waiting to greet them.
My path to that day was accidental, but not atypical. I was caught up
in the Women's Movement when I moved back to Houston in 1968. By the time
of the National Women's Conference I had heard all the old jokes about
"that shocking book", The Feminine Mystique by Betty Freidan.
My marriage of 25 years was dissolving. Our four children were having
a hard time adjusting to divorce as well as being unhappy over our move
to Houston. As a divorced woman I had no credit record, although I had
paid all our household bills for years. American Express, which had been
our main credit card for years, turned me down. I needed a job but hadn't
worked in over 20 years. My typing ability, not my Bachelor's degree in
journalism, opened doors during my job search. Eventually I found a job
in my own field. Things began to fall into place, very slowly.
The Women's Rights movement impacted my life by giving me the courage
to accept the challenge of change. When I overheard women and men, too,
joke about ERA, how there would be no more opening of doors for women
or giving up their seats, I thought, "they missed the whole point
of equal rights! Had they not heard of equal pay for equal work?"
Nonetheless, I knew better than to ask to get off work to attend the three
day conference. No one in my own office was the least bit interested in
the women's conference. In fact I sensed they disapproved. But I had to
go down to the park to proudly watch my daughter and the others carry
the flag the last mile.
I regretted not having been a part of the convention, but my daughter,
Peggy Kokernot, gave me her firsthand account. I was grateful she had
the opportunity to be part of this historic event. Little did either of
us dream that this link to the convention would play an important role
in her life.
Peggy had participated in college athletics during her school years. After
Title IX was enacted to give women equal funding for sports, she started
the first women's track team at Trinity University in San Antonio. She
went on to win 4th place in the state for the 880 yard run. After graduation
she competed in Houston races. She started with 5K and 10K runs, and gradually
worked up to the grueling 26.2 mile marathon competition.
While preparing for the January l978 Houston marathon, she received a
telephone call in mid-November from Mary Ann McBrayer, who was the Houston
contact for the relay committee for the Conference. She and her husband,
Tom, were runners who volunteered to work in many Houston running events
which included the annual Houston Marathon.
She called to tell Peggy the relay committee faced a serious problem in
Alabama and she had been asked for help in finding a womanto run in Alabama.
Schlafly, the National Chairwoman of STOP ERA, a national right wing
movement, had convinced the Alabama women runners not to support
"this radical group of equal rights women under any circumstances!"
and she succeeded in stopping them. There was a 16-mile stretch in Alabama
which had no available runners for the relay. The torch bearers would
be stopped in their tracks with no one there to take the torch and continue
Knowing Peggy was a marathon runner, Mary Ann asked her if she would agree
to fly from Houston to Alabama to carry the torch through the area which
had been boycotted by local joggers. Unless Peggy had taken the challenge
the torch run might have ended there. She ran the entire distance holding
the torch. Shortly after her Alabama run, McBrayer invited Peggy to be
one of three women runners selected to carry the torch the last mile in
Houston, November l7th.
When they entered the Coliseum, the applause was deafening, Peggy said
over 2000 delegates rose to cheer and applause. They made their way
the crowd to the stage where the two former First Ladies (Betty Ford
and Lady Bird Johnson) and current First Lady, Rosalyn Carter,
rose to accept the torch on behalf of the Women's Conference.
A photograph of Peggy which was taken during the opening ceremony by
a TIME magazine photographer appeared on the cover of TIME, December
1977. It was a complete surprise to Peggy and the "icing on the
for her. TIME quoted Peggy as saying she wanted the Olympic Committee
to offer equal status for women in sports, and cited the need for a
marathon to be included in future Olympics. It had been deemed too difficult
for women to run the 26.2 miles for the marathon course.
I went into a tiny shop outside my office and bought their entire supply
of TIME for Peggy. That's when my co-workers at my office learned more
about the Conference and my daughter! I am still amazed at the people,
particularly women, who at that time didn't want equal rights. They
polite at my office, but to them, equal rights meant never having a man
let you on the elevator first, never having a man open your car door,
not paying for your dinner together, not giving you a seat on a bus.
Shortly after the women's convention, Peggy went on to win the 1978 Houston
Marathon in January. The publicity of her victory and having her picture
on the cover of Time as well, gave her confidence. Strength gathered
from her ERA experience presented opportunities which otherwise might
Seven years later, the Olympic trials for women began. Peggy qualified
to enter the trials along with two hundred and fifty other women. Three
American women earned the honor to run in the first Olympics for the
USA in 1984, when Joan Benoit of the U.S.A, won first place for women.
She was asked by the local CBS television station to do a weekly program
with tips on running. A year later her television career was launched
when she became a local host on the NBC television affiliate in San
for nationally syndicated P.M. Magazine.
The Conference provided Peggy's first exposure to women who freely proclaimed
their activism. After her 20 years in television, her own activism has
taken her down another path. She now speaks out on issues concerning
animal rights, such as the "intolerable injustices animals face
in the factory-farming industry, and the fur-fashion industry." Peggy
also actively promotes spaying and neutering programs, with free mobile
units for those
who cannot pay, which, she says, "helps reduce the number of the
countless starving and suffering stray animals." She is also against
the use of live animals in research.
Peggy currently resides in Columbus, Ohio, with her husband Rick and their
four rescued dogs and three cats. I remarried, and we retired to the hill
country near Austin.