The National Women's Conference in Houston, 1977 National Women's Conference Button

Browse photos of the Houston Conference.
View buttons from 1977 state and national women's conferences. Read about the NY State Women's Meeting. Read another account of the Houston Conference.

From November 18 to 21, 1977, over 20,000 people gathered in Houston, Texas to celebrate International Women's Year and identify goals for women for the next decade. This was the first and only national women's conference to be sponsored by the federal government.
The impetus came from the United Nations, which proclaimed 1975 to be International Women's Year -- later extended to a decade. On January 9, 1974, President Ford issued Executive Order 11832 creating a National Commission on the Observance of International Women's Year "to promote equality between men and women." Numerous events were held over the next two years. In 1977 President Jimmy Carter chose a new Commission and appointed Bella Abzug to head it.
Early in 1975 Rep. Bella Abzug (D. NY) introduced a bill to hold a national women's conference as part of the Bicentennial celebration. On December 24, 1975, P.L. 94-167 was signed into law by President Ford. Congress appropriated five million dollars to finance state meetings as well as the national conference. All but three of the 56 meetings were held in June and July of 1977. Open to all, about 150,000 people came to elect 2,005 delegates to the national conference and debate 16 resolutions suggested by the National Commission, based on the research and hearings in its 1976 report "To Form a More Perfect Union."
The primary job of the national conference was to formulate and pass a National Plan of Action, based on recommendations from the state meetings. The final Plan had 26 planks, ranging from better enforcement of existing laws to broad demands for a national health security system, full employment, peace and disarmament.
Most of the elected delegates were feminists, but about 20 percent were opponents of most of the ideas feminists stood for. These delegates were elected largely from the 15 states which had not ratified the Equal Rights Amendment. While every plank was vigorously debated, the votes highlighted a distinctive minority view. Only one of the 26 planks -- on equal credit -- was approved unanimously, but another 17 were adopted by very large majorities. On some, such as the ERA, abortion and sexual preference, the debate was acrimonious.
A good deal of ceremony and symbolism accompanied the conference. On September 29 a torch was lighted at Seneca Falls, New York, site of the first women's rights convention held on July 19, 1848. It was carried by a relay of runners the 2,600 miles to Houston, arriving the day before the conference began. Poet Maya Angelou wrote a new Declaration of Sentiments to parallel the one passed by the 1848 convention. The Declaration accompanied the torch on its journey where it was signed by thousands.
The next day the torch was presented to three First Ladies at the official opening of the conference, each of whom spoke about herself as a woman, not just a political wife. They signed the new Declaration and then circulated it among the delegates to sign.
In addition to the delegates, press, and volunteers, several thousand people came just to be at this historic meeting. Every morning they were briefed by women in the government before going to workshops, lectures, exhibits and entertainments. They came to talk with and find each other.

Other accounts of the Houston Conference

Photos of the 1977 National Women's Conference by Jo Freeman

Please click on thumbnails to view the complete image

The Torch arrives
The Torch arrives

The torch arrives at the Houston convention center. IWY Commission Chair Bella Abzug leads the way. In front of her, hand outstretched, is tennis star Billie Jean King.

The Torch is passed

Women Athletes

The torch is passed. From L to R are Lady Bird Johnson, her daughter Linda (barely visible), Rosalyn Carter, Betty Ford, Maya Angelou, Bella Abzug.



Olympic gold medal winners Donna deVarona and Suzy Chaffee join Houston athletes Peggy Kokernot, Michele Cearcy, and Sylvia Ortiz after presentation of the torch inside the convention center.


Prominent American women

A line up of prominent women. From L to R are: Bella Abzug, First Lady Rosalyn Carter, Betty Ford, Lady Bird Johnson, Linda Johnson Robb, Maya Angelou, Coretta Scott King, and Judy Carter.

Reciting the Pledge of Allegiance

Prominent women recite the Pledge of Allegiance. From L to R are: Bella Abzug, First Lady Rosalyn Carter, Betty Ford, Lady Bird Johnson, Linda Johnson Robb, Maya Angelou, and Coretta Scott King.

Maya Angelou   Jean Stapleton


Poet Maya Angelou reads the Declaration that she wrote to accompany the torch. To her left are Bella Abzug, Rosalyn Carter and Betty Ford.



Actress Jean Stapleton was one of the IWY Commissioners who read the Preamble to the National Plan of Action to the delegates.


Inside the conference   Outside the conference

Inside the conference



Outside the conference

Karen Burstein   Kansas turns its back

Karen Burstein acted as a whip for the New York delegation, using paper plates on which were written "YES" and "NO" to tell delegates how the leadership wanted them to vote.



Kansas turns its back on the conference and prays to express its disapproval.


A woman's right to choose   Equal rights for the unborn

Opinions differed on many issues, especially abortion.

Dorothy Haener   Betty Hamburger

Women came from many different organizations. Dorothy Haener, IWY Commissioner and Representative of the United Auto Workers (UAW). Betty Hamburger, delegate from Maryland and Grey Panther activist.

JoAnn Evansgardne    Betty  Friedan

Feminist founding mothers: JoAnn Evansgardner of Pittsburgh and Betty Friedan of New York

New York votes YES    Mississippi votes NO

New York votes YES.



Mississippi votes NO.


Susan B. Anthony II   Bunny Sandler

Susan B. Anthony II, grandneice of the Suffrage leader



Bunny Sandler, delegate from Maryland.



Lesbian Moms are Pro Family   Photographer

While some demonstrated, others just watched.


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