November 18–21, 2017 marks the 40th anniversary of the unprecedented, historic, Congressionally mandated National Women’s Conference in Houston. Shelah Gilbert Leader and Patricia Rusch Hyatt, authors of American Women on the Move, will speak about their book during a commemorative conference at the University of Houston in November 2017. Former delegates, International Women’s Year (IWY) staff, academics, students, and members of the Houston Women’s March will consider how to move forward the 1977 feminist goals in an era of backlash.
The televised 1977 meeting was attended by nearly 2,000 delegates elected by some 150,000 women who attended previous open meetings in every state and territory. The purpose of those meetings was to identify barriers to the full and equal participation of women in all aspects of American life; debate the remedies; and vote on recommendations that would constitute a plan of action to be submitted to the President and Congress. The National Women’s Conference twice made the cover of Time magazine and was covered by 1,500 reporters.
Fearing that the “most important event nobody knows about” (Gloria Steinem) would be lost to memory, two former staff members of the IWY Commission resolved to tell the story about how a “small group of determined organizers with copy machines, electric typewriters, landline telephones and postage stamps mobilized America’s most democratic, representative, and inclusive congress of citizens ever.”
Although many of the feminists who played leading roles in this pivotal event in the second wave of the women’s movement have died, their papers are preserved in university libraries and state archives around the country. The challenge was to locate this historical trove of documents. In fact, Patricia Rusch Hyatt had kept her own voluminous IWY journals and newspaper clippings in basement storage boxes but had not opened them for 40 years.
Starting with a research grant from the Schlesinger Library, Shelah Gilbert Leader was first able to reread her own archived IWY papers and those of her former boss Catherine East. Additionally, Leader read Catherine East’s and Mildred Marcy’s transcribed oral histories, which are part of the Schlesinger Library’s Women in the Federal Government Oral History Project Interviews, 1981–1983.
Leader and Hyatt then tracked down the papers of many IWY commissioners and staff to piece together the complex story of planning and carrying out this unprecedented exercise in grassroots democracy in the face of determined opposition by opponents of the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA), reproductive freedom as defined by the Supreme Court ruling in Roe v. Wade, and equal employment and education. How they “flew by the seat of their pants” to ensure that poor, minority, rural, and politically inexperienced women could study the facts of women’s lives, have their say, and connect with others who shared their life stories is the heart of their book.
Despite intense internal disputes over the scope and definition of “women’s issues” as opposed to human rights issues and real clashes of personality, leadership styles, and ideology, the bipartisan IWY commissioners appointed by Presidents Ford and Carter were unanimous in their commitment to inclusiveness, fair and open decision-making, as well as adoption of the ERA, preservation of access to abortion, equal opportunity, and empowerment of women.
Happily, a new generation of historians is eager to research and teach students about the IWY and the National Women’s Conference. They are interested in the policy goals set forth in the 1977 plan of action as the basis for priority setting for renewed activism by the millions of women energized by the 2016 presidential election.