(indiepublic.com)The battle was over—and to the curators went the spoils. The blue-and-white lectern emblem proclaiming NATIONAL WOMEN'S CONFERENCE 1977, which had hung for three hectic, fractious, exhilarating days in Houston, last week was headed for Washington's Smithsonian Institution. It will repose with such other memorabilia as the star-spangled banner that flew over Fort McHenry and Charles Lindbergh's Spirit of St. Louis. And well it might. Over a weekend and a day, American women had reached some kind of watershed in their own history, and in that of the nation.
Declared Eleanor Smeal (left) of Pittsburgh, housewife and president of the 65,000-member National Organization for Women: "Houston was a rite of passage." Ruth Clusen of Green Bay. Wis., president of the League of Women Voters, struck the same theme: "Even for women who are outside organizational life, who don't see themselves as part of the women's movement, something has happened intheir lives as a result of this meeting, whether they realize it or not."
What happened, particularly for the 14,000 who attended the Houston meeting, was an end to the psychological isolation that had constrained their activities and ambitions. They learned that many other middle-of-the-road , American-as-Mom's-apple-pie women shared with them a sense of second-class citizenship and a craving for greater social and economic equality. Said Ida Castro, an alternate delegate from New Jersey: "It was a total high to get together and discover so many people who agree on so many issues, and finding that I am not alone." Perhaps more important, many women also found out, as Sharon Talbot, a 19-year-old Smith College student and delegate from Maine, put it, "I didn't have to be a radical to be a feminist. Before I went, I hadn't really decided where I stood. Now I know that all those other women feel the same way I do, so if they call themselves feminists, or whatever, then that's what I am too."
"All those other women" had descended on Houston to argue, lobby, demonstrate and compromise. They were responding to an unprecedented request by Congress to "identify barriers that prevent women from participating fully and equally in all aspects of national life" and recommend ways to eliminate them.
Over and over, the convention was described as "a rainbow of women." No previous women's gathering could begin to match its diversity of age, income, race, occupation or opinion. There were 1,442 delegates who had been elected at 56 state and territorial meetings that were open to the public; 400 more had been appointed at large by an overseeing national commission. They were white, black, yellow, Hispanic and Indian—and four were Eskimo. They were rich, poor, radical, conservative, Democratic, Republican and politically noninvolved. Three Presidents' wives were guests: Rosalynn Carter, Betty Ford and Lady Bird Johnson. (Jackie Onassis turned down an invitation; Pat Nixon was ill.) One step removed from Houston, but hardly less actively involved, were the roughly 130,000 women who had participated in the long delegate-selection process leading up to the conference—part of America's real majority: the 110 million women who make up 51.3% of the nation's population.
By the end of the Houston conference, the women's movement had armed itself with a 25-point, revised National Plan of Action, mainly based on proposals drafted by the commission. By convincing majorities the delegates called for passage of the Equal Rights Amendment; free choice on abortion, along with federal and state funds for those who cannot afford it; a national health insurance plan with special provisions for women; extension of Social Security benefits to housewives; elimination of job, housing and credit discrimination against lesbians, and their right to have custody of their children; an expansion of bilingual education for minority women; a federal campaign to educate women on their right to credit; federally and state-funded programs for victims of child abuse and for education in rape prevention; state-supported shelters for wives who are physically abused by their husbands; and a federal rural program designed to overcome "isolation, poverty and underemployment."
The cost of the programs in the National Plan of Action might well run into billions of dollars. On other grounds as well, women can expect great difficulty in getting some of them past legislators.