40 Years of Activism for Women: The 1977 National Women’s Conference in Houston, Texas

AAUW members are the National Women's Conference in 1977

AAUW First Vice President Dr. Nancy Joyner (left) and AAUW President Dr. Marjorie Bell Chambers (right) at the National Women’s Conference in Houston, TX, November 1977. Image from AAUW Archives.

November 20, 2017

This month marks the 40th anniversary of the National Women’s Conference (NWC) held in Houston, Texas, in November 1977. The conference was an outgrowth of the International Women’s Year conferences and a presidential commission to explore barriers “that [prevented] women from participating fully and equally in all aspects of life.” The gathering, chaired by Rep. Bella Abzug (D-NY), was authorized by public law during the Carter administration and was the first women’s conference supported by Congress.

While much of the conference has been documented, it is important to turn our focus to the significance of this event in AAUW’s history. Many of our members worked on the state organizing conferences that preceded the NWC. AAUW counted 115 members in Houston representing 37 states as delegates among the total 2,000 in attendance. The conference was a huge event, and, according to the AAUW Journal, also included an estimated 17,000 observers, many of whom were AAUW members. Such well-known figures as activists Gloria Steinem and Coretta Scott King, actor Alan Alda, author Maya Angelou, and athlete Billie Jean King also attended the 1977 NWC.

Although the conference was meant to be a unifying starting point to larger discussions about the status of women, it quickly became polarized over the issue of the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA), which AAUW supported at the time. AAUW was among a number of women’s organizations that organized a caucus in support of the ERA. A smaller anti-ERA group was also in attendance and held a counter-rally organized by spokesperson Phyllis Schlafly.

Despite the hot debate surrounding the ERA, the 1977 NWC gave rise to the expansive National Plan of Action, which dealt with 26 areas of interest to women, including child care, employment, the ERA, reproductive freedom, and diversity.

To this day many of the recommendations found in the National Plan of Action are still at the forefront of AAUW’s legislative agenda. Though women have made social progress within the last four decades, we still have a long way to go before we achieve equity. One thing is certain: Just as in Houston, AAUW will continue to rely on the power of organized women to advance our mission.

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