Houston’s Forgotten Historic Role Toward Women’s Equality

August 24, 2020

by Randall Morton, founder of The Progressive Forum

The National Women’s Conference started with a torch relay from Seneca Falls with the final leg down Allen Parkway, a run led by conference leader Bella Abzug, Billie Jean King, and Betty Friedan.

With the recent celebration of the suffragists achieving women’s voting rights, let’s reflect on Houston’s forgotten history in furthering feminine equality and constitutional rights.

From November 18 to 21, 1977, Houston hosted the National Women’s Conference, which feminist scholars compare to the Women’s Rights Convention held by Elizabeth Cady Stanton and suffragists in 1848 in Seneca Falls, New York. Gloria Steinem’s book, Outrageous Acts and Everyday Rebellions, called the Houston convention, “A kind of Constitutional Convention for women – a remedy for the founding fathers who had excluded all women from the first one.” According to the Time magazine edition of November 28, 1977, the Houston conference started with a torch relay from Seneca Falls with the final leg down Allen Parkway, a run that included conference leader Bella Abzug, Billie Jean King, and others in a driving rain. Time noted, “Nothing like it has been seen in the U.S. in at least 129 years – or ever. It’s the largest political conference of women ever assembled.”

Houston’s National Women’s Conference was attended by more than 20,000 women. It took place in the Sam Houston Coliseum, now demolished, with the Hobby Center constructed in its place. The conference was organized after a 1975 United Nations conference in Mexico City celebrating the “International Year of the Woman.” In the United States, President Gerald Ford established a National Commission on the Observance of International Women’s Year to recommend ways to promote equality between men and women. At the same time, congresswomen Bella Abzug and Patsy Mink passed legislation calling for a commission to convene a national women’s conference in 1977 supported by $5 million in federal funds.

Congresswoman Barbara Jordan, a Houston native, delivered the keynote address.

According to the Handbook of Texas Online, the commission was influenced to select Houston because Mayor Fred Hofheinz had appointed Nikki Van Hightower as Houston Women’s Advocate, one of the first such positions in the country. Liz Carpenter of Austin – Ladybird Johnson’s press secretary – and Gloria Scott of Houston were on the planning commission. Leading up to the National Women’s Conference, state convections were attended by 150,000 women and men. They elected 2,000 delegates to attend the Houston conference, which was also attended by 18,000 observers, including the wives of three U.S. presidents – Rosalyn Carter, Betty Ford, and Ladybird Johnson – as well as Coretta Scott King. Congresswoman and Houston native Barbara Jordan delivered the keynote address.

The Houston conference was the first national women’s conference financed and authorized by the federal government, as well as the first to feature elected representatives from every state and territory. For the first time on that scale, women from all over the country validated their shared obstacles and struggles. According to Gloria Steinem in her book chapter entitled Houston and History: “For myself, Houston and all the events surrounding it have become a landmark in personal history. … Figuring out the date of any other event now means remembering: Was it before or after Houston?”

The conference also drew about 15,000 antifeminists who held a counter-conference and rallies downtown. When their leader, Phyllis Schlafly from Illinois, charged that the women’s conference was unrepresentative of women in general, according to Time, “That drew a stinging rejoinder from Gloria Steinem: ‘The people here are infinitely more representative then the legislatures of New York or Utah or Florida.’”

Gloria Steinem: “For myself, Houston and all the events surrounding it have become a landmark in personal history.”

The centerpiece of the plan was the Equal Rights Amendment. Although the ERA didn’t pass,Bella Abzug’s report of the conference recommendations, called the National Plan of Action, was delivered to President Jimmy Carter on March 22, 1978, in a White House ceremony. It was entitled “The Spirit of Houston: The First National Women’s Conference.”

the plan and the new level of feminine awareness did far more than identify a few barriers for women and measures to overcome them. The Houston conference helped to spark a generational movement for women’s equality. The conference plan included broad-based measures for ending sexual discrimination in employment, education, and marital property relations; gay and lesbian rights; abortion rights; women’s health; child care; and more. While equality and voting rights are still a work in progress, let’s not forget a Houston legacy from which the nation continues to benefit.

Randall Morton is founder and president of The Progressive Forum, a Houston lecture series that presented Gloria Steinem at the Wortham Center in 2007 celebrating the 30th anniversary of the National Women’s Conference. View videography of the event.