National Women’s Conference Convenes Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

A majority of delegates to the national women’s conference, the first nationwide conference of its kind since the Seneca Falls Convention of 1848, voted to support a “sexual-preference” resolution. The resolution gave lesbians the support of the women at the conference and the visibility they had been denied in the women’s movement.

Summary of Event

In 1974, President Gerald Ford Ford, Gerald signed an order creating a National Commission on the Observance of International Women’s Year. One year later, Congressmembers Bella Abzug Abzug, Bella and Patsy Mink Mink, Patsy proposed that a national women’s conference be held as part of the U.S. bicentennial celebration. Federal money was earmarked for fifty state conferences to elect delegates to a national conference planned for November 18-21, 1977, in Houston, Texas. Houston, Texas [kw]National Women’s Conference Convenes (Nov. 18-21, 1977) [kw]Women’s Conference Convenes, National (Nov. 18-21, 1977) [kw]Conference Convenes, National Women’s (Nov. 18-21, 1977) Feminism;and National Women’s Conference[National Womens Conference] Lesbian feminism International Women’s Year Conference Women’s Year Conference, International[Womens Year] [c]Feminism;Nov. 18-21, 1977: National Women’s Conference Convenes[1210] [c]Organizations and institutions;Nov. 18-21, 1977: National Women’s Conference Convenes[1210] Jordan, Barbara Mink, Patsy Abzug, Bella O’Leary, Jean Friedan, Betty Schlafly, Phyllis

Bella Abzug.

(Library of Congress)

After learning of the conference, lesbian activist Jean O’Leary, O’Leary, Jean who at the time was co-executive director of the National Gay Task Force in Washington, D.C., alerted Los Angeles lesbian activist Diane Abbitt about the importance of the state conferences for lesbians. Abbitt, Jeanne Cordova, Bobbi Bennett, and others began planning for lesbian representation, visibility, and advocacy at the conferences, at the state and national levels. The California State Conference was held at the University of Southern California (USC) in June of 1977.

At USC, lesbians worked in alliance with heterosexual women to elect what came to be called the Orange Slate: pro-choice, pro-lesbian, and pro-ERA (Equal Rights Amendment). Those who endorsed these issues and other progressive measures became known as the “pro-plan” group, or faction. The name of the Orange Slate was coined as a reference to singer and Florida orange juice spokesperson Anita Bryant, who had led a successful campaign to rescind an LGBT rights statute in Dade County, Florida. John V. Briggs, a state senator who wanted to be governor of California, thought he could do something similar and had managed to place a proposition on the California state ballot that, if it had passed, would have prevented the hiring of lesbian and gay teachers and the firing of those already teaching.

A second group of delegates at the Houston conference was led by antifeminist and antilesbian activist Phyllis Schlafly Schlafly, Phyllis (who is also the mother of a gay son), representing what came to be called the “pro-life, pro-family” faction. Schlafly’s supporters would hold a “counter-conference” on Saturday, November 19, at a location five miles from the national conference venue.

Displaying a newly acquired penchant and skill for Roberts Rules of Order, the Lesbian Caucus and their straight allies at the USC conference managed to elect thirteen out lesbians to the California delegation, including Abbitt, Cordova, Bennett, Marilyn Murphy, Lillene Fifield, Phyllis Lyon, and Del Martin. Out lesbian activists elected in other state conferences included Charlotte Bunch from Washington, D.C., and Betty Powell, Eleanor Cooper, and Ginny Apuzzo from New York.

Lesbians were ecstatic about attending the national conference, but as one member of the Lesbian Caucus noted, “I was pleased that the Lesbian Caucus presented such a unified, strong front, but I was upset [that] we were not able to form a coalition with Third World women due to our lack of sensitivity to their needs.” In the excitement, inclusiveness was at times left behind. Some of those who attended the USC and the Houston conferences felt that the women who had been elected as lesbian delegates had self-selected from specific social and political networks and that, in Houston, an agenda set by a few in leadership positions had not been open for debate.

More than two thousand elected delegates and more than eighteen thousand observers had converged on Houston for the National Women’s Conference (NWC). Lesbians whose issues had been silenced at the International Women’s Year Conference in Mexico in 1975 were extremely visible in Houston. Also, 1977 marked the first time that a significant number of women of color were delegates at a nationwide U.S. women’s conference. While most women of color delegates were not lesbians, many were supportive of lesbian rights.

The opening ceremonies included the arrival of a lighted torch, which had been carried by runners to Houston from Seneca Falls, New York, site of the first women’s rights convention in 1848. The keynote address was delivered by Congresswoman Barbara Jordan, Jordan, Barbara who at the time was not out as a lesbian. Musician Margie Adam, who was out, led the delegates in a hearty rendition of her song, “We Shall Go Forth!” Delegates then prepared to address the issues in the proposed National Plan of Action, which contained twenty-six planks or proposals ranging from health care to affirmative action to sexual orientation. The twenty-third plank, called the “sexual-preference resolution,” "Sexual-preference resolution"[Sexual preference resolution] called for legislation to eliminate discrimination based on “sexual and affectional” preference. It also called for reform of penal codes that restricted sexual relations between consenting adults and for the prohibition of practices that were prejudicial toward lesbian mothers. Lesbians from various delegations and their heterosexual allies worked overtime to get the resolution passed.

For those attending as observers, a $5 admission fee allowed one to visit the vendor area, attend workshops, and view the proceedings from the gallery. Supporters of various issues mingled and performed street theater outside the Albert Thomas Convention Hall. At one point there was an altercation between white supremacists and a large group of women. The women pushed the supremacists away from the convention hall and back into the street. Homophobic and nonfeminist delegates, including Schlafly and her supporters, were vastly outnumbered.

On Sunday evening, November 20, delegate Jean O’Leary read the sexual-preference resolution; speakers on the pros and cons of the proposal followed. Government security officers became concerned after hearing that lesbians would revolt if the proposal was not passed. One conference official assured the officers that no revolt was imminent.

Just before the vote on the lesbian-rights resolution, National Organization for Women representative Betty Friedan, who in 1969 had used the phrase “lavender menace” Lavender Menace;and Betty Friedan[Friedan] to describe what she believed was the menacing effect lesbians had on the women’s movement, spoke in favor of the lesbian-rights resolution and apologized for her past comments. It was an emotional moment.

In spite of opposition from Schlafly and friends, a majority of the two thousand mostly heterosexual women voted to support their lesbian sisters. After the proposal passed, observers in the bleachers and those standing behind a large “Lesbian Rights” banner, joyfully shouted “Thank you sisters!” and released thousands of balloons that said “We are Everywhere!” The vote was not binding, it was simply advisory, yet it was a key moment in lesbian history. Lesbians had gained invaluable visibility. The word “lesbian” began to appear in major newspapers and for some who had fought so long for lesbian rights, there was a brief moment when lesbian sexuality seemed socially acceptable.

Significance

Activist Judy Freespirit, who had attended the conference, remembered watching one newscaster mention, “in a matter of fact way,” that lesbians were present at the conference. Struck by the lack of judgment in his words and voice, Freespirit and some of her friends who were watching the newscast then cried. Freespirit also noted that the National Women’s Conference marked the first time in history that large numbers of out lesbians had mingled with straight women in an intensely political and emotional environment. Freespirit would come to believe that many heterosexual women had shed their ignorance, fear, and lesbophobia, and that these changes were some of the most important and long-lasting effects of the conference.

U.S. president Jimmy Carter Carter, Jimmy later appointed Jean O’Leary to the National Advisory Committee for Women (NACW), which was chaired by Bella Abzug. In January of 1979, after the committee challenged Carter’s “economic priorities,” Carter dismissed Abzug as chair, and more than half the committee resigned in protest. Feminism;and National Women’s Conference[National Womens Conference] Lesbian feminism

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Cottrell, Debbie Mauldin. “National Women’s Conference, 1977.” Handbook of Texas Online. http://www.tsha.utexas.edu/handbook/online.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Grasberg, Lynn. “Thousands Flock to L.A. to Block Bryant Takeover.” Common Sense, July, 1977.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Jay, Karla. Tales of the Lavender Menace: A Memoir of Liberation. New York: Basic Books, 1999.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Kenney, Anne R. “The Papers of International Women’s Year, 1977.” American Archivist 42 (July, 1979).
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">“National Women’s Conference in Houston, 1977.” Jo Freeman. http://www.jofreeman.com/photos/IWY1977.html.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">

    The Spirit of Houston, the First National Women’s Conference: An Official Report to the President, the Congress, and the People of the United States. Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, March, 1978.

May 27-30, 1960: First National Lesbian Conference Convenes

May 1, 1970: Lavender Menace Protests Homophobia in Women’s Movement

March 22, 1972-June 30, 1982: Equal Rights Amendment Fails State Ratification

June 25, 1972: First Out Gay Minister Is Ordained

November 7, 1972: Jordan Becomes First Black Congresswoman from the South

January 22, 1973: Roe v. Wade Legalizes Abortion and Extends Privacy Rights

1977: Anita Bryant Campaigns Against Gay and Lesbian Rights

October 12-15, 1979: First National Third World Lesbian and Gay Conference Convenes

September, 1983: First National Lesbians of Color Conference Convenes

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