The National Women's Conference: Taking 1977 into the 21st Century

The National Women’s Conference: Taking 1977 into the 21st Century occurred on the UH campus, November 6-7, 2017. It commemorated the fortieth anniversary of the original National Women’s Conference, the only federally funded conference to study the issues American women face and to make policy recommendations to the U.S. government. That conference was also held in Houston in November 1977.

Our conference—co-organized by Professors Nancy Beck Young and Leandra Zarnow—drew together academics who are now studying the conference as an event important in contemporary history with activists who shaped that history forty years ago.  The results were unique, for an academic conference, and incredibly dynamic.  Our conference featured two major, evening panel discussions, one the McGovern Lecture by Martha Cotera followed by a roundtable with Charlotte Bunch, Gloria Steinem, and Melba Tolliver, and the other a roundtable with Sissy Farenthold and Sarah Weddington.  Major talks occurred over lunch each day with scholar Dr. Marjorie Spruill discussing her recent book, Divided We Stand: The Battle over Women’s Rights and Family Values that Polarized American Politics (New York, 2017) on November 6 and Houstonians Annise Parker, Yolanda Alvarado, and Nikki van Hightower relating their experiences with the conference.  During the two days there were also twenty-five sessions, two plenaries, an oral history commons, a sisterhood salon, a Wikipedia edit-a-thon, and an art crawl.

Over 540 people registered to attend daytime sessions on Monday and almost 450 for daytime sessions on Tuesday.  Almost 800 people registered to attend the McGovern lecture, and 350 registered for the Tuesday evening roundtable.  Our volunteers at the registration stations indicate that turnout over the course of the two days exceeded expectations (typically there is a 50-60 percent no-show rate for free events), with approximately 75 percent of the number of people who registered attending any given event.

The conference required over a year of planning, and it benefitted from collaboration across multiple campus units.  Most important was the host unit, the Center for Public History, which managed the financial component of the conference, provided logistical support, and ensured the event was a success.  Next, the Dean’s office proved crucial by supporting the conference with funding from the McGovern Endowment, helping to fund major parts of the conference.  Women’s, Gender, & Sexuality Studies also proved crucial to the success of the conference as did the CLASS Development team, the CLASS Instructional Design team, Houston Public Media, the History Department, Special Collections in M.D. Anderson Library, the UH Law Center, Kathrine G. McGovern College of the Arts, The Arab-American Educational Foundation Chair in Modern Arab History at the University of Houston, and the Conrad N. Hilton College of Hotel and Restaurant Management.  External funding for the conference came from two organizations: the National Endowment for the Humanities and Humanities Texas.  The conference also benefited from individual philanthropy from Carey Shuart, Carolyn Truesdell, Sallie Morian, and an anonymous donor.  The Black Sheep Agency provided support in kind.

Countless volunteers gave their time and talents with planning behind the scenes and logistics immediately before and during the conference.  Preparing for the conference became a full time job—meaning approximately forty hours a week—for the co-organizers and CPH support team for the three months preceding the conference.