The National Women's Conference of November 18-21, 1977, held in Houston, was the first meeting of its type in the United States since the Women's Rights Convention in Seneca Falls, New York, in 1848. It provided an opportunity to evaluate and make recommendations on the role of women in this country through a discussion of specific issues and ideas. Approximately 2,000 delegates from fifty states and six territories participated in the meeting, which was attended by an additional 15,000 to 20,000 observers. The conference was authorized by public law and supported with federal funds. It was required to include varied economic, racial, ethnic, religious, and age groups. The conference was organized after a 1975 United Nations conference in Mexico City celebrating the "International Year of the Woman," which was later extended to an "International Decade for Women." In this country President Gerald R. Ford had established early in 1975 a thirty-five-member National Commission on the Observance of International Women's Year to make recommendations to promote equality between men and women. Congressional action came at the same time with Public Law 94-167, which was introduced by United States congresswomen Bella S. Abzug and Patsy Mink and called for the commission to organize and convene a national women's conference in 1977, supported by $5 million in federal funds. The law stipulated that before the national conference meetings were to be held in all states and territories to elect delegates and to consider recommendations pertaining to women's issues that would be discussed at the national meeting. The commission selected meeting sites in each state and chose Houston to host the national meeting. State conventions were open to all females over sixteen, and larger states, including Texas, were given federal funds to support their conferences and provide scholarships to encourage participation. These state conventions, which drew some 130,000 participants nationwide, were held from February through July 1977. The Texas state convention took place in Austin in June 1977 with 2,600 participants. Fifty-eight delegates were elected to the Houston meeting, most of whom were considered part of the state's feminist movement. The Texas convention passed most of the national commission's core recommendations, although there were Texas delegates elected to the Houston conference who opposed abortion, homosexuality, and the Equal Rights Amendment, which had been ratified in Texas as the Texas Equal Rights Amendment in 1972. The delegation was led by Owanah P. Anderson of Wichita Falls and Irma Rangel of Kingsville and included women well known in the state's political and civic circles, such as Ann Richards, Sarah Weddington, Eddie Bernice Johnson, Ernestine Glossbrenner, and Marta Cotera.
The significance of the National Women's Conference to Texas was enhanced by the state's role as host to the meeting. Houston had received national attention in 1976 when Mayor Fred Hofheinz named Nikki Van Hightower as the Houston women's advocate, one of the first such positions in the country. This appointment strongly influenced the National Commission on the Observance of International Women's Year to select Houston as its meeting site, although by the time of the conference Van Hightower's position had been eliminated by the city council and she had moved to the mayor's office to continue her work. Two members of the commission were from Texas, Liz Carpenter of Austin and Gloria Scott of Houston. When the national convention began, political conflict and logistical blunders were readily apparent. A combination of overbooked hotels and the late departure of participants at previous conferences led to a prolonged delay in participants' receiving accommodations. Though some cultural groups in the city welcomed the conference, local businesses and the chamber of commerce offered a cooler reception. City police provided security, but a Harris County Republican party official noted that the conference was bringing "a gaggle of outcasts, misfits, and rejects" to Houston. Politically, the conference was dominated by two factions. The "pro-plan" group largely represented the recommendations of the national commission, as sent to the state meetings. The other major group, known as the "pro-life, pro-family" coalition, emphasized its opposition to lesbian rights, legal abortion, and the ERA. This coalition was led by anti-ERA activist Phyllis Schlafly and Indiana state senator Joan Gubbins and included some thirty organizations. While they controlled about 20 percent of the voting delegates, the pro-life, pro-family advocates also held alternate meetings away from the official sessions at the Houston convention center and coliseum. They also requested and received a resolution from Texas governor Dolph Briscoe proclaiming the week of the conference "Family Week in Texas" and placed advertisements in Houston papers attacking lesbian rights.
Despite these events, the conference opened with a clear sense of purpose as well as much fanfare. A torch arrived that had been lit in Seneca Falls in September and carried to Houston by more than 3,000 relay runners. Houston cultural institutions, such as the Rice Design Alliance and the Alley Theatre, sponsored special exhibits featuring women. Skills seminars, film festivals, soccer games, and special exhibits also were held in conjunction with the conference. Dignitaries who traveled to the Houston meeting included Rosalyn Carter, Lady Bird Johnson, Betty Ford, Coretta Scott King, Texas politicians John Hill and William P. Hobby, Jr., and Judge Sarah T. Hughes. Bella Abzug was named by President Jimmy Carter to serve as the presiding officer of the convention; Texas congresswoman and Houston native Barbara Jordan delivered the keynote address. The conference received complete coverage on public television.
Although the National Women's Conference was not a lawmaking body and could only propose nonbinding recommendations, it was directed to arrive at a national plan of action to help remove sex barriers and better utilize women's contributions. This plan, which grew from issues discussed at the state conferences, was to be submitted to the president and Congress within 120 days of the conference. Twenty-six major topics were considered by the delegates, including the ERA, abortion, lesbian rights, child care, minority women, homemakers, battered women, education, rape, health, and a cabinet-level women's department. As expected, the most heated debates arose over the issues of abortion and lesbian rights. The ERA, which at the time of the conference was three states short of the number needed for ratification, was the subject of some controversy before the convention passed a resolution urging its ratification. Even with these points of contention, however, the conference ultimately arrived at broad common ground and approved a plan of action urging federal involvement in all but one area it considered. The only proposal not receiving the convention's endorsement pertained to the establishment of a women's department. Despite the general agreement on the other resolutions, the conference closed on a controversial note as nonfeminist delegates walked out of the meeting, claiming that they had not been given a fair opportunity to express their views.
The National Plan of Action was submitted to the president and Congress in March 1978, and a month later Carter established the National Advisory Committee for Women. The Senate granted a three-year extension for ratification of the ERA within a year of the Houston meeting; this unprecedented move was viewed as a major postconference achievement, despite the final failure of the amendment in 1982. Increased political activism by women and the growth of the National Organization for Women were also linked to the "rainbow of women" who participated in the "spirit of Houston." At the same time, the years soon after the conference did not bring action as quickly as many women hoped, and in many areas, such as abortion, final resolutions have remained elusive. While the National Women's Conference cannot be credited with resolving the complex issues defined in 1977, it is recognized as a major event in the women's movement in the United States.