Delegates and observers arriving at the airport in Houston for the International Women's Year conference first found large crowds at the baggage section. Some people couldn't quite get through the crowd. Standing directly in front of the conveyor belt was columnist James J. Kilpatrick with his wife. As the luggage moved quickly along, Eileen Shanahan, assistant secretary of HEW and an ardent feminist, quietly asked Kilpatrick if he would help her with her suitcase. When it came along, he reached over and lugged it off the rack, handing it to her with a gentlemanly flourish. "At your service ma'am," he said.
Shanahan flushed and quickly grabbed her bag. "Please don't tell anyone this happened," she implored the gallant Kilpatrick.
In the lobby of the Regency Hyatt House Friday afternoon, more than 500 people were waiting in line to register. Some had been in line since 8 a.m. Everyone was furious. There was even a story going around that Billie Jean King had arrived at the hotel after running the last mile with a torch (which had been run by relay team from Seneca Falls, N.Y., home of the first women's conference in 1848) only to wait several hours in line herself.
Suitcases were heaped everywhere. Most of the women were surprisingly patient. The International Women's Year (IWY) representatives in red T-shirts finally began passing out numbers so people could get coffee, attend a meeting, visit with friends while they waited. Some of the women began to sing in an effort to pass the time.
"Oh, I met my little bright-eyed gal, Down by, Down by the Riverside, down by the Ri-verrrr-siiiiiiiiide." There voices were merry and high-pitched. In fact the whole lobby sounded like the middle of a bird cage, with all the chirping sounds of women's voices.
The atmosphere was reminiscent of registration day at a women's college with people lugging their suitcases, waiting for room assignments, singing songs and making new friends. It was nice.
But women grew angrier as the registration snafu wore on.
"Can you imagine a group of high-powered men at a convention standing in line to register for 11 hours?" was the question. Naturally the answer was, "Of course not."
But no one made a scene. Among some of the women standing patiently, there was a feeling that they had always been treated like second-class citizens, that they expected to be taken advantage of.
It made other women, those who were more successful, those who had not experienced this in a long time, feel angry and resentful. Angry at somehow being thrust backward in time to another era where they were struggling against discrimination, struggling to make it. It made them feel resentful toward some of these other, less-successful women for being put into the same helpless category. It made them wish they had never come, never had to be identified with this group, made them long for an atmosphere or respect and approval by merit.
It also made them feel ashamed. Ashamed that they would feel that way about other women. There was a lot of ambivalence in that lobby Friday night.
Ambivalence, uncertainty, conflicting emotions. Everyone who was in Houston for the International Women's Year conference felt them.
Joy. Exhilaration. Disgust. Embarrassment. Sentimentality. Confusion. Shame. Anger. Affection. Uneasiness. Amusement. Frustration. Pride.
At once one was proud to be a woman. And ashamed. One wanted to be there and didn't.
At every turn there was something that inspired pride and something that embarrassed.
In Houston, for the first time, women were together at a major political meeting. And women were being - women. They were not acting like men. They were acting like women. Different. Not worse. Not better. Different.
There was an ERAmerica party the first night in the ballroom of the Hyatt Regency. Everyone was there. Nearly 1,000 well-dressed, attractive women of all ages piled in the ballroom to hear three First Ladies and others.
They were excited, pleased to be there. The mood was positive.
Bella Abzug, the convention's presiding officer, stood up first and joked that a congressman had accused her and the other women of wanting to come to Houston to booze it up and carouse with the girls. She told him, she said, that one thing they wouldn't be doing was "calling for call boys."
Big applause and a lot of appreciative laughter.
Betty Friedan spoke. She told now her daughter had told her she was not a feminist. She was a person. "Wells-" said Friedan, "I told her she's where she is because we fought for years and now it's time for her to pay her dues." Big applause.
Liz Carpenter first introduced Betty Ford, then Rosalynm Carter. "She has," said Carpenter of Carter, "the mind of Scarlett and the manner of Melanie."
Boooo. Hisss. "Sexist," someone accused. "Why is it sexist?" a confused woman dared to ask.
The accuser looked blank.
"We should say," said Rosalyn Carter in her dulcet voice, to a hushed crowd, "we should say to those who are wavering because they are ill-informed or confused or because of shrill voices: "You should think about yourself."
There was more selective silence than loud applause on that one. Too many of those women had been thinking too long about everybody but themselves. The lines etched around their eyes and on their foreheads, the wrinkles on their hands showed that.
Coretta King arrived late, after the First Ladies had spoken. Some people thought that was rude. There was a bit of grumbling. The crowd began to break up, some going to the bar, when Kate Millett, feminist lesbian author, grabbed the microphone and began shouting to the women, complaining about the long lines of people waiting to register downstairs and accusing the hotel of deliberately trying to sabotage the conference.
"That's the real story," she cried. It ended an otherwise upbeat party on a rather sour note.
it wouldn't be the last time .
Two men were standing at the bar in the lobby of the Hyatt Regency. They were sipping drinks and staring in amazement at the apparition of hundreds of milling females before them. "You mean," one said incredulously to the other, "that you actually told your wife when you came that they were having a woman's conference at this hotel?"
For the few men at the convention who may well have come with high hopes of making a little time, it was a disappointment.
In fact, when one of them joked that if he didn't get any action over the weekend it had to be because he wasn't trying, another man suggested that it sarcastically also could be because he wasn't a woman.
At first, the few men who had cme as observers or reporters were sought after by the women as dinner companions. But it soon proved to be an interesting turnabout. The women would discuss the day's business, leaving the men out, and occasionally, guiltily turning to the man to ask him how he felt.
To try to make him feel included.
There was really no place for a man at this covention and most of the men who were there looked as out of place and uncomfortable as a woman might look in a locker room, as unwanted as a woman in a board room, as unwelcome as a woman in a club room. You kind of felt sorry for them.
Saturday morning the convention opened. It was striking to see how many average-looking women there were. Somewhere between the feminist meetings of five years ago and now, the radical feminists had lost control, and Middle America had gotten its grip on things. These were wives and mothers and homemakers and career women. These were not crazed, hysterical screaming, dissenting, slobs. These were a lot of nice ladies. Most people were surprised. Especially all the nice ladies.
But somehow, what was most surprising was the scene on the platform. There sat, with their legs neatly crossed, in their conservative, brightly colored dresses, with their sprayed hair, their similing faces, two former First Ladies and the current First Lady.
Somehow their presence made everyone feel it was okay to be a woman, okay to be in Houston, okay to think about yourself.
Some people had to brush aside their momentarily feelings that Jimmy Carter himself had not felt it was important enough to come.
What nearly everyone noted was the complete absence of Kennedy women. "Where is Jackie?" was the most oft-heard question, always with a tinge of bitterness. There was no Jackie, no Ethel, no Eunice, no Jean, no Joan, no Caroline, no Kathleen. "Of course they wouldn't come," said one well-known woman participant. "They wouldn't be the stars."
There was, however, one moment where every woman at the convention had to have felt some emotion, some pride in her gender. That was the exhilarating, touching moment when the young women who were bearing the torch, from Seneca Falls ran into the hall and up to the platform, presenting it to Bella Abzug and the three First Ladies. At the moment tears streamed down the faces of most of the women and even the least emotional had to catch her breath.
Bella Abzug began the opening remarks by quoting a Southern woman who had said after the suffrage amendment was finally ratified. "The pedestal has crashed . . ."
But it was Barbara Jordan who had the crowds on their feet in a wave of ovations when she told them: "Human rights apply equally to Soviet dissidents, Chilean peasants and American women. Women are human. We know our rights are limited. We know our rights are violated . . . Wonder Woman is not a delegate here. The Bionic Woman is not here either . . . This is a time for footsoldiers and not Kamikaze pilots."
There was exultation toward the end of the morning session. It left people on a high they had never expected.
There was, in fact, a sense of victory over those people Barbara Jordan had warned against: "We would not allow ourselves to be brainwashed by people who predict chaos for us and failure for us."
"I'd like to thank my husband, Fred, for letting me be here today," said Phyllis Schlafly to the 11,000 assembled at the so-called Pro-Family counter-convention across town at the Astro-Arena.
The crowd roared its approval. Schlafly's eyes narrowed and she smiled. "I like to say that," she explained when the applause died down, "because it irritates the woman's libers more than anything."
They loved her more than anything. She is their idol, their saint, their spokeswoman, yes woman, for their cause. Their cause, is that women should stay at home. What about Phyllis Schlafly? She never stays at home. They go blank. They haven't thought about that.
They came in their chartered buses and church vans from all over East Texas and Tennessee for this rally. They came with their Bibles, their flags and their signs. They came to show their disgust for the lesbians, perverts and baby killers meeting across town.
"My family couldn't understand why I would come all this way to protest the Lebanese," remarked one woman.
With their "God Is a Family Man" and "Women's Lip" signs, they sat there while the speakers pressed the trigger words.
Schlafly, in her apricot dress and her blonde spit curls, has been at it a long time. She knows how to whip them up into a fervor.
"They're going to drive the homemaker out of the home" . . . "If you make us equal, it takes away the right to have the mothers in the home" . . . "Some do want to take them out of the home and get them into the work force" . . . "They want to forbid you to identify the traditional roles as wives and mothers. I don't think babies need two sex-neutral parents. They need a father and a mother" . . . "They want to relieve mothers of the menial task of taking care of their babies. They want to put them in the coal mines and have them digging ditches" . . . "The ERA will only benefit homosexuals. We reject the ERA."
"The American people do not want ERA, abortion, lesbian privileges and universal child care in the hands of the government" . . . "If you stay with us the ERA will die."
They'll stay. After that. For sure. But after Schlafly and a whole lineup of speakers, there was more. Anita Bryant with her message against ERA. A Vietnam veteran told them about how, if they passed the ERA, their daughters would go to war and be killed and maimed. And then the tour de force, the right-wing congressman from California, Robert K. Dornan.
He told them he had gone over to the convention as an observer and "what I saw shocked me more than anything I have ever seen. I watched three First Ladies, dressed according to White House protocol, approving a sexual perversion and the murder of unborn babies. What a disgrace!"
For the rest of his speech they were on their feet. He talked about Anita Bryant, "this lovely mother with tears streaming down her face, saying she has no hate for the sinners but for the sin (of homosexuality) itself. . . . This perversion is not new. It's George Washington could see those First Ladies nodding for abortion and perversion.
"Let's tell the President his wife was at the wrong rally . . . If you think the homosexuals, lesbians, abortionists are ready to give up you don't know about evil . . ."
With that he pointed to the assembled "national media" and thanked them for being there. Then he told the auidence to give them a standing ovation. They did.
Sunday morning Betty Friedan had an unexpected press conference.
It was necessary, she said, to defeat the Schlafly people. Therefore there was only one relevant issue at the convention: ERA.
Uh, oh, said everyone. Dissension. Rancor. Backbiting. The first cat fight.
"We don't intend to let Phyllis Schlafly take over family, love and God," she said. And she had more to say. She was, in fact, breaking with Abzug and Steinem. She was going to dissent. She felt women were in danger of being co-opted by the Carter administration.
"If words and rhetoric are not translated into political power then the enemy is the Democratic administration and President Carter."
There went unity and harmony. People began to murmur. Friedan noticed. "I had made a resolution to be sweet," she said. "But it's been too easy for them to tell us not to express our differences because of the fear of the right wing. It's the same as fear of communism in the McCarthy era . . .
"I believe," she said, "that if you haven't been playing games, using the women's movement as an ego power trip, then you've got to realize the ERA is the really important thing."
And later she said privately, when asked about her speaking out independently, "Well, I haven't attacked Gloria or Bella, have I?"
There is no question that Bella Abzug was the mother of this convention. She was ubiquitous in her big flop hats, her matching oufits, her ample figure loping about the lobby of the hotel, on the platform, wending her way across the floor of the convention hall, chatting up the delegates.
Everywhere she went the women would come at her, pull at her, tug at her arm, her jacket, her skirt. Bella this and Bella that. It reminded one of a mother taking her brood to the circus and everybody wanting peanuts and popcorn at the same time.
Abzug was different at this convention. She was not the strident, loud, tough politician she has been identified as one the campaign trail. She was softer, warmer, easier, more mellow, funnier than ever before. Somehow she sensed that success or failure lay on her shoulders.
She was stunned that Friedan would have had a press conference and come out against the Plan of Action. "She said that?" asked Abzug, stunned."She had her own press conference. How do you like that?" and she shrugged. "I don't agree with that at all." She sees the merit of the ERA, she says, but thinks it's important for women to discuss and vote on all the issues. And she feels the responsbility of making it go well. She even lost 25 pounds before the conference. "I've been nurturing this thing all along. I've been mothering it I think a lot of people thought it wouldn't be very successful. The fact that it is, is shocking to people."
She paused, then asked again, "So Betty came out against the whole plan, huh? And after Betty told The New York Post that she'd slept in my bed. Actually I loaned her my room. So what is that supposed to mean?" There was only a flicker of irritation. Then she laughed. "Well, I guess she got me the gay vote."
"This may well be a turning point, not only in the history of the women's movement but in the history of the world itself," said Margaret Mead Sunday afternoon as she stood at the podium in the convention ball, appearing slightly frail but still quick of mind.
"We have a chance to act in a way women have not been able to since paleolithic times when they were left behind at the hearth."
She pleaded for an end to nuclear proliferation so that "we may be able to produce a world in which our children and other people's children will be safe."
When she finished speaking the several thousands assembled broke into song: "Happy Birthday, Dear Margaret, Happy Birthday to youuuuuuuu."
At first there was a groan from some of the women on the sidelines. Can you imagine, for instance, a men's convention breaking into song for someone like Albert Einstein? Happy Birthday, Dear Albert? There was some embarrassment about the singing.
But then, on second thought, why should there be? Women are different. And so it was that Bella Abzug closed the first night of the convention by pounding the gavel and saying, to the delegates "Good night my loves."
Gloria Steinem was surrounded by a mob of reporters, photographers, delegates and autograph seekers. Everywhere she went she would attract a crowd. At one point a young woman asked her for her autograph. Steinem asked for an autograph back. "Why do you want mine?" asked the puzzled young woman. "Because I have to trade autographs," Steinem replied. "Otherwise I'll turn into Debra Paget."
Steinem spent her time smoothing ruffled feelings, getting people to compromise.
But even she was terrified that it might all go wrong, that the critics were right, that it would turn out to be one huge cat fight.
"It has so surpassed my expectations," she said. "I've been waking up with anxiety attacks every night. I've been hoping I'd break my knee-caps and wouldn't have to come." She laughed and then recalled that just before she went to Houston she ran into a pregnant friend. "I had the errant thought," she said, "that if only I'd had the wisdom nine months earlier I could be having a baby right now and not here. We care so much."
Steinem laughed at Schlafly group's perception that all the women at the conference are lesbians.
"If we're all lesbians," she said, "where are we getting all these unborn babies to kill."
The lesbian (sexual preference) issue is the one that gets them all, particularly the part in the Plan of Action that calls for no discrimination in the area of custody rights for lesbian mothers. Most people can swallow the fight for elimination of discrimination in the areas of jobs and housing.
A Pro-Life delegate expressed her views and the views of many who were against it in debate. "We would never advocate the stoning or burning at the stake of homosexuals as long as they keep in private the same as adulterers or adulteresses." (This to enormous hisses and boos.) " . . . But they are asking to be socially recognized, accepted and respected. I believe it is not the desire of the majority of the nation. I pray it is not."
Betty Friedan spoke strongly in favor of the sexual-preference plan.
"I am known to be violently opposed to the lesbian issue, in the women's movement," she said. "This issue has been used to divide us too much . . . As someone who had grown up in middle America and has loved men too much I've had trouble with this issue . . . but we must help women who are lesbians in their own civil rights."
Later Jean O'Leary, a commissioner at the convention and the head of the National Gay Task Force, agreed that Friedan's support had probably been the most touching and the most helpful. But she seemed less afraid of the right-wing's antilesbian effort than most of the straight women. "I think," she said, "that Anita Bryant and the whole right-wing thing has pushed us over the top. It has made lesbianism a viable issue. It has made us a household word. What happened at the convention will have a ripple effect. We've got to take the stigma off the word "lesbianism." She chuckled.
"You know," she said. "If everybody in this country who was homosexual turned purple tomorrow, people would be shocked to see who they were and in what positions they were."
There women in their 60's, dressed in pants with pale blue T-shirts with the conference emblem on over their blouses, were in the hotel's ladies room. One was perched on the edge of the sink cooling her bare feet in running water. She was too old, she said, and too tired, to be doing all this walking and standing. The wait in line for room had done her in. But she was still cheerful. "I've loved this last year," she was telling the others softly. "All those local grass-roots meetings with other women planning, on working on this conference. It was almost like having a real job. I worked three times a week. I'll really miss it. It gave me something to do now that my children are all grown. And I'll especially miss the other girls."
The other women nodded in agreement. "Well," she said wistfully, "maybe we can get together every once in a while for coffee."
Monday morning was a disappointment to many of the women who had hoped the convention would end as smoothly as it had begun. But the chair brought up several issues not on the agenda, as did delegates from the floor. The time of adjournment had to be extended until 3 p.m. and the anger and frustration that had started off the weekend Friday with the accommodations snafy began building up again.
But probably that was a more realistic way to end the conference than on a false note of total exhilaration and optimism. Because in the end, reality was soon to take over.
The Hyatt Regency atoned by implementing a quick checkout and in the end, to the despair of many, it was learned that the foulup in accommodations was largely due to bad organization on the part of the IWY committee.
As women struggled with their suitcases, made jokes about how good it would be to see a man again, stood in lines for taxis and exhaustedly made their farrewells, there were again those same feelings of ambivalence that there had been upon arrival.
Ambivalence and questions about a lot of things. Why were people there in the first place? Why did most media organizations send only women reporters? Why had the conference not been a total success? Why were mediocre women able to use the movement as an excuse for their own lack of talent? Why was the hotel staff patronizing to the women guests? Where was the Houston establishment and why were they not celebrating the conventioneers at receptions and dinners as they would normally do? Why didn't the local editors see that there were enough papers at the hotel each morning? Why was everyone so paranoid?
Still, there was the nagging question of what had been accomplished. In the end, as one fatiqued and slightly confused delegate pointed out, nothing was accomplished. "They will just send the message to President Carter and tell him what we want. Isn't that ironic?" she asked. "After all this. Isn't it like saying. 'Now Daddy will take care of us?'"
"We are women," she said. "We can do it ourselves."