"We are here to move history forward." Thus begins the National Plan of Action adopted at the National Women's Conference in Houston 10 years ago this month.
Surrounded by thousands of observers, 2,000 delegates from all the states and territories met for four days at the first and only federally sponsored women's conference. They adopted the 25-plank national action plan, calling for new legislation, policies and programs for women in areas ranging from arts and the humanities to welfare and poverty. The plan, put in a report called "The Spirit of Houston," was then presented to President Jimmy Carter and the Congress in March, 1978 by the organizing body, the National Women's Commission.
What has happened to the plan and how has history dealt with women since then? Both questions have been on the minds of many, especially those involved in the Houston conference, as the anniversary date rolled around.
"We've moved very considerably," Bella Abzug, a former representative from New York who presided over the conference, said last week. "There's been important legislation at the federal and state level. We've opened jobs and careers, changed gender-based laws. There are many women in elective and appointive office."
Abzug's perceptions are supported by some of the preliminary findings of a recent survey commissioned by the National Women's Conference Committee, a privately funded continuing committee formed to carry on the work of Houston.
The survey reveals a flourishing and varied grass-roots movement, ranging from Ladyslipper, the wholesale supplier of "feminist" music founded in 1979 that sends out 50,000 publications a year, to "Our Bodies, Ourselves," the runaway best seller of the Boston Women's Health Collective that has sold 2.5-million copies in 11 languages. And, up from zero in 1970, the creation of women's centers, 4,000 of them, about half on campuses.
In addition, there are now 503 women's studies programs, more than 700 displaced homemaker groups, and a feminist press that consists of 500 newsletters, 110 presses and publishers, 10 news services.
Susanna Downie, a research assistant in women's studies at the University of Pittsburgh who conducted the survey, said of all the issues in the plan of action, "the violence issues--battered women, child abuse, rape--have attracted the most energy."
Today, Downie said, there are 1,200 battered-women's shelters and more than 600 rape crisis centers. In 1970 there were none. Partly as a result of Houston, she said, local groups formed the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence in 1978. In some states, monies received from the Victims of Crime Act, passed in 1984, go to battered-women's shelters. And the Family Violence Prevention and Services Act of 1984 has resulted in $8.5 million for battered women. And recently, she said, a national hot line, (800) 333-SAFE, has been established.
But what the survey is also revealing, she added, is that a wide range of now-familiar concerns came to the surface only within the past 10 years. The National Plan of Action, she added, did not take on problems that included surrogate mothers, date rape, homeless women and pornography.
Yet, said Sarah Harder, president of the American Assn. of University Women, "We've learned a lot. We've become very savvy over the last 10 years." Her association, a 106-year-old, 200,000-member mainstream organization, has itself become increasingly activist and feminist and is now part of the Council of Presidents, a coalition of presidents of the major national women's organizations that was formed after Houston.
Sounding not impatient with looking back but restless to get moving ahead, Harder added: "The time is ripe to mobilize the middle."
Citing as indicators the 1986 elections that she said "repudiated Reagan's social agenda," the defeat of "anti-choice" (regarding abortion) referendums in four states and the recent rejection of Judge Robert Bork as a Supreme Court nominee, she said: "The middle has been changing. They are ready to be mobilized and move."
Kathryn Clarenbach, a professor of political science at the University of Wisconsin, served as executive director of the National Women's Commission until the group was terminated in 1978. She has followed the effects of the Houston conference closely.
"The Plan of Action served as a unifying tool for groups of women all over the country," she said. "It was addressed to the government but, in reality, women have had to do a lot themselves. To a large extent, they turned to state and local governments, because there were a lot of deaf ears in Washington. In this process this agenda (of the plan) has become the agenda of virtually every state."
For example, she said, 46 states are now doing pay equity research and/or taking remedial action, and 14 states have approved wage increases based on comparable worth.