DMH Spotlight "The Legacy of the First National Women's Conference" at the Organization of American Historians Centennial meeting - remarks by Diana MAra Henry for the Rountable. Back

Diana Mara Henry a panelist at the Organization of American Historians annual Meeting, Minneapolis, March 29-April1, 2007. Her remarks follow:

Women on the Move

Fourth Decade Follow-Up Survey and Oral History of the Legacy

of the First National Women’s Conference

Concept and Photographs by Diana Mara Henry

In the thirty plus years since the First National Women’s Conference, brought  women to Houston in November 1977,  what have these activists continued to do for themselves and others/ How do they articulate the aspirations they brought as delegates to the conference, honored speakers, staff or Commissioners of the President’s Commission on International Women’s Year? What were their goals then and have they been able to realize these goals? What did the conference bring to their lives in terms of connections made and lessons learned? Have these women stayed active in the public arena? Have their positions on the issues changed? Where are they now?

The last question is the key to the success of this study:  but the search for these ”20,000 women, men and children” who were there  (according to the official report, The Spirit of Houston)  will in itself create interest, discussion, and reawakening of the commitments and ideals of  what may be considered the crowning event of Second Wave Feminism.

Many of the delegates went on to do great things: Ann Richards had just won her first election, to become the first female commissioner of Travis County; 13 years later, she would be elected Governor of Texas.  Claire Shulman became the First Borough President of Queens.  Mariko Tse pursued a career in film. Three Presidents’ wives were there; Betty Ford went on to become a distinguished advocate for others suffering from alcohol and substance abut and to found treatment centers to minister to their needs.     

What of the other hundred of delegates, some as young as 17, such as Colleen Wong, of California?  The nuns, the farm women, the welfare rights mothers, the sexual preference advocates? What did they go on to do with their lives? Did the conference serve as an inspiration and in what way? Have they stayed in touch and worked with others who were there?

After more than 30 years, while some of the leaders sadly are gone (Bella Abzug, Barbara Jordan, Patsy Mink) the women of the rank and file have now assumed their role in history, and their contributions to family, community and country can be ascertained. All we need to do is find them- and that, with the help of the Internet, can also be done. State by state, the delegates lists can be researched and contacts established.

Diana Henry has been in touch with some, such as one of the Last mile’s torch bearers, Peggy Kokernot (now Kaplan) who ran marathons as a US Marine and has become an animal rights activist; Chief Pulu Peneueta, of American Samoa, whose family has established a website honoring her memory, the conference coordinator, Lee (now Rabbi Leah) Novick, and Liz Carpenter, who continues to cheer on and support her with wit and wisdom.

We can put the contact sheets of more than 1,200 images made of them by the Conference’s official photographer online, and ask them to identify themselves therein. We can ask them how they came to be at the Conference, and to tell us what they experienced and accomplished there. We can ask them to send us a photograph representing their role and/or interests and participation in family or community since 1977. We can ask them to describe what they have done since, whether their values have changed or become more focused, and what role their participation in the conference played in their life’s story.  What will emerge will be as diverse and inspiring as the conference in its day, and hopefully keep us on the mission Maya Angelou penned – “To Form a More Perfect Union.”  

What can result of this search? A book, a funded website, an exhibit, another National Women’s Conference? With the national scope of this project anything is possible, and with your help and interest, it will be done.

Diana Henry                     February 9, 2007                                        

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An exhibit of DMH framed prints and slides was on display in the main lobby area. Email us to book this exhibit!
All images Diana Mara Henry. All rights reserved.