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Excerpt from Oral History Interview with Grace Jemison Rohrer, March 16, 1989. Interview C-0069. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) See Entire Interview >>

The National Women's Conference of 1977

Rorher describes the National Women's Conference held in Houston, Texas, in 1977. Elected to head up the North Carolina delegates, Rorher talks about the different women who attended the conference—including three first ladies and feminist leaders such as Bella Abzug and Gloria Steinem—and she explains how the delegates to the conference represented diverse views. Especially divisive issues included the Equal Rights Amendment and abortion. Rorher seems to retrospectively see this as a pivotal moment during which the movement began to "fizzle." In this regard, she discusses the importance of strong leadership and the role of power within the movement.

Citing this Excerpt

Oral History Interview with Grace Jemison Rohrer, March 16, 1989. Interview C-0069. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) in the Southern Oral History Program Collection, Southern Historical Collection, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Full Text of the Excerpt

'77, in Houston. Okay, that's interesting. Because now I'm thinking I saw that on your resume, that you went as a North Carolina delegate to Houston. Would you just talk a bit about that. I think that's interesting.
Well, I was appointed, as the others were, by President Ford to head up the state committee for the International Women's Year. And we were to have a state meeting, and Libby Koontz, Elizabeth Koontz, was chair of that, and we had our state meeting and elected the delegates to the National Conference, and I was elected to lead that delegation, which I did. I didn't get as much out of the conference as others did because I was taking care of these twenty-some women. (Laughter) I forget how many were in the delegation. It was quite an experience. It was an emotional experience as well as a strong political experience. They had the running of the torch starting from Seneca Falls that ran down to Houston, and Billy Jean King was on the last lap and ran up to it, and that was very exciting. There were twenty-six resolutions that the states had been asked to take action upon, which were then brought to the national convention. Most of the women there were feminists, but you had delegates from, especially the southern states, that were strong anti-feminists. In fact, South Carolina had quite a battle, even men getting involved in their delegate selection. You know, grabbing the mikes away from each other. We got a warning up in North Carolina that some of these people who had tried to disrupt the South Carolina meeting were coming up to disrupt ours. We were prepared for anything. I don't know that this happened in other states, but it did happen in several southern states, in which there was a great deal of fear of what was going to happen at that women's conference and an attempt to take over the delegate slots so that their points of view would be presented. And that's fine if that's the way that the state wants it, but it was the way they went around doing it. It was really rather frightening when you saw how desperate they were. So we met in this tremendous hall. I don't know how many women were there, maybe several thousand. The three wives of presidents, Betty Ford, Mrs. Carter, and Mrs. Johnson, were there on the platform. Of course, Bella Abzug was running the thing, and Gloria Steinem was very much involved. Maya Angelo, Gloria Scott, who's now president of Bennett College here, was involved. And we had several day's sessions, going through these twenty-six categories and developing the recommendations that we were going to be taken to President Carter, asking him for support and for these things to be legislatively enacted where necessary or administratively enacted where necessary. So we went through them, and we voted. The abortion issue was the most emotional, and it continues to be, of course. And one thing that interested me in North Carolina was when the abortion issue came up, about half of the delegates voted against it and most of them were black. And I think many times we see that it's the blacks that are pushing for abortion, mainly because of the effort to get money for women on welfare or poor women who need an abortion and can't have it. But that wasn't true. There were a lot of blacks that were against abortion. The delegation that sat immediately in front of us was from Utah, and they were Mormons. The Mormon Church had come out against the Equal Rights Amendment, and these women, I don't know that all of them did, when that vote came, stood up for it and the whole place went crazy. [Laughter] It was so emotional, and then they started singing, "We Shall Overcome," and they just rushed over to that delegation and embraced them. Because they had said, "Don't decide what we're going to be for and what we're against. We will decide." And as they supported various things it was obvious that these were very strong women, and they were going to make up their own minds. So you came away with a tremendous feeling of camaraderie, that we were all out there. And even with the women that were there that were trying to disrupt it because their views were different, they were there and they had a right to be there. And maybe they were so frustrated, they don't know how else to do it, and maybe that's the only way they could get their foot in the door, is to just fight as brutally as they could to get into it. And of course, after that they printed all this up and took it to President Carter. And we had a meeting in Washington after that, which disappointed me very much. Because as they voted on the leadership of who should be involved in presenting this and following this up, the women that got it were not the ones that could do it.
Why was that?
Because there was a strong, well, this has to be just my perception because I had watched this unfold. I think there's often a resentment against leaders, against the Bella Abzugs and the Gloria Steinems. They're out there. They have all this attention. And you have people in there who are hungry to get involved, and they gang up against them. It was a faction like this that were pushing in women that had no business being in there. Not because there was anything wrong with them, but they did not have the constituency. They did not have the power. They did not have the recognition that would enable them to push for some of these things. And it just sort of fizzled in a way. I think it was picked up, but I saw it fizzling there. This is one thing that I think we as women have to learn, which I think men know, is that we go where the power is and we work with the power that we have. We have to be tough on that. And that means sometimes leaving people out. I'm a member of Women Executives in State Government, and these are women who have been in cabinet level positions. They're women of power, and they have gotten there and they continue to be there because they are tough and they've made the hard decisions. And while they are working for women in many, many ways, women is not the issue. It's staying in and having the clout and the power, because only then can they bring other women into it. And they're not soft on anything, and they say it like it is and they're forcing women to recognize that there's sometimes decisions you have to make that may not be the ones you would like to make but they're the ones that are going to help you survive. And if you survive, then it means that others will survive.