December 05, 1977 12:00 PM

Margaret Mead pronounced it “a turning point not only in the history of the women’s movement but in the history of the world.” Gloria Steinem described it as “a historic event.” Jean Stapleton praised its “harmony.” Bella Abzug loved the diversity of “women in Halstons, pants and girdles.” And Phyllis Schlafly snapped, “If we’d been given $5 million we could have buried it long ago.”

The tumultuous four-day National Women’s Conference in Houston was the largest such gathering in history, with 2,000 jubilant delegates from 56 states and territories, 12,000 spectators and too many speeches to count. If its purpose was revolutionary—to present President Carter with a National Plan of Action growing out of the International Women’s Year—its reality was an old-style political hoedown with balloon-filled rallies, angry press conferences, parliamentary disputes, caucuses, snake dancers, smoke-filled rooms and one banner-tearing melee. Despite catcalls from 15,000 antagonists at Schlafly’s anti-ERA counter-conference across town, the delegates ebulliently approved 24 of the 25 points on its laundry list of issues (yea for ERA, child-care centers, abortion and homosexual rights; nay for a proposed U.S. Department of Women). At the end there were happy tears. “After this experience,” exulted one Minneapolis delegate, “women will never be the same.”

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