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Wednesday, September 27, 2023


Feminists reunite at National Women’s Conference anniversary

Feminists Martha P. Cotera, Charlotte Bunch, Melba Tolliver and Gloria Steinem spoke at a two-day conference to honor the National Women’s Conference 40th anniversary at UH. | Autumn Rendall/The Cougar

Speakers from the National Women’s Conference in 1977, at which 2,000 elected delegates and roughly 32,000 observers attended, came to the University of Houston on Monday and Tuesday to honor the event’s 40th anniversary and speak about feminist issues.

Martha P. Cotera, an author, a librarian and women’s rights activist, delivered on Monday a speech titled “Pasionarias of 1977: Latinas, Liberation, and Remaking Feminist Citizenship” as a part of the two-day women’s conference.

“Progressive women succeed through hard work, commitment, effort and passion that you have when you’re the most vulnerable and desperate,” Cotera said.

Though opinions on feminist issues in the United States were divided in 1977, the people who formed NWC felt it was most important to unite and conquer, Cotera said.

The 1977 National Women’s Conference was held in succession to a presidential executive order in 1974, which created the National Commission on the Observance of International Women’s Year.

Members at the 1977 conference created a “Plan of Action” which was later brought to President Jimmy Carter. 

“We put our national networks in action, and we started to work the process of getting appropriate representation,” Cotera said. 

The John P. McGovern Endowment began in 1999 and supports the John P. McGovern Annual Award Lectureship in Family, Health and Human Values in the College of Liberal Arts and Social Sciences at UH. Cotera was honored with the John P. McGovern Award medallion before she delivered her speech.

Her involvement with NWC began during her election as a delegate to the Houston conference at the preliminary Texas state meeting. She was one of six women featured in “Las Mujeres de la Caucus Chicana,” a documentary that discussed Chicana participants at the 1977 NWC.

“She is an important voice and leader on feminism throughout the decades, an independent scholar, renowned historian and author of feminist classics,” said associate vice president and general manager of Houston Public Media Lisa Shumate.

Cotera reflected on the 1977 conference and discussed the problems with electing politicians who do not support women, the struggles among social classes and minorities and exclusionary actions by government.

“We still face awesome challenges with elimination of social rights and entitlement,” Cotera said.

A roundtable discussion was held with special guests Charlotte Bunch, Melba Tolliver and Gloria Steinem via video chat after traffic prevented the feminists from making the meeting.

Bunch, a writer, activist and organizer in the feminist and human rights movements, as well as the founding director and senior scholar in the Center for Women’s Global Leadership at Rutgers University, spoke about lesbian feminism and the need to come together to face feminist issues.

“It was just refreshing to be able to hear someone from that community who is an activist and who did such great work to be able to help LGBT folks like me,” said integrated communications senior My-Linh Tran.

Tolliver, a journalism professor at the University of Michigan, worked for ABC and became the first African-American to anchor a network news program in 1967. Her speech focused on women and minorities and their influence in the media.

Steinem, a political activist and journalist, is a co-founder of the Women’s Media Center, an organization that works toward media equality. Steinem’s speech focused on the impact of the 1977 conference.

“We all agreed that discrimination against lesbians was a feminist issue,” Steinem said.

The John P. McGovern Endowed Lecture was part of a series of events UH hosted to commemorate NWC. Other events included art exhibits, luncheons with feminist speakers and discussions about the history of the conference.

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