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The Florida Women’s Conference of 1977
The 1970s were an active time for the women’s rights movement in the United States and around the world. The Equal Rights Amendment (ERA), which aimed to make discrimination on the basis of sex unconstitutional, passed both houses of Congress, kicking off an intense ratification fight in state legislatures across the U.S. The United Nations declared 1975 the International Women’s Year and named 1976 through 1985 the Decade for Women. To recognize these international commemorations, President Gerald Ford established the National Commission on the Observance of International Women's Year by executive order on January 9, 1975. The commission consisted of up to 35 citizen members appointed by the president, as well as two members from both chambers of Congress appointed by the Speaker of the House of Representatives and the Senate President.
Supporters and opponents of the Equal Rights Amendment at the Florida Capitol in Tallahassee, 1982. Photo by Donn Dughi.
One of the functions of the commission was to “encourage appropriate and relevant cooperative activity in the field of women’s rights and responsibilities.” As part of their appointment, commissioners attended the 1975 World Conference on Women in Mexico City, and the following year commissioners wrote a report titled "To Form a More Perfect Union...": Justice for American Women detailing how to achieve equal rights for women. In 1977, the commission turned its attention to the state and national conferences that were scheduled to take place throughout the year to address 26 issues pertaining to women, including reproductive rights, sexual orientation, the ERA, education and employment.
Florida officials began preparing for their own state conference in March when Representative Gwen Cherry was elected chairperson by the 48-member Florida Conference Coordinating Committee. Cherry was a former Miami lawyer who was elected as the first Black woman to serve in the Florida Legislature in 1970.
During the announcement of the conference in May, Cherry said the purpose of the meeting was “to assess the role of women in the economic, social, cultural and political development of our country, to evaluate the progress made in promoting equality between women and men and identify objectives to remove barriers that preclude women from full and equal participation in all aspects of national life” (Tampa Tribune, May 26, 1977).
Cherry and other members of the state committee immediately went to work promoting the July conference. The official theme was “Involve the Uninvolved,” and Florida women from all backgrounds were encouraged to attend. The committee even offered scholarships to attendees who couldn’t afford the cost of travel.
On July 15, 1977, almost 3,000 women and men from around the state met in Orlando for the Florida Women's Conference. The three-day conference included an intercultural festival, workshops and an open speaking session where attendees could express their thoughts and opinions about issues facing women. By the end of the event, attendees were supposed to adopt resolutions to present at the National Women’s Conference in Houston, Texas, in November, and elect 40 delegates to attend that meeting.
The 1977 film “We, the Women…” The Florida Women's Conference by WMFE-TV includes scenes from the conference and an interview with chairperson Gwen Cherry.
Due to the controversial nature of some of the conferences topics, such as abortion, gay rights and the ERA, feminist and anti-feminist women and men sparred with one another about which resolutions to send to Houston, and there were accusations of a rigged election in favor of delegates who supported the ERA. Of the 40 elected delegates, 27 were in favor of passing the ERA. The conference attendees did not vote on which resolutions to send to the national conference due to the lack of a quorum, according to event leadership. This caused an uproar among anti-ERA groups who claimed pro-ERA groups were attempting to advance their own agenda. After the conference, some attendees wrote to Florida Governor Reubin Askew to express their grievances about the proceedings and leadership.
Letter from Nancy A. Riley to Governor Reubin Askew regarding the Florida Women's Conference, July 19, 1977.
Letter from Nancy McNamara to Governor Reubin Askew regarding the Florida Women's Conference, July 19, 1977.
The disagreements between feminists and anti-feminists in Florida were mirrored at almost every state conference that year and carried over into the national conference. In Houston, the National Women’s Conference was protested by anti-feminist groups who held their own rally across town.
In the end, the National Women’s Conference adopted 26 positions on issues concerning American women to be included in a National Plan of Action. The plan was published in a 1978 report titled The Spirit of Houston: The First National Women’s Conference. It called for ending discrimination in education, providing funds to prevent child abuse, increasing the number of women in political offices and ratifying the ERA.
The fight for equal rights in Florida didn’t end at the state conference. After the deadline to ratify the ERA was extended in 1979 for three more years, state representatives Gwen Cherry, Elaine Gordon and Karen Coolman and other supporters pushed the legislature to act. Florida’s House of Representatives voted four times between 1972 and 1982 to ratify the ERA, but the measure failed to win necessary votes in the Senate. Nationwide, the amendment lacked ratification by only three states at the 1982 deadline.
Recently there has been renewed interest in passing the amendment, with Nevada ratifying in 2017, Illinois in 2018 and Virginia in 2020. Now that the required 38 states have ratified, Congress must decide whether to extend the deadline and allow the amendment to officially become part of the Constitution.