By Andrea L’Hommedieu, Oral Historian
This November, many will gather in Houston, Texas to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the 1977 National Women’s Conference. That conference attracted over 22,000 women (and some men) from across the nation, convening to discuss issues facing women in the United States and to ratify twenty-six planks (topics disproportionately affecting women) and adopt a National Plan of Action as part of International Women’s Year (IWY) directives. The National Women’s Conference was, for many, a defining moment in the modern women’s movement.
Little known to most of the world, something quite extraordinary was created at that conference and it all started right here in South Carolina. Historian Constance Ashton Myers, a professor at USC Aiken, was an early proponent of employing oral history as a research method and had previously interviewed suffragists about their involvement in the movement to secure women’s right to vote.
Dr. Myers, involved in both state and national IWY activities, applied for and received a National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) grant to assemble and coordinate a group of twenty-seven women from across the country to interview participants at the conference. And interview they did. The effort amassed a collection of some 550 interviews.
As she wrote in the grant application: “We propose [an] oral history project for the International Women’s Year national conference. The forthcoming conference will be a cultural and historical watershed in the women’s movement. More than 20,000 women of every conceivable view and background will converge on Houston to watch 1440 delegates, elected in state meetings, adopt a National Plan of Action as a guide for the President and Congress in the next ten years. The conference presents a one-time opportunity to sample the views and capture the personal histories of some of these women…. and place their commentaries in the permanent record…. for future scholarship. “
Added to that were the 150 interviews gathered at South Carolina’s state conference earlier that year, titled “Heritage to Horizons”. The Office of Oral History at the University of South Carolina eventually received the vast trove of interviews (as did the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA)).
The interviews offer first-hand accounts of the conference on topics such as health care, child care, domestic violence and reproductive rights, as well as the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA), and more.
Keller Barron, a South Carolinian and women’s rights proponent, whose papers are held by South Carolina Political Collections, attended both the state and national conferences. Here is a sound clip from Keller Barron’s interview at the national conference:
Other interviews with notable women include Betty Friedan, Jean Stapleton, Septima Clark, Kate Millett, Modjeska Simkins, and Betty Bone Schiess, one of the first female episcopal priests to be ordained in the United States.
In 2010 a small grant allowed for the digitization and transcription of a select number of interviews in the collection, and in 2016 Dr. Marjorie Spruill, Professor Emeritus of History and author of Divided We Stand, and I, Office of Oral History, received two internal grants to digitize, transcribe and give access to a significant portion of the collection. By fall of 2018, with assistance from doctoral candidate Jillian Hinderliter, more than 300 interviews will be available online.
The searchable web site for the collection is now accessible, and content continues to grow. In addition to the interview transcripts and sound recordings, the Resources page allows for further and deeper discovery of the conference and the larger women’s movement. The web site is here: http://library.sc.edu/blogs/iwy/