The United Nations declared 1975 International Women’s Year. In response, the US Congress mandated that each state and territory would hold a women’s convention and send delegates to the National Women’s Conference in Houston in November 1977. In addition, Pres. Gerald Ford convened the National Commission on the Observance of International Women’s Year. When Jimmy Carter became president, he changed the commission’s membership and charged it with gathering ideas for a national plan of action to further women’s issues, particularly with regard to the Equal Rights Amendment, which had been passed by Congress on 22 March 1972. For the amendment to go into effect, thirty-eight states needed to ratify it by 22 March 1979. Thirty did so within the first year, but the effort then stalled, and at the beginning of 1977 the amendment still needed ratification by three more states. Despite some support from political leaders such as Lt. Gov. Evelyn Gandy and William Winter, Mississippi was not among the ratifying states.
The commission received a five-million-dollar budget and announced plans to revive the ERA ratification effort and push for support for other feminist initiatives. Conservatives across the country saw the plan as a government-funded initiative to force unwanted and unnecessary changes on society. The commission received heavy criticism and suffered a backlash in several states, including Mississippi.
As the Mississippi Organizing Committee (MOC) planned the state conference, to be held on 8–9 July 1977 in Jackson, it publicized its efforts via most major media outlets. The MOC expected a mostly progressive audience that would support the ERA and other feminist initiatives. However, some Mississippi conservative women alleged that the MOC had failed to publicize the gathering in an attempt to keep them from coming. Though only 350 women signed up for the state conference, more than 1,100 attended, with overcrowding and friction arising between groups with competing political views. The conservative women staged a “takeover” of the conference, voted to block every initiative suggested by the commission, and elected only conservative delegates to represent the state at the national convention.
When the National Women’s Conference opened, delegates from other states attempted to have the Mississippi women unseated, claiming that they did not fairly represent the state’s women and their ideas. That effort failed, and the Mississippi delegates participated, opposing some measures but supporting parts of the plan of action. The conservative women were outvoted, however, and the plan of action that the conference presented to the president and Congress reflected a liberal feminist viewpoint.
The Mississippi conservatives had lost the battle but ultimately won the war. Though Congress subsequently extended the deadline for passing the ERA by three years, it failed to win ratification, and the plan brought no further results. In addition, the events connected with International Women’s Year brought together Mississippi’s previously apolitical conservative women and motivated them to become politically active. They formed strong bonds that reached across race and class lines and that subsequently helped to facilitate the growth of a conservative women’s activist network.
- Marjorie Julian Spruill, Divided We Stand: The Battle Over Women’s Rights and Family Values That Polarized American Politics (2017)
- Marjorie Julian Spruill, in Mississippi Women: Their Histories, Their Lives, vol. 2, ed. Elizabeth Anne Payne, Martha H. Swain, and Marjorie Julian Spruill (2010)