FARGO — Cindy Phillips remembers vividly the energy and excitement she felt attending a historic conference in 1977, in the middle of the women’s rights movement.
“It was ahh-mazing,” she said.
In her late 20s at the time, Phillips was part of a North Dakota delegation that traveled to Houston, Texas, to establish and pass a women’s rights platform. The National Women’s Conference was the first, and only, federally funded event of its kind.
Christi McGeorge, a professor of human development and family science at North Dakota State University, has made it her mission to help people remember.
“It was just a pivotal moment in women’s history and to be honest, a pivotal moment in U.S. history,” McGeorge said, after a presentation at the NDSU Archives on Tuesday, April 23.
She’s partnered with Ashley Baggett, an assistant professor in history, philosophy and religious studies, to get the North Dakota women’s stories published.
Baggett said the national conference is rarely featured in history books. “They will mention it, but most of the time people don’t learn about it,” she said.
The conference grew out of an international event in Mexico City two years prior, where the United Nations called on countries to examine women's issues. The U.S. Congress appropriated $5 million for state events and the national conference, held in 1977.
“There has never, to my knowledge, been anything like it,” Phillips said.
More than 500 women attended North Dakota’s conference in Bismarck that summer, and 12 national delegates were chosen.
Among them: the state’s first female senator, Agnes Geelan, state legislator Aloha Eagles, reproductive rights advocate Jane Bovard and NDSU Dean of Home Economics Katherine Burgum. Phillips was named chairperson.
She said there were heated differences, just as there are today.
“Many of the most liberal members of our delegation were Republicans, and some of the most conservative members were Democrats. But that’s where we were in the middle of the '70s,” Phillips said.
The delegates took on tough issues at the state and national gatherings, including education, child care, equal pay and job opportunities, sexual assault, domestic violence and abortion.
Phillips said they discussed marital rape and the concept that every person had the right to consent to sex, considered "radical ideas" at the time.
Voices of Native American women and people with disabilities were just starting to be heard.
“There have been a lot of things that we’ve chipped away at and made better, and a lot of things that today people take for granted,” Phillips said.
Equal Rights Amendment
For the November 1977 national conference, the North Dakota women converged on Houston with about 2,000 other delegates and at least 15,000 observers.
A central topic was the multi-year push to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment, which would provide legal equality between men and women and prohibit discrimination on the basis of sex.
The North Dakota Legislature ratified the ERA in 1975, and the delegation went on record in support of the proposed amendment during the National Women's Conference.
But the ERA drew heavy criticism from a "pro-family" group led by Phyllis Schlafly, who held a separate conference at a different Houston venue. Baggett said Schlafly saw the ERA as detrimental to women.
Even though Congress and the National Women’s Conference approved, the ERA would later fall three states short of ratification. Phillips thinks it was a result of history having a tendency to downplay women’s perspectives.
“Even though it was probably the most grassroots-based national meeting ever, it of course got labeled as ‘those feminists’ and, I think, sidelined as a result,” she said.
Phillips also endured what she calls a "gut-wrenching" experience at the conference. At the time a closeted gay person, she had to present her delegation’s stand against lesbian rights.
“I was willing to be public and active on all kinds of issues, but that one had me scared,” she said.
'The struggle isn't over'
McGeorge began traveling the state in 2005 to interview members of the North Dakota delegation, seeking to preserve the history. She said she and Baggett are in talks with NDSU Press to publish the women's stories in book form.
“It was hard not to be just amazed by them,” she said.
McGeorge said a few of the women placed transcripts of the interviews in their wills, so that their children and grandchildren would someday know what they did.
"I ended up telling them, 'I don’t know that even you understand what a big thing you did, and what courage it took,'" she said.
Phillips takes with her the lasting connections she made at the conference — some of whom remain dear friends.
Though she’s not actively involved in feminist causes now, she hopes for greater improvements for women down the line.
“The struggle isn’t over. It may be in a different form, but it goes on,” Phillips said.