The Washington State Conference for Women, held in Ellensburg in July 1977, was an attempt to bring women together to talk about common problems and develop strategies for solving them. Instead, it became a catalyst for conflict. Women who didn't like the changes that American society was undergoing in the 1970s confronted those who thought things weren't changing quickly enough. They lined up on opposite sides of a fault line symbolized by the proposed Equal Rights Amendment (ERA). The conservative side prevailed in one bitterly contested vote, defeating a resolution supporting the ERA; but their feminist opponents managed to elect a pro-ERA slate of delegates to represent the state at a national women's meeting in Houston, Texas. Conservatives responded by organizing a campaign that led to the dismantling of the Washington State Women's Council one year later. "Those of us who support equal rights have been shaken from our complacency," the American Association of University Women concluded in a statement issued after the conference. "Those of us who did not are finding out about it, and those who opposed it are challenged to say why" (The Seattle Times, July 29, 1977).
International Women's Year
The Ellensburg conference was part of an initiative that was launched when the United Nations General Assembly proclaimed 1975 as International Women's Year (IWY). In turn, President Gerald Ford (1913-2006) established a National Commission on the Observance of International Women's Year, headed by Jill S. Ruckelshaus (b. 1937) of Medina (a prominent Republican and the wife of former Environmental Protection Agency director William D. Ruckelshaus). The commission spent a year studying factors affecting the status of women and then issued a 382-page report titled "To Form a More Perfect Union," which contained 115 recommendations aimed at "eliminating the inequities that still linger as barriers to the full participation of women" in American life (Women of Ellensburg, 5).
In December 1975, Congress directed the commission to convene a national IWY conference, to be held in Houston and preceded by state conferences in each of the 50 states, the District of Columbia, and five U.S. territories. Each state was to elect delegates to the national conference and submit resolutions to be debated there. The resolutions would form the basis for a "national plan of action" to promote equality between men and women. "The is the first time that women of every walk of life will have an opportunity to express themselves in a meaningful setting," said then-Representative Bella Abzug (1920-1998) (Women of Ellensburg, 5). (Abzug replaced Ruckelshaus as the commission's presiding officer in 1976.)
Congress also appropriated $5 million to finance the conferences. Of that, Washington state received $41,000, a sum later augmented with $10,000 in private donations.
A coordinating committee composed of 35 women began planning the state conference in December 1976. The committee selected Central Washington State College (now University) as the conference site, because of its central location and relatively low cost; and the second weekend in July 1977 as the date. Most of the other conferences were scheduled for June. Washington's would be one of the last to be held -- a factor that would also make it one of the most volatile.
Second Wave of Feminism
Washington state was a proving ground for the so-called "second wave" of feminism in the 1970s. (The "first wave" ended when women won the right to vote in 1920.) By 1976, the state had established a State Women's Council, legalized abortion, liberalized divorce, enacted a law giving women equal access to credit, added an Equal Rights Amendment to the state constitution, ratified the proposed ERA to the federal constitution, and elected its first female governor, Dixy Lee Ray (1912-1994).
Even so, inequities persisted. In Washington, as elsewhere, women typically earned less than men for doing the same kind of work. Restrictions on how much women could lift and how many hours they could work limited the kinds of jobs they could hold. Few women held leadership positions, from student body president to corporate executive. The Seattle police department employed only three female officers; there were no female firefighters in the fire department. The state's public colleges required female students to be in their dormitory rooms by a certain hour, usually 10 p.m.; male students could stay out as long as they liked.
Title IX of the Educational Amendments Act, passed in 1972, had banned sex discrimination in any educational institution receiving federal funds, but female athletes still wore hand-me-down uniforms; practiced in inferior facilities; usually had only part-time coaches; and rarely received scholarships. It would take a lawsuit, filed in 1979 against Washington State University and settled in 1982, to force the state to fully comply with the provisions of Title IX.
Fight over the ERA
Advocates of equal rights for women seemed to have the momentum when the IWY conferences were being planned, but there were signs of pushback from traditionalists, centered on the federal ERA. The amendment had been overwhelmingly approved with bipartisan support in both houses of Congress in 1972. It was ratified by 30 states, including Washington, within a year. But the pace slowed after that, due largely to the efforts of an Illinois lawyer named Phyllis Schlafly (b. 1924), founder of the Eagle Forum. Schlafly initiated a "Stop ERA" campaign in 1973. Only five additional states approved the amendment after that, and four states rescinded earlier ratifications. (The Equal Rights Amendment failed to win approval by the necessary 38 states by a Congressional deadline in 1982, and was never enacted into law.)
The language of the ERA was simple: "Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex." To opponents, those 24 words represented an attack on the American family. They claimed the amendment would "weaken men," encourage women to work outside the home, push children into government-run day care centers, subject women to a draft, send them into combat, promote abortion, legalize gay marriage, and lead to co-ed sports teams and unisex washrooms -- among other things. "The ERA is just a federal grab for power," said Dr. Kathleen G. Skrinar (1928-2011), Tacoma, president of the Catholic Women's Club and a conservative activist. "It's too bad that some women are so timid they feel they must have a law to make them equal. God made us different -- we are not the same as men" (The Seattle Times, July 10, 1977).
Skrinar was one of the backers of an initiative to rescind the state's ratification of the ERA. The initiative was filed in Olympia in February 1977 by Dolores Mae Gilmore (b. 1929) and Dolores Glesener, both of Kennewick. On July 8 -- the opening day of the Conference for Women in Ellensburg -- the secretary of state announced that the measure had failed to collect enough signatures to qualify for the fall ballot. By that time, Gilmore and Glesener had launched a new campaign, as founders of what became known as the Blue and White Coalition.
Blue and Whites
Gilmore and Glesener had been aware of the upcoming women's conference since early spring but they did not give it much attention until late June, when Gilmore received a tape recording from a member of an Eagle Forum chapter in Oklahoma. The tape claimed that the IWY conferences were being run by women who "planned to abolish the family ... prohibit discrimination against gays ... and encourage federal control over every aspect of our lives." It warned that there would be "no stopping the women's movement" unless people who believe in "God, family, and country" attended their state conferences (Women of Ellensburg, 12).
The tape had a galvanizing effect on Gilmore. She invited a dozen of her political allies to a planning meeting in her home, held on Sunday June 26, after church (both she and Glesener were devout Catholics). Among those who attended was Susan Roylance (b. 1942), a Kennewick homemaker, member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormon), and vice-chairwoman of the Benton County Republican Central Committee. She agreed to serve as the issues chair and floor leader for a conservative contingent in Ellensburg. But she insisted, "I'm not going to go over there with just a few women. If I'm going to go, let's go with enough women to do something meaningful" (Roylance interview).
Within days, the Kennewick women had mobilized a statewide network, working mostly through church groups and with contacts in the ERA rescission movement. Jean Dance, a Bellevue mother of six and a Mormon, recalled getting a phone call from a woman in her church who told her "There's a women's conference going on in Ellensburg and we need your support." In response, "I called my telephone tree and they called their telephone tree" (Dance interview). Women began meeting in small groups all around the state to study the issues that would be debated at the conference. Copies of the Oklahoma tape were played at many of these gatherings and on at least one Christian radio station. It helped convince many conservative women that their very way of life was under attack.
These efforts complemented those by the hierarchy of the Mormon church, which strongly opposed the ERA. Officials at Mormon headquarters in Salt Lake City, Utah, prepared packets of information about how the IWY conferences worked, explaining voting procedures and emphasizing the need for women to attend workshops to promote "traditional values." The packets were distributed by Relief Societies (the church's women's auxiliaries) in 10 targeted states, including Washington.
By early July, it was clear that a large number of conservative women would be attending the Ellensburg conference. Gilmore and Glesener decided it would be helpful to have some form of group identification, "so we would know each other" (Gilmore interview). They settled on ribbons that could be pinned to nametags or tied around sleeves. It was Glesener who suggested the colors, which Catholics associate with the Virgin Mary: blue and white.
Friends of Equal Rights
The counterpart to the Blue and White Coalition was a group called the Friends of Equal Rights. Originally known as the Washington ERA Coalition, it included representatives of more than two dozen organizations, from the American Association of University Women to the National Council of Jewish Women. Seattle City Councilwoman Jeanette Williams (1914-2008), a strong supporter of women's rights, served as chair.
Like the Blue and Whites, the Friends grew out of the initiative that was filed in early 1977 to rescind Washington's ratification of the ERA. Also likewise, the group's members turned their attention to the Ellensburg conference after receiving what they considered alarming reports about earlier IWY meetings. Pro-ERA women in Illinois claimed that an anti-ERA bloc in that state had been directed by men. The head of the Women's Political Caucus in Ohio said conservatives there had elected an anti-ERA slate of delegates to the national conference by "bullet-voting" (voting en masse for a single slate of candidates) while feminists had split their votes among progressive candidates. Organizers of conferences in several Western states said they had been inundated by conservative women who appeared unexpectedly, without pre-registering, on opening day.
Convinced of the need for feminists to set aside their political differences and coalesce for common cause in Ellensburg, a subcommittee of Friends began working on a pro-ERA slate to be nominated for the national conference. "We all began coming to the same conclusion at the same time," one of the women said. "Even if having a slate was less democratic, it was absolutely necessary" (Women of Ellensburg, 14).
Another subcommittee took on the task of promoting the ERA through more informal tactics, such as placing hot-pink stickers in bathroom stalls at the conference, with this text: "Washington has had an Equal Rights Amendment for five years. Do you see any men in your bathroom?"
The coordinating committee held its final planning meeting, in Ellensburg, on Thursday, July 7, 1977. The conference was to begin the next day. About 2,500 women had pre-registered to attend. Many would be staying in dormitory rooms on campus. Nearly all the available hotel rooms had been booked. Conference materials had been printed; workshops scheduled; meeting rooms assigned; child care arranged; voting procedures finalized. Everything seemed to be in order.
The meeting was about to end when Susan Roylance knocked on the door. She said she represented about 2,000 "Christian women" who had not pre-registered for the conference but would be coming anyway. She said they had made their own arrangements for transportation and housing, would bring their own food, and would pay the $5 surcharge per person for registering late.
The announcement stunned the committee. "It was a traumatic moment in our planning," said Alice Yee, director of the Women's Center at Central Washington State College and chair of the local arrangements committee. "I had many thoughts going through my head, none of them very pleasant" (Yee interview). "It was scary," said Thelma Jackson, Olympia, a member of the North Thurston School Board and organizer of the conference's Black Women's Caucus. "It felt like a take over" (Jackson interview).
Roylance later denied charges that the last-minute arrival of a large number of conservative women was a deliberate political strategy to "take over" the conference. "There was never any attempt to have a surprise invasion," she insisted, in a 2007 interview. "It was always billed as a conference for the women of the state to come together to determine those things that they would like to see the government do, and that's exactly what we were trying to do."
Opening Day Pandemonium
The coordinating committee spent the night before the conference making frantic arrangements to register an extra 2,000 people, provide enough copies of the conference materials, find rooms large enough to handle larger-than-expected crowds, print 2,000 extra ballots -- and obtain 2,000 extra pencils. Karen Fraser, the committee's elections chair, mayor of Lacey at the time (later a state senator), said she bought every Number 2 yellow pencil she could find in Ellensburg. Since the pencils were unsharpened, she also bought two electric sharpeners. "We had to put wet towels over the sharpeners, because the machines were getting so hot," she said (Fraser interview).
Opening day was a study in chaos. The number of unexpected arrivals overwhelmed the registration process. Pre-registered and unregistered women mingled in lines that snaked outside the registration center in the Student Union Building, across a lawn, and into a parking lot 100 yards away. Waiting in the July heat, women eyed each other and made political judgements on the basis of appearance: a neat coif and a dress marked you as a conservative; jeans and a T-shirt as a "women's libber."
Jill Ruckelshaus presided over the welcoming ceremonies, which began at 8 p.m. "The purpose of this meeting is not to be a closed shop for a certain elite, but to be an open meeting to talk and listen freely with a community of women," she said, striking a hopeful tone (The Seattle Times, July 9, 1977).
Outside, some women were still waiting in line to register, and the mood was contentious. Conference organizers were suspicious of the number of cars and campers in the parking lot with Utah license plates. The rules required that participants be at least 16 and residents of Washington state. Several young women were challenged when they presented student ID cards and driver's licenses from Utah and said they had just recently moved to Washington. "The atmosphere was tense," Linda Terry, a conservative Mormon from Port Orchard, recalled, adding:
"…this was my first time to actually be face to face with a radical feminist, you know? Someone who espoused so many things that were contrary to the very core and heart of my being. If I could have relaxed more about it and said, ‘Hey, we're all women. And we all want happiness out of life. We all want fulfillment ... let's talk together here about what we can do to make society better for women.' But I went there with the attitude of, the enemy is there and they're trying to take over!" (Terry interview).
There were charges and countercharges: that the conservative contingent was being controlled by men; that radical feminists disguised as men had infiltrated conservative caucus sessions; that one side or the other was trying to sabotage the conference. Some pro-ERA women objected to the fact that the "antis" identified themselves as "Christian women," which seemed to imply that only non-Christians supported the ERA. "Clearly they think we're against God," said Nancy Hawkins, coordinator of the South Snohomish County chapter of the National Organization for Women (NOW). "Well, I'm a religious person. And I think the things I'm doing are right and acceptable to God" (The Seattle Times, November 16, 1977). On the other hand, some feminists identified all "antis" as Mormons, when the conservative faction included Catholics, Protestants, and Greek Orthodox women, among others.
Registration continued until 11:30 p.m. and reopened the next morning. Meanwhile, members of the competing coalitions -- Friends of Equal Rights on one side, the Blue and Whites on the other -- caucused until late in the evening, preparing opposing slates of delegates for nomination to the national conference. Both groups emphasized the need for unity. Each came up with a list of 24 candidates, gave copies of the list to their supporters, and reiterated the importance of voting as a bloc.
Panels, Workshops, and Speakouts
About 80 different panels, workshops, and "speak-outs" were crammed into the conference's second day, at a pace that led to widespread frustration. Most of the panels concentrated on presenting as much information as possible in an hour and 15 minutes. Because discussion was limited, many conservative women thought the panelists' perspectives were given an unfair advantage. "We found things rammed down our throats," said one (Women of Ellensburg, 20).
The most heated sessions were those on abortion, gay rights, and the ERA. They were characterized by highly charged debates: "right-to-life" versus the "right-to-choose;" lesbians "are humans whose rights should be protected" versus "lesbians are against God and should go straight;" the ERA "will rob women of their rights" versus the ERA "is necessary to assure women of their rights" (Women of Ellensburg, 20). Sandra Schuster, chair of a workshop on gay parenting, was stunned by what she called "tirades" from "venomous people" who said things such as "all homosexuals should wear ‘H's" and "we hope you fine women are discovered by a nice man and settle down." Disheartened, she decided there was "no room left for sharing" and turned the podium over to one of the Blue and Whites (Women of Ellensburg, 22).
Not every workshop was a battlefield, however. Women of opposing political beliefs found room for agreement on topics such as sexist depictions of women in the media, violence against women, and the need for equal pay for equal work. Opinions expressed in a childcare workshop ranged from people who wanted no federal or state funding for childcare to those who wanted 24-hour free childcare for all. But participants agreed that quality child care should be provided to women who need it. That was one of six resolutions adopted at the final plenary (open to all participants) session in Ellensburg and sent on to the national conference in Houston.
The authors of a report on the conference concluded that "aside from the targeted and highly controversial ones," the workshops were more cooperative than the general tone of the conference might suggest. "Women came in contact with viewpoints to which they had not previously been exposed. Urban women heard some of the problems of rural women, races and religions intermingled, and political philosophies clashed and sometimes found common ground" (Women of Ellensburg, 36, 39).
"People have concentrated on the disagreements," said Karen Fraser. "But the areas of agreement were significant" (Daily Journal American, July 14, 1977).
Voting for delegates to the Houston conference began at 8 p.m. on July 9. The weather that night was unseasonably cold and windy. People had to line up outside the Nicholson Pavilion Fieldhouse before they could get inside to vote. Some of them stood wrapped, like cocoons, in sleeping bags, to fend off the cold.
Again, there were long lines, frustration, and confusion. The polls did not close until 1 a.m. Preliminary results were not announced until 4:15 a.m. July 11 -- more than 24 hours after the voting had ended. They showed that all 24 of the delegates chosen to represent Washington state at the Houston conference were pro-ERA. A subsequent recount that included 80 contested ballots changed the outcome by only one delegate: Kathryn "Kay" Regan" (1931-2008), Seattle, an anti-ERA activist (and a member of the Ellensburg coordinating committee), replaced Bea Farrell, a pro-ERA nun from Spokane.
The Blue and White Coalition cried foul. Conservatives had dominated the voting on policy issues throughout the plenary session on July 10, rejecting resolutions supporting abortion and other reproductive rights, gay rights, affirmative action, and the ERA, among other issues. They claimed only fraud could account for the fact that feminists had prevailed in the voting for delegates to the national conference. "I was so mad about the slate, the delegates that went to Houston! I could not figure that out," said Linda Terry. "And to this day, I do not trust the integrity of that count" (Terry interview).
Karen Fraser, elections chair, explained it this way: when pro-ERA forces realized the size of the Blue and White contingent on the opening day of the conference, they marshaled reinforcements. They went to pay phones and land lines (this being pre-cell-phone era) and called friends, begging them to come to the conference, register, and vote for the ERA slate. Since there were no available hotel rooms in or near Ellensburg, few of the new arrivals would be able to stay for the entire conference. "A lot of people came ... stayed long enough to vote, and then drove away," she said. "That's why the voting for delegates turned out differently than voting on resolutions in the plenary sessions" (Fraser interview).
A District Court judge in Seattle dismissed a subsequent lawsuit charging voter fraud and seeking to block the contested slate of delegates from participating in the Houston conference. The suit, filed by Kathleen Skrinar of Tacoma on behalf of the "Concerned Women's Coalition," claimed that election officials were able to identify conservative women because of their blue and white ribbons and "mode of dress" -- and as a result, deliberately undercounted their ballots. "Plaintiffs ask this court to render the state of Washington unrepresented at this conference," said U.S. Magistrate John Weinberg. "We must ask why." His answer: the plaintiffs "would rather have no one at the conference than persons who have viewpoints different from their own" (The Seattle Times, November 16, 1977).
The conference ended in an atmosphere of disappointment and resentment. No one had really gotten what they wanted. Conservatives thought the meeting had been too radical; feminists thought it had been too conservative; moderates felt ignored.
In the bitter aftermath, feminists and conservatives both organized new political action groups. "Our experience in Ellensburg, where 2,000 unanticipated people showed up not to advance the goal of equal rights but to subvert it, was a clear lesson that we must redouble our efforts," said Seattle city councilwoman Jeanette Williams, head of the Friends of Equal Rights (The Seattle Times, July 25, 1977). "More women woke up," said Dolores Gilmore, co-founder of the Blue and White Coalition. "And more women got involved" (Gilmore interview).
The first target was the Washington State Women's Council, which had been established in 1971 through executive order by Republican Governor Daniel J. Evans (b. 1925). It had functioned since then as an advisory group, serving at the pleasure of the governor. Three weeks before the IWY conference began, the Washington State Legislature passed a law to make the council a statutory commission, meaning it would operate as a state agency, independent of the governor. The law was to take effect September 21, 1977
On July 29, 1977, a group called Women for Integrity in the Nation (WIN) filed a petition to abolish the council. Susan Roylance, former floor leader for the Blue and White Coalition and one of the organizers of WIN, said the council had been lobbying for the "feminist agenda" at taxpayers' expense. "We don't think [it] is pro-family," she said (The Seattle Times, July 30, 1977).
A total of 61,856 signatures from qualified voters were needed to qualify the measure for the ballot. By September 20, WIN had collected 112,500 signatures -- nearly twice as many as needed. "We would never have been able to get the signatures if it hadn't been for the IWY conference," Roylance said later. "... the IWY opened a lot of women's eyes as to what was happening. And they became very concerned ... and very energized" (Roylance interview).
Referendum 40 asked simply "Shall a state Women's Commission be established by statute?" On November 8, an overwhelming number of voters said no: some 240,000 in favor, more than 600,000 opposed. Governor Ray, a strong supporter of the ERA and the Women's Council, spent six months considering her options, which included continuing to fund the council as a non-statutory agency through the governor's office. In the end, she bowed to the voters and dismantled the council.
Years later, participants looked back on the conference with mixed feelings. "It never occurred to us that there would be this backlash," said Elaine LaTourelle, a Seattle architect, a member of the coordinating committee, chair of the program committee, and one of the pro-ERA delegates elected to represent Washington at the national IWY conference. "It's our own fault," she added. "We just didn't have that kind of vision, originally, to reach out to women who had made the choice of being homemakers ... we made some real blunders, with the best of intentions" (LaTourelle interview).
LaTourelle was one of 27 women from Washington state who were interviewed for an IWY oral history project in 2007. Many of the interviewees spoke of the emotional impact of encountering so many women whose beliefs differed so radically from their own. "It was such an eye opener to me," said Linda Terry, a conservative Mormon. "Because even though I live in the world, you tend to surround yourself with people who feel as you do. So, yeah, it blew me away to hear these women, many of them so articulate, and so well versed, and so devoted. But in my heart, I felt that they were so wrong."
Wanda Fullner (b. 1939), Seattle, another member of the coordinating committee, expressed similar sentiments, but from the other side of the cultural divide. At the time of the conference, she was an equal opportunity consultant for the Association of Washington Businesses, president of the Seattle-King County chapter of NOW, and chair of a workshop on financial assertiveness for women. "The thing that interested me most was talking to the Mormon women," she said, continuing:
"The eye opener for me was how sincere they were ... but what they were afraid of was already coming to pass. This luxury of being a stay-at-home mother was already slipping away in the Seventies. They were fighting to retain that choice... They believed it was the only right lifestyle for women. They truly believed that their homemaking role was God-ordained. But I was sad that they would not acknowledge that that role isn't for everybody."
Marilyn Rands, president of the Bellevue Stake Relief Society and the organizer of a contingent of about 50 Mormon women who traveled from their Eastside homes to the conference, regretted the divisive tone. "I think there was a lot of intolerance, false beliefs about each other," she said. Still, some women found ways to connect (at times while standing in the seemingly endless lines, to register, to vote, or to use the restroom). "We did not agree, and we should not agree, because there are so many ways of looking at different issues," said Alice Yee, head of the local arrangements committee in Ellensburg. "This was an opportunity to air those issues, to discuss them, to compromise, to find someplace where we might agree."
A reporter for the Bremerton Sun summed it up this way: "Despite some bitter exchanges, the conference brought together 4,200 women who had the courage to stand up for their points of view in addressing some of the toughest issues confronting American society ... . Ellensburg was not an unqualified success. But it may have accomplished more than any of its participants realized" (July 15, 1977).