Women on the Move
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Who Came and Why/With Women at Houston


Nikki Van Hightower has a new book!

(See her kind message at end of this page)

That Woman: The Making of a Texas Feminist


“. . . the best-known feminist in Houston”—The New York Times
Although the year 2020 marks the 100-year anniversary of women’s suffrage in the United States, Nikki R. Van Hightower’s story proves that in the 1970s, there was still much work to be done for equal rights for women. When she stepped into the position of Women’s Advocate for the City of Houston in 1976, she quickly discovered that she had very little real power. This was cemented when, in retaliation for her speaking at a women’s rights rally, the all-male city council cut her salary to $1 a year.

Van Hightower’s memoir offers a window into the world of Texas history and politics in the 1970s, where sexual harassment was not considered discrimination, where women’s shelters did not exist, where few women were elected to city government, where women in the parks department were prohibited from working outdoors, and where women suffered the indignity of paying to use airport toilets while men did not.


Please enjoy reading some of the participants' moving communications below.
I would like to thank everyone who helped in the time-consuming and challenging task of renewing ties, especially the First Lady, the three torchbearers, the Commissioners, and the lovely gracious people who for financial or other reasons could not come but have shared their wonderful support and encouragement.

"The spirit that pervaded the women there was great, strong and warm and though I could not stay the whole time I left a little bit taller." - Ersilia
"Thank YOU. This has been a major undertaking.  And a lifetime accomplishment. Rita" ( IWY Commissioner)



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Rita Was the youngest member of the National Commission on the Observance off International Women's Year, sponsor of the Houston conference and the 50 state meetings that preceded it. 

Amy Simon's performance as Bella was a smash hit! 
"Beautiful Diana!
The whole fabulous evening seems like a dream!!!!"
Cultural Herstorian, Playwright/Performer
Amy Simon http://sheshistory.com/site/ 

Amy Simon and Congresswoman Elizabeth Holtzman, photo by Robin Gallagher.
Gloria Steinem signs a book before asking Diana Mara Henry to sign one for her, photo copyright © 2012 Jo Freeman
                           Check out Diana Mara Henry's main website, http://www.dianamarahenry.com 

Lucy Komisar of the Komisar Scoop talked about the last conversation she had [Sept.4, 2005] with Betty Friedan, at her house in Sag Harbor. Photo by Larry Bridwell. (Betty died Feb 4, 2006, so this was just 5 months earlier.)
Read Lucy Komisar's account of the First National Women's Conference 

Melba Tolliver, seen, left, filing her report of the NY State Women's Meeting 
(she was also in Houston) and, right, with Melissa Ortiz

"Thanks, Diana ... for making this event happen." 
Melba's remarks were the hit of the evening's, and all the remarks were great! Coming soon, on video and audio, thanks to Carol Connare of U Mass Amherst Du Bois Library, which now houses the Diana Mara Henry 20th Century Photographer archive....Commissioners: Gloria Steinem, Elizabeth Holtzman, Carmen Delgado Votaw, Rita Elway Brogan; Amy Simon as Bella; the women phtoographed below, Sylvia Ortiz, Peggy Kokernot Kaplan and Michelle Cearcy and Michelle's mom Patricia Cearcy; delegates Cristine Cronin, Jo Freeman, Tanya Melich; Alice Heyman; journalists Melba Tolliver and Lucy Komisar; and a message from Billie jean King (see bottom of this page for text.)  Diana Mara Henry's thank you's are here

Together again....
for the first time in 35 years Sylvia Ortiz, left, Peggy Kokernot Kaplan and Michelle Cearcy, right,
by Diana Mara Henry. 
(Thank you for the linked article from Jo Freeman
They were the three final runners for the last miles of the 2,600 mile relay from Seneca Falls,
(site of the 1848 Women's Conference chaired by Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton)  
to Houston. It was an honor to meet them!
Contemporary photo courtesy Professor Amy Forss, for her book on the women's movement!
"Thanks for everything it was a joyous and nice event sharing and meeting all of those people and spending the time that we did together. Hope we all stay intouch.
P.S. we made it back to Houston in one piece.

Respectfully, Michelle C." 

Peggy was the only one on the cover of Time magazine, 12/5/77
We hope they will redo the cover and this time give a real picture of American women, age, race, ethnicity, and all!

Wow, wow, wow..I'm ready to run it again"  

Peggy (7/28/12) 

 Please donate to help with the expenses of bringing participants from around the country to reconnect!

Here's why Sylvia came to the celebration on 11/19, as shared with Diana Mara Henry : 



Sylvia Ortiz has accepted your request.

Title: First National Women's Conference!

Just going through the email you have sent so far and I am so excited to 
relive the event! However, it saddens me that I cannot recall the details. 
But the more I read and see pictures, I am looking forward to what the 
future holds in terms of finding out where so many of us are in our lives 
I have already talked to my sister in Houston and told her it was not an 
option, book November 19th, we are going to New York! 
I am also looking forward to talking with Peggy! I will definitely thank 
her for contacting you with my information. I can't wait to let her know 
how grateful I am that she was able to get us together! 
I must say I was very touched by your emotional state during our phone 
conversation, it gave me chills! I hope you know how much I appreciate you 
making me feel like the most important woman in the world. I mean really, 
to be photographed with so many important women who have had such an impact 
on all of our lives is truly an honor. 
More than that, I am so thankful you chose to be so persisitent in finding 
me and grateful you have taken on this huge task of hosting such an 
incredible event! 
Look forward to staying in touch! 


[That's Billie Jean King, second from left, with Michelle, Peggy and Sylvia next to Betty Friedan]
Dear Ms. King!

My name is Sylvia Ann Ortiz, and I am contacting you about meeting you 35 years ago at the Convention in Houston, Texas.  It was my first involvement in the women's movement!  I am hispanic, female, and have enjoyed a fun and successful career as a teacher/coach for the past 35 years and I cannot tell you how much of an impact you had on my life as a female athlete!  

Please view this link http://www.womenonthemoveonline.com  to see one of the greatest moments in time! Of course, you will recognize yourself, Susan B. Anthony, Congresswoman Bella Abzug and several others you may recall, including myself, and two other female athletes who walked side by side with the torch in to the convention center!!!

The official photographer of the event, Diana Mara Henry has spent years trying to find out where everyone is now!  As you can see from the link above the celebration would be so incredibly impacted if you would honor everyone with your presence!  
I am praying you will be able to find time to attend or contact Diana Mara, she has spent much of her life trying to reunite the women from all those years ago!  And so many other women who you have inspired throughout the years.  I am sure you get requests on a daily basis, but I am so hopeful this email takes you back in time and you are able to make contact in someway!  
Best Regards,
Sylvia Ortiz

Michelle Cearcy writes, on October 30, 2012: 

It has been a pleasure talking with you (on several occasions), and I was amazed to learn that people were actually searching for me 35 years later post that huge event: Women on the Move Conference Houston, Texas 1977. I am so excited to relive this event and can't wait to see everyone again especially Peggy who gave me a "shout-out" from Ohio. I was very young then and do not remember very much other than having a wonderful time and meeting all the celebrities. I still can't believe all the GREAT photos taken then that I recently received that were not in the book - Thank you very much.

For those who don't know me My name is Michelle Cearcy, and I am still a Woman on the Move. I realized my gift as an athlete is what I truly enjoy and yearn to share with others. Over the last 35 years, my life continues to consist of many roles: Working professional, Certified Aerobics Instructor, Volleyball player, Softball player, Volunteer Coach for Adult Co-Ed Volleyball & Softball teams,Empire, Referee, Mother and Wife. There is no greater gift than Motherhood, and I am proud to say that I have three (3) handsome sons: Michael, Marcus and Charlie (my very own athletic protege); they are the reason I keep going, and I hope the morals and guidance my parents taught me continue to live through them. I want to thank my own mother, Patricia Cearcy, for allowing me to participate in the 1977 Women on the Move event when I was 16 years old because, then, I didn't realize the impact the conference would have on my life. Immediately following the event, I received phone calls from various magazines and television networks wanting to interview me about the conference which gave me a new sense of self as a young, black female teenager. Since then I went on to graduate from Phyllis Wheatley High School and proceeded to San Jacinto Jr. College on a Volleyball Scholarship. I was selected to play with United States Volleyball Association (USVBA) as one (1) of two (2) African Americans on the team which afforded me the opportunity to travel through- out the U.S. playing various tournaments. In 1983, I began working with The City of Houston Parks and Recreation Department and now work with the City of Houston Public Works and Engineering Department. I am a full time student as well and would like to encourage all young women to never give up on your dreams or think it is too late to achieve those dreams. Life may throw road blocks in your path but those road blocks are there just to make you stronger and with support from parents, guardians, mentors and spiritual guidance you can achieve anything. I hope to continue to be a strong, positive example for all women as I continue to grow and enjoy life.

Michelle Cearcy

Gloria, Lucy Komisar (see her great article of 12/10/77 below) and Rita Elway, behind Liz Carpenter, all came and spoke on 11/19! Gloria and Rita were Commissioners of the National Commission on the Observance of International Women's Year, sponsor of the conference. 

Congresswoman Elizabeth Holtzman was also a Commissioner and she offered remarks!  
She was also at the NY State Women's Meeting, July, 1977, in Albany: 
Copyright © 1977 Diana Mara Henry
Please email us for permission to publish elsewhere. 

"What a treasure trove you have of memories of Houston and the vibrant women's movement we created in the 70s. Congratulations." 
Carmen Delgado Votaw... 

Tanya Melich, Jo Freeman, and Carmen Delgado Votaw at the 11/19 reunion
Thanks to Professor Amy Forss for this great photograph! 

October 30, 2012
[selected passages of a letter to the editor of the New York Times]

I am writing to signal my support for the Photographic Exhibit Diana Mara Henry has undertaken to commemorate a very important event in the advancement of women in the United States, the 1977 Houston Conference on Women, the only national women’s conference funded by an appropriation of the U.S. Congress.  The 1977 Women on the Move event was memorable not only in historical terms but in impact and momentum for the women’s movement which was benefitting from the United Nation’s attention to the plight of women across the world with the celebration of the 1975 Women’s World Conference held in Mexico and then followed by the IWY International Women’s Decade that brought so much attention to policies to advance women’s status producing reams of research and action plans to focus on viable solutions to insert women’s potential in development plans all over the globe.

Henry’s photographic smorgasbord provides us with a great opportunity to take stock of the “unfinished business” of the planks that comprised our plan of action for women’s advancement in the United States.  

I served as Commissioner in the IWY Commission of Women and was a member of its Executive Committee under Bella Abzug’s leadership.  At the end of the 1977 U.S. Conference, a Continuing Committee was created to ensure the implementation of the Houston Plan of Action.  Eventually I became Co-Chair with Bella Abzug of the National Advisory Committee for Women appointed by President Jimmy Carter to follow up on the IWY Commission and I also became Co-Chair of the Continuing Committee, a separate nonprofit organization, created at the end of the 1977 Conference.

The Continuing Committee did yearly assessments of where we were on the road map we had created at Houston.  It is now time for former Commissioners and leaders of women’s organizations to undertake a real assessment of the areas where the “unfinished business” persists.  Those areas are vital to women’s advancement and although we have come a long way in most areas, to mention a few, equal pay for equal work is still a myth, parity in education continues to be a lofty aspiration but in disciplines such as engineering, an unachievable dream.  Violence against women must still be pursued and the numbers and status of women in academics, elected and appointive office, the Fortune 500 as well as religious leadership and the banishment of stereotypical concepts and action must receive governmental and media attention so that by 2020, the 100th anniversary of women’s suffrage, we can move the needle of equality toward women’s advancement and fulfill the visionary promise of equality for all.

Women in the United States have the potential, have earned the rewards and merit the support of all the institutions of our society to implement our “unfinished business.”

Carmen Delgado Votaw
"What a treasure trove you have of memories of Houston and the vibrant women's movement we created in the 70s.

Get the book!

Peggy Kokernot's mother writes about her experience:
The Last Mile (1977)

Courtesy of http://www.jofreeman.com/photos/Houstonremember.html 

"Edith Grinnell
 sent this account of the torch arriving for the Houston Conference. Her daughter Peggy was one of the torch bearers.

Houston weather was not good that day. The crowd waited patiently at Memorial park in the spattering rain, but it didn't dampen the spirit of the occasion. Hundreds of us anticipated the arrival of three torch bearers who would carry the torch the last mile to the opening ceremony of the first National Women's Conference at the Albert Thomas Convention Center, November 18th, l977.
Thousands of volunteer women runners from 15 states ran across America to carry the torch, relay style, a segment of the 2610 miles from Seneca Falls, New York to Houston, Texas. On September 28 it had left the birthplace of the first women's rights convention that had been held in July 1848, and would arrive soon today, November 18.
I left my office well before lunch to be there when the torch bearers arrived. We cheered as they came together for the final mile run. They were dressed in shorts and blue T-shirts which were emblazoned with the logo of the Women's Rights Movement: "A FLAMING TORCH SYMBOLIZING WOMEN ON THE MOVE TO LAUNCH THE WOMEN'S CONFERENCE".
These three young runners from Houston represented women of all races and ages with the common goal to celebrate women's rights. These women were Hispanic, African American, and Caucasian. I was there to see my daughter, one of the three, carry the torch. I wanted to shout, "That's my daughter!"
Together they raised the torch and began the last mile. Everyone in the crowd fell in behind them. I recognized Bella Abzug, IWY Commission Chair — at the head of the line in her famous oversized hat. Betty Friedan and tennis star, Billie Jean King. Liz Carpenter, former Press Secretary for Lady Bird Johnson was up ahead. We followed the flame to the doors of the Coliseum. Billie Jean King waved to the thousands women who waited at the entrance to the Convention Center. She, too, held the torch as they entered the building where thousands were waiting to greet them.
My path to that day was accidental, but not atypical. I was caught up in the Women's Movement when I moved back to Houston in 1968. By the time of the National Women's Conference I had heard all the old jokes about "that shocking book", The Feminine Mystique by Betty Freidan. My marriage of 25 years was dissolving. Our four children were having a hard time adjusting to divorce as well as being unhappy over our move to Houston. As a divorced woman I had no credit record, although I had paid all our household bills for years. American Express, which had been our main credit card for years, turned me down. I needed a job but hadn't worked in over 20 years. My typing ability, not my Bachelor's degree in journalism, opened doors during my job search. Eventually I found a job in my own field. Things began to fall into place, very slowly.
The Women's Rights movement impacted my life by giving me the courage to accept the challenge of change. When I overheard women and men, too, joke about ERA, how there would be no more opening of doors for women or giving up their seats, I thought, "they missed the whole point of equal rights! Had they not heard of equal pay for equal work?"
Nonetheless, I knew better than to ask to get off work to attend the three day conference. No one in my own office was the least bit interested in the women's conference. In fact I sensed they disapproved. But I had to go down to the park to proudly watch my daughter and the others carry the flag the last mile.
I regretted not having been a part of the convention, but my daughter, Peggy Kokernot, gave me her firsthand account. I was grateful she had the opportunity to be part of this historic event. Little did either of us dream that this link to the convention would play an important role in her life.
Peggy had participated in college athletics during her school years. After Title IX was enacted to give women equal funding for sports, she started the first women's track team at Trinity University in San Antonio. She went on to win 4th place in the state for the 880 yard run. After graduation she competed in Houston races. She started with 5K and 10K runs, and gradually worked up to the grueling 26.2 mile marathon competition.
While preparing for the January l978 Houston marathon, she received a telephone call in mid-November from Mary Ann McBrayer, who was the Houston contact for the relay committee for the Conference. She and her husband, Tom, were runners who volunteered to work in many Houston running events which included the annual Houston Marathon.
She called to tell Peggy the relay committee faced a serious problem in Alabama and she had been asked for help in finding a womanto run in Alabama.
Phyllis Schlafly, the National Chairwoman of STOP ERA, a national right wing movement, had convinced the Alabama women runners not to support "this radical group of equal rights women under any circumstances!" and she succeeded in stopping them. There was a 16-mile stretch in Alabama which had no available runners for the relay. The torch bearers would be stopped in their tracks with no one there to take the torch and continue the run.
Knowing Peggy was a marathon runner, Mary Ann asked her if she would agree to fly from Houston to Alabama to carry the torch through the area which had been boycotted by local joggers. Unless Peggy had taken the challenge the torch run might have ended there. She ran the entire distance holding the torch. Shortly after her Alabama run, McBrayer invited Peggy to be one of three women runners selected to carry the torch the last mile in Houston, November l7th.
When they entered the Coliseum, the applause was deafening, Peggy said over 2000 delegates rose to cheer and applause. They made their way through the crowd to the stage where the two former First Ladies (Betty Ford and Lady Bird Johnson) and current First Lady, Rosalyn Carter, rose to accept the torch on behalf of the Women's Conference.
A photograph of Peggy which was taken during the opening ceremony by a TIME magazine photographer appeared on the cover of TIME, December 5, 1977. It was a complete surprise to Peggy and the "icing on the cake" for her. TIME quoted Peggy as saying she wanted the Olympic Committee to offer equal status for women in sports, and cited the need for a women's marathon to be included in future Olympics. It had been deemed too difficult for women to run the 26.2 miles for the marathon course.
I went into a tiny shop outside my office and bought their entire supply of TIME for Peggy. That's when my co-workers at my office learned more about the Conference and my daughter! I am still amazed at the people, particularly women, who at that time didn't want equal rights. They were polite at my office, but to them, equal rights meant never having a man let you on the elevator first, never having a man open your car door, not paying for your dinner together, not giving you a seat on a bus.
Shortly after the women's convention, Peggy went on to win the 1978 Houston Marathon in January. The publicity of her victory and having her picture on the cover of Time as well, gave her confidence. Strength gathered from her ERA experience presented opportunities which otherwise might never have happened.
Seven years later, the Olympic trials for women began. Peggy qualified to enter the trials along with two hundred and fifty other women. Three American women earned the honor to run in the first Olympics for the USA in 1984, when Joan Benoit of the U.S.A, won first place for women.
She was asked by the local CBS television station to do a weekly program with tips on running. A year later her television career was launched when she became a local host on the NBC television affiliate in San Antonio for nationally syndicated P.M. Magazine.
The Conference provided Peggy's first exposure to women who freely proclaimed their activism. After her 20 years in television, her own activism has taken her down another path. She now speaks out on issues concerning animal rights, such as the "intolerable injustices animals face in the factory-farming industry, and the fur-fashion industry." Peggy also actively promotes spaying and neutering programs, with free mobile units for those who cannot pay, which, she says, "helps reduce the number of the countless starving and suffering stray animals." She is also against the use of live animals in research.
Peggy currently resides in Columbus, Ohio, with her husband Rick and their four rescued dogs and three cats. I remarried, and we retired to the hill country near Austin."

Nikki Van Hightower honored us with a moving message and photograph. 
We missed her at the celebration!

October 25, 2012

Dear Participants and Friends of the 1977 IWY National Conference in Houston:

I regret that I cannot be with you, but want to share my warmest wishes for this gathering.  Also, I want to share some of my thoughts on the impact of IWY on the City of Houston, the women of Houston and me, as an individual participant.

The year or so leading up to the IWY Conference was a very difficult time for me, as the Women's Advocate in the Houston Mayor's Office, and the courageous feminists who were struggling for equality and services for women.  The all-male city council members at the time were fiercely hostile to the idea of a Women's Advocate and of the goals of the Women's Rights Movement.  The State and local culture was not particularly friendly or well informed on the issues.  

In addition to struggling for my survival in City Hall, I was also working with individuals and organizations to establish a center to provide crisis services for women and their children (domestic violence, sexual assault, discrimination, etc.), since the City lacked all such services. The challenges seemed daunting.  

The IWY state and national conferences infused the Houston Women's Movement with new energy and determination.  It was thrilling to meet and communicate with amazing women leaders from across the country--some we had heard of, many we had not.  It brought legitimacy and credibility to our causes with written material and research on women's issues as well as the presence and/or support of Presidents, First Ladies, elected officials and the United Nations.  Instead of being the brunt of jokes for our efforts for equality and services, we were, for the first time in history, center stage in the political arena.

IWY broadened our outlook, both nationally and internationally.  IWY Conferences in other countries gave us opportunities to hear about the problems and challenges faced by women in other cultures.  The state and Houston Conferences made us address our own misunderstandings with each other in terms of race, religion, ethnicity, social class, sexual orientation, etc.  It effectively forced us out of our comfort zones, making the movement much stronger and diverse as a result.  

The Conference had a wonderful confidence-building and energizing effect on those of us who lived in Houston or who were fortunate enough to attend.  Although the ERA was never ratified, (a painful loss), a wide array of federal and state legislation was passed addressing equal employment, credit, fair pay, violence against women and equal educational opportunities.  In Houston, we charged ahead with forming a women's Center (the Houston Area Women's Center) which provided services for sexual assault survivors, those who suffered from abuse in the home and other women who needed support and assistance.  The organization now serves thousands of women and their children each year and has widespread respect of leaders and the public.  

I and many others came away from the IWY Conference more knowledgeable and more invigorated to carry on our efforts toward equality.  We found ourselves working in a much more positive environment.  Women started gaining electoral representation.  I was forever changed by the 1977 International Women's Year National Conference.  

Thanks to all of you who participated.  I feel so lucky to have been a part of it.  

Nikki R. Van Hightower, Texas Delegate

Dear Ms. Henry,
Thank you for inviting Mrs. Carter to attend the exhibit and 35th anniversary celebration of the First National Women’s Conference on November 19th....She asked that I express her gratitude to you for the kind invitation and send her best wishes for a most successful event.
[signed] Executive Assistant to Rosalynn Carter, The Carter Center

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