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This Oral History Project is a product of the July 1977 Washington State International Women's Year Conference for Women, held in Ellensburg, which is remembered as a dramatic and emotional confrontation between feminists and conservative women from the religious right.
The objective of this oral history project was to secure well-documented, well-researched, high quality recordings of interviews with 27 Washington women involved in the 1977 Ellensburg and Houston International Women's Year Conferences and other activist women of the period to be used by the Washington State Historical Society to further understanding of this period in Washington State History. The interviews were to be conducted in accordance with the Oral History Association Principles and Standards. Currently only the transcriptions are available on the WHC site. Some of these transcriptions have been edited by interviewees.
About the Conference
Nobody who was there can forget standing in long lines in the unanticipated cold and windy weather, or the unexpected arrival of carloads of women, wearing polyester dresses and blue and white lapel ribbons. Dolores Gilmore, a Roman Catholic in Kennewick and a leading conservative, chose the colors of the Blessed Virgin for conference goers, so that they could recognize each other. The coalition became known as the Blue and Whites.)
The Coordinating Committee had worked for almost a year to plan the conference and to involve a diversity of women from around the state. On the eve of the conference, all seemed in order and pre-registration indicated a turn-out of 2,500. The committee was holding its final meeting, when Susan Roylance, a Mormon and Issues Chair of the Blue and Whites, knocked on the door and asked to speak to one of the committee members. She had some startling information—namely that an additional 2,000 unregistered conservative women would be at the conference the next day. They had made arrangements for housing in local churches and homes and would bring their own food. Nonetheless, committee members stayed up all night to prepare additional packets and ballots, and to revise logistics.
"Ellensburg was an incredible catalyst for feminists in the state of Washington," says Seattle attorney Judith Lonnquist. "We had been operating in an environment of internal friction and then we went over there and ran smack-dab into 2,000 hostile ‘blue and whites.' We had to coalesce." Lonnquist chaired the Sunday plenary session, which was a riotous, six-hour parliamentary duel.
Dorothy Hollingsworth, chair of the Coordinating Committee and a member of the Black Women's Caucus was a staunch advocate for inclusiveness. She says, "I think the conference gave black women an opportunity to see themselves as part of the community, and it empowered them to see that they could make a difference."
Marilyn Rand, a teacher in the Bellevue Public Schools, says, "To me, it was so much anger, so much hatred, and so much intolerance. People would say things against the Mormon Church. From the booklet, "The Women of Ellensburg," I understand that Catholic ladies starated the blue and white ribbons. But they would scream, ‘Don't vote Mormon!' Why weren't they saying ‘Don't vote Catholic?" The Catholics were opposed to abortion, probably more organized and efficient than we were. But it was just, they latched on to us, I don't know if you want to say a scapegoat, but a visible symbol. . . ."
The original three-day conferences for women, held throughout the country, were mandated and paid for by the 94th U.S. Congress. They culminated in the National Conference for Women in November 1977, where elected delegates were to devise a plan of action for women's rights.
Jill Ruckelshaus from Washington State accepted a presidential appointment to chair the National International Women's Year Commission, which studied the status of women and laid out procedures for the conferences. These included the appointment of voluntary planning committees in each state that would be bi-partisan and represent diverse racial, ethnic, religious, age and income groups. In addition, members were to have some knowledge of women's issues, along with conference planning skills. In preparation for the conferences, interest group caucuses submitted recommendations to committees that in turn wrote planks that were presented and discussed in workshops. In plenary sessions, participants voted on the planks and nominated delegates, who were elected by ballot to represent their state at the national IWY Conference in Houston.
The process was nearly derailed, when politically conservative groups around the country woke up to find that feminists and liberals had been doing the caucusing and planning. As one of the last states to hold its conference, Washington's experience was especially volatile.
Much of the politics of Ellensburg can be understood in the activities of two organizations, the Friends of Equal Rights and the Blue and Whites. Both were born out of an initiative filed in early 1977 to rescind Washington State's ratification of the proposed federal Equal Rights Amendment. On July 8, ironically the first day of the conference, the initiative was declared dead and ineligible for voter ratification, due to an inadequate number of signatures. In the wake of the state conference, conservatives held their own conference in Ellensburg, where they organized The Umbrella Group (TUG) and joined with Women with Integrity in the Nation (WIN) to wage a successful referendum campaign that repealed funding, granted by the legislature, for the Washington State Women's Council.
Nonetheless, Washington's delegation to the National I.W.Y. Conference in Houston was overwhelmingly pro-ERA with Kay Regan as the lone conservative. Whenever she tried to get to the microphone to express her views, she says, "They had me in the middle of the row, and I had to climb over three or four people. And they'd put their foot out, and then I'd fall." At one point, she left the floor in tears. While feminists dominated the I.W.Y. Conference, "pro-life and pro-family" forces held a counter rally that galvanized their own political movement.
The Houston conference endorsed 25 planks, including all that were supported by liberals. Judith Lonnquist, who chaired Washington's delegation, emerged as a national leader. She served on the I.W.Y. Continuation Committee to meet with President Carter and Congressional leaders to move the "Houston Plan" into legislation. According to Lonnquist, the committee was not well organized, and failed to garner sufficient support in Congress. Today, the Plan is archived and unimplemented.