Washington State Conference for Women opens in Ellensburg on July 8, 1977.

  • By Cassandra Tate
  • Posted 12/14/2012
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 10259
On July 8, 1977, the Washington State Conference for Women opens in Ellensburg. The three-day conference, designed to promote gender equality, will be marked by polarizing debates over the role and rights of women and girls in American society. Women with deeply held but divergent points of view line up on opposite sides of contentious issues such as abortion, gay rights, and the proposed Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) to the Constitution. One session of voting ends with the defeat of a resolution supporting the ERA; another results in the election of a pro-ERA slate of delegates to a national women’s conference to be held in Houston, Texas, four months later. The split reflects the power struggle that made Ellensburg a battleground in what one observer will call “a spiritual war” (Dottie Roberts interview).

International Women’s Year

The Ellensburg conference was an offshoot of International Women’s Year (IWY), designated by the United Nations in 1975. At the end of that year, Congress passed legislation setting up a National Women’s IWY Conference, to be preceded by 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 goal was to identify and eliminate "barriers to the full participation of women" in American life (Women of Ellensburg, 5). In July 1976, Congress appropriated $5 million to finance the conferences. Of that, Washington state received $41,000, a sum that was augmented later with $10,000 in private donations.

A bipartisan, 35-member coordinating committee began planning the state conference in December 1976. The committee selected Central Washington State College (now University) as the site of the conference and picked the second weekend in July as the date. Most of the other state conferences were scheduled for June. Washington’s would be one of the last to be held -- a factor that would influence some of the developments in Ellensburg.

Surprise Announcement

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. 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 (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, 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 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 the college and chair of the conference’s arrangements committee. "I had many thoughts going through my head, none of them very pleasant" (Yee interview).

Blue and White Coalition

Roylance represented the Blue and White Coalition, a group organized by Dolores Gilmore and Dolores Glesener, both of Kennewick, both Catholics, and both active in the campaign to rescind Washington state’s ratification of the ERA. (Washington ratified the ERA in 1973, the year after the proposed amendment was approved by Congress. By 1977, the ratification process had stalled and "rescission" efforts were underway in several states. The amendment failed to win approval by the necessary number of state legislatures before a 1982 deadline and was never enacted into law.)

Opposition to the ERA had been mobilized by Phyllis Schlafly (b. 1924), an Illinois lawyer and founder of the Eagle Forum. In late June, a member of an Eagle Forum chapter in Oklahoma mailed a tape recording to Gilmore. The tape claimed that the IWY conferences were being run by people who "planned to abolish the family ... prohibit discrimination against gays ... and encourage federal control over every aspect of our lives" (Women of Ellensburg, 12). Although Gilmore and Glesener had been aware of the upcoming Washington state conference since late spring and had been encouraging other conservative women to attend, the tape had a galvanizing effect on them. They became even more determined to make sure that women of "traditional values" had a voice in Ellensburg.

Their efforts complemented those of the Mormon church, which also strongly opposed the ERA. The church prepared packets of information about how the IWY conferences worked, explaining voting procedures and emphasizing the need to attend workshops to promote conservative values. The packets were distributed by Relief Societies (the church’s women’s auxiliaries) in 10 targeted states, including Washington.

In late June, about a dozen women from conservative circles attended a planning meeting hosted by Gilmore in Kennewick. Roylance agreed to serve as the group’s issues chair and floor leader 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).

By early July, a large network of conservative women had been mobilized. Gilmore and Glesener decided that some form of group identification would be helpful, "so that we would know each other" once they got to Ellensburg (Gilmore interview). They chose ribbons that could be pinned to nametags, in the colors which Catholics associate with the Virgin Mary: blue and white.

"Sea of Winnebagos"

Like their conservative counterparts, feminists in Washington state were well-connected with like-minded women in other states. Toward the end of the month, they began to hear what they regarded as alarming reports from earlier IWY conferences. There was talk of "Mormon takeovers" and "right-wing manipulation." 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 because they had "bullet-voted" (voting en masse for a single slate of candidates) while feminists had split their votes among progressive candidates. Pro-ERA women in Illinois claimed that an anti-ERA bloc in that state had been directed by men. Organizers of conferences in several Western states said they had been inundated by conservative women who appeared unexpectedly, without pre-registering, on opening day.

Alice Yee, head of the local arrangements committee in Ellensburg, received newspaper clippings about conflicts at other conferences and showed them to the staff at the Central Washington State College conference center, suggesting they hire extra personnel, just in case. "Apparently, the possibility that there might be a confrontation was difficult for them to comprehend," she says. "In any case, no additional staff was hired until it was too late" (Women of Ellensburg, p. 12).

Despite the rumors, the feminists were still unprepared for the sheer number of "blue and white ladies" who showed up in Ellensburg on opening day. "When we got over there and saw that sea of Winnebagos ... " said Jean Marie Brough, Federal Way, former co-president of the Seattle chapter of the National Organization for Women (NOW), and a national field organizer for the ERA (and a Republican), "it was scary, because we thought well, we've lost this battle, because there are so many of them" (Brough interview).

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 get 2,000 extra pencils. "I had to buy out every Number 2 yellow pencil in Ellensburg," said Karen Fraser, the committee’s elections chair (mayor of Lacey at the time and later a state legislator). She also bought two electric sharpeners, because the pencils were not pre-sharpened. "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."

Alice Yee, the local coordinator, eased some of the tension by ordering 15 gallons of lemonade from a nearby fast-food store, paying for it herself, and getting volunteers to serve it to the heat-sagged women in the seemingly interminable lines.

Some women stood in line for five hours or more just to register. According to one story that made the rounds, a very pregnant would-be attendee finally made it to the head of the line only to be warned she probably shouldn’t stay for the conference if she was about to deliver. "Well," she reportedly said, with a sigh, "when I arrived I was only a little bit pregnant" (Bremerton Sun, July 15, 1977).

Competing Coalitions

Registration continued until 11:30 p.m. July 8 and reopened the next morning. Meanwhile, members of 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 to the national conference. Both groups emphasized the need for unity. Each came up with a list of 24 nominees, gave copies of the list to their supporters, and reiterated the importance of voting as a bloc.

Various workshops and "speak-outs" were held during the conference’s second day. Some of the sessions became emotion-charged debates: "right-to-life" versus the "right-to-choose;" the ERA "will rob women of their rights" versus the ERA "is necessary to assure women of their rights;" lesbians "are humans whose rights should be protected" versus "lesbians are against God and should go straight" (Women of Ellensburg, 20).

Not every workshop was a battlefield, however. Women of opposing political beliefs found common ground on topics such as sexist depictions of women in the media, violence against women, the need for equal pay for equal work, and the need for quality child care for women who work outside the home. "People have concentrated on the disagreements," commented Karen Fraser. "But the areas of agreement were significant" (Daily Journal American, July 14, 1977).

Voting for the delegates began at 8 p.m. on July 9. The weather was unseasonably cold and windy. 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 count that included 80 contested ballots changed the outcome by only one delegate: Katherine "Kay" Regan (1931-2008) of Seattle, the only anti-ERA member of the coordinating committee, replaced Bea Farrell, a pro-ERA nun from Spokane.

Contested Election

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 rights, gay rights, affirmative action, and the ERA. 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, a member of the Mormon contingent from Port Orchard. "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, they marshaled reinforcements. They called friends, begged them to come to the conference, register, and stay just long enough to vote for the ERA slate -- since there were no available motel rooms or other lodging within 50 miles of Ellensburg. "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. "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 were sore losers. "They would rather have no one at the conference than persons who have viewpoints different from their own" (The Seattle Times, November 16, 1977).

Sources: Mildred Andrews interviews with Dottie Roberts, Alice Yee, Susan Roylance, Dolores Gilmore, Jean Marie Brough, Karen Fraser, and Linda Terry, 2007, IWY Oral History Project, Washington Women’s History Consortium website accessed November 2012 (http://www.washingtonwomenshistory.org/themes/womensRights/oHistProj.aspx); Jean Withers, Lynn Morrison, Ruth Jones, Fredericka Foster, The Women of Ellensburg: Report of the Washington State International Women’s Year Conference 1977, Washington Women’s History Consortium website accessed November 2012 (http://www.washingtonwomenshistory.org/themes/ellensburg/default.aspx); Susan Miller, "Reflecting Back on Women’s Conference," Bremerton Sun, July 15, 1977, and Linda Gist, "Women’s Conference Showdown: Us vs. Them," Daily Journal American (Bellevue), July 14, 1977, both in box 17, Washington State Conference for Women, 1977, Central Washington University Archives and Special Collections, Ellensburg; Jane Cartwright, "Conservative Women Speak Out Against Equal Rights Amendment," The Seattle Times, November 16, 1977, p. H-1.

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