Research and Reverence

Historic women’s conference hosted by NDSU professors may lead to book

In the 1970s, women from North Dakota visited Texas for the first federally funded women’s conference in the country. Christi McGeorge, a professor of human development and family science, partnered with Ashley Baggett, an assistant professor of history, to bring the story of these women to light.

McGeorge spearheaded the project, but admitted that this is not her area of expertise. “There is one important thing you have to know about me from the beginning: I’m not a historian,” McGeorge said. “I’m a family therapist by training and a lover of the women’s movement through life.”

The conference and the issues it raised might have taken place in a different time, but McGeorge said she had always had a deep interest in the event. “I had been raised by strong women who taught me a lot about the women’s movement and who had been involved themselves in the women’s movement,” McGeorge said.

The certified counselor said that when she was hired at North Dakota State she focused on the job at hand. When Katherine Kilbourne Burgum, a former dean of her department, died, McGeorge felt compelled to tell the story of women like Burgum who attended the conference.

“I realized that a piece of history that was really important to me, and I think really important to our country and our state, was being lost,” McGeorge said. “So in 2005, I decided to start doing interviews with all the women who were associated with the National Women’s Conference in North Dakota.”

The National Women’s Conference was in accord with an executive order by President Gerald Ford to mark America’s bicentennial with the “Year of the Women” and organize a state and national conference. 

This order was given after an international women’s conference was put on by the United Nations in Mexico City, where countries were called upon to have their own conferences to address women’s issues.

Baggett said they called the conference “the first of its kind” because it was the first federally funded women’s conference. The objective of the event, according to Baggett, was to pass recommendations that would then be presented to the president.

“So approximately 20,000 people gather, and there are about 2,000 delegates, so most people are attendees … they were either the media or just people who wanted to learn,” Baggett said.

Baggett said she learned through her work with the Houston archives that a large amount of the women who attended just wanted to learn. This was a constant theme in interviews at the time, according to Baggett.

The women were met with backlash and complications, according to Baggett. The delegates and attendees were welcomed with delayed flight landings and hotel rooms that took 6-8 hours to get, according to Baggett.

“There was a lot of discussion about why?” Baggett said. “Some people say there was a prior conference and people were not checking out intentionally as a way of protesting.”

Baggett said the woman she interviewed were determined to make, it so they stuck out the wait times.

The problems didn’t stop there for the conference goer, however. According to Baggett, there was a garbage strike and one of the women interviewed said she remembers rats all over Houston.

Baggett said the governor of the state at the time designated the week as “Family Week” as a backlash to the conference.

According to Baggett, through contentious debate, the delegates did pass all but one recommendation while also bringing women together. 

These connections were important for some of the delegates they spoke to from North Dakota. “There was this feeling of connection with the rest of the nation and not just being isolated in North Dakota,” Baggett said.

Baggett said they are in the process of finishing their research and would like to work with the NDSU Press to publish a book.

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