News & Updates: NWSA History

NWSA, A History – 1987 Nineth National Conference

Tuesday, April 28, 2020  
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Cover of the 1987 conference program book

9th National Conference | "Weaving Women's Colors: A Decade of Empowerment" | June 24-28, 1987 | Spelman College | Atlanta, GA

Program Highlights

1987 was the year of both NWSA's tenth anniversary and the 9th Annual Conference, "Weaving Women's Colors: A Decade of Empowerment." This year, it was again the constituency groups, supported by the plenary programming, that led the push for the Association and its membership to center the most marginalized voices among them. Joining the existing constituency groups were the Task Forces on African American Women, Aging and Ageism, Peace, and Science and Technology. It's important here to note the differences between a caucus and a task force. The NWSA bylaws state that, while caucuses focus on groups that are under-represented within society or NWSA, task forces focus on an issue relevant to NWSA that can be addressed through action. In 1987, the Task Force on Disabilities became the first task force to become a caucus, marking an understanding that a sustained effort was needed to advocate for disability-related issues within the Association, field, and movement and to bring justice for people with disabilities as an integral part of the feminist agenda. 1987 was also the first year that the accessibility of breakout rooms was marked in the program.

It's also significant to note that Spelman College, the host site of the 1987 conference and a historically Black women's college, was undergoing a significant redirection in its leadership. After student-led protests pressured college leadership in a decade-long struggle, Spelman appointed its first woman president, Johnetta B. Cole. Spelman was also celebrating its sixth year of its Women's Research and Resource Center, one of the first of its kind at a historically Black college or university.

As for the plenary programming, the 1987 conference hosted four plenaries – more than any other before it. Below are their titles and their abstracts.


"The Political Empowerment of African-American Women: Furthering a Feminist Agenda for the Twenty-First Century"
Speakers: Georgina English Palmer, Angela Y. Davis, C. DeLores Tucker

The lives of African-American women have been impacted upon by the varied forces of American political processes. We, as African-American women, intuitively understand that such forces infiltrate every aspect of our lives, from "womb to tomb." Thus, the history of our struggle for liberation as women, affected by several forms of oppression, is replete with evidence of our quest for empowerment. The political activism of African-American women has necessarily become one method of expressing our empowerment.

At this particular era – the last decade and a half of the twentieth century – it has become necessary for us to explicitly analyze the nature of political empowerment relative to our experiences in that process, reflectively and projectively. This plenary will focus on political empowerment from three perspectives: traditional electoral politics, grass roots political organizing, and revolutionary politics. The undergirding purpose is to set forth a feminist agenda for African-American women in the struggle for freedom. Several major issues, such as health, sexuality, and economics, will necessarily weave the discussion.


"Pain, Survival, Triumph: Voices of Poor and Working Class Women"
Speakers: Rena Grasso, Bonita Hampton, Lois Rita Helmbold, Jan Lightfoot, Bernice Mennis, Karen Ruggiero, Theresa Solis

For the past several years poor and working-class women have gathered at NWSA to share the stories of our lives, to validate our identities, and to build creative connections. Together we have struggled to hear each other; as we have confronted our own prejudices and confessed to our own self-hatred. We have spoken of our own private worlds of pain, learned to begin healing the hidden injuries we have suffered because of our class and allowed ourselves to experience the triumph that comes from the mere fact of our survival. The result has been the forging of a coalition of poor and blue collar women, of community women and academic women, of ethnic women and women of color; as we have realized that despite our differences, our roots were nourished by the same class. In our personal lives, in our work, in our coalition, we have begun to dedicate ourselves to translating theory into practice in our effort to overcome class oppression in all its manifestations.

Now we want to be heard by a larger audience. We want the visibility that we gain here as poor and working-class women to be reflected in countless new places, when NWSA members return home to their communities, their work places, their classrooms. We want to make our stories and our images in all of our diversity so vivid that poor and working-class women can never be invisible or silenced again, either in NWSA or in society as a whole.

It's also significant to note that Spelman College, the host site of the 1987 conference and a historically Black women's college, was undergoing a significant redirection in its leadership. After student-led protests pressured college leadership, Spelman appointed its first woman president, Johnetta B. Cole. Spelman was also celebrating its fifth of its Women's Research and Resource Center, one of the first of its kind at a historically Black college or university.

This plenary will be our public forum. For the first time in its history, a representative group of poor and working-class women will stand before NWSA in order to be truly heard, depicting the realities of our own lives, in our own words, with our own accents. We believe that without the images our stories offer, we cannot hope to weave together a complete tapestry of women's lives, one that acknowledges the overriding class stratification that affects all women, regardless of race, ethnicity, or creed. Women's movement and Women's Studies draw their most vital energy from listening to other women's lives, We hope this plenary will contribute a new energy source as we learn from each other how to spark the social change that will overcome classism.


"Spinning Threads of Women's Movement"
Speakers: bell hooks, Mab Segrest, Ada Deer, Esther Ngan-Ling Chow, Tandi Gcabashe, Beverly Caffee Glenn, Alicia Partnoy

This plenary is an attempt to illustrate how our different cultural experiences create an ever diversifying and worldwide women's community. We want the plenary to provide impetus to move away from the restricting connotation of THE WOMEN'S MOVEMENT and assist in clarifying that it is all women, through our positive movements who shape our world.

The speakers will address, from theoretical as well as experiential bases, what women in their societies have identified as problems that affect them, the possible solutions and strategies for change around these problems, and the major resistances to change that are encountered. Our speakers will also share what dreams for the future guide women in their societies.

The selection of speakers on this plenary is in no way intended to imply that we are giving full coverage to women's diversity. In the short time we spend together at this conference, we hope the plenary speakers representing women from different cultures, nations, and political perspectives will add to our growing understanding of ourselves.


"Women and the Constitution: Where Do We Go from Here?"
Speakers: Mary Frances Berry, Margaret Randall, M.P. Schildmeyer

This plenary and the designated workshops that follow will focus on principles of the U.S. Constitution as they relate to women. The purpose of this plenary is to address such concerns as:

  • The problematic aspects of constitutional equality when applied to women and women-related issues;
  • Who has received the most benefit in the pursuit of constitutional rights and what alternatives exist for gaining equality or a larger populace;
  • The divergences and convergences of the application of the Constitution in the private and public sectors as related to women;
  • The examination of constitutional achievement for women in a global contest by comparing women's legal status in the United States with women's status in other nations and the possible avenues for women's equality which go beyond the U.S. constitution and are provided by international conventions. for example the United Nations conventions on genocide or human rights.

The selection of speakers for this plenary is in no way intended to imply that we are giving full coverage to women's diversity, In the short time we spend together at this conference, we hope the plenary speakers representing women from different cultures, nations, and political perspectives will add to our growing understanding of ourselves.



1987 Conference Coordinators


See the full program here

From the National Director

Dear Conference Participants:

Welcome to a conference that both celebrates history and makes history. By being here, you are helping us mark our tenth anniversary as an Association. But you are also creating history. Your presence confirms a turning point in Women's Studies and the Women's Movement.

As we hold our conference, "Weaving Women's Colors: A Decade of Empowerment," at a black women's college deep in the South, NWSA is making it clear that we understand how inextricably bound race and gender are with one another. The two have shaped our past as women and have frequently kept us divided and distrustful. But we have learned that only if we connect across our common differences can we shape a future that will set us all free. This conference is about dreaming that future and making it happen.

Three years ago, when NWSA began to plan for this conference, we were determined to make it clear that Women's Studies was not simply the study of white women, but the investigation of the rich multi-racial heritage of all women. This conference, however, would never have taken place without the risk-taking vision of Spelman's President Donald Stewart and Emory's President James Laney, who were joined by Agnes Scott's President Ruth Schmidt. They have given us both their financial and moral support. We are deeply indebted.

Conferences remain no more than an idea without conference coordinators and conference staffs who can translate fanciful notions into hard copy. Had the indefatigable duo of Eleanor Hinton Hoytt and Sally Gordon not plotted and planned, maneuvered and manipulated, charmed and coerced, we would not have been able to gather together as history markers and history makers.

We are moving toward a new day together in NWSA. The ten year history is there. The momentum to carry us forward is there. Sojourner Truth, that magnificent champion of abolitionists and women alike once said, "I am for keeping the thing going while things are stirring; because if we wait till it is still, it is going to take awhile to get it going again."

Join us these next days and years as NWSA helps keep "the thing going while things are stirring." We will do nothing less than create a new world together.

In sisterhood,
Caryn McTighe Musil
National Director


Thank You from the Conference Coordinators

The annual conference of NWSA is an opportunity to explore and share ideas, exchange information, and examine newly emerging issues and trends in a receptive environment. The 1987 conference theme, "Weaving Women's Colors: A Decade of Empowerment," presented an interesting challenge to our conference planning. Yet the conference committees have developed an agenda we hope will engage each participant in a careful examination of the intersection of race and gender.

We are especially grateful to Emory University, Agnes Scott College and Spelman College for their financial support. We wish to acknowledge the many individuals on the campuses who answered our questions and encouraged our efforts. Sheila Bennett, Associate Dean of the Graduate School of Arts and Science of Emory University, brought our offices to Emory and continued to demonstrate throughout the project her commitment to Women's Studies and her support of the conference. Pauline Drake, the Spelman College campus liaison to the conference, gave support, advice, and cooperation to the conference staff. Spelman Acting President Barbara Carter and Vice President Danny Flannigan listened and heard our concerns about campus arrangements and extended the resources of Spelman to the conference. Beverly Guy-Sheftall of the Spelman Women's Research and Resource Center was gracious and accommodating with her time and assistance and the use of resources in the Women's Center.

Although the individuals and organizations listed on the following page comprise the core of the conference planning team, the program book went to press weeks before the beginning of the conference. To all of you whose names appear in this list and to all of you who have worked since the program book went to press, THANK YOU! "Weaving Women's Colors: A Decade of Empowerment" could not have happened without your help.

Eleanor Hinton Hoytt
Conference Coordinator

Sally M. Gordon
Conference Coordinator


NWSA Coordinating Council

Before there was a Governing Council, NWSA was led by the Coordinating Council. Below are the first council members, as well as the NWSA staff team. You can see the current Governing Council members, conference co-chairs, and staff members here.


1987 Coordinating Council Members

1987 Coordinating Council Members

1987 Coordinating Council Members

See the rest of the history project here

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About the Writer

Victoria Agunod is the office assistant at the National Women's Studies Association, as well as an adjunct faculty member in the Peace, Justice, and Conflict Studies Program at DePaul University. Victoria received their BA and MA in Women's and Gender Studies at DePaul. They first attended NWSA in 2018 and presented their research on university students organizing for racial justice against the new alt-right galvanized by the 2016 U.S. presidential election. They joined the NWSA team the following year. Their teaching emphases are on women of color feminisms, racial justice movements and organizing, and neoliberal rhetorical and cultural influences.

Please note: The information compiled in this project comes from the archived conference programs at the University of Maryland, College Park.