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Photographic Memory: On Being the Official Photographer of the First National Women's Conference

It all started with Bella Abzug. When I heard her voice, my life changed. Her brash bellow, carried across the NYC night air by WBAI Pacifica radio, my constant companion in the darkroom, was unlike any female voice I had ever heard. After she used the photos I took of her at her Lower-Manhattan press conference for posters in her successful Congressional re-election campaign, Bella hired me to photograph her 1976 airplane–hopping tour to upstate NY to promote her candidacy for the Senate, and her campaign for NYC Mayor in 1977.

Bella Abzug at a New York Press Conference, 1972, by Diana Mara Henry
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Bella Abzug at a New York press conference in 1972.

Copyright © Diana Mara Henry, dianamarahenry.com

When, in 1977, Abzug and Senator Patsy Mink called for a national women’s conference, I had only been working professionally for five years, but I foresaw that being hired to photograph the First National Women’s Conference in Houston as official photographer might be the most historic assignment of my lifetime.

When I reflect on this assignment now, I wonder who made the ID card for the conference that would remain my personal historic touchstone. Do we ever give enough credit to the people in our lives for the simple necessary acts that make all the difference?

As the official photographer of the conference, I had certain privileges. While other photographers could come onto the floor of the conference for twenty minutes and then had to rotate out and give their pass to another, I had “total access” and could stay indefinitely. I accompanied the conference organizer, Lee (now Rabbi Leah) Novick when she led the Commissioners on a backstage and underground tour of the convention hall (which during the conference, was crammed with 2,000 voting delegates and about ten times more visitors and dignitaries). I had access to the hotel rooms where the commissioners met late at night to consider tactics for the next day’s events.

Late-night Planning Meeting (1977), by Diana Mara Henry
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National Conference for Women commissioners at a 1977 planning meeting, including Gloria Steinem (sitting in front of lamp) and Ersa Poston (on couch). Copyright© Diana Mara Henry, dianamarahenry.com.

When I returned to Manhattan, I spent three days and nights bringing out the images. The first day I unrolled 32 rolls of film in the dark of my closet and placed them in cannisters, into and out of which I poured chemicals and water in the kitchen sink to wash them, before hanging them up to dry from the shower rod in my bathroom. The second day I made contact sheets of all the film strips to see tiny images of all the photos I had captured, and the next day, I made forty or so enlargements. Digital photographs taken today will last only as long as the technology will support them, but the paper prints I made could last as long as the pyramids, in the right climatic conditions.

The images from the conference first appeared in the Village Voice, with my photo of the women waving their bras appearing on the front page on December 2, 1977. Viva magazine published a collection of images and text in March 1978 entitled “United we Stand, Scenes from the National Women’s Conference by Diana Mara Henry.” Their profile of me read: “Diana herself was a government major at Radcliffe—‘Yucch,’ she editorializes succinctly—but the background gave her entrée to a lot of smoke-filled rooms during recent political campaigns. Diana always seems to be the one in there snapping while other journalists are still outside banging on the door.”

Three First Ladies and Bella Abzug, by Diana Mara Henry
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Program for the 50th anniversary gala of Planned Parenthood, depicting Diana Mara Henry's photo from the 1977 First National Conference for Women. Copyright © Diana Mara Henry, dianamarahenry.com.

Newsweek Books published my photograph of Bella and the three First Ladies, who had put aside their political or personal considerations to open the conference, setting the tone of solidarity and positivity that was the conference’s greatest gift for participants.

Venues for my exhibition of the conference over the years have included the National Women’s Hall of Fame, 1985; the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, 2011; and the Manhattan Borough President’s Office, 2012, where a speaking event also celebrated the 35th anniversary of the Houston Conference. At that event, Gloria Steinem said, “looking at these photographs is like a really good version of the moment before you die.”

One of the delights of the last decade has been identifying, corresponding with, and in some cases meeting the women whom I captured so long ago. They include the women in my best-known image: Billie Jean King; Susan B. Anthony, great-grandniece of her namesake; Bella Abzug; Sylvia Ortiz, Peggy Kokernot (now Kaplan), Michelle Cearcy, who carried the torch for the last mile of its 2,600 mile relay from Seneca Falls to Houston; and Betty Friedan.

Marchers with the Olympic Torch at the National Women's Conference, 1977, by Diana Mara Henry
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Marchers with the Olympic torch at the National Women's Conference, (left to right) Billy Jean King, Susan B. Anthony II, Bella Abzug, Sylvia Ortiz, Peggy Kokernot, Michele Cearcy, Betty Friedan, 1977.

Copyright © Diana Mara Henry/dianamarahenry.com

Four decades after I took these photographs, they are so much more than objects. They are representations of people, famous or not, who have names, whose history stretches back through their earliest childhoods to the way they were brought up, the way they overcame their challenges, their dreams and hardships, and their work and achievements, large and small. All of these individuals, with their distinct lives, came together, for a brief moment, to move history forward. Their work resulted in radical change and equity in many areas of American society. My aspiration as I photographed them was to honor these women. By sharing my photos, I hope you will honor them too, with your own creativity and action.

Autographed Report on the First National Women's Conference
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Copy of the Report of the First National Women's Conference, autographed by Betty Friedan for Diana Mara Henry. Copyright © Diana Mara Henry, dianamarahenry.com.

See more of the women who moved history forward at the website Diana created for the 35th anniversary: http://www.dianamarahenry.com/wotm/index.html

All photographs copyright © Diana Mara Henry / http://www.dianamarahenry.com Diana Mara Henry’s photographs, papers, and documentation of the events she photographed are in the special collection in her name at the University of Massachusetts’ Du Bois Library.

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1 Comment

I attended that conference, not in any official capacity; just because I wanted to be there.  Remember the jitneys that drove people from hotels to meetings?  I struck up a conversation,  while riding, with an African-American woman.  I asked her if she wanted have dinner together.  She already had plans, but asked me to join her and her friends.  Not until that evening, when her friends told me, did I learn she was Dorothy Height, the President of the National Council of Negro Women.  It was an amazing evening and a highlight of a truly amazing weekend.  I love Diana Mara Henry's photographs for themselves and for the memories of that historic event.

Delegates at the First National Conference for Women (1977), by Diana Mara Henry
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Women hold up their bras at the 1977 National Conference for Women. Copyright © Diana Mara Henry, dianamarahenry.com.
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How to cite this page

Henry, Diana Mara. "Photographic Memory: On Being the Official Photographer of the First National Women's Conference." 13 November 2017. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on November 19, 2017) <https://jwa.org/blog/reflection-from-official-photographer-of-first-national-women-s-conference>.

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