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The Last Mile (1977)

Edith Grinnell sent this account of the torch arriving for the Houston Conference. Her daughter Peggy was one of the torch bearers.

Houston weather was not good that day. The crowd waited patiently at Memorial park in the spattering rain, but it didn't dampen the spirit of the occasion. Hundreds of us anticipated the arrival of three torch bearers who would carry the torch the last mile to the opening ceremony of the first National Women's Conference at the Albert Thomas Convention Center, November 18th, l977.
Thousands of volunteer women runners from 15 states ran across America to carry the torch, relay style, a segment of the 2610 miles from Seneca Falls, New York to Houston, Texas. On September 28 it had left the birthplace of the first women's rights convention that had been held in July 1848, and would arrive soon today, November 18.
I left my office well before lunch to be there when the torch bearers arrived. We cheered as they came together for the final mile run. They were dressed in shorts and blue T-shirts which were emblazoned with the logo of the Women's Rights Movement: "A FLAMING TORCH SYMBOLIZING WOMEN ON THE MOVE TO LAUNCH THE WOMEN'S CONFERENCE".
These three young runners from Houston represented women of all races and ages with the common goal to celebrate women's rights. These women were Hispanic, African American, and Caucasian. I was there to see my daughter, one of the three, carry the torch. I wanted to shout, "That's my daughter!"
Together they raised the torch and began the last mile. Everyone in the crowd fell in behind them. I recognized Bella Abzug, IWY Commission Chair — at the head of the line in her famous oversized hat. Betty Friedan and tennis star, Billie Jean King. Liz Carpenter, former Press Secretary for Lady Bird Johnson was up ahead. We followed the flame to the doors of the Coliseum. Billie Jean King waved to the thousands women who waited at the entrance to the Convention Center. She, too, held the torch as they entered the building where thousands were waiting to greet them.
My path to that day was accidental, but not atypical. I was caught up in the Women's Movement when I moved back to Houston in 1968. By the time of the National Women's Conference I had heard all the old jokes about "that shocking book", The Feminine Mystique by Betty Freidan. My marriage of 25 years was dissolving. Our four children were having a hard time adjusting to divorce as well as being unhappy over our move to Houston. As a divorced woman I had no credit record, although I had paid all our household bills for years. American Express, which had been our main credit card for years, turned me down. I needed a job but hadn't worked in over 20 years. My typing ability, not my Bachelor's degree in journalism, opened doors during my job search. Eventually I found a job in my own field. Things began to fall into place, very slowly.
The Women's Rights movement impacted my life by giving me the courage to accept the challenge of change. When I overheard women and men, too, joke about ERA, how there would be no more opening of doors for women or giving up their seats, I thought, "they missed the whole point of equal rights! Had they not heard of equal pay for equal work?"
Nonetheless, I knew better than to ask to get off work to attend the three day conference. No one in my own office was the least bit interested in the women's conference. In fact I sensed they disapproved. But I had to go down to the park to proudly watch my daughter and the others carry the flag the last mile.
I regretted not having been a part of the convention, but my daughter, Peggy Kokernot, gave me her firsthand account. I was grateful she had the opportunity to be part of this historic event. Little did either of us dream that this link to the convention would play an important role in her life.
Peggy had participated in college athletics during her school years. After Title IX was enacted to give women equal funding for sports, she started the first women's track team at Trinity University in San Antonio. She went on to win 4th place in the state for the 880 yard run. After graduation she competed in Houston races. She started with 5K and 10K runs, and gradually worked up to the grueling 26.2 mile marathon competition.
While preparing for the January l978 Houston marathon, she received a telephone call in mid-November from Mary Ann McBrayer, who was the Houston contact for the relay committee for the Conference. She and her husband, Tom, were runners who volunteered to work in many Houston running events which included the annual Houston Marathon.
She called to tell Peggy the relay committee faced a serious problem in Alabama and she had been asked for help in finding a womanto run in Alabama.
Phyllis Schlafly, the National Chairwoman of STOP ERA, a national right wing movement, had convinced the Alabama women runners not to support "this radical group of equal rights women under any circumstances!" and she succeeded in stopping them. There was a 16-mile stretch in Alabama which had no available runners for the relay. The torch bearers would be stopped in their tracks with no one there to take the torch and continue the run.
Knowing Peggy was a marathon runner, Mary Ann asked her if she would agree to fly from Houston to Alabama to carry the torch through the area which had been boycotted by local joggers. Unless Peggy had taken the challenge the torch run might have ended there. She ran the entire distance holding the torch. Shortly after her Alabama run, McBrayer invited Peggy to be one of three women runners selected to carry the torch the last mile in Houston, November l7th.
When they entered the Coliseum, the applause was deafening, Peggy said over 2000 delegates rose to cheer and applause. They made their way through the crowd to the stage where the two former First Ladies (Betty Ford and Lady Bird Johnson) and current First Lady, Rosalyn Carter, rose to accept the torch on behalf of the Women's Conference.
A photograph of Peggy which was taken during the opening ceremony by a TIME magazine photographer appeared on the cover of TIME, December 5, 1977. It was a complete surprise to Peggy and the "icing on the cake" for her. TIME quoted Peggy as saying she wanted the Olympic Committee to offer equal status for women in sports, and cited the need for a women's marathon to be included in future Olympics. It had been deemed too difficult for women to run the 26.2 miles for the marathon course.
I went into a tiny shop outside my office and bought their entire supply of TIME for Peggy. That's when my co-workers at my office learned more about the Conference and my daughter! I am still amazed at the people, particularly women, who at that time didn't want equal rights. They were polite at my office, but to them, equal rights meant never having a man let you on the elevator first, never having a man open your car door, not paying for your dinner together, not giving you a seat on a bus.
Shortly after the women's convention, Peggy went on to win the 1978 Houston Marathon in January. The publicity of her victory and having her picture on the cover of Time as well, gave her confidence. Strength gathered from her ERA experience presented opportunities which otherwise might never have happened.
Seven years later, the Olympic trials for women began. Peggy qualified to enter the trials along with two hundred and fifty other women. Three American women earned the honor to run in the first Olympics for the USA in 1984, when Joan Benoit of the U.S.A, won first place for women.
She was asked by the local CBS television station to do a weekly program with tips on running. A year later her television career was launched when she became a local host on the NBC television affiliate in San Antonio for nationally syndicated P.M. Magazine.
The Conference provided Peggy's first exposure to women who freely proclaimed their activism. After her 20 years in television, her own activism has taken her down another path. She now speaks out on issues concerning animal rights, such as the "intolerable injustices animals face in the factory-farming industry, and the fur-fashion industry." Peggy also actively promotes spaying and neutering programs, with free mobile units for those who cannot pay, which, she says, "helps reduce the number of the countless starving and suffering stray animals." She is also against the use of live animals in research.
Peggy currently resides in Columbus, Ohio, with her husband Rick and their four rescued dogs and three cats. I remarried, and we retired to the hill country near Austin.

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