New book focuses on women’s impact on state
by Ann B. Dobie
History tells certain stories over and over again, often omitting others that are of less interest or meaning to the tellers. One of the topics commonly overlooked has, until recently, been the roles and achievements of Louisiana’s women. For many years the state’s chronicle was basically composed of male narratives, stories of governors, entertainers, pirates and more—few of them female. Those lost and all but forgotten lives began to resurface in 2009 with publication of Louisiana Women, edited by Judith Gentry and Janet Allured. Their accounts of how women have, throughout the state’s history, played significant roles in widely varied fields has now been extended by Mary Farmer-Kaiser and Shannon Frystak in Louisiana Women: Their Lives and Times, Volume 2.
The book is notable for the diversity of its topics and its characters. The topics are four: Women and the Politics of Identity, Women and Work, Women and the Arts, and Organizing Women. The characters, who were placed in a category based on how they might have viewed themselves, represent a variety of backgrounds, historical contexts, and demographics. The opening section recounts stories of women who struggled with a sense of self. The first essay, for example, traces the lives of three New Orleans women of color who managed in late 18th and early 19th centuries to live independent lives at a time when most women were dependent on their male counterparts for support. The other essays in this section include a lady of the Confederacy whose diary entries describe her personal struggle to resolve the conflict between her ties to both North and South, and a lawyer who combined a life of service to Christ with her secular work for the law. The section concludes with an account of the life of Lindy Claiborne Boggs, who, serving in the U.S. House of Representatives, helped to change the lives of American women by opening up the possibility of personal and commercial credit for them.
The remaining three sections follow the pattern of the first, chronologically presenting women who represent a particular mindset or practice, although their fields of endeavor differ. “Women at Work,” for example, introduces three who from the early 19th century to mid-20th century grew a sugarcane plantation in St. Mary Parish into what is today Louisiana’s largest sugar producer. It also includes a portrait of Lulu White, known as “The Diamond Queen of the Demimonde.” Others who have notably sustained themselves and their families economically include a pre-Revolutionary War era woman who managed to leave a plantation to her children when she died, and the strong Croatian immigrant women who managed oyster fishing families.
Women have long been recognized for their support and creation of the arts, and those profiled in “Women and the Arts” are likely to be more familiar to the general public than those in other sections of Louisiana Women. The insightful essay about Rebecca Wells, for example, presents a popular contemporary writer whose stories about mother-daughter relationships, women’s friendships, and marriage speak to readers well beyond Louisiana. Another familiar name is that of Cammie Henry, who for decades opened her Cane River plantation to artists, writers, and photographers. Others profile an African-American writer and political activist, a Mardi Gras seamstress who kept a diary recording her observations about race, class, and gender in mid-century New Orleans, and the Grammy-winning musician Lucinda Williams.
The final section, “Organizing Women,” focuses on civil rights advocates and those who worked to help others help themselves. The essays include portraits of the cofounder of the first private Protestant refuge run by and for women in the antebellum South, an African-American social activist, the New Orleans Christian Woman’s Exchange, a union lobbyist and educational reformer. It closes with the story of a community leader who defied gender conventions by serving as chair of the Alexandria NAAACP’s legal committee.
Louisiana historians always question whether the state’s history is unique. Louisiana Women, Volume 2 makes its answer by highlighting the impact women have had on the development of the state. It proves that although history has often held that men were the visionaries and the doers, from the earliest days women were making their own serious and lasting contributions. Louisiana Women is a fitting tribute to their lives and times.
Court P. Carney, Emily Clark, Mary Farmer-Kaiser, Shannon Frystak, and Tania Tetlow will discuss Louisiana Women: Their Lives and Times, Volume 2 at 10 a.m., State Capitol, House Committee Room 4.