Women’s Rights Movement
Inspired by social justice and protest movements percolating across the country in the 1960s, Second Wave feminists sought liberation and equal rights for women.
In Louisiana the modern women’s rights movement began in the mid-1960s, an era when such organized campaigns for equality were gaining momentum in other parts of the nation. This movement is sometimes referred to as the “second wave” of feminism to distinguish it from the suffragette struggle of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. In the sixties, women who took up the banner of equal rights had often participated in and been inspired by the anti–Vietnam War, students’ rights, and/or civil rights movements and wanted to extend ideologies about freedom, equality, and liberation to the sphere of gender. To this end, Louisiana activists lobbied for passage of the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA), which guaranteed women equal protection under the law. Though the Louisiana legislature ultimately refused to support this amendment in 1982, women’s rights activists achieved important and lasting changes on social, cultural, and political levels.
Among the movement’s achievements were the elimination of the “Head and Master” provision of Louisiana’s matrimonial law, the reform of rape laws and credit practices that discriminated against women, and the creation of the state Office of Women’s Services. Women’s rights advocates also successfully fought for the licensing of day care centers, developed a widespread anti-violence movement, and established battered women’s shelters, as well as rape crisis centers, throughout the state.
Early Years of the Movement
New Orleans was home to the earliest, largest, and most diverse women’s rights movement in Louisiana. Cathy Cade and Peggy Dobbins, graduate students in Tulane University’s sociology department, offered a course on the sociology of women as part of the school’s “free university” in 1966. The school gave self-motivated students and interested professors an alternative to the traditional university setting at a time when no university in the state offered classes in women’s studies. Analyzing women’s issues for the first time in Louisiana, the free school’s class evolved into the first of many consciousness-raising groups in the city. Cade, who was an organizer of Tulane’s chapter of Students for a Democratic Society and a co-founder of the Southern Student Organizing Committee, went on to co-found the New Orleans Women’s Liberation Group.
The Independent Women’s Organization—which consisted primarily of wealthy, respectable female reformers interested in eliminating city and state political corruption and breaking the lock on the “old boys’ network” in Louisiana politics—supplied the new feminist organizations with some seasoned, veteran reformers. Other well-established organizations that paved the way for the emerging women’s rights groups were the National Council of Jewish Women, the League of Women Voters, and the Save Our Schools Committee; the latter worked to keep the public schools open during the New Orleans school integration crisis.
Universities and other nonprofit organizations provided crucial support to the movement in the form of both meeting space and sympathetic faculty. In 1975 Loyola University and Newcomb College established women’s studies programs and women’s centers, both of which functioned as the academic arm of the women’s movement. Newcomb Women’s Center later became the Newcomb College Center for Research on Women. The Human Relations Institute at Loyola sponsored humanities grants funded by the newly founded Louisiana Committee for the Humanities, now the Louisiana Endowment for the Humanities (LEH), for a series of dialogues on women’s issues. Another LEH grant funded a statewide series of presentations in 1973, conducted by Clay Latimer and Janet Mary Riley, focusing on the inequities of the Head and Master provision of Louisiana’s community property system. “Head and Master,” as it has come to be called, allowed husbands to mortgage a couple’s house or otherwise acquire debt without the wife’s knowledge or permission, though she was equally responsible for repaying the debt.
Only in New Orleans was there a radical, as well as a liberal, wing to the women’s movement. While liberal feminists sought to work within existing social structures to bring about gender equality, radical feminists saw women’s oppression as the result of a social structure created by and for men, and they sought to change the system itself. By 1970 the radical women’s rights activists established a women’s center on Jackson Avenue, which became the hub of radical feminist activity. They considered themselves a socialist alternative to the National Organization for Women (NOW), and their tactics comprised almost exclusively direct action: street theater, guerrilla, and zap actions, such as staging a sit-in at the New Orleans welfare office when it bumped thousands of women off the welfare rolls. Although their primary concern was the advancement of feminist goals, they also worked for other causes, including lesbian rights.
Baton Rouge, which had the second largest women’s rights movement, had much in common with New Orleans. As a port city with two large universities—Louisiana State University and Southern University, the largest black university in the nation—Baton Rouge attracted people from outside the state. Maureen Hewitt, Roberta Madden, Jane Chandler, and Mary Metz established a NOW chapter in 1971, organizing many professional women in the drive for reform. Under the leadership of Karline Tierney, Baton Rouge activists formed ERA United, an organization aimed at recruiting women throughout the state to lobby in support of the ERA district by district.
The Movement Organizes
All the major national feminist organizations had active chapters in Louisiana, and NOW formed one chapter in Baton Rouge and two in the New Orleans area in the early 1970s. Within a few years many chapters existed throughout the state, and NOW acted as a political pressure group at both the state and local levels. Considered a liberal or mainstream women’s rights organization (in that it sought to work within the existing political economy), it carried out direct action campaigns such as pickets, rallies, and demonstrations. Each August 22, the anniversary of the ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment, which granted women the right to vote, NOW sponsored a commemoration of Women’s Rights Day in New Orleans’s Audubon Park. The state eventually had several chapters of NOW, but most had tiny memberships and demobilized after defeat of the ERA in 1982. Though chapters were free to concentrate on the issues that seemed most important locally, chapter activities were coordinated at annual statewide meetings. NOW sponsored consciousness-raising groups, supplied members to appear on radio and television programs, talked to groups about the ERA and other legislation, and testified regularly before the Louisiana legislature.
NOW chapters also presented seminars to women on financial management, employment, assertiveness training, therapy, and the law as it pertained to women in Louisiana. They established task forces to identify sexism in education and pressured local school boards to review elementary school texts to see how they portrayed women. By the mid-1970s, Louisiana NOW had also agreed to work on gay rights, a controversial topic at that time. Among the NOW members was Kim Gandy, a native of Bossier City, Louisiana, who joined the New Orleans chapter in 1973, co-founded the Jefferson Chapter in 1975, and served as state president from 1978 to 1981. She went on to serve as NOW’s national secretary from 1987 to 1991 and national president from 2001 to 2009.
In 1973 women from Baton Rouge and New Orleans organized a Louisiana chapter of the National Women’s Political Caucus, which grew out of a preexisting Baton Rouge organization called Women in Politics, founded by Karline Tierney in 1971. Louisiana activists, including Roberta Madden and Gayle Gagliano, also attended a national convention of the National Women’s Political Caucus in Houston, Texas, in February 1973. They then invited other Louisiana activists to an organizational meeting in New Orleans that September. About one hundred black and white women attended from all over the state, affirming the group’s number one goal: “to emphasize the value and absolute worth of every woman in this society, regardless of race, religion, color, creed, age, national origin, physical or social condition.” Other goals included recruiting and organizing women as a political force; endorsing candidates who supported women’s issues; encouraging and supporting female candidates to run for office; and educating women about the issues affecting them.
Organizations worked for passage of the ERA and advocated other feminist causes elsewhere in the state. In Lafayette, Ollie Osborne chaired the Evangeline ERA Coalition and later headed the Acadiana Women’s Political Caucus, an affiliate of the Louisiana Women’s Political Caucus. Shreveport had a fairly large and active NOW chapter, run by Linda Martin, with about forty to fifty members at its peak. Many women in these groups came to feminism after working with the League of Women Voters, a well-established organization that emerged from the women’s suffrage movement.
The AFL-CIO supported the women’s rights movement by providing ERA United with office space in Baton Rouge. In New Orleans, the AFL-CIO provided space on Tulane Avenue to ERA Central, a similar coalition for the city of New Orleans. Both Fran Bussie, wife of AFL-CIO president Victor Bussie and the community services officer of the Louisiana AFL-CIO, and Sibal Taylor Holt, Victor Bussie’s assistant, were active and effective lobbyists for women’s issues and successfully garnered support within the labor community. The backing of the AFL-CIO was important in three ways. First, the state AFL-CIO helped women enter occupations that had previously been closed to them. These new workers, in turn, increased union strength at a time when memberships were declining. Second, the union drew attention to an issue at the crux of the women’s rights movement: the changing rights and responsibilities of both sexes at home and in the workforce. By advocating the idea of women working alongside men, the AFL-CIO effectively gave the movement its stamp of approval. Third, because of its ability to deliver votes, the Louisiana AFL-CIO could pressure legislators who received labor support to vote in favor of women’s issues and for ratification of the proposed ERA.
Black women who supported feminism’s goals were likely to be active in the National Committee on Household Employment, the National Welfare Rights Organization, the Urban League, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), and/or a labor union. Rupert Richardson was active with the NAACP as well as Women in Politics, while Sibal Taylor Holt had a leadership role in the AFL-CIO and the A. Philip Randolph Institute. Annie Smart was president of the Louisiana Welfare Rights Organization.
African American women were elected to the Louisiana legislature for the first time in the 1970s. In 1971 Dorothy Mae Taylor became the first black woman to serve in the Louisiana House of Representatives when she was elected to fill the unexpired term of Ernest “Dutch” Morial, and she was reelected in 1972. Diana Bajoie, representing a traditionally African American district of New Orleans, began her first term in the Louisiana House in 1976, later moving to the Louisiana Senate, where she remained for another seventeen years. Though neither of these women ran on a women’s rights platform, they supported feminist measures during their time in office. Bajoie reintroduced the ERA into the legislature in 1979, following the lead of her constituents; polls consistently showed that black women and men supported the ERA in larger numbers than did whites. African American women were also instrumental in the establishment of a New Orleans chapter of the Women’s Equity Action League in 1980. Headed by Mary Helen Matlick, Jane Bankston, and Andrea Jefferson, it encouraged women to help each other and to raise awareness about family violence, including incest. Though the chapter was short-lived, it exhibited another case of black women’s engagement with feminist causes.
Political and Structural Reforms
In response to Louisiana women’s demands for reform, the state established two organizations: the Louisiana Commission on the Status of Women and the Women’s Bureau. These agencies were the instigating and organizing forces behind the two statewide women’s conferences held in Baton Rouge. In 1976, 1,500 women—black and white—and a few men met for the Louisiana Governor’s Conference on Women, sponsored by the Louisiana Commission on the Status of Women headed by Myrtle Pickering. The conference was chaired by Elaine Edwards, wife of then Governor Edwin Edwards, Fran Bussie, and Dorothy Mae Taylor. It was coordinated by Pat Evans, program administrator and soon-to-be director of the Bureau on the Status of Women. Supported by a grant from the federal government, the conference included numerous panels, speakers, and workshops designed to raise awareness about the particular concerns of women.
In June 1977 women from all over the state again gathered in Baton Rouge for the International Women’s Year conference (IWY). As mandated by the federal government, the ethnicity of IWY delegates had to mirror the state’s ethnic breakdown. Hence, the Louisiana conference included nearly as many black women as white. This conference was chaired by Shirley Marvin, of the Louisiana Women’s Political Caucus and the League of Women Voters, and Clarence Marie Collier of the Louisiana Education Association. The 1,200 women in attendance resolved to endorse federal laws ending discrimination against women, to support federal funding of child care, and to urge ratification of the ERA. The convention elected delegates to the national IWY convention to be held a few months later in Houston.
Women’s rights advocates in Louisiana also worked to insert an equal rights clause, referred to as the “human dignity” clause, into Louisiana’s Constitution of 1974. They were dismayed, however, when the clause was watered down to prohibit only “arbitrary, capricious, or unreasonable” discrimination. The intentional vagueness of this prohibition, many feminists argued, provided loopholes for “reasonable” discrimination.
While the failure of the Louisiana legislature to support the ERA in 1982 came as a substantial blow to the movement, it did not diminish its achievements. In the preceding decades, women’s rights activists helped women in prisons; organized sit-ins and demonstrations on behalf of welfare recipients; taught feminist courses at the public libraries; and sponsored women’s conferences and study groups. They organized co-ops, collectives, and book distributorships such as Atlantis Commune, and developed an abortion referral service, which existed both before and after Roe v. Wade (1973). On a cultural level, they organized women’s music concerts and festivals as well as art shows and women’s studies programs at colleges and universities around the state. As a result of their activism, they transformed not just laws but also attitudes about “a woman’s place” in Louisiana society and culture.