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Hearing the voices of Louisiana women

February 12, 2001

Heather Heilman

Crystal Kile isn't sure exactly what to expect on March 24, when the Newcomb College Center for Research on Women will sponsor a symposium called "Stories from the Louisiana Women's Movement: First-Hand Accounts from the People Who Made It Happen."

One thing she knows-it won't be a dull, staged event. "It has the potential to be pretty wild," said Kile, who is the center's education coordinator. "The history of feminism is kind of contentious.

Plus, the terms 'feminism,' 'women's liberation,' and 'the women's movement' encompass so many things all at once-personal awakening and transformation, all sorts of political action from marching in the streets to lobbying the legislature, culture and the arts, education."

But if the history of feminism in Louisiana is contentious, it's also somewhat hidden. "When we talk about this symposium, a lot of people say, 'But there was no women's movement in Louisiana,'" Kile said. "So it's a history that's slipping through the cracks."

The symposium and the exhibit that will accompany it grew out of several synchronous projects and events at the center. One of those projects was Newcomb senior Renee Randazzo's honors thesis on the Louisiana women's movement.

Working with Susan Tucker, the center's curator of books and records, Randazzo sent out query letters to women all over the state, asking them to share their memories and information about the movement. The women who responded put her in touch with even more women. At the same time, veteran feminists started to donate their collections to the center.

"Women are starting to want to clean out the big file cabinets and boxes full of documents they've been conscientiously sitting on for the past couple of decades," Kile said. "We have received some wonderful, amazing collections over the past few years."

That wealth of material will contribute to a corresponding exhibit, organized by Tucker, which will be installed in time for the conference and also will be available in an online version. The event is part of a celebration of the center's 25th anniversary, which was born at the height of the second wave of American feminism.

Kile wants the symposium to serve as a forum for women to share their war stories, and hopes to keep the event loose enough so that there will be a chance for the conversation to take unexpected turns, and for audience members to participate. It will be an all-day event with lunch included. The luncheon speaker will be Ruth Rosen, author of The World Split Open: How the Contemporary Feminist Movement Changed America (2000).

Rosen's knowledge of the national movement will help put events in Louisiana into a larger context, says Kile. The morning schedule will begin with an overview of contemporary feminism in Louisiana by longtime activist Pat Evans. There will also be a presentation by a group of women who were involved in more radical feminist politics in New Orleans and a talk about the history of The Distaff, the monthly New Orleans feminist newspaper.
In the afternoon there will be a discussion of the Women's Art Caucus and of landmark legal cases in Louisiana, of which there were several. The first successful major sex discrimination case in the United States was argued in Louisiana against AT&T. Another hard-fought battle was for the repeal of the head-and-master law, which gave control of a wife's property to her husband.

Baton Rouge attorney Sylvia Roberts will discuss both cases, and women active in the struggle to pass the Equal Rights Amendment will speak. Kile, however, doesn't feel the need to put too positive a spin on the subject. "We don't want it to be just 'Wow, hurrah for us,'" Kile said. "There are things that just didn't work out." Pre-registration for the symposium is required. The $25 fee includes lunch.

Other anniversary events include a March 22 benefit and silent auction at the Audubon Tea Room. The Veteran Feminists of America also will sponsor a reception and dinner honoring Louisiana feminists on March 23. Information, details and registration are available by calling 865-5238, or by logging in to http://www.tulane.edu/~wc.

Tulane University, New Orleans, LA 70118 504-865-5000 website@tulane.edu