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Matt Haines, Adventure #22: Despite International Women’s Day, Mid-City Statues Remain a Sausage Fest

Ruby Bridges (via the Ruby Bridges Foundation).

“It’s not the only reason I come to this thing,” I joked to lead organizer, Marigny DeMauriac, as I grabbed my seat at New Orleans’ third annual International Women’s Day, “but the breakfast is always really REALLY good.” The room was full of energy. Mostly women, but also men, from 20 years old, to 35 years old, to 75 years old — breakfast cocktails in hand — strolled into Propeller Incubator‘s main room, chatting, laughing, and perusing the program outlining the morning’s agenda.

The event is put on each March by the Mid-City Rotary Club of New Orleans – a group of New Orleanians who are driven by the motto, “Service First. Drink Second.”

“One evening, over drinks at Finn McCools,” Marigny was telling me about how the event came to be, “the club founder and I decided we needed to bring International Women’s Day to New Orleans.”

“I can’t believe it hadn’t existed here before that,” I took a sip of my complimentary mimosa, provided by Mid-City cocktail bar, Treo.

“That’s what we said!” her voice jumped. “International Women’s Day is celebrated with thousands of events across the world. How is New Orleans not one of them? And, unlike most Rotary clubs, ours is 80% women. We wanted to lead the charge.”

Panel discussion at International Women’s Day in New Orleans. From left to right, beginning with facilitator: Luz M. Molina (Loyola College of Law); Stephanie Allweiss (Gotcha Covered HR); Lelia Gowland (Gowland LLC); Stephanie Willis (Willis Law Firm, LLC); Amy Landry (Fuel Success Academy, LLC).

The scent of bacon and cheddar scones followed attendees into the room and rose from its gray floors to its two-story tall ceilings.

Marigny nodded toward the three men taking their seats in front of us, “But, if it was just women, I’d feel like the event was a little bit of a failure. We all need to be playing a part in driving gender parity.”

I stopped shoveling smoked salmon frittata and a casserole of strawberry creole cream cheese pancakes into my mouth long enough to ask Marigny what she imagines success would look like today.

She looked down at the ground, her lips pursed and her face scrunched, as she considered through the dull roar of the assembling crowd in front of us. “There are so many incredible women in New Orleans.” Her eyes popped back up to mine and her face relaxed. “Today’s successful if we can highlight them and give them a platform to share their experience and interact with each other.”

She was being waved over by another Rotary Club member near the front of the room. The sound of chatter in the room dimmed and, as she started to walk away, she turned her head to me and — in not quite a whisper — said, “If we do that, then we’ll have successfully added our city’s voice to the movement.”

Pressing On – Part I

As the morning progressed, full of inspiring women tying their personal stories to the event’s theme, Pressing for Progress, it was clear Marigny was accomplishing her goals. Diane Lyons, founder of FestiGals, told the story — while donning a bright pink boa around her neck — of how her career went from assisting her husband at parties, to founding and leading organizations that have empowered thousands of women and raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for the causes important to them.

Tammy O’Shea, CMO of Fidelity Bank guided us through statistics highlighting the contradiction of how woman are making gains, but still not enjoying parity. Women make up more than half of graduate school enrollment, but are concentrated in the subject areas that tend to lead to lower pay, like teaching, and lag behind in those that lead to higher pay, like business. Fortune 500 companies with higher percentages of women in upper management are more prosperous, but only 6 percent of them have female CEOs.

A nuanced look at graduate school enrollment, by concentration and gender.

And then a panel of women, all accomplished changemakers in their fields — law, human resources, consultants — honed in on what we all can be doing to ensure women make meaningful gains in the workplace on the issues we all need to care about: equal pay, inclusion, fair workplace negotiations, work-life balance, and sexual harassment (to name just a few.)

I was impressed by each speaker’s intentionality in framing issues central to the fight for gender equality as causes that will improve all our lives. Maternity leave, for example, wasn’t just about mothers. It’s about companies being flexible enough to meet more of their employee’s unique needs.

But I think I was most taken by the nuance and complexity with which issues — normally (and understandably) initiated with so much passion — were approached and discussed.

Lelia Gowland, owner and founder of the consulting firm, Gowland, LLC, said she tells her clients that the struggle is two-pronged, and those two prongs are sometimes at odds. We’re trying to change unfair systems, yes, but we also need to be excelling within the systems as they currently exist. “I had a client who told me, ‘Lelia, I just got a job offer and I want to be a great feminist and negotiate. But, at the same time, this is more money than I’ve ever made and I don’t want to lose it.’ How do we advise her? That’s a tough balance to strike.”

As the conversation shifted to sexual harassment, the panelists continued to encourage multiple approaches – a balance between a need to target and remove the most egregious violator, while also being able and willing to view and measure each offense as unique. Sometimes that means calling for someone’s ouster from their position, they agreed, but often that means a thoughtful conversation about the nuances of sexual power so the offender can learn from their mistakes.

During the break, I hopped outside to refill my mimosa and follow a familiar aroma to the chicken and waffles covered in sausage gravy. When I got back into the room, Mayor-elect, LaToya Cantrell was telling her audience stories of the women in her life that have shaped her, starting in childhood, in a way men never did.

When I was growing up, the crack epidemic was erasing the men in my life. So if the other children and I were going to get to a better place, it was only going to happen if the women in our lives stepped up and — despite an awful lot of challenges — pressed on.

Cantrell said the efforts of those women inspired her. Now she was using her platform to do the same for us.

It took 300 years, but we’re seeing some progress now. And I don’t just mean for the first woman mayor, or the first black woman mayor. I’m talking about progress for so many of the women in this city. And progress for women also means progress for families. Progress for all New Orleans.

The majority of the voters in this city are women. But less than 15% of our women are on the boards and committees that will shape the policy that will allow us to most effectively press on.

So I don’t just need you to get behind me. I need you to get out front with me, and to get involved with me, and to press on with me so we can make this country, this state, and the city of New Orleans what it should be.

I looked around the room, filled with a soon-to-be-mayor, business owners, entrepreneurs, lawyers, teachers, philanthropists, volunteers and so many others community leaders. I smiled at how impressive it was. On my way out the door I gave a hug goodbye to one of those leaders, Pauline Patterson, owner of Treo on Tulane Avenue, and a top voice in her neighborhood’s fight against gun violence, in all of our fight against cancer, and a champion-by-example in Mid-City’s redevelopment.

Mayor-elect LaToya speaks at International Women’s Day in New Orleans.

I walked into the afternoon sun, which partnered with a sweet breeze for what was turning out to be a spectacular day. I was inspired.

Maybe I could turn International Women’s Day into one of my 365 adventures? I could pair it with a visit to a Mid-City statue of a famous woman in NOLA history. I could learn about her, what she did for New Orleans, and how the statue came to be.

This is when the adventure took an unfortunate turn. As you can imagine, Google searches for statues and monuments in Mid-City result in a lot of hits for guys with the surnames “Davis” and “Beauregard” but none for women. Could that be right?

I thought about it for a while. Had I seen one? I don’t think so. I asked friends. They couldn’t think of one either.

How many statues are dedicated to people in New Orleans? I’m counting at least 50, but there’s no definitive list. Guess how many are dedicated to women.

Five. Women make up approximately 50 percent of the population. And I’m counting five statues dedicated to them. A number so small I could easily bike to them all in one afternoon. Which is what I did.

The Deserved Five

There’s Margaret Haughery (aka “The Bread Woman,” “New Orleans Bread Woman,” “Mother of Orphans,” “Mother to the Motherless,” and “Saint Margaret”), the 19th century Irish immigrant who used her money made from her businesses, most notably bakeries, to fund her life’s real mission: to take care of the destitute, to feed the poor, and to build orphanages. Her statue, dedicated on July 9, 1884 in the Lower Garden, near where Prytania Street runs under the Crescent City Connection, is the first publicly erected statue of a woman in the United States, the first monument to an American female philanthropist, and the only known statue to a baker.

Margaret Haughtery, the Mother of Orphans. The first publicly erected statue of a woman in the United States.

I biked farther up in the LGD and found another monument dedicated to a woman — master educator, Sophie B. Wright — who famously designed education resources for New Orleans students as the 19th century made way for the 20th.

I biked down through the CBD to Molly Marine, on Elk Place, just upriver of Canal Street, watching the skies for Axis planes. During World War II, the Marines needed women to enlist for non-combat work so Recruiter Sgt. Charles Gresham of New Orleans requested the help of French Quarter artist, Enrique Alferez, to inspire the city’s women to step up into the war effort.

Molly’s representative of hundreds of women who joined the war effort, but next I passed a single woman who led an army into battle. In the lower French Quarter, stands a statue, gifted to us from France in 1972 because the town that shares the city’s name, Orleans, was one of the French towns Joan of Arc defended from the English in the 15th century.

And last, but the opposite of least, is the statue to Ruby Bridges, the six-year-old who, in November 1960, was the first black child to desegregate a New Orleans school, in the face of a Louisiana government that refused to do so. In 1954, the United States Supreme Court ruled, in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, that “separate but equal” was impossible, and that segregation must finally come to an end (casting aside the New Orleans-centric Plessy v. Ferguson case from more than a half-century earlier).

Ruby Bridges enters William Frantz Elementary School for the first time (image via Wikipedia).

Ruby was chosen to be the first child to challenge the State of Louisiana, and the federal government sent help to protect her. Former United States Deputy Marshal Charles Burks later recalled, “She showed a lot of courage. She never cried. She didn’t whimper. She just marched along like a little soldier, and we’re all very very proud of here.” (To be fair, Ruby said the crowd she didn’t realize the crowd was protesting her — she thought it had something to do with Mardi Gras.)

I arrived at the Galvez Street entrance to Akili Academy (formerly William Frantz Elementary School) on Saturday afternoon, and recognized the six steps, the square tiles framing the doorway, and the ornamental gas light — one hanging from each side — from pictures I’ve seen of that extraordinary morning. I even recognized the shadow coming off one of the lights. The only difference was in the 1960, the sun was coming from the east, setting a morning shadow upriver. I was taking the picture later in the day, so the shadow was casting east off the opposite lantern.

Galvez Street was quiet. A father and daughter passed the massive trees shading the school and I wondered what it must have been like to be Ruby’s mom or dad — sending your child to a place she was definitely not wanted, would most likely be threatened, and could potentially face violence. I waited for the duo to disappear around the deep orange sunset-soaked corner and I walked to the entrance.

The door was locked on a late Saturday afternoon. I looked around for Ruby’s statue, but all I found was a placard describing the decade’s worth of events that led to that day.

I walked toward the east side of the building — still no statue. The north side? Nothing. Surely it was on the west side? I checked it out — and I still couldn’t find it.

I pulled out my phone to see if the internet could bail me out. The sun had dropped below the horizon and I was about to give up.

In one photo I noticed a black iron fence in the background. In front of me, I saw that fence, enclosing the schoolyard, was covered in a series of large banners. I pushed my eye up to a narrow gap in the banners, and there she was.

I had to stick my arm between two banners and through a fence to get a picture of the statue commemorating one of New Orleans most important moments.

A bronze likeliness of Ruby, walking past books with the names of changemakers like Franklin D. Roosevelt and Mother Theresa. And there was a smaller book, with “Ruby Bridges” scrawled across the binding. Signifying her place in the history of this city and country.

There’s a quote I found from the day the statue was dedicated, back in 2014. Akili Academy seventh-grader, Kareian Johnson told a reporter that without Bridges, “black children would not be able to get as much of an education as they’re supposed to. It touches me because I think about what she went through.”

Statues of our heroes have the ability to inspire us. They remind us of our past and that even a six-year-old girl can change the world. I get goosebumps because I think of how valuable that must be for the students at Akili, but I also feel bummed because I think of all the children who don’t go to Akili and who don’t get to play in the shadow of that statue – or one they can find similarly relatable — every day.

This is why having only five statues dedicated to New Orleans’ heroic women is a problem. Forget that Molly Marine is not even dedicated to a specific woman, Joan of Arc lived an ocean away, and Ruby Bridges is enclosed in a school courtyard. Five is too few.

Pressing On – Part II

And, of those five, how many are in Mid-City? You’ve probably noticed at this point. None. Nada.

But, with two statue bases currently sitting vacant, this neighborhood has an opportunity. The old Davis and Beuregard plots remain unclaimed, and I think each one of those should go to a woman who helped shape New Orleans in its 300 years.

We’ve mustered a lot of passion in a debate about whether or not we should take statues down. This one should be more fun. Let’s use the same energy in determining which statues we want to put up.

There’s no shortage of options.

Twelve Ursuline nuns left their homes in France and arrived in backwoods 1727 New Orleans to provide badly needed medical care and to establish, both, and orphanage and a school. One of these women, Sister Francis Xavier Hebert, created an herb garden and became the first female pharmacist in the New World.

From 1857 to 1887, Dr. Elizabeth Magnus Cohen, considered a leading surgeon in the city, served the French Quarter as Louisiana’s first woman to practice medicine at a time when typhoid and smallpox regularly ravaged the population.

Elizabeth Lyle Saxon and Caroline E. Merrick worked together as pioneer suffragists and social reformers. They were leading voices in the fight for women’s right to vote, touring the country with Susan B. Anthony. At the 1879 Louisiana Constitutional Convention, Saxon and Merrick petitioned delegates to give women the vote, becoming the first females to speak before a state body on behalf of women’s rights.

Eliza Jane Poitevent Holbrook Nicholson has a very long name. She was also the first woman in Louisiana to earn a living writing for a newspaper and the first woman owner of a major periodical. Upon inheriting the Daily Picayune, she helped save it from failing and turned it into a successful venture. Those efforts still bare fruit for us today in the form of The Times-Picayune.

Eliza Poitevent Holbrook Nicholson.

That’s just the tip of the iceberg! Justine Fervin Couvent was a former slave, born in Africa in the 1750s. She founded New Orleans’ first orphanage for the children of free people of color.

Eliza Rudolph was the first licensed woman pharmacist in the state, Fannie R. Glover was the first woman to graduate from a New Orleans nursing school, and — in 1917 — Dr. Linda Coleman was the first female graduate from a Louisiana medical school.

Frances Gaudet, of African-American and American Indian heritage became a nationally respected social reformer and prisoner-rights activist. Dr. Sarah Tew Maya was the driving force behind the establishment of the New Orleans Hospital and Dispensary for Women and Children. Bettie Runnels was the first woman admitted to Tulane University and, in 1898, was the first woman to receive a law degree in Louisiana.

Frances Gaudet

Jean Gordon, a leading suffragist and the first woman factory inspector in New Orleans, was largely responsible for the passage of child labor laws in the South.

Do you get the point? We haven’t even mentioned names like Eleanor Laura McMaine, Louise Simon Davis, Nell Pomeroy O’Brien, Grace Elizabeth King, Alice Almira Boley, Eve Butterworth Dibert, or Marion Pfeifer Abramson. Mahalia Jackson!

And there are so many others whose courage and incredible accomplishments continue to affect us today. You just wouldn’t notice, because — in too many cases — we haven’t bothered to remember their efforts like we do their male counterparts.

Statues of our heroes inspire us. Walking by them reminds us what is possible. That’s especially true when we can see ourselves in that person in bronze. If every statue is of a man, I think it has two unintended consequences: 1) it gives the impression that this city was shaped by men, alone; and 2) it creates a world in which women can traverse this city and not see themselves in its greatness.

Father and daughter walk in front of Akili Academy, formerly William Frantz Elementary School.

As I saw at International Womens’ Day — and what is confirmed 365 days a year in so many ways in, both, this and every city — women are pressing on to make a world that’s better for all of us. Let’s celebrate them for that every day.

When Ruby Bridges was a child, there were two statues of women — neither of which were black. Let’s make sure that when our young girls walk through Mid-City, they have the opportunity to see all that they can become.

Thanks for reading! Are there any great Mid-City adventures you think I should look into? Please tell me about it in the comments section!

If you enjoyed this, check out my Facebook page, Instagram, website and Twitter for all of my 365 adventures this year! There’s even a Newsletter you can sign up for.<

Matt hiked the entire 2,200 mile Appalachian Trail, from Georgia to Maine, in 2017. This year he’s attempting to go on a different kind of adventure — 365 of them, actually, and all in New Orleans! You can follow each of them at matthaineswrites.com and you can contact him at haines.matthew@gmail.com with any questions.

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