The Post-Katrina, Semiseparate World of Gender Politics
When the New York Times reported "a wave of citizen activism" in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, it failed to mention that much of the wave was wearing lipstick and carrying a purse. Mopping up is, and always has been, women's work, so it comes as no surprise that large numbers of local women were active in post-Katrina recovery efforts in New Orleans. While some worked singly, volunteering their help in countless ways, others chose the timeworn path of women's associations. This essay focuses on the activities of three organizations formed by women after the hurricane: Citizens for 1 Greater New Orleans, the Katrina Krewe, and Women of the Storm.
In the weeks after Katrina, educated, economically comfortable women in New Orleans passed through historically familiar stages that led from a growing awareness of unmet needs, to frustration over official ineptitude, to the formation of women's organizations, which flowered into full-blown women's activism. Indignation over the failure of government galvanized New Orleans women as it had women reformers of the Progressive Era, with whom they have much in common. As women have done for decades, they responded by joining with like-minded women and pursuing a course of activism to bring change.
The experiences of these New Orleans women activists reprise themes of Progressive Era women who battled along a broad front of issues, including the prevention of cruelty to animals, the care of the mentally disabled, consent laws for marriage, and better teacher salaries. These activist women in post-Katrina New Orleans exemplify the silk-stocking tradition of reformism, which has a long history in the Crescent City. In the 1890s, the Women's League for Sewerage and Drainage, led by the sisters Jean and Kate Gordon, of later woman suffrage fame, advocated a modern sewerage and drainage system to curb the periodic epidemics and flooding caused by primitive waste disposal methods and entirely inadequate drainage, which the city had done nothing to improve. Their energetic work resulted in the passage of a property tax increase; the New Orleans press claimed that their small women's pressure group "probably did as much work for the special tax as all the men in this city put together." After 1920, enfranchised New Orleans women frequently participated in electoral campaigns under the banner of "good government" to oust individuals they labeled "corrupt." Their unpaid work of lobbying, canvassing, monitoring, and publicizing often bore fruit. Women pressed state and local governments to adopt measures to protect women and children in factories, to close saloons on election day, and to pay male and female school teachers equally. Elite women reformers became darlings of the local media, as press coverage typically lauded their efforts and praised their motives.
New Orleans women reformers of those earlier eras made use of the southern lady mystique and the magic cloak of privilege as they worked toward their goals. Woven of manner, speech, and social connections, enhanced by the wardrobe and confidence that money can buy, that cloak guaranteed them entrée and helped shield them from criticism. In the wake of Katrina, New Orleans women of the economic elite, equipped with similar advantages, again donned that cloak and stepped forward to work for reforms that they found compelling. * * *
All true, but also so did many less well connected and less well off women join in the fray. One was my friend Karen Gadbois who created Squandered Heritage and who's capacity to see the Web of Life lead to a Peabody, who now writes for The Lens and who still inspires me.
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