Nov 20, 201711:25 AM
The Editor's Room
Weekly Commentary with New Orleans Magazine’s Errol Laborde
Gender Moments: When Women Swept Into Government
LaToya Cantrell, elected New Orleans' first female mayor.
On the morning after the mayoral election in 1946 it was said that the two most surprised people in town were deLesseps Morrison (who won) and Robert Maestri, the long time machine mayor who lost. Morrison was an upstart young state representative (an Army Colonel) who had spent much of the past few years in the war. Maestri was in his tenth year of controlling the Old Regulars political machine, and the city.
Times though were changing. The war had reinvigorated America and touched off a spirit of change. Morrison was the candidate of the native middle class, who badly wanted to see reform in government from the unchecked (though sometimes effective) ways of the old machines. Helping the cause was a group of uptown ladies, who got much publicity taking to the streets and wielding brooms to proclaim that they wanted to sweep the city clean of corruption. It worked. Assessing his loss, Maestri, who could be brutal with words, explained, “them widow women beat me.”
Morrison would become the dominant force in local politics for the next sixteen years. He ended the era of the Old Regulars and brought new people into government. His campaign is also important because it was the first in which women were important to the outcome as activists.
By the time LaToya Cantrell was elected mayor this past Saturday there was really no drama about her being the first woman mayor since her opponent was also a woman. There was no gender battle. In a city where females have been in the majority on the city council for over a decade the notion of women in politics had lost their novelty.
Yet there is a bigger picture. On the day after the election there happened to be a brunch for Patty Gay, who has retired after 37 years heading the Preservation Research Center. Gay was a tireless fighter for preservation causes and certainly an example that while women have not always held elective offices they have often led the charge in certain issue areas such as preservation. In attendance at the brunch were some of the all-stars of the preservation movement continuing a legacy that included the 1950s and Martha Robinson, who championed saving the Quarter as an architecturally significant neighborhood and who founded the Louisiana Landmarks Society.
As a politician, Gay would have been term limited; as an activist she could continue the battles even, as one male PRC board member pointed out, worrying about tax credit legislation although that was no longer a fight she needed to be in.
Of those who have held public office, the current election cycle will be bringing to a close the career, to date, of one of the most outspoken and determined of office holders, Stacy Head. She achieved office in the upheaval after Hurricane Katrina and could have been eligible for four more years as council member at large had she wanted. Yet there was that mom thing that kept pulling at her. She will be remembered for the awful days of the Nagin administration and her trying to yank public information out of a reluctant mayoral staff. During the recent campaign when the media investigated council credit card spending, she was the only one whose report was $0. There are several suppositions here, but she also might have been mayor. Had Hillary Clinton been elected president and had she appointed Mitch Landrieu to a cabinet position, the vacancy would have required the council to elect an interim mayor from the two at-large members. Since she was the senior of the two, and since she had already announced her intention to retire from politics, she might have been the likely choice.
Measuring gender participation in politics should NOT be thought of as a scale with each side trying to balance the other. Instead there are many scales each dominated more by one side than the other. Life does not call for everything to be perfectly balanced, just as long as everyone has a chance.
May the broom brigades of the future figure a way to sweep out pot holes.
“New Orleans: The First 300 Years,” edited by Errol Laborde, is now available at bookstores. A collection of journalists and academics wrote chapters on different aspects of the city’s life. It is an important guide to understanding the city’s history from a wide range of perspectives.
Errol’s Laborde’s book, “Mardi Gras: Chronicles of the New Orleans Carnival” (Pelican Publishing Company, 2013), is available at local bookstores and at book websites.
WATCH INFORMED SOURCES, FRIDAYS AT 7 P.M., REPEATED AT 11:30 P.M. WYES-TV, CH. 12.