Where Are They Now?
New Orleans’ First Councilwoman
Peggy and her daughter, Bonnie Wilson, at campaign headquarters during the first successful campaign for City Council in 1984.
Photos courtesy of Peggy Wilson
In 1923, just three years after the United States approved the 19th Amendment providing women the right to vote, a group of civic-minded women in the New Orleans area came together to “spur on positive growth and change in their beloved city,” by creating the Junior League of New Orleans. Over the course of the next 50+ years, this mission manifested itself via numerous grants, community initiatives and volunteer hours. It also, however, fostered and cultivated women leaders across the city, including New Orleans first Councilwoman, Peggy Wilson.
Though her service in JLNO provided Peggy a specific perspective on the grassroots needs of the city and the true strengths of New Orleans, her segue into politics wasn’t seamless. In fact, as the first woman elected to New Orleans City Council, Peggy got used to hearing, “Oh honey.”
“Most people said, ‘Oh honey,’ that’s a cute idea, but come on. I got a lot of ‘oh honey,’” recalled the former Councilwoman and active civic leader about her initial campaign for a council seat. But the patronizing guidance of her male counterparts didn’t stop the determined neighborhood activist and preservation enthusiast as she watched elected officials and business leaders engage in irreversible decision making—such as tearing down historic buildings—in the name of “progress.” She knew she could do better.
It was under this platform that she ran for her Council seat—on a campaign of principles, not gender. Peggy stated, “When people asked me ‘what are women’s issues?’ I said, ‘Women’s issues are jobs, the economy, etc.’” She stood on issues that affected the future of the entire New Orleans community, not only women.
“Women are the ones who can garner the kind of action and support that tap into the grassroots. That’s the kind of thing the Junior League taps into,” said Peggy Wilson.
While her platform was gender-neutral, Peggy recognizes that the unique strengths and assets she brought to her leadership style were not. In fact, many of her strongest talents were honed from her experience with JLNO. “Women are the ones who can garner the kind of action and support that tap into the grassroots. That’s the kind of thing the Junior League taps into,” she said. From this vantage point, Peggy was able to appreciate and fight for the things she felt New Orleans did right, like authenticity and preservation. Further, she was able to take a strong stand against government corruption—a stronger stand than she anticipated having to take.
Whether it was fighting to institute term limits or debating the evolution of Mardi Gras, Peggy’s tenure on the Council benchmarked a new moment for women in political leadership in the city. “My legacy was that I was willing to fight—and fight I did.”
Her tenacity and wit became a hallmark of her career. Peggy recalled an instance early in her Council service when a fellow Councilmember voted against her on an important issue to her constituents. Peggy confronted her colleague after losing the measure. He responded by, “putting his arm around me and saying ‘don’t take it personally, honey.’” A few years later, emboldened to fight corruption and instigate meaningful reforms, Peggy won a critical victory implementing term limits on the Council. Shortly after passing the contentious measure, she was on the elevator with this same Councilmember. “He turned to me and asked ‘how could you do that?’ “I put my arm around him and said, ‘don’t take it personally, honey.’”
Peggy and Jim Singleton on Inauguration Day 1994.
Peggy in a flight suit during an experience trapping and catapulting onto a Navy Ship.
Peggy and Dorothy Mae Taylor at the opening of French Quarter Festival in 1984.