A CHIEF JUSTICE’S EXAMPLE

Caroline E. Merrick – the wife of a former Chief Justice of the state Supreme Court – became a pioneer for women’s voting rights in Louisiana.

A man can’t help but notice that Women’s History Month (March) in New Orleans seems understated in recent years.

Cheron Brylski, a veteran political consultant in New Orleans, says fewer women are winning public office since Hurricane Katrina hit in 2005 – for reasons that remain unclear.

Even the inauguration last year of Catherine “Kitty” Kimball as the first female chief justice of the Louisiana Supreme Court didn’t seem to spark the kind of excitement one might expect considering the court’s domination by men since its congressional conception March 26, 1804.

“So, you think we’re supposed to be appeased?” Heather Harper, a New Orleans publicist, asks.

Harper isn’t alone, according to Barbara Ewell, an English professor and author at Loyola University.

“The fact that we are still counting female ‘firsts’ underscores the slow, frustrating pace of economic and social progress for women,” Ewell says.

Michelle Massé, director of the Women’s and Gender’s Studies Program of LSU, agrees. “Salaries [for women] have not changed significantly over the last 20 years.”

“Women earned 77.5 percent for every one dollar earned by men,” according to a U.S. Census Bureau report for 2007. The median annual average of women, age 16 or older, stood at $34,278.

“There is a fatigue over women ‘firsts,’” Massé adds. “But we do have to keep counting. There is a great deal still to happen.”

Women remain under-represented in top positions of the local criminal justice system, for example. The city has yet to see its first female police chief or an elected sheriff. At the same time, there is no shortage of female activists post-Katrina – carrying on the historic local tradition of prisoner rights activist Frances Joseph Gaudet and preservationist Martha G. Robinson, to name a few.
 
Questions for men

Meanwhile, LSU’s Massé says men can observe Women’s History Month by asking themselves questions: “What do I want for my daughter or granddaughter? Do I want her to get paid equally? Do I want her to have adequate child care for her children? Do I want her to go as far as she can based on her abilities? Then: How can I help bring those things about without someone saying to her – ‘You can’t do that; you’re a woman.’”

Louisiana history is rich with examples of women who’ve been struggling for freedom – and “doing” what they are told they cannot do.

 In 1704, The Pelican, a French frigate, arrived in Louisiana “with soldiers, workers and 23 girls sent to marry colonists, many against their will,” according to a public television documentary that aired in 2003 (www.louisianahistory.org).

In 1837, Mythree Bedeau, a free woman of color, was sold into slavery but successfully sued for her freedom.

 In 1878, a probate court ruling in New Orleans so infuriated Caroline E. Merrick – the wife of a former Chief Justice of the state Supreme Court – that she became pioneer for women’s voting rights. Merrick was serving on the board of St. Anna’s Asylum for indigent women and poor when a court ruled that a $1,000 donation left by a former inmate was invalid because the witnesses to the document were “women, insane idiots and felons,” according to an online history of “notable women” compiled by LSU Libraries (www.lib.lsu.edu).

In 1879, Merrick and fellow activist Elizabeth Lyle Saxon petitioned the state Constitutional Convention for voting rights for all women, (albeit with minimal success) – “the start of the women’s movement in Louisiana,” according to LSU.

In 1891, the first-ever statewide political movement by Louisiana formed to force the Louisiana Lottery Company out of business. Women’s suffrage activists aligned with temperance campaigns in Louisiana, gaining steam apparently wherever men drank up – or gambled away – wages meant to feed families.

In 1920, women nationwide won the right to vote.

In 1923, the Louisiana Attorney General declared that women could wear trousers in public.
 
Try this at home…

 Today, Louisiana men who place their daughters’ or granddaughters’ resumés alongside highlights of Chief Justice Kimball’s career – and court rulings since World War II – might see significant progress and obstacles for women since then.

1945 – Catherine “Kitty” Kimball born Feb. 2 in Alexandria, La.

1947 – U.S. Supreme Court declares women are equally qualified with men for jury duty.

1963 – Kimball graduates from high school. Congress passes the Equal Pay Act, requiring equitable compensation for women who do the same work as men.

1967 – Kimball marries state Rep. Clyde W. Kimball.

1968 – A presidential order prohibits gender bias by government contractors and requires affirmative action plans for the hiring of women.

1970 – Kimball graduates from LSU Law School, while raising the first two of three children, and works as law clerk for a federal judge.

1971 – U.S. Supreme Court outlaws practice of private employers who refuse to hire women with preschool-age children. Kimball begins two-year stint as lawyer for state Attorney General’s office

1972 – Loyola University law professor Janet Mary Riley’s pioneering legal book on Louisiana property rights is published, foreshadowing repeal of state laws allowing husband’s domination over household income – including wife’s salary.

1973-’81 – Kimball serves as state general counsel.

1975 – Kimball opens solo private practice. Ruling in Taylor v. Louisiana, the U.S. Supreme Court strikes down a Louisiana law allowing exclusion of women from juries.

1978 – The U.S. Pregnancy Discrimination Act prohibits employer bias against expectant mothers. Kimball begins work as a state prosecutor.

1981 – U.S. Supreme Court bans exclusion of women from the military draft.

1982-’93 – Kimball serves as state judge in 18th District Court; chief judge, ’90-’93.

1986 – U.S. Supreme Court rules sexual harassment is a form of illegal job discrimination and grounds for gender-based lawsuits.

1992 – Kimball elected first woman to state Supreme Court. The U.S. Supreme Court rules sex harassment laws apply to college professors.

1993 – President Clinton signs the Family Medical Leave Act requiring employers to provide 12 weeks of unpaid leave due to serious health conditions or to care for a sick family member or for a new child (including adoption and foster care).

1999 – U.S. Supreme Court rules school district officials may be liable in cases of “student-to-student sex harassment,” where authorities were informed but did nothing.

2005 – U.S. Supreme Court rules women who previously complain of sex harassment and who suffer adverse employment action (such as demotion or firing) can sue for retaliation and that retaliatory discharge is a form of illegal job discrimination.

2007 – The U.S. Supreme Court puts strict 180-deadline on claims of unequal pay – a setback for women’s rights advocates at the ACLU who say salary information is “often hard to uncover.”

2009 – Kimball sworn in as chief justice of state Supreme Court.

The good news for Louisiana men this March is that many have a “head start” over the guys in other states when it comes to supporting women’s progress, Massé says. “Many are deeply family-oriented – and many like to cook.”

Ed. note:

• Kathleen Blanco served as governor of Louisiana from 2004-’08.

• Mary Landrieu, Louisiana’s senior U.S. Senator, is now in her 14th year in the position.

• Corinne “Lindy” Boggs served 17 years in Congress.

• From 2006 to May ’10 the New Orleans City Council had a 5-2 female majority.

• On the Louisiana State Supreme Court the Chief Justice’s position is determined by seniority.

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