Danae Columbus: From Ursuline nuns to Dixie Cups, women shape Louisiana history

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Danae Columbus

Danae Columbus, opinion columnist

As the nation celebrates National Women’s History Month, we in Louisiana must reflect on the thousands of bold, pioneering women who since the Ursuline nuns arrived in 1727 have always been ready to influence, innovate, and inspire. Through their leadership in education, the arts, medicine, sports, and government, Louisiana became the state she is today.

It took great courage for those original twelve Ursuline nuns to persevere in Louisiana during an era of famine, floods and yellow fever. Sister Francis Xavier Hebert planted an herb garden that became the basis for medicines used at the Royal Hospital to treat all manner of illnesses.

Dr. Elizabeth Magnus Cohen was the first woman to practice medicine in Louisiana. Dr. Linda Coleman was the first woman to graduate from a medical school in Louisiana. Fannie Glover was the first female nursing school graduate. Elizabeth Rudolph was the first woman pharmacist licensed in Louisiana. Dr. Sara Tew Mayo founded the New Orleans Hospital & Dispensary for Women and Children, which later became Sara Mayo Hospital.

Eve Butterworth Dibert founded the Tuberculosis Hospital in honor of her late husband, John. A school was later named for him which is now part of Phyllis Wheatley Elementary School in Treme.

Many other prominent New Orleans women also were recognized through schools named in their honor. They include author and historian Elizabeth Grace King, WYES founder Marian Pfeifer Abramson, settlement house movement leader and social worker Eleanor Laura McMain, and Sophie Bell Wright who established educational programs for women and the poor. As the first woman factory inspector, Jean Gordon was in the unique position to pioneer child labor laws.

In 1886, Josephine Sophie Newcomb founded a college in memory of her daughter Harriet Sophie Newcomb. The college spawned an art school that taught women a practical “industrial” skill in postwar years. Renowned potters such as Sadie Irvine, Harriet Joor, Emilie de Hoa LeBlanc and Marie de Hoa LeBlanc were influential in establishing the Newcomb style. Painters Nell Pomeroy O’Brien and Ida Kohlmeyer also left their marks in the art world.

Noted academic Alice Almira Boley, the granddaughter of a slave, made a significant contribution to the founding of SUNO. Social reformer and prisoner rights activist Frances Gaudet was the first to support juvenile prisoners and helped establish Juvenile Court.

Sisters of the Holy Family founder Henriette Delille educated children of slaves during a time when such education was prohibited by law. The order also founded nursing homes and orphanages.

Philanthropist Margaret G. Haughery, who began her adult life as a washwoman and a peddler, also championed the destitute. Through the profits of her bakery and other businesses, she created shelters for orphans and widows which evolved into homes for the elderly. Former slave Justine Fervin Couvent was also a benefactress of education and orphans.

Nationally recognized pioneer suffragists and social reformers Elizabeth Lyle Saxon and Caroline Merrick petitioned delegates at the 1897 Louisiana Constitutional Convention to give women the right to vote. Later many New Orleans women carried brooms to sweep out corruption and sweep in reforms.

Louise Simon Davis founded the Magnolia School for the mentally disabled. Beginning in the late 1950’s, Edna Koffsky played a leadership role at the fledging Crippled Children’s Hospital which has grown into a major public health provider in New Orleans.

Eliza Jane Poitevant Holbrook Nicholson was the first woman in Louisiana to earn a living writing for a newspaper and subsequently became America’s first woman publisher. In 1898, Bettie Runnels was the first women to receive a law degree from a Louisiana university. Kitty Kimball was the first female Chief Justice of the Louisiana Supreme Court.

Ruby Bridges integrated New Orleans’ public schools. Other prominent women in civil rights included Oretha Castle Haley, philanthropist Rosa Keller, and City Councilwoman Dorothy Mae Taylor who forced the integration of carnival organizations.

Several women writers must be remembered including feminist Kate Chopin, Shirley Ann Grau, poet Alice Dunbar Nelson, and gothic fiction writer Anne Rice. In the world of entertainment, Louisiana notables include actresses Dorothy Lamour, Kitty Carlisle, Patricia Clarkson, mouseketeer Cheryl Holdridge and the great performer Chris Owens who has been a French Quarter celebrity for more than 40 years.

New Orleans has been blessed with many talented female voices including sopranos Marguerite Piazza and Lisette Oropesa, gospel queen Mahalia Jackson, blues singer Linda Hopkins, contemporary crooners Irma Thomas, Germaine Bazzle, and Stephanie Jordan, as well as the famous Boswell sisters -Connee, Vet and Martha and the Dixie Cups.

In the world of sports, Tazzie Colomb is a nationally recognized professional female bobybuilder and powerlifter. Audrey Patterson was the first African-American woman to win an Olympic medal. Scientist Cynthia Hedge Morrell was the first woman member of the Louisiana Racing Commission. Ruth Benerito invented wrinkle- free cotton.

After reading a classified ad in the Times-Picayune, Ruth Fertel mortgaged her home to buy a steak house which had failed six times under previous owners and later built a chain of 80 restaurants. Ella Brennan started as a teenager hanging around her family’s French Quarter restaurant and won the James Beard’s Foundation Lifetime Achievement Award.

Chef and art collector Leah Chase is the queen of Creole Cuisine. Born in St. Lucia, Nina Compton rose to prominence because of her superior skills and outstanding performance on BRAVO’s Top Chef Season 11. Chef Susan Spicer has spent more than forty years in the kitchen and now owns numerous restaurants in New Orleans. Author Kit Wohl has produced too many cookbooks to mention.

One hundred and four years ago this week, 26-year old Inez Milholland established herself as a leader when she “slipped on her white kid boots, threw a cape around her shoulders and climbed onto a borrowed horse” to help lead what was then the largest women’s march in American history aimed at securing a woman’s right to vote. At the 1977 women’s rights conference many issues were debated including equal pay, affordable child care, human rights and health care.

Though women have steadily been making gains in society, women are still marching, working the halls of state capitols and congress because certain core issues remain constant. According to USA Today, at the heart of those issues are affordable health care for all, universal access to birth control and abortion, stronger legislation to prevent domestic and sexual violence, paid family leave, and equal pay.

While women make up 51% of the U.S. population, only 19% of Congress and 25% of state legislators are women. The percentages in Louisiana are even more dismal. Women do not have to be active in the political process to be leaders, but every woman should do her part in making the community better.

Last November, activist and lawyer Amal Clooney, addressed the Texas Conference for Women. In her remarks she urged women to perform “everyday acts of feminism” by using their voices, resources and talents to support others. That would be a good National Women’s History Month activity for us all.

Danae Columbus, who has had a 30-year career in politics and public relations, offers her opinions on Thursdays. Her career includes stints at City Hall, the Dock Board and the Orleans Parish School Board and work for City Council members Stacy Head and Jared Brossett, Foster Campbell, Lt. Gov. Jay Dardenne, former Sheriff Charles Foti and former Councilwoman Cynthia Hedge-Morrell. Her current clients include judicial candidates Suzanne Montero and Paula Brown.

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