Thursday, August 27, 2009

LOUISIANA WOMEN: THEIR LIVES AND TIMES


Twenty-five years ago I wrote a book about Louisiana women, and it was published under the imprint of Acadian Press in Lafayette, Louisiana. Now out of print, it was entitled THEIR ADVENTUROUS WILL: Profiles of Memorable Louisiana Women and was an anecdotal, journalistic collection of bios about 16 Louisiana women, living and deceased. Except for interviews with six of the sixteen women, material came from secondary sources and through library collections of letters, articles, etc. My intent was to create an account of Louisiana women who “took great leaps of faith and in all cases made something so that had been envisioned as impossible, moving their ideas from conception to being with extraordinary fervor.” (From the introduction of THEIR ADVENTUROUS WILL). I’m not a historian or a scholar and didn’t lay claim to having created scholarly, definitive biographies of the women included. At the time I just felt compelled to create personal bios – some of them regarded as “quirky” by a few readers-- that showed how Louisiana women had contributed to the culture of my home state.

A few days ago, I was thrilled to receive a copy of a brand-new book about Louisiana women edited by Janet Allured and Judith F. Gentry and written by eminent scholars at universities throughout the United States. The essays are definitive profiles of southern women who were influenced by their education …“the culture of the surrounding community, intellectual and organizational networks, the natural environment, and other women”… (introduction to LOUISIANA WOMEN: THEIR LIVES AND TIMES written by Janet Allured). Four of the essays in LOUISIANA WOMEN focus on women I mentioned in THEIR ADVENTUROUS WILL, and they receive more comprehensive treatment by eminent scholars, one of those scholars being a personal friend, Dr. Mary Ann Wilson, who wrote the essay on Grace King, “New Orleans Literary Historian.”

In the profile of Grace King, Mary Ann describes King as a woman who emerges “as a representative voice of white New Orleans and Louisiana. She was a Protestant American championing an aristocratic Creole world in decline by uncritically heroicizing its patriarchal past in her histories…she captured its complex racial and political dynamic in her fiction…” Mary Ann’s essay is meticulously researched, and she explores all of the literature appropriate to a definitive narrative about this southern author. She reflects on King’s appreciation for a world “that protofeminists like Julia Ward Howe opened up to her but lamented the sacrifice of feminine modesty and propriety often accompanying such vision...” As Mary Ann explains, King “…was caught up in a transitional period that would spawn the New Woman and usher in an era of unprecedented and rapid change in the new century…” She points to King as a woman who asked questions about the roles of black and white women’s roles “that echoed larger questions of national unity and identity plaguing a country still reeling from a divisive civil war but on the cusp of a larger global destiny…”

Oddly, I inherited from my godparents a share in Grace King’s Le Petit Salon, a women’s group that met to hear lectures given by various literary and artistic figures of the early 20th century. The certified share, loosely enclosed in a blue envelope, sat on a shelf in my bedroom for years until I heard that Mary Ann was writing the definitive article about Grace King, and I passed it on to her, a worthy recipient.

An interesting section at the conclusion of LOUISIANA WOMEN focuses on “Louisiana Women and Hurricane Katrina: Some Reflections on Women’s Responses to the Catastrophe” by Pamela Tyler. I love the comment she made in the preface to her essay: “Mopping up is, and always has been, women’s work.” Tyler explains the background of Hurricane Katrina and cites an example of massive clean-up efforts, post Katrina, carried out by New Orleans women and highlighted in the passages about New Orleanian Becky Zaheri. Zaheri organized fifteen women to pick up litter in the city streets and initiated a project that burgeoned into two clean-ups a week with 200 people participating. The women then enlisted the help of the entire U.S., clearing block after block of New Orleans streets. Zaheri is only one of several women activists profiled as leaders in nonprofit initiatives in the concluding section of LOUISIANA WOMEN.

Acknowledgements are called for and recognition accorded to this outstanding contribution to an area of Mary Ann’s own expertise – women’s studies -- and I deeply appreciate and applaud the essays written about the commitment and endurance of Louisiana women.

My friend Mary Ann is a professor of English and women’s studies at ULL in Lafayette, Louisiana and does research about 19th and 20th century American women writers and southern literature. She is author of numerous articles on women writers: Kaye Gibbons, Rebecca Wells, Joyce Carol Oates, Alice Walker, and Grace King and has written a book about Jean Stafford entitled JEAN STAFFORD, A STUDY OF THE SHORT FICTION. Mary Ann was also awarded the ULL Foundation Distinguished Professor Award in 200l and was recently named a Friend of the Humanities/BORSF Endowed Professor of the Humanities.

Brava Mary Ann, brava the distinguished editors and authors who celebrated the accomplishments of Louisiana women in this new volume! LOUISIANA WOMEN: THEIR LIVES AND TIMES is published by the University of Georgia Press.
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