Thursday, February 11, 2016

LOUISIANA WOMEN: Their Lives and Times

In the mail this week, a gift arrived from good friend, Dr. Mary Ann Wilson: the second volume of Louisiana Women, a book that records the contributions of outstanding Louisiana women from the eighteenth century to the present. Essays by southern scholars include the history of women who struggled to not only sustain their sense of self-worth but to “follow their bliss” in art, politics, and cultural pursuits. Edited by Mary Farmer Kaiser and Shannon Frystak, the volume covers four major aspects of Louisiana women’s history that have affected the cultural, social, and political progress of the bayou state: Women and the Politics of Identity; Women and Work; Women and the Arts; and Organizing Women.

Louisiana Women is one of those bedside table books that provides a look into rich histories that have often been overlooked or hidden, such as the profiles of Lulu White, infamous Storyville madam, and voodooienne Marie Laveau, as well as well-researched essays about famous female artists, writers, musicians, and supporters of the arts.

I was particularly interested in the essay about Cammie Henry, a supporter of the arts in Louisiana, a woman who intrigued me and about whom I wrote in my own version of outstanding Louisiana women, Their Adventurous Will. I was grateful to Lucy Gutman and Shannon Frystak, authors of this essay, for citing “The Mistress of Melrose,” my essay about Henry, and I learned new information through the authors’ insights about Henry being an embodiment of the Lost Cause movement in a region that sought to recapture a lost heritage. She is described as being a woman who “used the leverage of a revered cultural movement that celebrated the Confederate tradition to emancipate herself from the restrictions of a gender-prescribed position, while simultaneously sustaining and expanding her status as a revered traditional southern lady.”

In the essay entitled “The Evolution of a Plantation Mistress and Chatelaine of the Arts,” the authors credit Cammie Henry with the revival of native crafts, for hosting writers, artists, and photographers through the Natchitoches Art Colony and for preserving the history and heritage of the Cane River and the Isle Brevelle Creoles of color. Among the notables who sometimes lived and worked at Melrose: William Spratling, a Tulane University professor of architecture; artists Alberta Kinsey and playwright Natalie Scott; Lyle Saxon, an author Henry described as “magnificent and knit into my soul;” authors Sherwood Anderson, Harnett Kane, and Francoise Mignon…the list of luminaries who visited or lived at Melrose at various times is formidable.

Dr. Wilson’s essay about contemporary writer, Rebecca Wells, entitled “The Divine Saga Deep in the Heart of Louisiana,” takes the reader deep into central Louisiana territory, delving into the life of the author of Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood, a novel which Wilson relates created a “powerful sisterhood that replicated itself across the country…the author herself identifying the hunger for sisterhood and community as the driving force behind the book’s rise to prominence.” Interestingly, Wilson defines the theme of this book as forgiveness, quoting from the theologian Henri Nouwen: “Forgiveness is the nature of love practiced among people who love poorly. That hard truth is that all of us love poorly. We need to forgive and to be forgiven every day, every hour – unceasingly…”  I was intrigued by Wilson’s comment about Wells’ recognition of the idea of sisterhood or women’s communities as a “necessary antidote to our depersonalized, isolated postmodern condition.” She highlights Wells’ articulation of this idea of female bonding in The Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood: “I didn’t write the book because I had a group of friends like the Ya-Yas. I think I wrote it because I wanted one.” In this essay about Wells Dr. Wilson conveys the idea that Wells has accomplished in her contemporary writing what many outstanding writers accomplish – “she has [begun] with the regional (central Louisiana) and made it speak to and for a larger humanity.”

Lucinda Williams, the colorful Lake Charles Louisiana musician; Lindy Boggs, congresswoman and majority leader of the House; Cora Allen, member of the Calanthe Temple Commission; Sarah Towles Reed, labor union lobbyist, and educational reformer…the stories in Louisiana Women reveal the perspectives of eighteen scholars who have documented the activities of women who exemplified the courage and faith to pursue seemingly impossible projects and contributed to the history and culture of Louisiana.

I wish that I could highlight all the essays but perhaps this is a small titillation to read the profound stories in this volume featured in a series about Southern Women: Their Lives and Times, which includes many of the southern states, published by the University of Georgia Press.

Brava, Mary Ann!  


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