In the early 1990s there were only a handful of women in the Louisiana legislature. We had been lucky in having statewide elected officials for quite a few years but not in the most important of offices.
By the mid-nineties there were some reforms proposed about women's rights: things like banning marital rape, which happened in the mid-nineties. The first time that bill came up to the legislature it was voted down and male legislatures laughed about, "well, raping your wife, it's like stealing your own car, it's not possible." The handful of women legislature were literally screaming at the top of their lungs they were so angry. And the men went home to their wives and came back the next day after much public outrage and voted the bill through. But it was obvious that there was a real need to change the makeup of the legislature.
So The League, while nonpartisan, became more involved in how to encourage women of either political party to run. The research shows that women tend to get punished for overt ambition and so they really need to feel encouraged and invited to run or else they believe they will be punished by the world for getting above their station. They also get very worried about how they will be treated, which is a realistic concern.
So the League worked with several other more partisan women's political groups, such as the Independent Women's Organization, a Democratic organization, or the Committee of 21, which was bipartisan but actually raised money to donate to women candidates. The League worked to encourage women in leadership in general and particularly toward public service. In 1996, the New Orleans League organized a leadership conference for young women, and it featured a number of women who were themselves elected officials, legislators, and judges at the time, like U.S. Senator Mary Landrieu, who went on to great and storied careers.
They spoke at that conference in ways that both represented the changes that have happened since the early nineties but also the ways that things hadn't changed that much. They talked about the overt sexism they faced that maybe has softened a little bit since then. Mary Landrieu, who was elected to the legislature at twenty three, said that when she would stand up to the podium in Baton Rouge at the Capitol she would get wolf whistle when she tried to speak. Others of them talked about how you had to walk this incredibly fine line. Senator Irons spoke about, on the one hand, if she tried to be very friendly and affable with her male colleagues, they would assume she was hitting on them, which is really a joke. Or if she tried to be very purposeful and direct and passionate about her issues, they found it very unfeminine. You just couldn't win for losing.
So the conference was full of those stories about how does one deal with sexism? How does one push forward despite that? It really tried to build up the courage of young women to make the decision to tackle this very hostile environment, but it went really well.
I was at the conference as a very young lawyer, but as someone who had been a protégé of Lindy Boggs, our former New Orleans Congresswoman from `74 to `91. I joined the League the minute I turned eighteen, because when I was sixteen I wrote a letter to Lindy Boggs and said, "Dear Congresswoman, I really want to be you when I grow up. Could I please meet you and learn how to do that?" She scheduled an appointment with me in her local congressional office, and when I met with her she said, "Okay, when you turn eighteen you should join the League of Women Voters, so that you can be more involved." Lindy had been part of it when it really was on the front lines of election reform and making sure progress happened. So I did join at eighteen and became a very active member and a vice president. And in `96 when we had the conference, I was fresh out of Harvard Law School and came straight home and got involved again.
The League conference was held at Loyola and at Xavier University.
The efforts by The League, the Committee of 21, and the I.W.O. all led to a new surge in women running for office. Melinda Schwegmann out of the blue ran for lieutenant governor and won. Mary Landrieu went from being a state representative to running statewide for state treasurer and winning and serving several terms and then ultimately she was elected U.S. Senator. So there was a surge in the women in the legislature and in public office. Ultimately we had a woman governor in the 2000s.
We've gone backwards a little bit since then. Louisiana is now back down to worst in the country in the number of women in the legislature and we are now at the point of having no women in statewide public office, for the first time in forty-something years.
I work hard to encourage young women to run, but it is very difficult in this cynical political age. The cost of that has become higher and higher for people of good conscience, which is a real shame because we lose the best and the brightest. But I very much push for women to run and to do it early before you become more rational about how hard it is to run for office.
But most of all, part of the role of the League is to build that confidence and the understanding that if our voices aren't at the table the world really suffers. That you can't lose half the talent of the country and not suffer the consequences.