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In spring, The Historic New Orleans Collection premiered its Voices of Progress exhibition, dedicated to 20 remarkable women who brought positive change to New Orleans and helped shape the city. The exhibition also forms part of a new organization called Nola4women, currently spearheading three initiatives addressing issues facing women and girls in New Orleans.

Voices of Progress makes up part of the Builders and Rebuilders program – presenting exhibits and programming related to the history of women in New Orleans leading up to the 2018 Tricentennial.

“The exhibition tells a story of increasing political agency for women, and shows the role of women in many of the city’s social justice organizations and causes,” says Eric Seiferth, who curated the exhibition along with Aimee Everrett and Amanda McFillen.

Source materials include photographs, awards, newspaper clippings, blueprints, cartoons, and letters, giving a sense of the impact these women had in their time as well as a hint of their private persona beyond their public accomplishments.

“One of the hardest things about curating the project was deciding which women to include, because so many have had a pivotal role in the city’s history,” says Aimee Everrett.”

“We ultimately focused on deceased women who fought for issues like political and social welfare, suffrage, civil rights, and equality. They had careers in activism and shared a devotion to their local communities,” she adds.

Martha Gasquet [Westfeldt]; ca. 1902.

'Hey, Thinker, It's Time for Action!'; Times-Picayune, Dec 8, 1945.

'Sit-In Songs'; Congress of Racial Equality, 1962.

Children on porch of St. Vincent's Infant Asylum; between 1885-1910.

Organized into three eras, the exhibition begins with nineteenth century women, who found ways to advocate for disadvantaged communities even though they largely lacked political agency. Many women became advocates by forming their own charitable and social organizations, increasingly entering into the public sphere in the latter half of the century.

Notable figures include Sophie B. Wright, the first woman to receive the Times Picayune’s Loving Cup Award, in 1903, and founder of schools for girls throughout the city.

The exhibition also features sisters Kate and Jean Gordon, who were early suffragettes. Jean served as New Orleans’ first female factory inspector as well as President of the Louisiana Women’s Suffrage Association, while Kate was co-founder of New Orleans’ ERA Club (Equal Rights Association), an expansion of Louisiana’s first women’s suffrage organization, the Portia Club.

African American women were typically excluded from these groups; women like Kate Gordon argued against including them within the white suffrage movement. This points to a difficulty in curating the achievements of some white New Orleanians, particularly in the 19th and early 20th centuries.

The exhibition tells a story of increasing political agency for women, and shows the role of women in many of the city's social justice organizations and causes. Eric Seiferth, curator, The Historic New Orleans Collection

“Many of these women, and many men at the time, displayed questionable attitudes while also making positive contributions to the city. It’s part of discussing history, and we want to make sure that we acknowledge their contributions while also acknowledging the negative,” says Seiferth.

The exhibition works to include minority voices as well, including Sylvanie Williams, an African American suffragette who lived in reconstruction era New Orleans, as well as sisters Doris Jean Castle and Oretha Castle Haley, who participated in direct action during the civil rights movement, working to integrate the public transportation system as members of CORE, of which Oretha Castle was a co-founder. Doris Jean participated in Freedom Rides during the summer of 1961, and was arrested and temporarily jailed in Jackson, Mississippi.

“In the mid to late twentieth century you start to see these women working together in the fight for racial equality. They began directly participating in politics and running for office,” says Everrett. “Women like Dorothy Mae Taylor and Lindy Boggs showed a new phase of effecting change, continuing groundbreaking work with greater agency.”

Dorothy Mae Taylor challenged segregated krewes – and the exhibit includes a notebook with her handwritten speeches, also digitized so that museum visitors can flip through and read her words without damaging the collection.

Seeing her handwriting and reading her thoughts, while watching a video of her speaking at a city council meeting, gives visitors a strong sense of the integrity she possessed. The materials combine to give a unique and intimate view into some of New Orleans’ greatest women.

It’s the little things in the collection that make it special, like a piece of Victorian mourning jewelry with a beloved pet’s hair inside. The exhibition speaks to a larger narrative of change within the city while also providing personal materials that speak to each woman’s individual identity.

“Many of these women are connected, in both their causes and the organizations in which they served. We are telling the story of women who fought for change,” says Seiferth.

The Voices of Progress exhibit is free of charge and runs now through September 11 at the Historic New Orleans Collection at 533 Royal Street. Main image: Doris Jean Castle; 1961; photograph; courtesy of the Amistad Research. All other images courtesy of the Historic New Orleans Collection unless otherwise noted.

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The Historic New Orleans Collection (THNOC) is a museum, research center, and publisher dedicated to preserving the history and culture of New Orleans and the Gulf South. Its holdings comprise more than one million items from more than three centuries, documenting moments both major and minor. Its four exhibition spaces–the Williams Gallery, the Louisiana History Galleries, the Boyd Cruise Gallery, and the Laura Simon Nelson Galleries for Louisiana Art–faithfully depict the multicultural stories of the region, from permanent displays exploring the evolution of Louisiana to rotating exhibitions showcasing history and fine art.

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