Narrowing the list of Louisiana’s most influential women during the past century was like trying to rank the most mouth-watering gumbos found in this state, where a rich roux of cultures, influences and accomplishments has produced so many pioneers who have shaped our region and country.
Women have often been featured on Louisiana’s marquee, from the mythical Evangeline immortalized in Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s 1847 poem to the late Gov. Kathleen Blanco, described by one state lawmaker “as our generation’s Evangeline.”
The USA TODAY Network is commemorating the 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment, in which women gained the right to vote, by recognizing women from each state and the District of Columbia who had a significant influence at home and across the country as Women of the Century.
A panel of Louisiana historians, journalists, political pioneers and caretakers of our culture – all women – chose our top 10 from nominees generated from both the public and the panelists.
Each of the panelists said it was an excruciating task because of the depth of nominees, from the Queen of Creole Cuisine Leah Chase to Congresswoman “Lindy” Boggs, who was instrumental in composing the Equal Credit Opportunity Act of 1974 banning discrimination based on sex or marital status.
Some seemingly obvious choices, like Madam C.J. Walker, America’s first self-made African American female millionaire, were omitted because they died before 1920, though their influence continues to reverberate through the ages.
But in the end, Louisiana’s top 10 Women of the Century either played or continue to play a compelling part in advancing our state and our country.
Here are those women.
Who is your Woman of the Century? Did we miss a woman you think should be on our list? We’d like to hear from you.
First and only woman elected as the state’s governor
Kathleen Blanco, the only woman to serve as governor in Louisiana, guided the state through its worst natural disaster after Hurricane Katrina and Hurricane Rita.
The New Iberia native was elected in 1983 to the Louisiana House of Representatives, the first female legislator from Lafayette. In 1988, she became the first woman to be elected to the Louisiana Public Service Commission. She also became the first female chairman of the Public Service Commission.
In 2003, Blanco defeated her Republican opponent 52% to 48%. Throughout her time as governor, she focused on affordable health care, better education and economic development initiatives. She left public office in 2008.
Corrine Morrison Claiborne “Lindy” Boggs
First woman elected to Congress from Louisiana
Lindy Boggs was the first woman elected to Congress from Louisiana.
Boggs, born Marie Corinne Morrison Claiborne on the Brunswick Plantation near New Roads, attended Newcomb College at Tulane University in New Orleans. While there, she became an editor of the student newspaper and met her future husband, Hale Boggs.
In 1973, she won a special congressional election to succeed her husband, who died in office in a plane crash. She was elected to a full term in 1974, with 82% of the vote, and was reelected seven times until she left office in 1991.
During her time, she championed the Equal Credit Opportunity Act of 1974, banning discrimination based on sex or marital status. When the House banking committee marked up the measure, she added the provision banning discrimination due to sex or marital status — without informing the other members of the committee — and produced copies of the new versions of the bill.
She also became the first woman to preside over a national political convention when she did so at the 1976 Democratic National Convention.
Chef known as the Queen of Creole Cuisine
Leah Chase is known for her Dooky Chase restaurant in New Orleans, the gathering place for the civil rights movement in the 1960s.
Before the African American woman earned her title as the Queen of Creole Cuisine, Chase worked as the first woman to mark racehorse boards for local bookies. She also managed two amateur boxers. Through her husband, she obtained a a food stand and converted it into a sit-down restaurant. She created a menu that reflected her family’s Creole recipes, including dishes typically sold in whites-only restaurants.
Dooky Chase also acted as a gallery for African American art. Chase, who studied art in high school, visited an art museum for the first time when she was 54. She became the first African American to sit on the board of the New Orleans Museum of Art in 1972.
In 2018, Chase was named Humanist of the Year in 2018 by the Louisiana Endowment for the Humanities.
Vocalist known as the Queen of Gospel
Born Mahala Jackson, later adding an “i,” Jackson grew up in the Black Pearl section of uptown New Orleans. She is referred to as “The Queen of Gospel,” having paved the way for Black gospel and secular music.
Jackson started singing as a child at Mount Moriah Baptist Church. After moving to Chicago as a teen, she joined the Greater Salem Baptist Church and soon became a member of the Johnson Gospel Singers, one of the earliest professional gospel groups.
In 1947, she recorded “Move On Up a Little Higher,” which sold 8 million copies and became the highest-selling gospel single in history. In 1954, Jackson signed with Columbia Records, becoming the first Black gospel singer on a major label.
Her principle performances include President John F. Kennedy’s inauguration and the March on Washington, where she sang “How I Got Over,” a song about the challenges of Black Americans from the civil rights movement to the Middle Passage.
Bernette Joshua Johnson
First African American to serve on the Louisiana Supreme Court
Bernette Joshua Johnson is the first African American to serve on the Louisiana Supreme Court, and the first African American woman to serve as both associate justice and chief justice.
She was one of the first African American women to graduate from the state Paul M. Hebert Law School at Louisiana State University. She was the managing attorney at the New Orleans Legal Assistance from 1969 to 1973, serving clients in socioeconomically deprived neighborhoods.
Johnson served as deputy city attorney in New Orleans from 1981 to 1984. She was elected in 1984 as the first woman to the Civil District Court. She championed many successful initiatives, such as training and certifying the Limited English Proficiency Interpreters in the courts.
A member of the National Bar Association Hall of Fame, Johnson has been chief justice of the Louisiana Supreme Court since 2013.
Oretha Castle Haley
Civil rights activist
A vital leader of New Orleans’ civil rights movement, Oretha Castle Haley was born in Oakland, Tennessee, and moved to the Crescent City with her family when she was 7.
Haley became active in the civil rights movement in 1958 while enrolled at Southern University of New Orleans. She challenged segregated facilities and promoted voter registration in New Orleans and rural Louisiana. She co-founded the New Orleans Chapter of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE).
In 1960, Haley and three others were arrested for picketing, sitting-in and distributing leaflets calling for the boycott of a Woolworths. That case, Lombard, et al v. Louisiana, served as one of the most important U.S. Supreme Court cases during the Civil Rights movement, establishing that the arrest violated the 14th Amendment.
In the 1980s, Haley served as an administrator at Charity Hospital and organized the New Orleans Sickle Cell Anemia Foundation.
Cleoma Breaux Falcon
Musician who helped record one of the first known examples of Cajun music
Musician and singer Cleoma Breaux Falcon, who would later go on to record the first Cajun record with her husband, was born in Crowley.
She came from a family of influential Cajun musicians and mastered the accordion and fiddle. Throughout the 1910s and 1920s, she performed around Crowley with her brothers. She later married Joseph Falcon, an accordionist from Rayne, and they recorded “The Waltz That Carried Me to My Grave” and “Lafayette,” also known as “Allons à Lafayette.”
During the next 10 years, the Falcons and the Breaux family would record nearly 100 songs on labels including Columbia, Decca, and Bluebird. Falcon also recorded Cajun French versions of popular songs such as “Lulu’s Back in Town.”
Civil rights activist
Among the first African American children to desegregate Southern schools, Ruby Bridges was born in Tylertown, Mississippi, and later moved to New Orleans with her family.
A federal court ordered Louisiana to desegregate its schools six years after the landmark Brown v. Board of Education ruling. Black students who wanted to attend a white school had to pass a test and families had to pass background checks. Bridges was one of six students who passed.
At age 6, Bridges and her mother were escorted into William Frantz Elementary School by four federal marshals. She faced racial slurs and screaming crowds, and was in a class by herself all year.
Bridges graduated from a desegregated high school and went on to be a travel agent. In 1999, she established the Ruby Bridges Foundation, which specializes in conflict management and diversity education.
Sarah Towles Reed
Founded the first teachers union in New Orleans
A passionate advocate for women’s rights and someone who also championed educational reform and racial justice, Sarah Towles Reed founded the first teachers union in New Orleans.
Born at Ouida Plantation near St. Francisville, Reed moved to New Orleans with her family as a child. She studied at Newcomb College, Tulane University and earned a law degree from Loyola University.
Reed helped pass legislation securing equal pay for women teachers and helped overturn a prohibition of employing married women teachers. She helped organize the first black teachers’ union in New Orleans and worked closely with African American colleagues for salary raises.
After retiring, Reed continued to be an outspoken advocate for teachers fighting for retirement benefits and pay raises.
Born on Hidden Hill Plantation in Natchitoches Parish, Clementine Hunter documented life in the Cane River region of Central Louisiana through paintings.
The self-taught folk artist didn’t start painting until she was nearly 50. Hunter used varying surfaces – canvas, wood, snuff boxes, iron pots – to record everyday life at Melrose Plantation where she worked. Many of her figures are African American, including women portrayed as working in the cotton fields.
She first exhibited in 1949 and gained recognition when both the Museum of American Folk Art in New York and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art exhibited her paintings. Hunter is perhaps best known for the nine room-size murals she painted on the walls of the African House, an outbuilding in the Melrose plantation complex.
Though Hunter sold her paintings for as little as 25 cents in her earliest years as an artist, her works are now priced in the thousands of dollars.
Sources used in the Women of the Century list project include newspaper articles, state archives, historical websites, encyclopedias and other resources.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Women of the Century Louisiana: List includes first female governor