The Women of New Orleans

Ray Jones

'Jackson Square New Orleans' by Sam Infiniti Hurwitch

History often speaks of the roles played by men. All too often, the roles of women are relegated to "bit parts" by those who write our history.

Women have played important parts in history from the dawn of time. In New Orleans, however, women seem to have played a greater role in ours than in many other parts of the New World.

Here, women owned property from former marriages and inheritances. Regardless of marital status, they were legally able to use or dispose of the property as they saw fit and were able to enter into legally binding contracts concerning same.

Women of New Orleans (compared to women in other parts of what is now the U. S.) were more apt to divorce since they were more likely to be able to take care of themselves financially.

As early as 1879, the women here were allowed to vote on tax issues. Women in the rest of the United States weren't allowed to vote on anything until the 19th amendment in 1920.

Even Black women enjoyed greater freedom in New Orleans. Slave women could buy their freedom or be freed upon their master's death. An order of Black nuns named Our Holy Family Sisters was founded by Henriette Delisle in 1842.

What follows are brief vignettes of a few great women of New Orleans:

The first women of New Orleans were Indians. About 90% of the approximately 300 men who began the city in 1718 were unmarried. Many found solace in the arms of Indian women. Though marriage between French men and Indian women was forbidden, many mixed couples raised families together anyway.

Many of the early French women were orphans, prostitutes, vagabonds, mental patients, and others of similar circumstances. A lot of New Orleanians trace their roots to "Filles de Cassettes" or "Casket Girls" (young women of proper breeding and training given a small case or cassette in which to carry their belongings and sent here as wives), though there is some doubt they ever existed.

Aside from the others, the Ursuline Nuns were among the first French women to come to New Orleans. They founded the first school in what is now the U.S. to teach females only. They've taught girls in New Orleans for 270 years and have schools in other parts of the U.S. as well.

Only 16 years after the founding of the colony, Marie Girardy became the first recorded woman to own property in New Orleans. As early as 1773 a free woman of color was known to have owned property.

The first statue in the U. S. to honor a woman was erected in New Orleans. The woman was an Irish immigrant named Margaret Haughery. In 1835, she lost both her husband and newborn child to yellow fever. She dedicated her life to caring for widows, orphans, and others in need.

Though she never learned to read and write, aided by the Sisters of Charity, she bought a bakery and later a dairy. She used these to help feed the needy. She was known both as "the Breadwoman" and "Margaret," the latter of which became the only inscription on her statue.

In 1862 the women of New Orleans gave General Butler of the occupying Union forces so much trouble, he threatened to jail them as prostitutes.

This made him the most hated man in the South and his ignoble act against women was common knowledge even in Europe. This resulted in his nickname, "Beast Butler." Due to his inability to interact with the civilian population, he was removed by Lincoln after seven months.

Elizabeth Nicholson was the first woman in the U. S. to own and operate a newspaper, The Picayune.

Alice Heine was born in 1858 and later became the first American woman to bear the title Princess of Monaco.

These are just a few of our great women. I can hardly do justice to all of them within this short column. The fact that I didn't mention anyone in particular in no way reflects on their greatness or lack thereof. It is simply due to a lack of time and space.

The next time you read "his story" remember that it might well be "her story" as well.

After a varied career, Ray Jones finally found an occupation he loves and to which he seems aptly suited. He drives mule-drawn carriages, giving tours through the French Quarter of New Orleans, including accurate information about the history, culture, music, food, and entertainment of the city and state. He is now on sabbatical, writing a book.

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