Publisher and writer Mary Gehman, pictured here, is one of the women featured in the upcoming exhibition The Personal Is Political: Portraits of Louisiana Second-Wave Feminists, which opens at the Newcomb Archives on March 3. The show is the work of documentary photographer Carrie Chrisco and historian Janet Allured.
Gehman’s thoughtful look in the photograph was something that both photographer and historian wanted to capture. Gehman’s arc of activism extends across decades: from a Pennsylvanian Mennonite community, to studies in Germany, to protest movements in New York city and the legendary Miss America Pageant in Atlantic City in 1968, to leadership in the New Orleans community. In the 1970s, she was part of a group who ran an exchange to help women find clothing for work long before Dress for Success. Notably, she and African American Donna Swanson produced the longest running feminist newspaper in the Deep South, “Distaff.”
Allured’s book, “Remapping Second-Wave Feminism: The Long Women’s Rights Movement in Louisiana, 1950-1997,” provided the research and the impetus for finding Gehman, Clay Latimer, Mary Frances Gardner, Vera Warren, Sue Laporte, Sibal Taylor Holt, and others. Many of these women were most active in their twenties and early thirties but the exhibition shows them in 2016, meeting figuratively on the walls of the Newcomb Archives. Allured’s work is filled with their stories and achievements. These women worked across racial and class lines within church, consciousness-raising, and many other endeavors to change the social and economic landscape of the state.
In returning to the women for the photograph exhibition, Allured considered her own reasons for beginning such enquiries. When she entered college in the late 1970s, studying the lives of women was still considered revolutionary. For her dissertation on rural women, Allured relied on sources that almost no other historian at the time used such as oral histories, folklore, and cookbooks.
Allured continued to become a builder of the canon on the history of women, especially in co-editing a book called Louisiana Women. That book proved so popular that a second volume was produced just last year. In addition, work within women’s history convinced Allured to think how she herself benefitted from second-wave feminism. In the Remapping book, she set out to write the stories of others who had allowed her to do so.
She found materials at Louisiana Research Collection at Tulane, at the Earl K. Long library at UNO, and LSU-Shreveport, but the richest materials were located at Newcomb Archives. Situated within Tulane, the Archives held the papers of Gehman, Mindy Milam, and oral histories with other activists from the 1940s through the 1990s. Yet Allured also found that the South in general still did not have as much documentation on the women’s movement as did other parts of the US. Thus she consulted Chrisco to document the present even as she still searches for materials from the past. Newcomb’s archivists and librarians welcomed their interests, especially since many Louisiana feminists lost papers in the floods and hurricanes of 2005.
Chrisco and Allured chose to photograph women admired because of their pasts, those considered “crusaders for justice.” Allured found once again that the women were generous “participants in history” sharing “their stories, or in some cases, their mothers’ stories and what documents they could locate.”
Chrisco noted her own appreciation of photographing the women activists: “As the project progressed I quickly realized these women still have a special knowing smile and determination to keep the movement alive. They look directly at you and smile because they are pleased with the fight and their part in it.” Both photographer Chrisco and historian Allured also noted that the very arrangements for the project afforded an unexpected surprise in learning how much the women activists liked and admired one another.
Allured and Chrisco hope that others will build on their work, saving their documents and photos, and sending them to archives.