LOUISIANA ACTIVIST - Founder ERA Central of New Orleans, NOW State Coordinator, Advocate for Battered Women's Services, Challenger of Louisiana’s “Head and Master” Provision
I was born in Montgomery, Alabama, in 1944, and grew up wedged between the conflicting cultures of the evolving post-war philosophies of the military regarding equality and the attitudes of the 1950’s Deep South toward racial segregation. At the time my father was stationed in France with the U.S. Air Force and my mother was supporting the war effort as a volunteer “Gray Lady” with the American Red Cross in Montgomery. After my father returned home, I lived alternately on Air Force bases and in my hometown. When I was fifteen, my parents died prematurely within months of each other, both of natural causes, and I moved to New Orleans to live with my maternal uncle and his family.
As a ten-year-old I had been witness to the tensions created when Rosa Parks illegally maintained her seat on a Montgomery city bus. And the day before celebrating my sixteenth birthday in New Orleans I watched the local television broadcast of six-year-old Ruby Bridges being escorted by U.S. Marshals into an all white elementary school. These were the memories that would later nurture my civil rights activism as a young adult during the sixties.
Though the societal messages in my youth about racial equality were ambiguous, my parents tried to teach me that gender was not a disabling factor. When I told my father I wanted to be a detective, he made a fingerprinting kit for me (because they didn’t sell them in stores then) and taught me how to take fingerprints from people and how to lift them from surfaces. When I told my mother I didn’t know if I wanted to be a writer or a lawyer, her response was that Erle Stanley Gardner was both. She also insisted that I take typing in high school so I would always be able to make a living. As it turned out, years later I earned a living operating a teletype machine while I attended law school at night. Though my mother was correct that my typing ability would serve me well, both my parents were wrong about their expectations that my life would be free of gender-based inequities.
After I graduated from high school, I spent several years rotating from academic endeavors to civil rights activism with no clear goal in either direction. During one hiatus from academia in the early sixties, I moved to a small town north of New Orleans and spent a year teaching at a Catholic school in a rural area for a community of biracial families whose children were having difficulties integrating into the racially segregated schools in the area.
In 1964, I enrolled in what was then Southeast Louisiana College in Hammond. During my first semester, shortly after we had joined an African-American male acquaintance for a cup of coffee in the cafeteria, two female students and I were summoned to the Dean’s office and grilled by the Dean of Men, Dean of Women and Dean of Students who asked questions like “What are you trying to do, get us on the cover of Life magazine?” In genuine naiveté, we asked what we had done wrong. They explained there were vertical relationships and horizontal relationships, and that by sitting with an African-American male friend, we had transgressed into the zone of a horizontal relationship. We were finally dismissed from the Dean’s office and spared any punishment, but that incident left an indelible impression and motivated me more than ever to work in the progressive movements of the time.
In the mid-sixties, I moved back to New Orleans and became involved in the peace movement and civil rights efforts as a member of the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom. When the Justice Department ordered the desegregation of public schools in Louisiana, I was one of a group of women (identified in the local press as “housewives”) who accepted teaching positions at a public high school in Plaquemines Parish to prevent the closure of the school by the Parish President, Leander Perez.
On August 26, 1972, I joined New Orleans NOW and the same day attended my first day at Loyola University School of Law. I went to school at night, worked full time during the day and received my Juris Doctor in 1976. Almost immediately after joining NOW, I became active in a statewide effort to lobby for an equal rights guarantee for women at the 1973 Louisiana State Constitutional Convention. But the result was the adoption in the 1974 Constitution of a diluted provision prohibiting discrimination on the basis of sex only when arbitrary, capricious or unreasonable–quite different from the equality we had lobbied for.
Following the failed campaign, I headed an ERA Task Force for New Orleans NOW. Thanks to the persistence of Jeanne Helwig, then president of the League of Women Voters in Jefferson Parish, and Dottie Dahlberg, also active with the League, we founded ERA Central of New Orleans, the first ERA coalition in Louisiana. Bonnie DeNoux was the first president and I served as the Political Action Coordinator.
ERA Central maintained an office in New Orleans provided by the local AFL-CIO affiliate and a phone line that was an extension of my home phone. In spite of the resources invested in the efforts, the Louisiana Legislature defeated the ERA at least seven times.
In 1974, I was one of approximately 50 Louisiana women selected to participate in the National Women’s Political Caucus’s “Win With Women” training in Athens, Georgia, a project designed to teach women effective campaign strategies to increase their numbers in elected office on local, state and national levels.
During that period, while I was still in law school, I secured funding through the Louisiana Endowment for the Humanities to direct a grant program, “The Legal Status of Louisiana Women” administered by the YWCA. With the assistance of Janet Mary Riley, a professor at Loyola Law School and a member of the Louisiana Law Institute, and Helen Kohlman, one of the few established women attorneys who was willing to work on feminist issues, a coalition of organizations, including NOW and the YWCA, provided educational presentations and videos throughout the state focusing on the infamous “Head and Master” provision of Louisiana law which gave husbands nearly absolute unilateral control of the couple's community property.
This project turned out to be a huge mobilizing tool. Several women attendees privately described situations we thought needed to be referred to the courts. In addition to achieving justice for women, we hoped that one of the cases would result in a ruling regarding the unconstitutionality of the discriminatory elements of the Louisiana Community Property system.
One of those women was Selina Martin, who discovered after her separation that her husband had mortgaged their home without her knowledge, to pay his gambling debts. I referred her to Dorothy Waldrup, a local attorney, who represented Selina pro bono. When the court refused to declare the “Head and Master” provision unconstitutional, she lost the home to foreclosure.
The combination of the failed ERA campaign, the diluted version of an equality provision in the State Constitution, the educational efforts of the “Legal Status” programs, the injustice of the various court decisions, and other factors created a statewide groundswell to support revisions to the community property system. When Riley presented her version of the revision of the laws to the Louisiana Law Institute they refused to accept it. Courageously, she submitted her version directly to the legislature through a senator who introduced it for her. It included a more equitable management system that passed into law in the late seventies and took effect in 1980, and “Head and Master” became a shameful part of Louisiana history.
One other effect of the “Legal Status” programs was the beginning of documentation of the need for services for battered women. Because the husband had control over the family’s resources, women had few options. I routinely reported these disclosures to the YWCA administration but funding realities prevented it from expanding services during that fiscal year. So, as I was instructed by YWCA administrators, I directed those women to the YWCA Rape Crisis Line. In 1977, with funding secured through the documentation of the need for services from the Rape Crisis program, the YWCA opened the first Battered Women’s Program in the State of Louisiana, and provided a 24-hour hotline, crisis intervention, telephone and office counseling, and referral services.
Prior to the passage of the community property revisions, in 1974 I authored a pamphlet for the New Orleans NOW Legal and Legislative Committee entitled “How Marriage Can Change Your Life,” which explained the details and implications of the “Head and Master” provision. In 1975, I represented NOW as a member of the State’s Attorney General’s task force for the preparation of a Marriage Pamphlet, chaired by Pat Evans, to be distributed to couples applying for a marriage license informing them of the community property laws, including the “Head and Master” provision. Additionally, I wrote articles on the inequities of the community property laws in Distaff, a feminist newspaper published in New Orleans by Mary Gehman and Donna Swanson in the 70’s and 80’s.
In 1977 I served on the Louisiana Women’s Conference Coordinating Committee and on its Women and Law Task Force which was chaired by Ollie Osborne from Lafayette. At that statewide conference, I was elected a delegate (and the only NOW member) from Louisiana to the historic National Women’s Conference in Houston in November. Our delegation was exceptionally strong, especially for a Southern state, due mostly to the leadership of Pat Evans, head of the Governor’s Bureau for Women.
I became director of the Louisiana statewide coalition ERA United, which had been kept alive by Karline Tierney, for the last years of the nearly dead ERA campaign in 1977-78. The last but successful effort to secure an additional three years for consideration by the states yielded no additional ratifying states and the Amendment died in 1982.
As a member of the Board of Directors of New Orleans NOW from 1972 to 1977 and again from 1985 to 1986, at various times I was Coordinator of the ERA Task Force, the Women in Media Task Force, and the Women in Politics Task Force. I represented Louisiana NOW on the National By-laws Commission in 1975, served on National NOW’s Task Forces on Women in Politics, Women in Media and Older Women, and was a delegate to the NOW National Conference in 1985.
After graduating from law school, I wanted to remain involved in political activism, so I went to work full time for the YWCA until four years later when I was persuaded to take the bar exam. Incredibly, I passed on my first try and was ultimately offered a job as a public defender in Juvenile Court in Orleans Parish. Unfortunately, my public defender’s salary could not keep up with the cost of living, so eventually I took a job as an attorney for the state child protection agency where I remained for over 25 years.
As an attorney for the Louisiana Department of Social Services (later called the Department of Children and Family Services) from 1983 until my retirement in 2011, I represented the department in child abuse and neglect cases. As a state employee, though my activism was stifled, I continued to try to address civil rights and women’s issues. I served as a member of the Board and Treasurer of the Metropolitan Battered Women’s Program, as the founding Treasurer and Board member of CASA (New Orleans Court Appointed Special Advocate for children in foster care), as Co-Chair of the Domestic Violence Committee of the New Orleans Bar Association, as a member of the Medical and Social Work Committee of the Mayor’s Task Force on Domestic Violence, and as a member of the Mayor’s Advisory Committee on Lesbian and Gay Issues.
Immediately upon my retirement, I was invited to serve on the Louisiana LGBT Task Force, a project to address the needs of LGBT children in foster care. Shortly after, a colleague and I were asked to present at a state child welfare conference in Tennessee on the use of infant mental health teams in juvenile court proceedings. We presented that same material in August 2013 at the conference of the National Association of Counsel for Children.
I am currently serving on the Board of the Forum for Equality, a Louisiana organization that advocates for equal civil rights for the lesbian and gay community. Additionally, I am one of the NOW representatives to the Legislative Agenda for Women (LAW), a coalition to develop and support legislation to improve and protect the interests of Louisiana women.
I am also a NOW representative to Louisiana Courts Matter, part of a national coalition whose purpose is to influence the expeditious appointment of judges of diverse backgrounds to fill the current backlog of federal judicial vacancies. As a representative of that coalition I was invited to a forum at the White House in June 2013 to discuss the issue of the stalled judicial nominations with members of the Obama Administration.
Also in June 2013, I began my term as member of the New Orleans Human Relations Commission Advisory Committee, charged with overseeing enforcement of the city ordinances prohibiting discrimination based on race, creed, national origin or ancestry, color, religion, gender or sex, sexual orientation, gender identification, marital status, age, physical condition or disability. I continue to maintain a private law practice representing children in Juvenile Courts in the New Orleans Area in abuse and neglect cases.
Non-political activities include participation in a fiction writers' group where I am trying to learn to write fictional accounts about women’s struggles to find the freedom to be who they want to be. My retired racing greyhound and I just completed our second year in the Visiting Pet Program that visits patients at local hospitals or nursing homes monthly. I also volunteer at the New Orleans City Park greenhouse.
NOTE: Clay has received many awards over the years. In 1978 she received an Outstanding Feminist Award from the Jefferson Parish Chapter of NOW; in 1990 a special recognition from CASA, New Orleans. In 1994 she was the recipient of the Citizen of the Year Award by the New Orleans Chapter of the National Association of Social Workers; and in that same year the Public Service Award from the Gillis Long Poverty Law Center of Loyola School of Law. In 2006 the local Human Rights Campaign presented her with the Equality Award; and in 2012 she was given the Children’s Law Award from the Louisiana State Bar Association for “commitment and dedication to providing for the legal needs of children in Louisiana.”
Credit for information on Janet Riley’s efforts to enact community property revisions goes to Dr. Janet Allured, Professor of History at McNeese University in Lake Charles, and currently visiting professor at Tulane University in New Orleans. This information is contained in Allured’s book on Louisiana women.
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