Veteran Feminists of America
|MURIEL ARCENEAUX FROM CAJUN LAND IN THE DEEP SOUTH
SOCIAL WORKER, TEACHER, FEMINIST ACTIVIST
I was born in Wainwright, Alabama to Muriel Swanson and Dennis Daniel Dees on February 18,1926, the eldest of five children. My mother was a community activist and my father a farmer.
Times were good until the great depression of 1929. Our white neighbors were in great stress due to the unreliable market for agricultural products, and our black friends were more or less dependent on my father for their sustenance.
My mother taught women mattress-making, so many of her neighbors slept on beds rather than cornhusk mattresses. She also taught them how to pressure-cook and can home grown vegetables to relieve some of the malnutrition rampant among the children.
Some of my earliest memories were of two “spinster” aunts--one a seamstress, the other a schoolteacher--who were always sought out to solve problems. I remember my mother and aunts discussing issues at meals and gatherings. They were glad to get the vote in 1920, yet they were firmly grounded in what everybody’s place was or should be in the family and society.
In 1931, I was enrolled in grade school, but the following February the school closed because of lack of funding. My mother placed me in the Monroeville Elementary School, and I moved in to live with my aunts.
In the following months, their brother and his family moved in. My father, who had been hospitalized for tuberculosis, moved in so the aunts could care for him. Scenes of the overcrowding, the conflicts, and make-do solutions still flash through my mind. Several months later my father, who had been misdiagnosed, returned home and the brother and family moved out .
In fifth grade, I returned to my family in Wainwright, and with my two sisters rode the unheated school bus twenty–five miles each way to elementary school.
In 1947, I earned a degree in sociology and psychology, took education certification courses from Florence State Teacher’s College, and received my Master’s Degree in Education from Nicholls State University in 1972. I then completed postgraduate work in the humanities and special education for the gifted.
My father, who’d thought my education a waste of money as I would just get married, said toward the end of his life that it had been the best investment he‘d ever made.
After college, I was a caseworker with the Alabama Welfare Department and quickly added to my father’s misgivings by marrying a law student. Three years and two children later, I returned to work as a social worker and later, because the school schedule lent itself better to raising children, I became a schoolteacher.
The marriage was troubled. Subject to emotional and physical abuse I warned my husband to not sleep with both eyes closed if he ever hit me again. Three-and-a-half years later I divorced and moved four hundred miles away. I did not ask for alimony but requested child support. It was never forthcoming, but I didn’t have the time or money to fight for it. In those pre-feminist days, redress for injuries to a woman’s emotional and physical wellbeing was unheard of and besides, no woman wanted to air her marital problems!
Despite these stresses I traveled around the county demonstrating self-exams for breast cancer prevention, helped organize and was president of a women’s study group and, as most of the young married women of my set did then, I played a lot of bridge.
As I looked for more professional opportunities I saw that women were at a distinct disadvantage. I was refused a job as an editor for the U. S. Government even though my test scores were at the top of the list.
In 1959, I got a job with the Federal Government in Tyler, Texas and was later transferred me to Houma, Louisiana, a Cajun town on the Gulf of Mexico. There I married Louis Arceneaux and we had a daughter. For ten years I worked, reared my children and directed a church choir, while my husband held and lost ten jobs. I developed a severe anxiety neurosis and took residential treatment for six months, coming home only on weekends. By now I realized I had to take control of my life, so I decided to get a divorce. But Louisiana’s Head and Master laws, which gave a husband final say on all decisions about jointly owned property without his wife’s knowledge or consent, were hardly congenial.
This time I pressed for child support. Fighting anxiety on every front I learned how to drive again, to answer the phone and sit through a meeting. I bought a small house, and now was “head and master.” I got a job as a substitute teacher and took courses to upgrade my Master’s Degree to increase my salary. Then my son was assigned to Vietnam, my elder daughter enrolled at LSU and I was alone with my ten-year-old daughter who was hurting over the family disintegration and frightened to be alone with a mother who was not always on an even keel.
In the late 1960’s women were meeting to discuss the new women's movement, and I had to get involved. It seemed best to go through respected organizations in Houma rather than join the radical NOW, so I became involved with the Terrebonne Business and Professional Women’s Organization.
The BPW women had very little information about the laws that governed their second-class citizenship, so I published a newsletter to make the members aware of what was going on in Louisiana and in the movement countrywide. I invited Baton Rouge activists Karlene Tierney and the late Marcella Matthews to talk to about ERA United, and Roberta Madden of the Women’s Political Caucus to conduct a political action workshop.
With a few BPW and other local women I organized a branch of ERA United, serving as a board member for the state ERA United and as the first president of Terrebonne ERA Coalition.
Members of these organizations formed writing groups, made lobbying trips to Baton Rouge, attended meetings of women around the country, and raised money for representatives to go to wherever demonstrations were taking place. I participated in the 1980 Chicago parade to ratify ERA, organized and served as moderator of forums in Terrebonne Parish during elections and addressed groups to promote the advancement of women.
In attempting to get women in other organizations involved in the Equal Rights movement I encountered outright opposition among many to the idea of women’s equal rights. A great deal was made about going braless and other such nonsense.
I served on the Louisiana conference-planning committee and the Houston Conference for International Women's Year as a Louisiana representative. From 1973 to 1985, serving in various capacities at the local and state level of BPW, I published a bulletin to inform women of political and other issues, pressured Congress for federal laws to remedy injustices toward women and assisted in drawing up a proposed legislative platform to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment.
I organized workshops to teach women how to work through government processes, to lobby, to assess the effects of legislation, and contributed articles to the media and made speeches on issues affecting women.
I was a board member of the YWCA for eight years, during which the Y developed a counseling program for battered women and trained the police in handling domestic disputes. A women's shelter was established, but after ten years lack of funding and internal dissention closed all the Y programs, some of which were taken over by other groups. A major contribution was developing a workshop dealing with parenting. The Junior Auxiliary was attracted to this idea and paid for a consultant to establish and run a parenting center.
There were many bright moments during these extremely active years. I met Bella Abzug and other feminist icons at the Houston Conference. I have a special memory of an evening spent with Gloria Steinem and others in a black church, where she gave an inspirational talk. There wasn't a question she didn't answer brilliantly.
Elected to the Louisiana Democratic State Central Committee, for four years I assisted in the election of Louisiana women, among them Senator Mary Landrieu and Governor Kathleen Blanco.
As a member of the library board I founded Friends of the Library and may have been the only board member who actually read. Always called down for my "radical" statements, I eventually was kicked off by a man on the board. In Louisiana I was always in trouble for my "radical" views.
I was a docent of the Terrebonne Historical and Cultural Society for many years and served on the Arts and Humanities Board of Directors and on the Parish Literacy Council. All this after a full day's work and fulfilling my responsibilities to my home and children.
After the last vote in the Louisiana legislature on an Equal Rights bill, the work seemed to be at an end. In 1990, I retired after 40 years in social work and teaching and moved to Vicksburg, Mississippi, to be near my daughter Denise. In 2000 I donated my papers to the Newcomb Archives at the Center for Research on Women at Tulane in New Orleans.
After years of activism there is joy in reading about what is happening and not running around making it happen. I am proud of my children. My son is an Appellate court judge in Tennessee, my elder daughter a lawyer in Jackson, MS. My younger daughter has an M.S. in statistics and is manager of the computer division of a Canadian Bank.
People comment that the South has changed since the Civil Rights Movement, but I say it hasn't changed enough! This goes for every state in our great union. There is still much to do. My message to young feminists: It is now up to you.
Muriel has received many awards, among them the Veteran Feminists of America's MEDAL OF HONOR in 2002 at Newcomb College in New Orleans.
*Karline Tierney, and Robbi Madden are well known feminist activists and members of VFA.
COMMENTS: Jacqui Ceballos firstname.lastname@example.org
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