Louisiana Chief Justice Celebrates HERstory for Women's History Month

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The LSU Women's Center and the LSU Bar Association welcomed Chief Justice Catherine "Kitty" Kimball of the Louisiana Supreme Court as the Women's History Month Star Performance keynote speaker on March 12. Pictured (left to right): LSU Women’s Center Director Catherine Hopkins; Paul M. Hebert Law Center Chancellor Jack Weiss; Chief Justice Kimball; LSU Vice Provost for Equity, Diversity and Community Outreach Katrice Albert; and President of the LSU Student Bar Association Jeffrey Coriel.

Ellen Richards. Rachel Carson. Grace Thorpe. Anne Milling. Claudette Colvin. Candy Lightner. Lindy Boggs. Mary Landrieu. All of these women have one thing in common. They were ordinary citizens who, because of life's circumstances, chose to do extraordinary things.

That was the theme of keynote speaker Catherine "Kitty" Kimball's address on Thursday, March 12, at the Bo Campbell Auditorium in the Cox Communications Academic Center for Student-Athletes in celebration of LSU Women's History Month salute to "Celebrating HERstory."

"Every woman's story has the ability to transform her from an ordinary person into someone who can do extraordinary things," said Kimball. "The circumstances that you find yourself in, in your ordinary life, can sometimes lead you into a position to be able to do extraordinary things."

The first woman elected to the Louisiana Supreme Court, Kimball made history again on Jan. 12 when she was sworn in as the first female to serve as chief justice of Louisiana's highest court. A 1970 graduate of the LSU Paul M. Hebert Law Center, Kimball was inducted into the Louisiana Justice Hall of Fame in 2006.

Following her speech, Kimball was presented with the inaugural LSU Women's Center "Esprit de Femme" award by Vice Provost for Equity, Diversity and Community Outreach Katrice Albert. The Esprit de Femme award will honor a person each year who has made an exceptional effort to diminish the struggles of women throughout the community, state and nation.

As outlined in President Barack Obama's 2009 Women's History Month proclamation, the theme of this year's celebration is "Women Taking the Lead to Save our Planet." Obama asked the country to "pay particular tribute to the efforts of women in preserving and protecting the environment for present and future generations."

Kimball touched upon several women outlined in Obama's proclamation for their efforts, which have greatly affected United States environment policy. She spoke of women like Richards, Carson and Thorpe.

Ellen Swallow Richards was born in 1842 and was the first woman accepted to the prestigious Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the first woman in the United States to earn a degree in chemistry. As a result of her unprecedented work with the Massachusetts State Board of Health, the nation's first water-quality standards were established.

Born in 1907, Rachel Louise Carson was a champion for the environmental movement, especially in regard to synthetic pesticides. Her 1962 book, "Silent Spring," took her concerns to the American public and led to the banning of such chemicals as DDT and the formation of the Environmental Protection Agency.

Grace Thorpe, the daughter of legendary Olympian Jim Thorpe, was born in 1921. In 1991, she spoke out passionately against environmental racism. A member of Oklahoma's Sac and Fox Indiana nation, she spearheaded a movement to prevent Native American tribes from being targeted by the United States government to store nuclear waste on their tribal lands. She founded the National Environmental Coalition of Native Americans in 1993 and now more than 70 reservations have established nuclear-free zones.

After telling the story of several of the women mentioned by Obama, Kimball brought attention to a female Louisianan, Anne Milling, who has championed the rights of New Orleanians since the devastation of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita in 2005 through the formation of "Women of the Storm."

"I wondered, when we talked about environment, however, why there was not another name mentioned. I submit that her contributions are no less important," said Kimball. "She took the 'Women of the Storm' to Washington and insisted that Congressmen should come to New Orleans to see the devastation caused by Hurricane Katrina. As a result of her efforts, 188 member of Congress have visited New Orleans. When Congress was called upon to give money to Louisiana, the fact that 188 members of Congress had personally seen the devastation was very important in helping the area recover."

Kimball then shifted her attention to other women, who through their normal lives, were able to effect change throughout the nation.

Born in 1939, Claudette Colvin is a pioneer for civil rights. Nine months prior to Rosa Parks' courageous refusal to give up her seat on a Montgomery bus that led to the Montgomery bus boycott, a 15-year-old Colvin refused to give up her seat to a white passenger while riding home from school on March 2, 1955. She was arrested and later convicted and fined while continuing to argue that her constitutional rights had been violated.

"She was just an ordinary 15-year-old girl who did an extraordinary thing," said Kimball.

Out of her personal grief, Candace "Candy" Lightner founded Mothers Against Drunk Driving. After her 13-year-old daughter was killed by a drunk driver in a hit-and-run, Lightner made it her mission to teach the nation about the dangers of drinking and driving. Since 1980, the annual number of alcohol-related deaths has been cut nearly in half, dropping from 30,000 to 17,000.

"I can't even begin to imagine how many lives that has probably saved by focusing this country on the dangers of drinking and driving," said Kimball. "She was an ordinary woman who did an extraordinary thing."

Corinne "Lindy" Boggs is a New Orleans resident who took office in the U.S. House of Representatives in 1973 after the death of her husband. She served as the U.S. Representative for 18 years, even running unopposed in her final four campaigns, and as the U.S. Ambassador to the Vatican from 1997-2001. A champion for equal rights, she helped pass legislation that prevented discrimination in the granting of small-business loans and guarantees equal access to credit.

Kimball's story of Boggs was a personal one that spoke of "the most gracious and lady-like person you will ever see," who has made a strong impact on Kimball's life in addition to her support for women.

"My family is from Ireland, and I have quite the Irish temper," said Kimball. "And, when you go through elections, you do not want the Irish temper to come out. When I would sit there and get angry with people during the election, I would tell myself, 'you're going to be Lindy Boggs today, you're going to be Lindy Boggs today.' I was trying to be Lindy Boggs every day during the election, and it was the one thing that kept me from chewing out people."

The final individual that Kimball spoke about is also one of her personal friends, who has championed adoption rights through her own story and through her work in the United States Senate.

Mary Landrieu, the first woman from Louisiana elected to a full term in the Senate, is a co-chair of the Congressional Coalition on Adoption. With two adopted children of her own, Landrieu has made it a priority to support programs and policies, like the Adoption Promotion Act of 2003 and tax incentives for adoptions, that will help every child find a loving home.

"I would venture to say that she has done more for adoption than any person in the United States Senate," said Kimball.

Kimball, who works tirelessly as an advocate for abused and neglected children, concluded her speech by talking about a group of everyday heroes that make a conscious choice to improve their lives and the lives of their children. In discussing battered women who choose to leave their abusers, Kimball stressed how courageous these women are to make the choice to leave their normal lives to pursue something better, comparing their sacrifices to those of hurricane victims.

When the people of Louisiana left their homes prior to the arrival of hurricanes like Katrina, Rita, Gustav and Ike, many of them took nothing but a weekend's worth of clothing, never imagining that they would never see their possessions again. In talking about how horrific it was for her own friends and family to lose everything they owned, she stressed about how hard it is for an abused woman to make the conscious choice to leave her belongings and everything she knows and loves to provide a better life for her children.

"People in Katrina did not have a choice," said Kimball. "They never dreamed that their rip out of town for the weekend would cost them everything they had. The courage of women who are able to leave an abusive situation for the sake of their children, they are the people who history should remember. They are ordinary people that all of us should think about during Women's History Month. These women are giving everything up for their families."

For more information on Justice Kimball or LSU's celebration of Women's History Month, visit the LSU Women’s Center Web site at www.lsu.edu/wc. The LSU Women's Center is a reporting unit in the Office of Equity, Diversity & Community Outreach, or EDCO. For more information on the EDCO, visit www.lsu.edu/diversity or e-mail diversity@lsu.edu.

Melissa Foley | Writer | Office of Communications & University Relations
March 2009