Women’s Voice and the Sexual Politics of Louisiana’s Old State Capitol

by Laura Sells

Presented to the Southern States Communication Association conference,
Winston-Salem, NC, April 5, 2002

According to the 1998 Status of Women report commissioned by the Institute for Women’s Policy Research, Louisiana ranks at the bottom of all states for the quality of life for women, as reflected in multiple indicators that measure the status of women in education, health care, and employment. As the report reveals, “women in Louisiana are less likely than women nationally to graduate from high school and to have full-time, year-round employment. Those who are employed earn considerably less than women in other states and less than Louisiana men and they are less likely to have health insurance. What Louisiana women experience more of is poverty.”

Rod Hart once wrote that he studied political rhetoric because he thought that discourse concerning electoral politics and policy deliberation has a greater impact on people’s lives than the discourse of popular culture. Yet, in the state of Louisiana, where the status of women is considerably worse than women in other states, the distinction between cultural politics and real politics erodes as popular representations of women and the feminine obscure women’s actual political accomplishments. One example of this representational politics is the Old State Capitol building, where the dated tourist exhibits have a certain rustic charm rather than a slick postmodern finesse. Nonetheless, the slippage between representational politics and representative democracy is chilling as the exhibits on display at the Old State Capitol offer a pedagogy of political disenfranchisement for women.

In this paper, I make three claims about Louisiana’s Old State Capitol: First, the feminine is represented as a specular reflection of male desire while women’s actual participation and their political achievements in Louisiana is rendered invisible; second, the political process in Louisiana is reduced to voting and the desired voter is an uninformed, passive, pseudo-participant; and last, because there is no genuine site for political engagement beyond the voting booth and because there is no genealogy of women’s participation in Louisiana politics, women’s representational disenfranchisement translates into women’s disenfranchisement from the political process. I make these arguments by first looking at the tourist video that recounts the Capitol’s history, reading it through Irigaray’s critique of male genealogies. Then I will discuss several hands-on exhibits, arguing that they instruct the audience on being docile bodies most useful to the state as uninformed voters.


Feminists have long pointed to a calculus of dualisms that fund Western thought in which women and the feminine are represented as nature, the body, place, appearance, artifice, and passivity against the masculine qualities of culture, reason, reality, rational subjectivity, and activity. This gendered architecture of western thought need not be rehearsed here; it is, by now, well known. It plays out, however, in two relevant forms in the Old State Capitol: (1) Male relations unfold in history as a father-to-son genealogy that renders real women invisible while (2) the feminine Capitol building serves as the passive site, place, or stage of this male exchange or intercourse. In Sexes and Genealogies, Luce Irigaray retraces the cultural mythologies that fund explanations for women’s secondary political status. Central to most of these myths is a variation of the father-son genealogy like the one found in the Oedipal myth, in which the immolation of the mother creates a socio-political structure of men relating to other men. Irigaray often describes women’s presence in this drama in two related ways, either as the mirror onto which male fantasy is projected or the site, space, or setting for male culture. In either case, woman provides the backdrop for masculine relations. As Sue Best has demonstrated, from Plato” concept of chora onward, space as a container has been bound up with the body of woman. “Space is devoid of all character but able to hold impressions and thus conceptualized it becomes the living mirror for man’s reflection and speculation” (Best 187). As Irigaray would say, space is “the place for inscription of man’s speaking position” in which woman is rendered as “the necessary corporeal support for man’s subjectivity” (Best 187). As the site of male inscription and the setting for a male genealogy, the capitol serves the function of creating a male political subjecthood for the citizenry of Louisiana.

Built in the 1840s, the particular space under consideration here (The Old State Capitol) is a Victorian gothic castle replete with crenelations, a stained glass cathedral-style dome ceiling, with faux-bois and gold leafing throughout, and a cast-iron, spiral grand staircase that is a local favorite for the bridal march. After a 150 year history of “war, fire, bitter debate, abandonment, and the occasional fist-fight” (exhibit guide), the building was named a national landmark in 1974, restored in 1990, and re-opened in 1994. The building, which has received numerous awards for the state’s preservation efforts, currently houses the Center for Political and Governmental History.

The first time I visited Louisiana’s Old State Capitol, I experienced a rare treat. An elderly security guard offered to serve as an impromptu tour guide. He introduced the fifteen minute tourist movie by recounting several stories and a series of facts about the Old State Capitol, most of which prominently figured Huey Long. The tale that caught my attention the most dated from the 1840s about the wood paneling in the legislative chambers. The guard explained that the walls are paneled with cypress, which today would be quite costly, but which was cheap in its time and was called “poor man’s oak.” Upon seeing the cypress paneling, members of the Louisiana legislature got a little “house proud” and insisted that the architect dress up the wood by adding gold leafing as decoration. The guard’s commentary on this is revealing: “It’s just like Louisiana politicians to dress something up to make it seem like something it’s not.”

This anecdote, and the guard’s political commentary on it, framed my first viewing of the tourist film that introduces the history of the building and its restoration. Indeed the comment reminded me of an oft-quoted passage from Nietzsche about the alignment of femininity, lying, and artifice (an alignment often associated with rhetoric):

“From the beginning, nothing has been more alien, repugnant, and hostile to woman than truth — her great art is the lie, her highest concern is mere appearance and beauty (Nietzsche, in Whitford 114).”

Nietzsche’s comment applies to the building because the film itself represents the Capitol as a woman, and not just any woman, but a southern woman. The film’s producer, Dale Anthony Smith, explains that he consciously chose the representation after he spent an afternoon absorbing the building’s sense of place. This point is particularly important considering the way that gender in the south is accentuated. According to Glenda E. Gilmore, the south is “hypergendered” and “the difference between male and female roles is especially sharp.” Exaggerated gender roles have defined gender relations, class politics, and racial controls, driving politics, the law, and race relations throughout southern history (Gilmore 2001). It is no surprise, then, that the Old State Capitol’s persona is the grand dame of Louisiana — embodied as feminine, costumed in gold-leaf ornament, and scripted as the receptacle for Louisiana’s culture and heritage.

In the tourist film, voice serves as the primary tactic to gender the Capitol. Two alternating narrators play out culturally prescribed distinctions about male and female voice and subjectivity. The male narrator assumes the omniscient third-person voice– the abstract male voice of objectivity and reason — as he recounts the building’s restoration, its current use as the “high tech” Center for Political and Governmental History, and its use as the repository of Louisiana’s political and cultural heritage. The female narrator speaks in first person, assuming the embodied and specific persona of the Capitol itself, or herself. Speaking in a thick southern accent, in a deep and whispery voice, the Capitol tells her tale of “glories and indignities.”

The whispered intonation of the southern woman echoes Irigaray’s critique of the way that the feminine is the receptacle, mirror, or site of projection for male fantasy. Consider the producer’s account of how he selected and coached the actress, Sally Birdsong. He explains that he saw Birdsong in a play in which she used “that voice” and invited her to audition for the “Voice of the Capitol” (which is how the credits list her). On her first take, she failed to perform the way he envisioned, so he coached her, word by word, on how to speak, what inflections, intonations, and pitch to use. As he explained, since he wrote the script, he heard the voice in his head and he knew exactly how it should sound. He would say a word or phrase, and she would mimic him exactly. This moment of mimicry evokes both Nietzsche’s critique of woman as artifice and Irigaray’s rejoinder that women’s gender is performance, not artifice. In other words, women are as men want them to be.

The representation of the Capitol as feminine is reiterated not only in voice, but also in the text of the film’s narration. The narration itself recounts the abuses and triumphs the Capitol has suffered in almost Scarlett O’Hara-like terms:

It’s as if the ghosts of the great men who once passed through these halls had left a trace of their greatness behind them…. My walls have heard a thousand stories…. I have seen days of glory and suffered indignities. I have been burned and abandoned. I have been restored once more. Like a phoenix from the ashes, like the south itself, I shall rise again.

If the Capitol is figured as feminine, as a southern woman, then reading this passage metaphorically suggests that the building, like the south, has been treated like a scorned lover or a rape victim, a reading reinforced by the male voice-over repeatedly referring to the Capitol as the repository or receptacle of Louisiana’s culture and history. Such a reading is not unwarranted, considering that many southern scholars have discussed the rape metaphor in relation to the south. Culturally, the south is often portrayed as a feminized region violated by both the civil war and the civil rights movement. It regains its identity as southerners symbolically identify with the noble or genteel role of the male protector of a rape victim (e.g., Foster 1996; Ayers 199?). In other words, the exaggerated or accentuated gender roles of the south serve the symbolic function of restoring a lost sense of identity to a victimized region. Yet this drama reiterates the same Oedipal mythology that Irigaray critiques, the immolation of the mother, in this case the south, to advance the father’s legacy. Indeed, in the film actual women are virtually absent in the presentation (save for the portrait of one woman politician who was, ironically, a commissioner of land). Instead, the presentation focuses on the deeds of great men — commerce and politics from Jefferson and the Louisiana Purchase, to the signing of the articles of succession, to the Civil War, all of which are presented as a montage of paintings and photographs that lack any political content. The point here is not simply that women are absent, but that their absence is reinforced by explicit and repeated statements about Louisiana’s history as one of “great men and great gestures.” Consequently, the feminine is featured prominently as only the setting or arena for male political activities at the expense of women” real political contribution.

According to the exhibit guide, the Capitol claims as its mission to provide “a learning experience in Louisiana history and the democratic process.” Public places, says Wayne K. Durrill, shape and form our ideas of political culture. Government buildings such as state capitols “tell a story with a moral, a story intended to persuade those who viewed the buildings of the legitimacy of officials who controlled those public spaces” (Durrill). The Old State Capitol is no exception; its story tells of men’s political activity set in the scene of women’s absence and the political culture it shapes confers power in a male legacy of Louisiana’s white dynastic families.


While the symbolic body of woman, the feminine, assumes the representational burden of space, the other exhibits articulate the concrete bodies of visitors a male genealogy of political leadership. The way that visitors physically move through museums serves a pedagogical and rhetorical function. As Tony Bennett tells us, museums contain a politics of knowledge, not just in the content of knowledge but in the social relations of knowledge, reflected in how museums are organized, how exhibits are displayed, and what sorts of sensory experiences are produced to instruct visitors as learners. Like museums, political places such as state capitol buildings operate similarly. According to Wayne K. Durrill, such places shape the people who pass through them, “lending the dignity of the state to some and excluding others from it.” Because buildings such as capitols are “famously open,” they give the appearance of “democracy at work … because each person who entered these buildings affirmed his or her status as a citizen, if not in practice (women, for example) at least symbolically.”

A useful concept to help explain how the public spaces of museums and political buildings work is Foucault’s notion of the “body-object articulation” in which bodies are regulated through specific institutional objects that render them useful to the state. As Western culture moved into the modern period, various disciplinary practices were applied to bodies in order to effect political allegiance. As part of this process, the body’s utility is increased by uninterrupted coercion directed to the very minutia of bodily activity. Through these disciplinary objects, bodies become “docile bodies” linked to the institutions of production — the student’s desk linking the student to education, the soldier’s gun linking the soldier to the military, the woman’s lipstick linking her to the fashion-beauty industrial complex (Foucault 1979, 138; Barkty 1990, 63-65).

So, public places such as the Capitol instruct bodies as they move physically through the various exhibits. The form of instruction can rely heavily on vision as the primary sense, reinforcing the logic of the gaze and its attendant ideology of truth, knowledge, and power, as Durrill argues. Or the instruction can be coercive in a bodily sense, as in the case of such body object articulations known as the “hands-on” exhibit. Multiple hands-on exhibits at the Old State Capitol repeat the practical or material exclusion of women. Moreover, they construct — particularly for women, but not limited to them — a passive citizenry whose single avenue for political participation lies only in voting. When taken together, these exhibits bespeak a rhetoric of citizenship that affirms women’s status as citizen only symbolically. There are two kinds of exhibits I’d like to address: Those that invest visitor citizens — implicitly male ones — with political agency and those that reduce politics to suffrage or voting.


In an exhibit entitled “People Who Made A Difference,” visitors can view a series of pictures depicting ordinary people who made a difference in Louisiana history. Nestled amidst about fifty pictures of wealthy businessmen, elected officials, and a handful of “everyday” sorts of folk, the images of only three women appear, two of whom are politicians. The text accompanying these pictures reinforces the notion that, as Irigaray would put it, women can be either citizens or women, but not both. For example, Corinne Lindy Boggs was the first woman from Louisiana to serve in the house of representatives. She attained the seat by inheriting it after her husband’s death, a point that the caption praises her for: “She answered the unexpected call to public service.” The text supporting the exhibit explains that she worked tirelessly behind the scenes to assist her husband in winning a seat and then rose to the challenge of completing his work upon his death. In other words, she is acknowledged as helpmeet rather than independent political actor in her own right.

While this exhibit relies primarily on gaze as its means of instruction, two other exhibits deploy a subtle bodily coercion to effect allegiance to the Louisiana political system. Both these exhibits, however, implicitly invest political agency in male visitors because of the way that the hands-on objects configure the visitors’ bodies. The first exhibit, entitled “Who Creates The Law,” is a diorama containing a life-sized enlargement of an old 1950s style black-and-white photograph projected against a wall. In the picture, several politicians are signing a bill into law. The picture has no reference to names or dates other than its 1950ish grammar, the style of clothing, the hairstyles. Three of the unnamed figures have labels denoting their office or role — senator, governor, representative — and they have their faces cut out and replaced with mirrors. These three figures are roles absent of content, substance, or specificity — literally cardboard cutouts — designed as such so that visitors can actually see themselves as part of a political process. Yet, reduced to role and without specificity, the three bodies share the characteristics of whiteness and maleness, as do all the figures surrounding them in support. As visitors peer at their faces in the mirror, they see an odd bodily configuration and, presumably, an invitation to step into the role, but in an exhibit designed to place visitors in the position of political agents, it’s clear who does not fit the picture.

A similar phenomenon occurs in the second exhibit, located in one of the largest exhibit rooms in the building. The exhibit contains an old, heavy, polished, wooden podium framed by teleprompter screens, an object that literally configures visitors into the positions of speaking subject. Visitors can step up onto the lectern, select audio clips from thirty significant speeches, and have the text scroll across the teleprompter. The list of speech selections rehearses the progression of Louisiana’s male political leaders. Speeches include gubernatorial inaugurations, campaign speeches, farewell addresses and even a song by governor Jimmie Davis. The dynastic political families of Louisiana are well represented, including Huey, Russell, and Earl Long and John McKeithan (whose relative Fox is currently Secretary of State). Here, the very props that support the position of political agent physically situate the visitor into the role of political leader, as with the cardboard cutout exhibit, the only body or voice that fits is noticeably white and male and belongs to a legacy of family influence.


While male visitors are articulated as political actors by exhibits that rehearse a male genealogy of political power, women’s sole portrayal as political actors appears in an exhibit devoted to suffrage. Interestingly, voting and suffrage bears the representational burden of all conflict, power relations, or social struggle. Nonetheless, even in the suffrage exhibit women’s historical contribution is erased. Indeed voting becomes the sole avenue of political influence for most visitors. Moreover, the voting exhibits configure voters as passive, pseudo-participants in the political process.


The multiple exhibits that focus on voting are framed collectively by the phrase “Democracy Requires Participation.” One of the exhibits allows visitors to practice balancing Louisiana” 13.9 billion dollar budget by using a touch-screen monitor. After allocating a percentage of funds to any of the ten categories listed, the visitor can submit the budget which is then converted to a pie chart and compared to the state’s actual allocations in 2000. When the comparison appears on the screen, visitors learn that the state allocates 30 percent of its budget to health care, 22 percent to education, and a whopping 34 percent to transportation. This exhibit is deceptive. For instance, it vaguely mentions that, included in transportation costs is the cost not only of maintaining state highways and roads, but also of transporting and cleaning up hazardous petrochemical materials, yet nowhere does it explain precisely what that means, an important question in a state that houses cancer alley but predictably unaddressed in an exhibit sponsored by Shell and Chevron. Most important, though, the exhibit does not explain that all of Louisiana’s state budget, with the important exception of education and health care, is actually allocated according to mandates in the state constitution so that any change — say such as reducing the transportation budget — requires a constitutional amendment. Any budget deficit is necessarily taken out of education and health care services and, even though the percentages revealed in the exhibit make it appear as though education and health care are substantially funded, the severe underfunding of those two areas contribute to Louisiana’s low rating in quality of life rankings. The citizenry’s inability to affect major policy change regarding the budget is papered-over by the simplistic and misleading ability to touch a button on a touch-screen.


Another exhibit uses a video to instruct Louisiana’s citizenry in the habits of educated voting. The video depicts a fictional campaign between two politicians, Newcastle and Oldstyle, and the major campaign issue is painting fire hydrants. The video proclaims that good voters should “dig a little deeper” and then dramatizes four sources of information to assist voters in making better decisions. The four sources for political analysis are television, which is depicted as Newcastle’s paid political ad; the newspaper, which is depicted as Oldstyle’s paid political ad; the internet, which is translated into reading a poll of those for and against painted fire hydrants; and a call-in radio talk show where a man reports what his neighbor said about the issue. Now, perhaps the primary audience for this video is children, or perhaps selecting for the campaign issue something as inconsequential as painting fire hydrants gives the video a timeless quality. In either case, the audience is infantilized, and taught that an educated citizenry votes on the basis of political ads and public opinion.

Again, the absence of women in these two exhibits is palpable. In the voter video, the voter and the two political candidates are both male, while the poll clerk is female. The budget exhibit fails to address the controversy regarding state funding for social services and education — two domains traditionally considered “women’s issues,” domains that typically reflect the gender gap inj voting behaviors. Obviously, this is predictable given the overall absence of “real women” in the Capitol. Moreover, because they are epidictic in nature, capitol buildings and other such public sites frequently paper over conflict, presumably in the interest of memorializing or commemorating history. Curiously, though, suffrage and black suffrage in particular becomes the sole site of any sort of highly charged political controversy. And suffrage is the only site of women’s visibility as political agents. Nonetheless, the suffrage exhibit yields to the same memorializing impulse and erases much of the history of suffrage in the south.


The last exhibit in this series dedicated to participatory democracy, located directly off the room that houses the voter video, treats the history of suffrage. Again, the body is coerced to effect allegiance to the democratic process as visitors must negotiate a series of gates that permit or deny access to the room’s exit depending on how they answer a question. The final station is a non-functional voting booth. Preceding the gates, the primary content offered in this exhibit is a series of audio excerpts from members of CORE, the Congress on Racial Equality, discussing the struggle for black people’s suffrage in Louisiana. The audio clips treat poll tests and recount a tense incident where police had to protect black voters from white rioters outside of a church in a small town next to Baton Rouge called Plaquemin. Next to the CORE exhibit is a poster that addresses suffrage for women.

The suffrage exhibit stands out for many reasons. First, it is the only one in the building that addresses slavery or race, or mentions any sort of dissent or struggle. References to the Civil War do abound throughout the Capitol, but without mention of the accompanying political issues; it’s as if the war took place in a political vacuum. In the suffrage exhibit the audience has the first and only glimpse of dissent. This is the also the only exhibit in which women are represented as actual political agents because it explicitly refers to women’s struggle for suffrage in the south.

This exhibit too flattens a complicated history, particularly in regard to the complex relationship between black and woman suffrage in the south. Nationally, the women’s movement was heavily divided over the issue of suffrage for blacks. In Louisiana there is a rich history of northern organizations such as the YWCA and the WCTU organizing a southern suffrage movement and that history is rife with the tension between white and black women over issues such as lynching, states rights, and the rigid class politics of an agrarian, planter society (Boris 1999).

Yet the specificity of the southern suffrage movement is eliminated and woman suffrage is reduced to a single poster, the caption of which reads: “Old fashioned ideas concerning women were abolished in order for them to win the right to vote.” Beside the headline is a vague quote from Nelly Nugent Somerville, a southern suffragist, who states simply that most ideas regarding suffrage were sugarcoated. Most peculiarly, though, the poster itself is one of the stock suffrage photos of a white woman wearing an all white dress and carrying an American flag in a parade down Fifth Avenue in New York City, as if no single Louisiana suffragist existed.


The point here is not to belabor the well-known fact that women are negatively represented in popular cultural constructions of politics. The point is to suggest a correlation between those negative representations and the extent to which women see themselves as invested with political agency.

This is evident in Lousiana’s profile for women in politics, which the Status of Women report calls “idiosyncratic.” According to the report, Louisiana has solid participation from women in the electoral process, ranking strong among the other states for the number of women who are registered voters and the number of women who turn up at the polls. Louisiana also has a strong record of sending women to Congress, with three women senators in its history; Louisiana currently has a woman senator, but none of the seven representatives is a woman. At the same time, the state ranks at the low end for women elected to the state legislature and appointed to state offices and near the bottom for institutional resources for a women’s policy agenda. In short, women vote, but not in favor of policies and programs that advance women’s issues. Nor do women hold positions in which they can advocate policy change.

As Irigaray and any number of other feminists have argued, women’s real-world political circumstances will not change until women are re-symbolized and re-figured as political actors in their own right with histories and genealogies of their own accomplishments. In the space of representations of the feminine, the neat and easy distinction between real world politics and cultural politics collides.

In the mean time, in the hypergendered state of Louisiana, where women serve as male specular reflection and the scene for male political activity, then too many women will be content to marry on the steps of the Old State Capitol rather than legislate policy in the new one.


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