Archive for March, 2019

As March draws to a close, taking with it National Women’s History Month, I am impressed with how many stories of strong, brilliant, achieving, and up-and-coming women I have read about who are making waves in politics, the arts, sports, academe—everywhere.

But it also puts me in mind of the past, and my singular good fortune to have known, and long been a part of, The Society of Woman Geographers (SWG), a group of women explorers and leaders in their fields who banded together in 1925 because men wouldn’t let them through the door.

For me, the association began in the early ‘80s, when recently returned from several years living in West Africa, I decided I wanted to make a career switch from academia, my intended destination, to writing. Having become fascinated with a myriad of generally unknown women explorers in Africa, and having done considerable research on them, I decided to start there. I got  a research desk in the Library of Congress and burrowed in. But quickly I found myself in company. At the time, the acclaimed poet, Maxine Kumin,

was the Poetry Consultant to the Library of Congress (a precursor to the Poet Laureate) and I was invited to brown bag lunch sessions with her and other women scholars.

Before long I met and was befriended by Luree Miller, inveterate traveler, adventurer and author of several books. She was doing research for On Top of the World, her marvelous book about five women explorers in Tibet.

She was also an enthusiastic member of SWG, which she soon nominated me to join. Not only did she become a mentor and invaluable friend, but she shared so much—books, research, contacts, friends, and most importantly, what it means for women to help each other—that my life was altered permanently.

Among women of her generation whom I came to cherish was the artist and writer Ben Booz who traveled the world with Luree as they produced travel stories together using Ben’s drawings instead of photos.

Then there was Jane Coon, who had been close to Luree during their days together in India, and who would become US Ambassador to Bangladesh while her husband, Carleton, was Ambassador to Nepal.

Closer to my age was Ann Parks Hawthorne, photographer extraordinaire and specialist in Antarctica. Pictured here with her hero, Jackie Ronne,

who was the first woman to winter over in Anarctica,  she would become my life-long friend and companion as we traveled the country as a kind of “Thelma and Louise” of journalism, on assignment for a Washington news service.

We would all come together in a special way in 1995-96, when Luree succumbed to the cancer she fought so valiantly. On the days when she had chemotherapy, Jane would drive her, then return with her to her Capitol Hill townhouse where Ann and I would join Ben in cooking her dinner, which she would enjoy in company before the nausea set in. As her support group, we called ourselves the Gang of Four, and during that year Luree taught me as much about how to die well as she had taught me about living.

I am including a link to an article I wrote for the Washington Post Magazine in 1985 about SWG. Some of Luree’s shared research informed this piece.



To learn more about the Society as it is today, (now happily housed on Capitol Hill due to Luree Miller’s efforts), here is a link to its website.





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As an unabashed Francophile, I have always taken notice of the French connection to places I have visited: The amusing presence of bidets in parts of the Sahara for example; the military-looking line up of women by a toll road outside Hanoi, armed with … baguettes. Small wonder then I would seek the same in the most French of all U.S. cities, New Orleans.

The name itself conjures many associations for me. Decades ago, I did a doctoral dissertation on the poetry of Charles, Duke of Orleans, in whose name Joan of Arc lifted the English siege of Orleans in the 15th century. Seeing her statue valiantly raising her sword as a symbol of the American city certainly links to its deep French roots.

As of course, do the names of its founders, the brothers Sieur d’Iberville and Sieur de Bienville who finally found the elusive mouth of the Mississippi in 1699. D’Iberville died soon thereafter, but de Bienville lived to found the city in 1718, named to honor the Duke of Orleans. By 1722, the grid plan for the city, the part now known as the French Quarter was laid out. It includes streets named Iberville and Bienville.

The brothers envisioned a great trading city on the mighty Mississippi, but who would build it? The Native Americans of the region, notably the Houma and the Muskogeans had largely already been hugely diminished by European diseases and cruelty. To populate the new “French” city, a P.R. campaign was launched to lure Europeans–that is French, Germans and Swiss–to the lush “paradise,” failing to mention infestations of mosquitos and annual flooding. Moreover, to sweeten the pot, French criminals and prostitutes were offered freedom in exchange for relocating to the colony. Then there were the Africans, brought in as slaves in the early 1700s. A cultural shift was setting in already.

To be sure, French speakers from everywhere were drawn in. Acadians from Nova Scotia in the 1750s after the English takeover of Canada; aristocrats fleeing France after the revolution in 1789; Haitians, both white and black, after the slave rebellion of 1791.  A happening success culturally perhaps, but from a financial standpoint, not so much. Not seeing the anticipated pot of gold, the French happily dumped the less-than-profitable enterprise on the Spanish in 1756 in exchange for military support in the Seven Years War.

So, with a Spanish flag flying over New Orleans, and Spanish language and Spanish law in place, it was a Spanish city, right? Not so much.  With the arrival of different classes and races, a population of mixed peoples, high-born, low-born, slave and free—Creole— had quickly arisen.

Mardi Gras parades, a mixing of Catholic ritual and African traditions began when the Mistick Krewe of Comus took to the streets in 1857, and is still going strong.

Music that started with slaves drumming and dancing on Congo Square morphed into brass bands, then jazz and all that came after:  honkey-tonk, swing, rock n’ roll, R&B, hip-hop.

The Acadians, or Cajuns, also created their own strong culture—with unique versions of French, music, and cuisine–steeped in their agricultural roots, on the land and bayous outside the city.  Black residents in the neighborhood of the Treme started their own parades by adopting tribal names and elaborate feathered costumes in solidarity with the Indians who had been pushed aside. Then the Yankees came, building an English-speaking enclave in the posh Garden District. So by the time the territory–still not an economic golden egg–was passed back to Napolean from Spain then quickly purchased by Thomas Jefferson for the U.S. in 1803, what manner of place was it?

My guess is, what it had been from the beginning: at heart French still. But French with a twist, closer to a culture born of Haiti, Puerto Rico and Cuba, than one of Paris or Montreal or, mon dieu, Washington. By weather, custom, instinct, cuisine, and music a place more Caribbean than continental.

And so, to my mind, it remains–tropical and French, but with that twist. On my family’s first trip there long ago, my father ordered milk for my young brothers to drink. The waiter at the famous restaurant, Antoine’s (established 1841), scoffed and brought them wine mixed with water.

The French Quarter, with its iconic architecture built in the Spanish style after fires burned the city down in the late 18th century, has always been considered French.And now, with its crazy Bourbon Street, its multi-colored parades, its jazz, its beignets,  its po’ boys, gumbo and jambalaya

never found on a menu in Paris, its French words in a town where the language is rarely spoken, its laissez les bons temps rouler philosophy? I see the French connection, somehow holding it all together.


On my most recent trip, we made a visit to a restaurant in the 9th ward which had been particularly devastated by Hurricane Katrina. This was at the invitation of a friend who had grown up there. Though the ward has been much restored, the address we had was on a dark and pot-holed street, and an uninviting wood fence didn’t seem to indicate a restaurant. Yet behind it was a lively, attractive space for outside dining, a happening bar filled with locals of every race, an impressive menu and a superb wine list with many French wines, and a Japanese chef. When we asked the young waiter what the restaurant’s name, N7, meant, he replied: “It’s for the national highway. The one that goes through Provence.”


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