It is no wonder that last year, Jean Armstrong was inducted into the Hall of Fame of the Louisiana Center for Women and Government Hall of Fame which is housed at Nicholls State University in Thibodaux.
Armstrong does not just talk about what should happen, she has proven that she will fight to make it happen. To that end, her husband and partner in life, John, has been very supportive of her causes and commitments and has helped her break “glass ceilings for women” in this state.
Indeed, as you can read below, Jean Armstrong is certainly a woman for Louisiana and a woman for our times having contributed to this state so that other women and Louisiana, in general, can move the baton even further.
Where and when did you begin your governmental activist experience and what inspired you to enter this arena?
My parents had deep interest in history, current events, and politics, which they shared with me. My first experience in politics was when my father took me to meet President Harry Truman shortly after he left the Presidency. As a very young girl, President Truman sat me down and charged me with the sense of responsibility to our nation for the freedoms that we have as Americans. It was an inspiring experience and wise advice that I have taken seriously all of my life. Continuing my education under the Sisters of Mercy taught me the value of service to others. It was the combination of these experiences and a challenge that I found early on in college. At that time college students could only vote from their parental address, a community in which we lived only 2.5 to 3 months of the year that prompted my first venture into politics. College students were vulnerable to revenue enhancement measure without a voice. I decided to work to change the law so that college students could have the right to vote where we lived nine months out of the year and a voice in community government. From that point in the mid to late ‘60(s), I have been involved because I learned that a small group of people fully committed and working together for the common good, can make a difference.
You were inducted in the Louisiana Women and Politics Hall of Fame in 2010 last year. What advice do you have for other women as to how they can get better involved in government and politics?
First you must determine what issues and/or causes are important to you. Ask yourself is my interest sufficient for me to be willing to invest my time, effort and money. Is it an issue, i.e. voting rights, education, equal pay, safe child care, health, insurance reform, campaign finance, the list is endless, that answers those questions. Do your homework on what interests you and educate yourself from all points of view so you can make the informed choice of which organization with which you can best be involved and enjoy the experience. Be an independent thinker, in the shifting sands of politics remain calm and resolute, you must be true to yourself and your principles. My advice is to develop your values and some expertise in your area of interest from the wide variety of political organizations before you approach one of the five political parties in Louisiana. There are non-partisan organizations i.e. Public Affairs Research Council, League of Women Voters, issue based national organizations, i.e. AARP, American Diabetes Association, America’s Wetlands etc and local community organizations, i.e. civic or homeowners Associations, School Boards, etc. available in which you can network and learn ..
After you have done your homework, you are ready for politics. Good Luck and Get involved!!!
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How did you become involved with the Krewe of Iduna?
My Love of Louisiana and its traditions made involvement in a Mardi Gras Krewe a natural, since I had a beautiful daughter, whom I wanted to have the Louisiana debut experience to help her grow into a confident young woman. While living in New Orleans, my husband and I were involved with several Krewes. Again the value of networking, over an economic development lunch, I was commenting that we were going to present our daughter, Heather, in New Orleans, however she would prefer Baton Rouge, where her friends were. Little did I realize that I was lunching with two of the Founders of the 2nd Oldest Ladies Mardi Gras Krewe in Baton Rouge, the Powell-Moise DanceMasters, Margaret Brown and Ann Moise. My advice is to never underestimate the power of networking. You just never know to whom you are speaking...
What would you consider to be some of the real highlights of your life and career?
To live life to the fullest is its own reward. My relationship with God is the foundation for my existence and that is private. Having put that in prospective, my life is three dimensional: Family, Professional and Service to Community.
Family: My marriage to John Armstrong completes me. I could not have achieved the things that I have accomplished without the love of this Good Man. My daughter, Heather Armstrong Blackwell is my gift and my replacement in this world and mother to our 3 Grandchildren. My daughter is a loving, caring woman whom I admire for her work with 2 year old special needs children
Professionally: Breaking glass ceilings for women to fully participate in the opportunities in the workforce in Louisiana: 1st Female Pharmaceutical Representative; 1st Female Corporate Lobbyist; and 1st Female Certified Economic Developer (passed the AEDC Boards the 1st time). This has opened doors for other women to follow their dreams and to enjoy the challenges and rewards through the use of their knowledge, skills and education.
Economic Development: Job Creation and new business investment in Louisiana: One of the most satisfying occupations in which to be involved in the creation of jobs for other people. From grassroots projects, to expansion of current operations, to assistance to small business, each project is a complex coordination of seventeen different disciplines from legal, engineering, resource management, utilities, etc, each project presents its own unique challenges. One of the most memorable was a project in the New Orleans area, a project that would have loss 400 high paying manufacturing jobs in the New Orleans area. The reason this one was special was because of its unique challenges. It was a company who had been in Louisiana for 49 years at the time that it burned down. Since there were no incentives on the books that LA could offer, this project took a lot of creativity and innovative legislation that would waive the sales taxes for reconstruction of the facility. Those were windfall taxes stemming from a fire, which neither the State nor the City could have budgeted or anticipated. This bottom line solution offered by the American Standard Chief Financial Officer reinforced to me the principle of listening to your client, which helped me to complete more successful projects over the years. On a personal level, I still remember with goose bumps walking over to a group of men in hard hats standing about 100 feet from all of the pomp and circumstances of the ribbon cutting to ask if they were still working on the building that day. It turned out that these men had been laid off when the plant burned down and lived in the neighborhood. One on the men, had developed a slight leak of his eyes and as a tear rolled down, he told me, “I worked here for 23 and a half years and we (gesturing to the guys with him) are going back to work and secure our retirement for our families. These men were unaware that I was the State’s Economic Development Project Coordinator for Lt. Governor James E. Fitzmorris, Jr. and that this project was my responsibility enough said!!!!!!!!!
Service to Community: Each organization with which I have been engaged has offered an opportunity to serve. From being the Sponsor of the St. Aloysius’s Lionettes, helping young girls develop their self-confidence though a variety of activities including dancing at the school’s football team’s halftime; or working with Quota Club on the Annual Open Door tour and Bingo Saturdays at the nursing homes, or the fun of participating in Mardi Gras Krewes, working with representatives of other organizations in the Inter Civic Club on the Golden Deeds Awards, or serving on the BREC Foundation to support BREC’s pursuit of excellence and of course, service to community through the League of WoMen Voters, where I serve as President and Chief Bottle Washer. When you love your cause, invest your time and resources to build a better quality of life in your community for all to enjoy, Everybody WINS!!!
What would you consider to be the greatest moments for women in Louisiana?
I am very lucky to live in Louisiana during the most exciting time for women, a time for many firsts for women! I will share with you the women that I have known personally, who have been inspired by the way that they handled the challenges to the causes they champion and never gave up.
In Congress: Lindy Corrine Boggs won the special election to fill her husband’s term in Congress after his plane went down in Alaska in 1972 and went on to win re-election in her own right until 1990. She was the first woman in Louisiana to serve in the U.S. Congress. Her work with the Small Business Administration helped many people both in Louisiana and across the nation. Lindy in her next door neighbor approach has rolled up her sleeves for many people on many projects, i.e. Women’s Pavilion at the 1984 World’s Fair, many charitable and educational projects. Lindy was and is today a role model for all women and I have been fortunate to work with her on several projects.
In Education: Since I could not say it more concisely, I will quote: “DR. DOLORES MARGARET RICHARD SPIKES, 1936 - FIRST WOMAN IN THE UNITED STATES TO HEAD A UNIVERSITY SYSTEM Born in Baton Rouge, Dr. Dolores Spikes has many "firsts" to her credit. In 1971 she was the first African American graduate and the first graduate of Southern University to receive a doctorate of mathematics from Louisiana State University; she is the first woman in Louisiana to be named Chief Executive Officer of a public university; and she is the first woman in the United States to head a university system.” … http://www.lib.lsu.edu/soc/women/lawomen/spikes.html It was my pleasure to present her and her credentials to the Nicholls State University’s LCWG’s for induction into the LCWG’s Hall of Fame.
In Law: In 1992, Catherine “Kitty: Kimbal” was elected the 1st women to serve on the Louisiana Supreme Court During her 1993 swearing-in as the state’s first female justice, Kimball said she felt she had become a “symbolic voice” on the court for women and children and indeed she has. She has been a strong voice for reform of the Juvenile Justice System in Louisiana. Her 5th Supreme Court district includes the parishes of East Baton Rouge, West Baton Rouge, Livingston, Ascension, Iberville, Pointe Coupee, East Feliciana and West Feliciana. On January 10, 2009, the first female chief justice in the 195-year history of the state’s highest court.
Justice Kimball worked hard to reform Juvenile Justice in Louisiana from her position on the Court and with the election of Governor Kathleen Babineaux Blanco (another first), these two women leaders made major progress for the Juveniles, who are in the system.
On May 16, 2011, In her first speech to legislators at a joint session of the legislature, since suffering a stroke more than a year ago, she said, ““We have come a long way in our juvenile justice system,” said Kimball. “From 2001’s ranking by the New York Times as one of the worst systems in the country, to today’s reality of international foundations such as MacArthur, Casey and others investing millions of dollars in our state, because they see potential and willingness for reform.” The Chief Justice supports furthering the cause of Juvenile Justice and will not sleep well until she sees justice for every child.
At the Legislature: Two years after, I was assigned responsibility for the Legislature by my employer, Roche, Inc. I met another up and coming woman leader, Sibal Holt. In addition to her duties for her employer, Sibal and I shared a common interest in the rights of voters. As a woman in a man’s world, Sibal faced many challenges to grow to her full capability as a passionate defender of the working man. This African American women rose through the ranks to the Presidency of the AFLCIO. She has now retired from the Presidency. Never one to let grass grow under her feet, she has moved to Alexandria and started A Holt Construction LLC, the 1st Minority Construction Company in Alexandria.
Last but certainly not least, Martha A. Madden. From Martha, I learned the valuable art of networking of which she wrote the book. 1st Women to become Dean in a university in Louisiana, Martha has been a trailblazer ever since. Women’s Activist in everything she does, Martha has served in ever increasing roles of responsibility from Secretary of the Department of Environmental Quality to owning her own consulting firm in Washington, D.C.
These are the women leaders whose lives and skills have inspired me. They all have several things in common, the three “A’s” of success: They are Affable, they are Available, and they all have Ability, but most importantly, they have a passion for what they do. Research these women, Follow their example and you too, will be successful in your pursuit of self-worth and happiness.
What would you consider to be the greatest moments or events of your life which you believe have really made a major difference for Louisiana’s advancement?
Economic Development: Every project which produces jobs and investment in Louisiana, in which I have been involved, is important. (See example above) There are too many to list so in summary, the projects with which I have been involved have totaled over $2 Billion dollars and created over 20 thousand jobs in Louisiana. Each one was important to the people who obtained jobs from these efforts, to Louisiana for the future taxes it will bring in and to me in personal satisfaction.
In My work with the League of WoMen Voters, both on a State and a Local Level, *I have been privileged to be a part of something meaningful for the past 16 years. From implementing innovative ideas that engaged the public in public issues which effect them and their communities, i.e. Lunch With the League, the Annual Reality Check, LWVBR’s Career Closet, which won a Golden Torch award from J.C. Penney, and the Families rebuilding Families (Resource Fair at the LA Correctional Institute for Women in St. Gabriel, which attracted national recognition, it has been GREAT!!!
The displacement of our citizens during and after Hurricane Katrina became the greatest challenge of all. Working with an energetic young woman, Tory Pegram, we went beyond the boundaries of our respective organizations and founded a coalition of organizations, we named, The LA Voting Rights Network (LVRN) Collectively, the organizations within LWRN developed an mission for outreach and legislative action for the displaced voters affected by the storm that was authored and adopted by all organizations involved. This lead to innovative legislation, the satellite voting act, which we were successful in passing and along with working with election officials from the Secretary of State to registrars and voting rights activists across the state. This model legislation was the 1st in the United States and perhaps someday, we will see it implemented across the country so that every citizen can vote without having to be at their own precinct. It was one of the greatest experiences of my life.
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