The roots of the Independent Women’s Organization go back to 1939, when a group of Louisiana women identified a need to eliminate government corruption. Their initial efforts were in support of reform candidates and good government. While they were registered Democrats, they were “independent” from the Democratic political machine and men that controlled state politics at that time.
The founders of IWO were women of action. In its first decade of existence, members registered over 4000 new voters, provided canvassing for their candidates, and worked to end intimidation tactics at the polls. IWO became an official organization in 1946, hoping to exert a consistent positive influence on city politics. An early claim to fame was the giant “March of Brooms” where women carried brooms down Canal Street as a symbol of their goal to sweep the halls of government clean. Political analysts credited IWO’s hours of unpaid labor on behalf of mayoral reform candidate, deLesseps “Chep” Morrison, for his victory.
In subsequent decades, public education reform and racial integration became areas of major focus. By the 1970s, the organization had instituted open enrollment and integrated the membership. Tough screening of candidates was a trademark of the group, and an IWO endorsement became highly valued. As is still the case, IWO has never taken money from, nor given money to candidates.
IWO disbanded briefly in 2005, following Hurricane Katrina and the flooding of New Orleans. Five years into the city’s recovery, Felicia Kahn and Gail Broussard convinced a small group of former members that the organization was too important to abandon. They began meeting in women’s living rooms, with modest resources, and rebuilt IWO for a new generation of Democratic women.
IWO continues to evolve with the times. Membership today exceeds 300 women, diverse in background, ethnicity, age, and occupation. IWO women have held positions in all forms of campaign and government work, and can be credited with many political successes. Past members serve in the judiciary, while current members have been elected to the school board, the legislature, and the City Council. On the eve of the 300th birthday of the city, IWO member LaToya Cantrell was elected as the first woman Mayor of New Orleans.
The Independent Women’s Organization continues to support Democratic candidates who are allies in the struggle for women’s equality. Additionally, we advocate at the local and state level for issues that affect Louisiana women and their families. Membership is open to all women who support the Democratic agenda. Dues are intentionally kept low, and go towards funding our events, which include a pre-session legislative panel, member networking meet-and-greets, candidate forums, and the IWO annual meeting. Our annual brunch is a highlight of the year, with past featured speakers including Senator Mary Landrieu, First Lady Donna Edwards, Former DNC Chair Donna Brazile, Georgia State Representative and gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams, comedian and reproductive rights activist Lizz Winstead, and progressive powerhouse Melissa Harris Perry.
IWO remains an all-volunteer organization, operating through a system of committees: Advocacy, Endorsement, Membership, and Program. We are a coalition member of the state-wide Legislative Agenda for Women, and partner with a variety of Democratic and women’s groups in Louisiana on actions and events. In addition to educating our members on how to lobby for laws that create a fairer state for women, we are committed to giving our members the opportunity to personally connect with their elected officials. Perhaps our highest goal is to achieve a more reflective democracy by working to ensure that women are better represented at all levels of government.