'It's been a long time coming': Louisiana's female legislators unite to take on sexual abuse issues

Greg Hilburn
Lafayette Daily Advertiser

Louisiana's small group of female lawmakers amplified its collective voice in a way that reverberated throughout the state during hearings in which the legislators became the first to hold LSU accountable for mishandling sexual harassment and violence complaints.

The combination of placing the state's flagship university on symbolic trial, along with heart-wrenching testimony from survivors whose voices had been ignored, and the failure of LSU's marquee administrators and coaches made for compelling livestreamed TV.

"The response and interest has been remarkable," said Sen. Regina Barrow, D-Baton Rouge, who chairs the Senate Select Committee on Women and Children.

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Senator Regina Ashford Barrow during the Senate Select Committee on Women and Children at the Louisiana State Capitol in Baton Rouge, LA.  Wednesday, March 10, 2021.

Barrow's committee held two hearings prompted by a USA Today investigation and following the release of the Husch Blackwell law firm report detailing LSU's failures from former President F. King Alexander to former football Coach Les Miles.

"We wanted to make it clear that this will no longer be business as usual," Barrow said. "When you couple those hearings with the pending legislation it will set a new and better pattern. The effort was absolutely and completely bipartisan."

Louisiana ranks No. 44 in the percentage of women serving in the Legislature at 18%, according to the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University, while Louisiana's female population is 55%.

Six female senators and 20 female representatives are among 143 current lawmakers (one seat is vacant).

"It needs to be a co-ed club; not a fraternity," said Senate Pro-Tem Beth Mizell, R-Franklinton, who is chair of the Women's Caucus.

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LSU scandal has 'solidified' small group

That said, the LSU scandal "has solidified our group in a mighty way," Mizell said.

"I've been chair of the Women's Caucus two years and have never seen this kind of unity," she said.

Barrow agreed.

"This level of unification is not something I've seen since I've been here and certainly not of this magnitude," Barrow said.

"This has galvanized us," she said. "I was surprised when this landed in our laps and we began to dig into it the depth of the problem — that it appears to be systemic.

President Pro Tempore Beth Mizell reacts to comments during the Senate Select Committee on Women and Children at the Louisiana State Capitol in Baton Rouge, LA.  Wednesday, March 10, 2021.

"When we began to hear stories from the survivors we knew that this could no longer stand and that it's up to us to make sure it doesn't."

Mizell said she soon realized the committee was providing a platform and a voice for survivors that empowered both those who were wronged and the lawmakers in holding LSU accountable.

"We began to realize in a sobering way that these survivors were depending on us; that nobody else picked up the torch and nobody else had given them a platform," Mizell said.

"We weren't going to be double-talked out of this. We were resolved that these survivors weren't going to be suppressed. We felt and still feel a deep obligation to them."

The question now is whether the amplification of the female lawmakers' voices can carry over to other issues within the male-dominated chambers of the Capitol.

"These hearings and the legislation that will spring from them have illustrated what we can accomplish collectively as a caucus — and it's a powerful example," said Sen. Katrina Jackson, D-Monroe. 

"The hearings themselves, because they were so compelling and livestreamed to a huge audience, elevated our voice and influence in a way that I do believe will carry over to other issues."

Barrow believes they can move the needle to a new normal.

"I hope and I believe this will translate to other issues," she said. "Until now, because of our numbers, I've felt sometimes our voices and perspectives as women have been muffled, even muzzled by colleagues who may unintentionally seem just to be placating us. It's important for us to solidify this empowerment."

Mizell said the lasting impact depends on the group themselves nurturing and consolidating their coalition.

"I think it's the unity that has given us value that may not have been perceived before these hearings," she said. "If we can consolidate that unity then our elevated influence can transcend this single issue."

The legislators also said there remains work to do in holding LSU and all other colleges and universities accountable through a package of bills designed to prevent future failures.

"It's been a long time coming," Barrow said.

"We have to follow through by doing the legislative work that will hold them accountable; our job isn't done without it," Mizell said.

Greg Hilburn covers state politics for the USA TODAY Network of Louisiana. Follow him on Twitter @GregHilburn1.