Janet Mary Riley

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I got an email from an old friend of mine, a former radical librarian and current (probably still radical) indexer, editor, and proofreader. He told me he’d thought of me because he was “copyediting a volume of biographies of Louisiana women (dating from colonial times), one an inspirational librarian.”

Of course, I wanted to know the name of this librarian and wrote back, “Who is the inspirational Louisiana librarian? No one comes to mind, but it’s not likely anyone during my schooling ever talked about her.”

He wrote back promptly with a link to an article.

The librarian’s name was Janet Mary Riley. Of course, I had never heard of her.

According to a Loyola University website (http://www.gftpln.org/Article.do;jsessionid=F166F7C50F8CD31CF62068EE7FACA1C0?orgId=5342&articleId=23141),

Throughout her life, Janet Mary Riley…encompassed the ideals of equality, scholarship, philanthropy and public service. She was a Loyola University New Orleans alumna, librarian and College of Law Professor Emerita…

A lifelong New Orleanian, Janet Mary first earned her undergraduate degree from Ursuline College, then an affiliate of Loyola. She became a teacher and eventually earned a master’s degree in library science from Louisiana State University. She started working as a librarian at Loyola in 1941, left in 1943 to serve as a librarian at area military posts, and then returned to Loyola in 1945 as a law librarian. She first began taking law courses to familiarize herself with the language and terminology of the law, but she went on to earn her juris doctor in 1952.

However, opportunities for women to practice law in the 1950s were few and far between. Antonio Papale, Loyola’s law dean, offered Janet Mary a position as assistant professor and, upon accepting, she became the first woman to hold a full-time law school teaching faculty position in New Orleans, and the seventh to hold such a position in the United States. She remained teaching at Loyola for 30 years.

during her tenure as a law professor, she wrote the defendants’ brief for the case Lombard vs. Louisiana, in which three African-Americans were arrested for sitting down at a lunch counter reserved for white customers. Thanks in part to her work, the U.S. Supreme Court reversed the convictions in 1963, eliminating much racial discrimination in Louisiana law.

An article at http://www.abajournal.com/news/article/rip_janet_mary_riley_crusading_womens_rights_lawyer, refers to Ms. Riley as a crusading women’s rights lawyer, and explains

Until the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 1971 that the Constitution banned certain types of sex-based discrimination, Louisiana’s community property law made the husband “head and master of the community” and thus granted him total control of his wife’s assets.

But after the high court’s ruling, Riley headed a task force to change the state law. The committee she headed disbanded, but a state senator [Tom Casey] picked up the torch using Riley’s proposed “equal management” approach. [This approach would let either spouse manage community property, with limited exceptions] The Louisiana Legislature adopted the model in 1979.

Michel Champagne, who went to the same church as Ms. Riley, said of her, ” Humerous [sic] and erudite, yet comfortably self-effacing, she never commandeered the converrsation [sic] and I never had any inkling of her accomplishments; she was a sheer joy to talk with.” (from the comments section of http://www.abajournal.com/news/article/rip_janet_mary_riley_crusading_womens_rights_lawyer)

Ms. Riley died of cancer on July 5, 2008, at the age of 92.

Hats off to a native of Louisiana who worked to advance the rights of women and minorities.

         

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