Southern Ms.: A Gathering of Feminists Is an Occasion to Commiserate and to Strategize

By Sayeau, Ashley | The Nation, December 6, 2004 | Go to article overview

Southern Ms.: A Gathering of Feminists Is an Occasion to Commiserate and to Strategize


Sayeau, Ashley, The Nation


Call it a tale of two churches, though Bellevue Baptist is more of a small town than a church. It has a library, a bookstore, so many entrances you could get lost (believe me), hip-hop shows, harp lessons, more baseball fields than a prep school, four volleyball leagues, its own screensavers and three weatherproof crucifixes so huge and so well-lit that at night they obliterate the stars.

Across town, in stark contrast, is the First Congregational Church, housed in an inconspicuous pale yellow building in an area where people would be ill advised to go out alone at night. Here you can see a midwife, join an interfaith alliance or pick up a pamphlet on the local gay youth center--and have it actually be a pamphlet for a real local gay youth center, not just guerrilla advertising of the Jerry Falwell or Pat Robertson variety. It was also recently home to the sixth annual Southern Girls Convention, where I had come in search of an endangered species: the Southern feminist.

It's hardly a secret that the South is no bastion of women's liberation. When I asked the 100 or so participants, from college students to veteran libbers, what challenges Southern women face that those in other regions may not, the most common response was laughter. "It feels about twenty years behind other parts of the country," said First Congregational's Pastor Cheryl Cornish. As unabashed liberals in the heart of the Bible Belt, they saw their battle as a very long-term, if not romantic, one. Robin Jacks, who co-founded the event with fellow activist Jennifer Sauer, said that when they organize progressive protests, "We get double digits and call it a success." In July, Bellevue held an antigay "Battle for Marriage" convention. More than 10,000 people attended.

Here in Memphis, where I was born and nearly raised, "huntin' shows" and firecrackers are a God-given right, and road signs wonder, "Christian? Single?" Though I eventually grew up in Chicago with my mother, every summer and every holiday I went down South, where the people I loved most rattled on about "the blacks," got pregnant entirely too early and only half-jokingly called me a Yankee.

Because of the distance and one determined mother, I went on to live a nice freethinking existence, complete with a college degree from a small liberal arts school in Massachusetts, an apartment in Brooklyn and a mean Southern accent that I pull out whenever I want to make my friends laugh. Growing up in the North, I learned very quickly (often to the tune of Deliverance) that being a Southerner was nothing to be proud of.

And yet I could never escape the feeling that Southerners were my people, the sense that if some combination of circumstance and luck hadn't intervened, I might never have gotten the chance to hate every day of high school without worrying about postpartum depression and daycare, as my cousin and stepsister down South did. Or to have a husband who doesn't mind if I talk "proper," a luxury not shared by another relative, as she revealed to me over Christmas dinner, before saying in a desperate whisper, "I'm 22, and this is my life."

The South has a long history of stifling dissent and leaving women with few alternatives to traditional roles. The suffrage movement there was decades late, and it never gained the momentum it did in other regions. Nine of the ten states to vote against the Nineteenth Amendment were below the Mason-Dixon line. And the image of the chaste and devoted Southern white woman has been used to justify everything from patriarchy to lynching. Women who defied this ideal were accused of nothing short of treason. Said one Alabama state senator in 1917 of Southern suffragists, "[They] have allowed themselves to be misled by bold women who are the product of the peculiar social conditions of our Northern cities into advocating a political innovation the realization of which would be the undoing of the South ... if they succeed then indeed was the blood of their fathers shed in vain. …

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