Feminism, Southern

The Silent Scream of a Southern Feminist

A few nights ago I snuggled down into my favorite comfy chair, exhaled slowly, and moaned, “I hate this.”

I lamented to my husband that while I’m exhilarated and excited about standing up for my convictions and my beliefs, I’m overwhelmed with the responsibilities and repercussions that come with it. About five years ago I penned a blog post proclaiming that I was NOT a feminist because we no longer needed feminism. I argued that women have all the rights men do and yes, technically, the wage gap does exist, but I mean, that’s definitely the only issue. I was fortunate to have several very patient female friends who gently and kindly chided me and encouraged me to understand that believing in equality, which I did and do, makes one a feminist. I argued that I didn’t need the title. They countered that one day I might.

And they were right.

Over the past few years I’ve watched rapists get away with rape because they had a great looking smile and a long future ahead of them. I watched female politicians torn to shreds over issues their male counterparts were just as guilty of, if not more guilty. I listened to friends bemoaning the sexual harassment they were facing at work, worrying about whether or not they could afford to take their company to court, worrying about losing their careers or being blackballed for speaking out, so they just didn’t say anything at all. Once I stopped talking about all the ways I wasn’t a feminist and started listening to all the ways we needed feminism, I began to change.

When you’re a Southern woman however, it’s hard to accept that change. No amount of logic or reasoning can immediately erase decades of Conservative Christian indoctrination. For the first 20 years of my life I was raised in a Conservative Christian environment. When I voted for the first time at 18 I went to the polls with other members of my church. My church organized our plan of attack: get Bush elected again. We met at the church, prayed for victory before we left to vote, and we handed out bulletins for upcoming church events outside the polling place. My faith was deeply entwined in the Republican party. And both are also deeply rooted in Southern culture.

Feminism is a dirty word in much of the South. It invokes images of hairy, angry women with dreadlocks, unkempt houses, liberal arts degrees, addictions to marijuana, and abundant trust funds. Of course this image is the work of successful smear campaigns, but when that’s all you’ve ever understood about feminism, it’s easy to believe the lies. This idea about what a Feminist looks like flies in the face of what the ideal Southern lady is supposed to be: classy, funny, well dressed, clean house, good cook, in church every Sunday, cornerstone of the family, dependable, hardworking, charming, unafraid of hard work, but cleans up so well you’d never know it.

The Southern Lady is supposed to be the Proverbs Woman. And for those of you who are unaffiliated, let me enlighten you. Taken from a passage in Proverbs chapter 31, the Proverbs Woman is the Conservative Christian ideal of what womanhood is supposed to look like. Thousands of books have been written on the subject. There are tee-shirts and home decor items boasting of the Proverbs Woman’s traits. If ever we are to be something, it is that. It is this thing that Solomon described in his book.

10 [a]A wife of noble character who can find?
    She is worth far more than rubies.
11 Her husband has full confidence in her
    and lacks nothing of value.
12 She brings him good, not harm,
    all the days of her life.
13 She selects wool and flax
    and works with eager hands.
14 She is like the merchant ships,
    bringing her food from afar.
15 She gets up while it is still night;
    she provides food for her family
    and portions for her female servants.
16 She considers a field and buys it;
    out of her earnings she plants a vineyard.
17 She sets about her work vigorously;
    her arms are strong for her tasks.
18 She sees that her trading is profitable,
    and her lamp does not go out at night.
19 In her hand she holds the distaff
    and grasps the spindle with her fingers.
20 She opens her arms to the poor
    and extends her hands to the needy.
21 When it snows, she has no fear for her household;
    for all of them are clothed in scarlet.
22 She makes coverings for her bed;
    she is clothed in fine linen and purple.
23 Her husband is respected at the city gate,
    where he takes his seat among the elders of the land.
24 She makes linen garments and sells them,
    and supplies the merchants with sashes.
25 She is clothed with strength and dignity;
    she can laugh at the days to come.
26 She speaks with wisdom,
    and faithful instruction is on her tongue.
27 She watches over the affairs of her household
    and does not eat the bread of idleness.
28 Her children arise and call her blessed;
    her husband also, and he praises her:
29 “Many women do noble things,
    but you surpass them all.”
30 Charm is deceptive, and beauty is fleeting;
    but a woman who fears the Lord is to be praised.
31 Honor her for all that her hands have done,
    and let her works bring her praise at the city gate.

That is 21 verses dedicated to Solomon’s ideal version of womanhood. And it actually isn’t that bad: the Proverb Woman is a business owner who handles her own house and her own business without any input from her spouse. Pretty badass. But, the *entire* passage is often overlooked. Pieces are picked out and dissected and pasted onto sermons and vision boards in college dorms. The most notable are these:

11 Her husband has full confidence in her
    and lacks nothing of value.
12 She brings him good, not harm,
    all the days of her life.

She makes her husband happy. Always. Her entire life revolves around his pleasure and contentment with her.

27 She watches over the affairs of her household
    and does not eat the bread of idleness.

Her house is spotless and it looks like it’s straight out of Country Living Magazine. Because that’s what God would want.

28 Her children arise and call her blessed;
    her husband also, and he praises her:
29 “Many women do noble things,
    but you surpass them all.”

She has perfect children because she is a perfect parent. Her children never throw tantrums. They never sneak cigarettes or alcohol. They never lose their virginity before marriage and they never have anything negative at all to say about her. And if they do, that’s her fault for not being godly enough.

30 Charm is deceptive, and beauty is fleeting;
    but a woman who fears the Lord is to be praised.

This part is ironic because Solomon dedicated an entire book to talking about how hot his lovers were. He literally described the outline of their breasts and hips. And true to form, women who “take care of themselves” are seen as more godly and more righteous. If you could hear the things that are said about a fat pastor’s wife…

This was the garbage I was force-fed my entire life. My pending womanhood was hinged upon these lessons. While the lessons on how to be a good wife were my bread and butter growing up, I never once heard a sermon on Deborah or Huldah. These were prophets and judges. These women were highly revered and respected as being leaders and mouthpieces for God. Their anatomy did not detract from their calling and their message. But, I never received any books on Hulda. No special Sunday school lessons on Deborah. Here were these strong, highly convicted, seemingly fearless women in leadership positions, but my female peers and I have been nursed on how to be a wife because that alone is the greatest accomplishment we can expect to achieve.

It has taken 10 years to undo the damage the church did to my identity as a woman, and furthermore as a woman of God. As a married woman I’ve listened to married female peers confide that their spouses were abusive, but they knew if they remained faithful to God, He would change their husband’s hearts. I’ve comforted a friend whose husband has a porn addiction and has had several affairs. But, she stays with him, despite years of this behavior and years of broken promises. Because she’s being obedient to God. Because he’s the music minister of her church. Because she knows the congregation and pastoral staff wouldn’t believe her anyways.

The truth is this: Southern Conservative Christian women need feminism. And deep down I think many of them know this. But, it’s hard to change when you know you stand to lose everything if you do.

After the Women’s March I wept as I read the words of female family members making fun of those who marched. Women taking part in the tearing down of the marchers. Despite being family, despite sharing blood, and tears, and memories, and funerals, and weddings, and Christmas dinners…they undressed my beliefs with sexist memes from “alt right” conservatives. They shamed me even if they didn’t tag me. And it cut quite deeply.

These are the risks you take when you’re a Southern Feminist. If you step out of line and step into the streets to march, you will be alienated from most of your family. If you’ve up to this point been quiet about your beliefs, your friends who do not share your views will unfriend you and stop answering your texts. Your children will lose playmates. If you attend church, depending on your denomination, you will likely sit through a few sermons on the evils of this movement. And while we Southern Ladies are too polite to openly stare, all figurative eyes will be on you and you will feel their heat.

So, while I have friends in California, and DC, and Canada who wear pink hats and boast bumper stickers and never worry about losing friends or business contacts because of their feminism, I do not have the luxury of living my feminism too loudly. I want to scream it out, sure. I want to tell other women that even if they disagree with me, I marched for them too. I want to look at their daughters and say, “You’re going to have a better future than we did. I promise. I’m going to make sure of it.”

But, I don’t. Because when you’re a Southern Feminist, especially in a small town, you’re not only outnumbered, you’re drowning in opposition. Your mail may not be delivered for a few days, or at all, if you start mailing out postcards to your senators. You may be told you’re not allowed to shop certain places anymore. Your favorite mechanic might stop giving you a good deal. Your daughter’s best friends may move away without telling you, leaving you both gasping for answers and weeping for what was suddenly lost.

Southern Culture is Church Culture is Republican Culture. And while there are pockets of progressiveness in major cities in the Southern states, for small town feminists we’re loud on Facebook, but quiet everywhere else. And do I feel like a coward? Absolutely. Do I feel ashamed for waiting this long to be more vocal and more honest? I do. But, do I understand why I’m afraid and why other Southern Feminists are afraid? All too well. And within that understanding there is a wealth of compassion. We have so much more to lose than people outside the Southern US realize. Not that it isn’t worth it…but it is overwhelming.

And this is what I pondered as I sank deep into my comfy living room chair. “This is so hard.” I told my husband, who is incredible, and supportive, and in many ways a bigger feminist than I am. “That’s because you’re not used to it. You’ve been told your whole life that this is wrong. It will get easier. You’re not alone.”

If you’re reading this and you’re a secret Southern feminist, I want you to know you’re not alone either. But, I also want you to know I wont be mad at you for not feeling brave enough to march with us. I want you to know I will march for you. My daughter will march for your daughters.

But, I have to warn you…there will come a time when you’ll have to make a choice. Maybe not now, maybe not soon…but eventually you will be asked where you really stand. And when that happens, we, your Southern Sisters, will have your back. We will carry you through it. We will march beside you.

 

 

 

 

4 thoughts on “The Silent Scream of a Southern Feminist”

  1. I marched in DC, and for me it was a magical experience bc it showed me that I am not alone. You are not alone either – even though it feels like it. Thank you for sharing your experience. It’s courageous to be so honest!

    Like

    1. We marched down here in Birmingham, Alabama. 5000 of us. It wasn’t a massive group, but oh yes…it was the first time in a long time I didn’t feel alone. ❤

      Liked by 1 person

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