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Southern Ms. | The Nation

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Southern Ms.

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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." Fidelity of this sort is difficult to escape--it's a loyalty that still today slips quickly into a fear so profound that a grown woman might not tell her family she's in town to write a piece on feminism, but only to check out a conference about women at a church.

About the Author

Ashley Sayeau
Ashley Sayeau, formerly Nelson, has written on women and politics for a variety of anthologies and publications,...

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When the lens is turned on Southerners, it's often the ignorant ones, like Pastor Terry Jones, that we see. That makes it doubly important to remember the brave radicals, like 1920s labor activist Ella May Wiggins, can sprout from the South, too.

Ever since Sex and the City 2 hit theaters, reviewers have been battling over the cleverest way to call four grown women spoiled and self-absorbed. Why don't men get criticized like this when they conspicuously consume?

Southern white women are the most conservative in the country--exit polls from this year's election reveal that 68 percent voted for Bush and only 32 percent for Kerry, double the margin in 2000. The only other regional female subgroup Bush won was white women in the Midwest, but only by 7 percentage points. But Southern women suffer immensely from conservative policies. According to a 2002 report by the Institute for Women's Policy Research, seven of the nine worst states for women are in the South--in terms of earnings, access to health and reproductive services, and political participation.

Like most things Southern, it is impossible to discuss feminism in the South (or the absence of it) without turning to God. For the women at the conference, the church was the institution that drew the most ire. Younger ones recounted being given Bibles in public schools and being taken to fake parties where instead of alcohol they were served a super-sized Jesus on the rocks. As University of Alabama student Shelley Crumpton said, "People wonder why the South votes against its interests, but they don't understand how much religion shapes everything here. It's a worldview." Jacks agreed, noting that religious ideology often obscures social or economic reality. "Republicans would never win Mississippi if it wasn't for their promises to 'save the babies' and keep the gays from marrying."

In the past decade the religious right has been particularly effective at rallying youth, and especially young girls, in the South, where abstinence-only campaigns like True Love Waits have flourished. Their mothers have been hooked too. Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins's Left Behind series, in which the saved leave Earth for heaven and the rest of us are left behind to fend for ourselves (my husband calls it a "win-win" proposition), has sold more than 62 million copies, mostly in the South and Midwest. According to Newsweek, the "'core buyer' is a 44-year-old born-again Christian woman, married with kids, living in the South." Of Southern white women, fundamentalists contribute most mightily to the Republican Party, while the majority of secular women in the region consider themselves political moderates.

This pervasive religious fanaticism has sharply curtailed Southern women's sexual and reproductive freedom. Of public schools that provide any sex education, 55 percent in the South, as opposed to 35 percent nationwide and 20 percent in the Northeast, adhere to a strict abstinence-only curriculum. Not surprisingly, the region also boasts the highest teen birthrates in the country. In 2001, 6.7 percent of girls aged 15-19 gave birth in Mississippi, over three times as many as in New Hampshire. Incidentally, 98 percent of counties in Mississippi had no abortion providers as of 2000.

"In the South, the strength of the church has worked very much against women in terms of pushing them into traditional roles, and refusing to deal with sex education, health rights, reproductive rights," said Cornish. Indeed, Mississippi went so far as to enact a law in July permitting all types of healthcare workers and facilities to refuse to perform any service they object to on moral or religious grounds. "We have doctors who won't even issue birth-control prescriptions," Nsombi Lambright of the American Civil Liberties Union's Mississippi branch told the Associated Press.

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