The obstacles facing Southern African-American women are especially severe. In 1999, the five worst states for African-American women's earnings were in the South. Southern black children are two times more likely than white kids to be poor. Despite this, the region has the lowest welfare benefits and some of the harshest sanctions in the country. Rascaun Ellis, an African-American woman from Mississippi, said this leaves many in her town, particularly young girls, feeling hopeless. She recalled that one of the brightest girls in her high school dropped out after getting pregnant. "She just accepted what she saw as her fate." Participants from Louisiana, where nearly 20 percent of women live in poverty, to Kentucky, where more than half of households headed by women have incomes below $15,000 a year, spoke of how poverty affected their everyday lives, from the roaches in their grocery store to the poorly funded city schools to the fact that it took one attendee's sister a year to recover from a minor injury because most doctors in her town of 17,000 were incompetent.
There's also the issue of political representation--or lack thereof. Alabama, Kentucky, Mississippi, South Carolina and Oklahoma have the fewest female state legislators in the country. Alabama, Mississippi, Kentucky, South Carolina, Tennessee and Virginia have never elected a female US senator. And most Southern women who do get elected are Republicans. In a report on the transformation of the Southern Democratic Party, in the November 2004 Journal of Politics, historian Merle Black notes that "seventy percent of all southern Democratic statewide officeholders in 2003 were white men, even though they comprised only 21 percent of the party in the electorate. White women and African Americans, men and women, continued to be greatly underrepresented among Democrats elected to statewide offices in comparison to their contributions to the grassroots southern Democratic Party."
Not all participants at the conference, however, rejected their position at the bottom of the political totem pole. Southerners, after all, have always seemed the most energized by local politics. During the three-day conference, I was bombarded with acronyms only a local (and a very particular one at that) would know: the MCIL, or Memphis Center for Independent Living; MAGY, the Memphis Area Gay Youth Center; the Defense Depot Memphis Tennessee Concerned Citizens' Committee (or DDMTCCC!), a local environmental group. While most were involved in women's issues--holding protests at anti-abortion centers that pose as clinics and volunteering at real ones--I met women who worked on voter registration drives, directed their own arts programs and wrote for small political publications. One organized a center for the rights of the disabled. And then there was the Christian housewife who occasionally left her Republican husband and kids at home so she could join a trio of activists who had undertaken the Sisyphean task of speaking against the Israeli occupation of Palestine. And the group from the University of Alabama, Birmingham, who put on orange vests to volunteer as escorts at an abortion clinic "just down the street from the one that was bombed."
Often, there were more letters in their acronyms than women in their groups. Few had heard of The Nation. I doubt many could identify Gloria Feldt or Kim Gandy. They seemed to have become feminists by accident--through contact with a hippie aunt, a brazen high school teacher or, I heard again and again, the strongest women they knew: their mothers.