Southern Ms. | The Nation


Southern Ms.

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While many Northern liberals urge the Democratic Party to forget the South, and the Kerry campaign all but followed suit, these women stay. I couldn't help but wonder why. Facing everything from bureaucratic red tape (and often fees) for staging protests to the impermeable Southern "be nice" mentality, their activism at times seemed more trouble than it was worth. While the right, many claimed, could pass out Bibles at bus stops and high schools, they would never be allowed such liberties. "They can get away with it, but if I went there with a political solicitation about safe sex, I'd get busted," reported Terry Moon, a local. "Being a progressive here is like being a missionary," said Sarah Rushakoff, another Memphian. "In Memphis," she added, "kids can't wait to get away--go to 'insert cool city here' up North or out West, to a coast."

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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?

Nevertheless, most stressed the value of staying in the South. "If you really want to change things, you shouldn't go to New York, you should come to Memphis. This is where the fight is," said Moon, who moved to Memphis eight years ago to start a local chapter of the newsletter News and Letters after being involved in women's liberation in Detroit and Chicago since the 1960s. Others praised the sense of community and sincerity they felt typified Southern progressivism. "There is a peculiar strength that develops among Southern women in opposition to the conservative forces--a camaraderie, an intimacy," said Cornish. Many African-Americans, noted Marquita Bradshaw, a local environmentalist, "feel like it has to start here, because this is where it left off."

This sense of strength, if not exactly hope, was palpable. Despite the odds, these activists had made little homes for themselves, often in colleges or the few progressive towns in the South--Athens, Georgia; Asheville, North Carolina. The First Congregational Church was also located in a hip, up-and-coming area with a coffeehouse that had a java special named the Lisa Marie and a bar that sold hard cider (bless them). At any time, I could spot a vegan and almost forget that the irresistibly sweet and articulate Stevie could not walk down many streets without fear of being harassed because she is transgendered, or that another young woman, aged 20 and already a mother twice over, had been called a "drama queen" by a nurse at a Kentucky abortion clinic.

As the conference came to a close, Jacks was visibly frustrated. The event had not drawn as many people as previous ones, and she wondered if it wasn't time to move on. She worked full time, like most, and had never been to college. "I'm 24 and I feel old," she said, head on shoulder. "There was so much excitement at the first one...people had never been to anything like it," she recalled. But after six years, she confesses she's pessimistic. "It's like being in the bell jar. It's a glass ceiling, but it's all around you. And you don't have anything to break the glass with but your fist or your feet, so you just get cut up. It's really hard. It's a never-ending battle that I'm never going to win--at least not in my lifetime. I'm realistic about that, but I still think I have to do my part."

The participants were well versed in what one historian has called the South's civil religion: the Lost Cause. But while they were romantic, they were not foolish. They were invigorated by their underdog status, but they were still eager to be recognized by something larger. "The left has abandoned us," one lamented, reminding me of something my mother once said when I asked her why she--18 years old in 1970--never participated in the women's movement. "I just thought that's how things were in the South. I didn't know there were problems everywhere."

I've often heard tales of strong Southern women. My own past is full of single women who, abandoned by the men in their lives, took extreme measures to care for their children, including a grandmother who sold blood to buy my father shoes. It seemed the South was full of brave and determined women who had never met one another--distracted by poverty, religion and loyalty to a land that hadn't done them any favors. As I boarded my plane back to New York, I knew that while the South might occupy my heart and mind, my feet would remain firmly planted elsewhere. "It is easier for one to run North and join the crowd," Danielle de Preux, a Little Rock activist, had told me. "But to stay and fight, that's the Southern woman." I believed it, I just wasn't sure I could hack it.

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