Memphis, Tennessee – 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." 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.
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 seven 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.
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.
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."
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.