Tag Archives: southern women

Why am I here?

In her latter years, my mother used to ask that a lot.  I never knew what  to say, so I usually said something trite like “We still need you here.”  At which she would click her tongue against her teeth the way she did when I disagreed with her politics.

What was she asking, I wondered.  Did she still dream of unrealized ambitions in her nineties?   I always found the question unsettling and frankly, a little annoying.

But now that there are many more birthdays behind than before me, I think I get it.  I think she was reflecting over her long life and trying to make sense of it.  And I find myself doing the same.    What has my life meant?  At the finish line, will I be able to say I have   “fought the good fight” ?    Did I miss my “calling,” my high purpose?  The olympic swimmer,  the nuns of Calcutta, the Nobel Laureate, the musical prodigy;  they had a calling, didn’t they?  A custom made life-suit,  into which they fit perfectly.   Their one true path.  Is there one for me?

In my early life, I was sure of it.    My life would be exciting, full of high purpose, awe-inspiring.   Unlike my mother’s.  Especially, not like my mother’s.

Mind you, my mother  was not a slacker. She was a strong and intelligent woman; a school teacher, an avid reader, a seamstress and amazing gardener.   She make great chicken and dumplings and rhubarb pie. She survived two husbands and lived independently for 92+ of her 93 years.

But.  She never wrote a book, climbed a mountain, ran a corporation (or a marathon)  or held public office.  For most of her life she lived in the same community.  To my impatient, arrogant 18-year-old eyes, her life looked mundane,  aimless, pointless even.  Not mine, I vowed.  I would  set goals for myself and go about achieving them.  Simple as that.

But it didn’t quite work out that way.  My path took unexpected twists and  turns.   It  didn’t  lead steadily  to a noble destination, but instead  wound  through brambles, tangled ravines and rocky boulders.  I ran, I  stumbled,  I climbed, I  tripped,  I fell and I recovered,  with varying degrees of grace.

Admittedly, on its surface,  my life looks radically different from that of my mother.  I left home at an early age, attended  universities in distant states,  managed a demanding career,  travelled the world; accumulated a modicum of recognition for my work.  But at its core,  like my mother’s, my life was made of the usual stuff;  education, career, marriage, children, retirement.   And my path, like hers, was not the work of destiny, but the result of choices.

And  my path has  led me…. here. Not to a mountaintop and not to a swamp.  As it did my mother.

It’s tempting to  fall for the “one true thing”  pitch.  The idea that  we are  entitled to  the one true love, the one perfect career, the one true happily-ever-after is very appealing.   And perhaps it is true for some.   But my life didn’t  come with a blueprint; I made choices, sometimes wisely, sometimes foolishly, that in the aggregate defined my path.  I wasn’t always sure of my choices,  and  they didn’t always lead to the mountaintop.

If I could answer my mother  now, I would reassure her that she didn’t miss her calling.  Like me, she simply made choices that led her to her destination.   And  at the end of the day, it was not our accomplishments, as my teenage self thought,  but the accumulation of our everyday thoughts and actions that defined us. Both of us.

 

 

The Easter Bunny

As a child, I remember thinking it was weird that the Easter Bunny  brought eggs.  And exasperating that no one else thought that was a bit strange.  Being the person in the family responsible for snatching
eggs  from beneath cranky setting hens, I knew for sure where eggs came from.

Turns out, though,  there really is a logical explanation for the egg-bearing  bunny.   According to Wikipedia, German Lutherans  apparently established the tradition of the “Easter Hare.”
But far from the cuddly bunny with big pink ears, the original Easter bunny (after all these were not only Lutherans, but GERMAN Lutherans) was actually a stern judge-bunny, dispensing his coveted eggs only to those children who had been good over the Lenten season.

And as for the eggs, early churches abstained from them during Lent.  And lacking refrigeration, the only way to keep them from spoiling was to boil them so they could eat them  after the fast was ended.  And  they probably decorated them as part of the celebration.  So that explains a lot.

But   I still find an Easter bunny (especially a chocolate one)  distracting to the Easter message of resurrection and hope.   I don’t think the idea of the Easter bunny is harmful to children; I just think it shortchanges  them  because it misses the life-giving  Easter message of hope; the gift of new beginnings,

I don’t have fond memories of the annual  Easter egg hunt, where my basket always needed help from the Sunday School teacher.  In retrospect, I know this was because of my uncorrected myopia, but still, I think I would have preferred to learn about the Easter Lily.

Flattened

unknownBlind-sided, thunderstruck, ambushed, stunned,  floored flummoxed.  Just flattened.  By what’s just happened in our country – no, not what  just happened – what just surfaced.

As my genteel cousin put it, “Surely not?”  Exactly.  Surely we are not the people screaming racist epithets, intimidating  children, advocating jail for our  rivals.  We are not the people that believe  silencing those who don’t look like us oreuters-porland-oregon-anti-trump-protestr believe like us will solve our problems.  We are not the people who obsessed on the media’s  24/7 shouting matches, while shaking our heads about the ugly campaign.  We don’t  riot
in the streets after an election and burn the President Elect in effigy.  We can’t be those people.  And yet we are.

Until November 9, I carefully sidestepped awkward social and political conversations.  After all, everyone’s entitled to her/his own opinion, right? And what does it matter really?   Things will go on pretty much as they always have no matter what I do, right?   So why risk damaging a friendship, causing a ruckus. Why be “that” woman?  I really didn’t know what my friends, my neighbors, even some of my family, believed at a core level,  didn’t really want to know, and  didn’t  share my own opinions.   We  coexisted; polite and superficial  strangers under the skin.  So when November 8 happened, we were amazed to find out who was living next door, or even in our own house!

It’s pretty clear   we don’t understand each other.  Perhaps we don’t really understand ourselves.   Hopefully the 2016 election will inspire us to learn more about  ourselves and our government and moreover,  to become involved in our communities.   We can learn to images-1listen respectfully to each other with no other agenda.  We can  have discussions that don’t deteriorate into  shouting matches.    Ideas that challenge us are healthy precisely because they make us uncomfortable.  They stretch us and keep us growing.

On the morning of November 9, I began  a one woman listening campaign. I talked  to neighbors on my morning walk.  I listened to  members of my church, to my family, to  my Facebook and Twitter friends.  And I  heard some surprising things.  Some not easy for me to hear.   But my friendships were not threatened.  In fact, just the opposite.  After all, we all want to have our voices heard.

I  know the fluttering of the butterfly wing in my tiny corner of the ranunculus-aconitifolius-1548312__480universe cannot influence world events.  But just as one vote makes a difference, so does one honest conversation.

So let’s talk!  Leave a comment.    Tell us what the  2016 election meant for you.    Who knows?   We might not be as far apart as we thought.  At the very least, we are sure to learn more about our own beliefs.

 

 

 

 

Just Do It!

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If you’re like me, by now you’re wishing this election campaign was over, or better yet had never started in the first place.   We all have opinions and theories, disappointments, predictions and concerns around any election, but this one is different.  It would be easy to become so frustrated and confused that we consider skipping the whole thing.    But at the end of the day, the important, the crucial thing is to JUST DO IT,  in the familiar words of the Nike slogan.   Important for all of us, but especially for any of us  who have felt the pain of having our voices ignored or discounted,  in other words, for most women at some point in their lives.     Even now.    And it’s not so long ago that women’s voices were not only ignored, they were suppressed.

imagesTo put it in  perspective:

Freed male slaves were  granted the vote in 1845.*    The Nineteenth Amendment  granted women the right to  vote in 1920.

And here’s another shocker:    In 1923, the National Women’s Party proposed a Constitutional amendment, eventually known as the Equal Rights Amendment to  prohibit all discrimination on the basis of sex.

It  has Never Been Ratified.   

The women’s suffrage movement in America began in New York  in 1848,  led by well-known early pioneers Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton.  We owe them a huge debt of gratitude for their enormous sacrifices and their perseverance to achieve for us a right we often take for granted, if we think about it at all.

However, there is another compelling and little known tale of struggle and dedication to suffrage in Mississippi. By 1820, a  growing number of southern women in Mississippi  had mobilized to improve social and educational conditions for women and children and the National American Woman Suffrage Association was formed.  In 1890,  The Mississippi Constitutional Convention seriously considered granting women the right to vote.  Sadly, the proposal died in committee by a single vote.

But it was not over.

Nellie Nugent Somerville(1863 – 1952) Courtesy Mississippi Dept of Archives and History
Nellie Nugent Somerville(1863 – 1952) Courtesy Mississippi Dept of Archives and History

In the 1890s the Mississippi Woman Suffrage Association,  under the leadership of Nellie Nugget Somerville,  began efforts to gain the vote in Mississippi.  The fledgling movement floundered in spite of heroic  efforts by the suffragists.  Facing fierce opposition by the legislators,  by the 1900s they had almost given up.  In 1906, Belle Kearney,  a compelling professional speaker,  breathed life into the nearly moribund movement and gradually the suffragists regained momentum.  However, they could not win  over the
necessary majority of state legislators,  and the state suffrage campaign of 1914 failed.  Legislators declared that woman suffrage was “not in the best interest of Mississippi women, that women should remain ‘queen of the home and hearthstone.'”

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Belle Kearney (1863 – 1939) Photo from her autobiography, A Slaveholder’s Daughter.

But it was not over.

In 1918, a state suffrage amendment was once again introduced and received a tie vote, insufficient to  meet the required two-thirds majority.   In 1919  a resolution was introduced to reject the amendment as “unwarranted, unnecessary and dangerous interference with state’s rights.”  The rejection resolution was approved by a vote of 106 to 25.  At this point, many of the suffragists left the movement in despair.

But it was not over.

By now the Nineteenth Amendment  had been ratified by 35 states and some Mississippi senators felt the state must do likewise for the sake of the Democratic Party.  The bill was recalled, amended to read “ratify” rather than “reject” and the bill passed the Senate.

But it was not over

The House  rejection was swift and decisive. As one legislator put it, he would rather “die and go to hell” than vote for it.  The amendment went down  90 to 23.

But it was not over.

By 1920, Mississippi was only one of two states in the nation that had not ratified the Nineteenth Amendment.  However,  as a federal law, it superseded the state law and provided women the vote. Ironically, two years later, Mississippi’s two leading suffragists, Somerville and Kearney, were elected to the state legislature, surviving the battles and winning the war.

The State of Mississippi finally ratified the Nineteenth Amendment  with no opposition on March 22, 1984. Neither  Kearney nor Somerville lived to see the ratification.

But it was over at last.

So, just in case you were thinking about giving Election Day a pass this time, please take a minute to remember the struggles of our Foremothers on our behalf.vote-661888__180

Go Vote.

Just Do It!

____________

*The bill was ratified, but not enforced until the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

Source:   Marjorie Julian Spruill and Jesse Spruill Wheeler, Mississippi Women and the  Woman Suffrage Amendment,  Mississippi History Now, Mississippi Historical Society 200-2015.   http://bit.ly/2fvviLw

 

 

 

 

DO YOU KNOW THIS WOMAN?

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Santa Barbara’s trees, like its oceans and mountains, are one thing she says she never tires of here.”I feel very fortunate to have my car,” she says. “It’s a little cramped, but it’s softer than cement.” For Some Seniors Without Housing: A Parking Lot Is Home; NPR, Sept 18, 2016

My stomach lurches every time I look at this photo.    How can this be happening in upscale Santa Barbara?  This woman  could be my neighbor, the grandmother in the  pew next to mine at church, she  could be that woman struggling along with me at  Pilates class.   She probably  went to college, paid her bills on time, baked cookies for the PTO, raised a family.  Or so it would seem.

Maybe not.  Maybe she lived wildly beyond her means, enrolling her kids in expensive private schools, indulging in spas and Mediterranean cruises, driving a Lexus. Rotating credit cards for payment, betting on the return of the pre-recession economy.  Or maybe  she was forced out of a longterm marriage by a deluded husband frantically trying to recapture his youth.  Or maybe she’s a widow  bankrupted by overwhelming medical bills.

Maybe.  But is  something more fundamental in play?   In our frenzied rush to achieve “success,” have  we have forgotten our need for each other?  Have we  lost our communities?

I grew up in a tight community.  And I hated it.  Everyone knew everything you did, and worse, attributed it to your genetics.  If your family was properous, that predestined your success, despite all distressing evidence to the contrary.  If as in my case, your familymain-street
were not  wealthy landowners, city fathers or otherwise distinguished, you were not expected to rise above your family’s  social standing.  No credential, diploma or bank statement could refute  this.    That was the down side, the only side, I saw growing up.

But no one, no matter what color or family circumstances.  NO ONE lived in a car or wanted for food or clean clothes.   This was not because were endowed with unnatural virtue or were a microcosm of  Christian charity.  Far from it.  We were mean-spirited, kind, quilting-bgenerous, greedy,  intellectually gifted and psychotic, industrious, and lazy; like people everywhere.  With one major exception: We needed each other.  No one had to tell us that.   We knew it by birth;  we were a poor farming community; if we were to survive, it meant cooperation.  It meant community.  In our case, a community formed around a church.

The little community still exists; thrives, in fact,  and its people are still just as flawed and nosy.  Inevitably, though, time has brought  change. Its members are more diverse, better educated, more tolerant now.  But  community foundation  never changed.  If a neighbor’s house is damaged by flood or fire, the community rebuilds the house and supplies food and clothes.  A  member’s bad medical diagnosis country-church1triggers a  rotation of members to supply food and housekeeping.   Extra rows are planted in  gardens for needy members.  The list goes on.   And this is why such a photo could never have been, never will be,  taken in that community.

So I wonder.  Why have our larger urban communities failed this woman?  Does she not meet some tedious beaurocratic requirement?  Is she in need of psychiatric help?  Are there so many like her that community organizations are overwhelmed?  Is it even possible for government to organize community?   Or can lasting  community be forged only on the anvil of  fundamental interdependence?    Is her plight, then, simply the logical outcome of a society who has forgotten this  fundamental truth?

 

 

 

 

 

Celebrating Southern Writers: Sally Whitney

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOne of the many benefits to me of this blog is the opportunity it provides me to  celebrate  the successes of fellow southern women writers.   I am delighted to  showcase  Sally Whitney’s  latest book, Surface and Shadow, just released today.

A few weeks ago, I asked  Sally to share some of her thoughts about being a southern writer and in particular, what inspired her latest book.

What gave you the idea for this novel?

 I can’t say that anything gave me the idea for this novel. The idea just seemed to grow. Strong women have always been my favorite characters in novels, so I knew my novel would have a woman as the protagonist. I think women have a hard time being strong because for many years, expectations and requirements have been set against them. Too often, women have to show strength in defying cultural norms before they can be strong anywhere else. I wanted to show this personal battle within my protagonist. I’m also interested in North Carolina cotton-mill towns, partly because very few of them still exist. I put the woman in the cotton-mill town and asked “What if?” And the story grew from there.

 Why did you choose to write about the South?

 The South chose me. Place is very important to my fiction. Often with short stories I get a sense of place before anything else. I see a backyard vegetable garden baking in the mid-summer sun. Or a front porch sagging under the weight of family generations who have traipsed across it. With Surface and Shadow, I saw the narrow main street of a small town with its decades-old store fronts and a mysterious aging farmhouse partly obscured by trees and flowers.
Always the places I see are in the South, usually in North Carolina. And it’s not just the physical places that draw my thoughts in that direction. It’s a sense of mystery and wonder, history and hope, darkness mixed with light. When I was in graduate school in New Jersey, I tried to write about a woman living in New Jersey, but my professor told me to “get that woman back down south where she belongs.” He knew where my imagination lives.

 What do you think are the greatest pitfalls to writing about southern women?

 Number one is falling prey to stereotypes. We all know them. Southern women have been caricatured in books and movies and jokes since such means of communication began. But avoiding stereotypes and still conveying some of southern women’s significant characteristics can be tricky. Stereotypes, like caricatures, have some basis in truth. While southern women are not as hung up on social niceties and proper etiquette as they’re often portrayed, we do expect people to be kind to each other. Good manners are nothing more than being considerate of other people. We are not simpering, obedient belles trying to please the men in our lives. We do not go to college just to find a husband. We are independent women, but we often find ways of exerting that independence that are more persuasive than combative. We like men, and generally love a few of them, but they aren’t required to help us lead fully developed lives.

 What do you think defines a “southern writer?”

 Although southern writers are often defined by where they live, I think they’re more accurately defined by the books they write. My favorite contemporary southern authors, including Lee Smith, Joshilyn Jackson, Tom Franklin, and Fannie Flagg, tell stories of passionate people caught in difficult circumstances, not necessarily unique to the South, but certainly influenced by southern culture, climate, and geography. In Jackson’s gods in Alabama, for example, the great respect many Alabamans hold for football plays an important role. In Franklin’s The Tilted World, which he wrote with his wife, Beth Ann Fennelly, the roaring force of the southern Mississippi River is a major character. Heat is often one of my favorite characters in stories by southern writers. Although other parts of the United States can be hot, there’s no heat like southern heat. And heat can make people do crazy things. Southern writers understand the South and its people with all their beauty and their flaws. They know the strong ties between the people and the land and the climate. Their stories could not take place anywhere else.

For more about Sally Whitney and her work, see this blog, May 1, 2015.