By Wanda Rushing
Each generation of feminism produces new questions, responses, debates and critiques. Yet, old perceptions of the South as no place for a feminist continue to dominate popular culture and negatively affect academic researchers. From my standpoint as a white southerner, a feminist, and a sociologist, I want to challenge perceptions about feminism and the South. I suggest using a framework that considers the importance of place or locality. A place framework may potentially change understandings of social actors in particular places, not only in the American South but also in other regions. It also may affect perceptions and studies of feminism. Paying attention to intersectionality, region, and place offers an additional level of complexity and explanatory power for understanding gender, sexualities, and social movements, as well as southern feminism.
Historically, some southerners have gloved their resistance to social injustices within the boundaries of traditional expectations for gender conformity and decorum. Others have been willing to take greater risks, asserting bold public statements, engaging in civil disobedience, or pursuing legal remedies for discrimination. A few prominent names include Ida B. Wells, Rosa Parks, Fannie Lou Hamer, Norma L. McCorvey (Roe v. Wade), Mildred Loving (Loving v. Virginia), Lilly Ledbetter ( Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act of 2009), Barbara Jordan (congresswoman), Crystal Lee Sutton (Norma Rae), Ann Richards (governor) and Wendy Davis (legislator). Many have engaged in subtle but powerful acts of everyday resistance, easily missed by outsiders. In North Carolina, however, recent responses to misogynistic commentary on the 2017 Women’s March have been anything but subtle. Misogynistic remarks tweeted by one North Carolina state legislator garnered national attention and provoked a local backlash. State Senator Joyce Krawiec tweeted: “Message to crazies@Women’s March – If brains were lard, you couldn’t grease a small skillet. You know who you are.” After tubs of lard began accumulating at her office and her home, sent by angry constituents who also started a GOFUNDME account to send more, Krawiec deleted the tweet and apologized. Another North Carolina official, the state’s newly elected Insurance Commissioner Mike Causey, shared a meme on Facebook linked to his twitter account saying: “In one day Trump got more fat women out walking than Michelle Obama did in 8 years.” Inundated with a barrage of criticism, he apologized. Misogynistic and racist tweets, insults, and disparaging remarks about the march have not been limited to North Carolina or to the South, but there is something southern about these particular insults involving fat shaming and references to pig products, particularly as they relate to historical patterns of ridiculing women for lacking “proper decorum” as means of social control. The negative response to these comments, however, along with lard shipments, suggest that a direct confrontational style, or taking-off-the-gloves approach may be replacing less direct forms of resistance observed in previous struggles in the region.
Place matters not only for understanding feminists who protest discrimination and injustices in the South, but also for informing feminist research and activism about the South and in other regions. Intersectionality offers a conceptual framework for thinking about place as part of the analysis of exclusion and marginalization, and for making invisible social actors more visible, particularly at the local or regional level. Place offers an additional level of complexity for understanding social phenomena including sexualities and social movements. Theories of place broaden our understanding of intersectionality, and may fill lacunae in literature related to gender, sexualities, identities, and social movements. Place also contributes to new possibilities for feminist research and activism.
Wanda Rushing is Professor Emerita of Sociology at the University of Memphis. She served as SWS President in 2016. She is author of Memphis and the Paradox of Place: Globalization in the American South (2009) and editor of Urbanization, Volume 15 of the New Encyclopedia of Southern Culture (2010), both published by The University of North Carolina Press. She has published numerous articles on social inequality and the American South, most recently in Urban Studies (2016) and Urban Education (2017). Her current research focuses on feminism and the South, and the reproduction of durable inequality in education. Her full article “No Place for a Feminist: Intersectionality and the Deep South: SWS Presidential Address” can be found in the June 20017 Issue of Gender & Society