Southern women are a force to be reckoned with. I should know. I am one.
I would say that I am Tennessee-born and Tennessee-raised only the truth is that I wasn’t born there. I was born instead at a naval hospital on a far away island and then found myself back in Tennessee before I could even tell the difference. And Tennessee isn’t just South. It’s Deep South. It’s Bible belt South. It’s a sweet piece of homemade apple pie nestled in the southeastern portion of the United States.
And if you think that Southern women are as sweet as that self-same pie, then you’ve never had one say to you, Well, bless your heart.
I don’t mean that Southern women are made up of venom. After all, we have our fair share of honey flowing through our veins. But we are also incredibly strong, perhaps forged in the fire that is the heat of the South.
Tennessee-raised and transplanted to Georgia, I was a Southern girl turned Southern woman. I grew up on Fried Green Tomatoes, the food and the film, and Steel Magnolias. I learned that bless your heart is as good as go fuck yourself, and I’ll pray for you amounts to about the same, depending on who says it. While cotillions have mostly fallen by the wayside and would have been outside of my family’s means anyway, etiquette is still seared into our souls. We’re to say please and thank you, yes ma’am and no ma’am, and gifts should be acknowledged with a handwritten thank you note.
With all of the instilled courtesies come the spoken and unspoken rules of conduct. Being a lady still means something. Protecting one’s reputation is paramount. And being able to stand like Scarlett O’Hara, fist raised, declaring her own independence, is nearly a requirement to make it into adulthood. Because, after all, God helps those who help themselves.
But the South isn’t all Civil War reenactments and porch sitting. Not this modern South. Perhaps it changes more slowly, used to the molasses-thick slow flow of change while the rest of the country bounds ahead. But it changes nonetheless, preserving some traditions but awakening to the times. As the women do with it, discarding the all-consuming concern over reputation for a body and sex positive outlook that their mothers and grandmothers fought to provide. Being a lady means less than it once did, as we define our standards by our personal mores and not by an antiquated tradition passed down by our forefathers. It changes, as we all do with time, but some things stay the same:
Southern women are strong.
Have you ever seen a weeping willow with its branches leaning low and brushing the ground like the bell of a debutante’s gown? This is what it means to be a Southern woman. You see, we don’t break; we bend. We aren’t surrendering. We are simply shaping ourselves anew to deal with whatever life throws at us. We are surviving, and we do it without allowing ourselves to come apart at those carefully sewn seams.
We’re used to a great deal being thrown at us, you see. Because Southern women, like women everywhere, have grown up with the fist of misogyny held tight around our throats, choking us. All of our courtesies and good reputations haven’t been able to protect us from unwanted stares or unsolicited words. They haven’t protected us from heartache or abuse. But those spines of steel and that ability to bend ourselves without breaking have stood us in good stead.
We roll out the homemade biscuits with their thick gravy made in cast iron skillets. We brew sun tea on wide porches where we’ll sit a spell. Our accents are sometimes thick, and you can judge it as ignorant or charming depending on how much honey or venom runs through your veins. Maybe our lives seem simple, a made-for-TV movie that gets the accent all wrong and somehow makes our lives out to be less important than someone living in a more cosmopolitan city somewhere else. But don’t mistake our Southern style for anything resembling weakness.
I’ve known many a Southern woman knocked sideways by life. See how she rolls with the changes, never surrendering- at least not for long? Of course, the flip side of being able to bend without breaking is that sometimes we bend when we shouldn’t. When the last thing we ought to do is bend. When we should, instead, straighten those ramrod spines of steel and raise a fist to the sky to declare our refusal to settle, to compromise, to take less than what we deserve.
This is where my thoughts have veered on this Spring day that feels so much like Summer, with its thick humidity and coat of pollen covering every car on my street to the yellow we all associate with flaring allergies. Southern women are strong. Women are strong. And yet, too often, we stay strong in situations that require us to be strong to leave, not to stay. We stay strong in our optimism that other people mean well, when sometimes they don’t. We use our strength to hold up the status quo rather than creating the lives that we want.
To all my Southern sisters: we weren’t meant to be those weeping willows. We weren’t ever meant to be creatures that wept and bent low to the ground. While lovely, they also seem so lonely, as they curve back toward the Earth they came from.
If we should be like a tree, we should be like the live oaks that cover the Georgia coast. We should be tall and proud, twisting out in every direction, our arms reaching out to support one another. We should wear our strength like the Spanish moss, displayed along our arms like the precious wrap we put over our favorite evening gown. Instead of bending, we should twist in new directions. We should seem primal and powerful perched on the edge of the ocean, not delicate and weeping along a man-made lake in a subdivision we passed somewhere along the way. We should be less ornamental and more moving, because we have the strength to do more than bend until we’re laid low.
Southern women are a force to be reckoned with. I should know. I am one. I just hope that when I need my strength, I realize whether it should be used to stand my ground and stretch in new directions or to bend. I hope that I reach out for the support of the women I know, those who are as Southern as I am and those who come from different backgrounds and yet are no less a force in their own right. I hope we can hold on to each other as we move through the storms of life, no longer bending or conceding our space but staying wild and fierce right where we belong.