Let’s Imagine the South as Place for Feminism

Democratic lawmakers and a demonstrator listen to speeches in Columbia, S.C., on Feb. 17, 2021, during a press conference and protest by Democrats who walked out during a debate on an anti-abortion bill in the House of Representatives. (Sean Rayford / SOPA Images / LightRocket via Getty Images)

I thought about leaving after Roe fell, but I knew I wouldn’t. My family is here, and I have a job and friends and a community I love. But being a feminist in South Carolina isn’t easy, and it was nice to imagine fleeing to some hypothetical feminist haven.

Lamenting the fall and our hostile state political environment with my good friend Kendra Hamilton—Southern studies professor and author of the poetry collection The Goddess of Gumbo—she looked and me and said: “They’re not going to run me out.”

This was a good reminder. Hamilton’s family now owns the land they were enslaved on, not far from where we teach at Presbyterian College in Clinton, a former mill town off the interstate between Greenville and Columbia. My family’s roots go back here, too, to the Lowcountry, where my maternal grandmother, Winnie, grew up poor in Lake City. I checked myself—it wasn’t easy, being a white middle-class feminist in a red state—but my angst in comparison to what people here have suffered put my own struggles in perspective.

So I’m staying. And where, really, is there to go? Comments on social media posts revive myths of Southern exceptionalism, calling the region Gilead, borrowing from The Handmaid’s Tale to paint us as somehow separate from the rest of the country. But while there is better protection for women’s health elsewhere, no part of America is free of the patriarchy. I’d love to live somewhere more ideologically comfortable, but supposedly liberal enclaves are increasingly reserved for the wealthy. We can’t afford to move, in more ways than one.

And painting us with these broad strokes erases centuries of women’s resistance and covers up the actual feminist work being done in the region. Recent press has touted the feminism in the work of Southerner Loretta Lynn, in her songs about birth control and the domestic prisons of women’s lives before widespread access to reproductive healthcare. But I think her Southern identity has obscured this feminist legacy, because we hear the accent and automatically assume an unenlightened or backwards region, left behind in the wake of American progress.

In some ways, this is a New South, but it comes from the work that has gone before us, and is only possible if we don’t give up on this place.

These attitudes give too much attention to our corrupt and oppressive politicians and local elites, who push a legislative agenda that is boldly undemocratic and Christian nationalist. I don’t mean to deny the very real problems that exist here, but I do want to suggest that we look more closely at a region that is as complex and feminist as the rest of the country. In colleges and universities throughout the state, we have active women’s and gender studies programs, teaching feminist and queer theories. At Clemson, you can get a degree in women’s leadership. We have an active regional organization, WGS South, that supports teachers and students doing feminist and queer scholarship.

There are a host of political and advocacy organizations, like WREN, the Women’s Rights and Empowerment Network, lobbying for women’s rights at the statehouse, and Emerge South Carolina, training women to run for political office. Many of our churches are feminist, like the Presbyterian Church USA, who released a strong statement condemning the Court’s Roe decision and affirming the right to access abortion.

There are queer spaces, too, like a new hostel in Greenville, Modal, who hosts a Queer Night every Thursday, and Pridelink, with a queer community center, and therapy groups organized specifically for LGBTQ clients. SC Equality was at the front lines for ensuring marriage rights in the State, and we have Pride parades and festivals.

The Southern Poverty Law Center launched a Y’all Means All campaign a couple of years ago, an inclusivity campaign that helps us to imagine this place as one that could be feminist and queer. The town one over from the college, Laurens, has an openly gay mayor, and it’s a rural county seat. In some ways, this is a New South, but it comes from the work that has gone before us, and is only possible if we don’t give up on this place.

Opening up to really seeing this place helps you to notice when someone at the coffee shop is reading materialist feminist theory (turns out it was the scholar and poet Sarah Cooper, whose recent collection 89% heartbreakingly details the death of her mother and growing up queer in South Carolina), or fighting back against LGBTQ book bans at the local libraries.

We’ll do more to fight the people that are responsible for the oppression here if we insist on seeing the South as a queer place, where the feminist fights are ongoing. Join us.

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Emily Taylor is an English professor and director of the Women’s and Gender Studies program at Presbyterian College. Subscribe to her Substack "Hot Feminism: Letters from South Carolina."