How To Be A Feminist In The South

Julie Sprankles/Facebook

When you grow up in a tiny, rural town in the South, you get used to dealing with stereotypes — both good and bad. Many days, you're grateful to have been born into such a languid, idyllic life. Your childhood goes by in a blur of slapdash lines on rickety docks, tan legs teetering along in pursuit of muddy planes of water that might serve as a respite from the sticky humidity. And other days, that place you love sometimes feels like the sweltering air squeezing you so tight it steals the very breath in your lungs.

On those days, you dream of somewhere far away. Somewhere vastly different from the sleepy corner of the universe you're used to. You always felt inherently torn in your town, the proverbial square peg in a round hole. So when you graduate high school, you let your small town syndrome take you somewhere new. You are an alien there, too, but you have the sneaking suspicion there are others like you all around. This is a refreshing change of pace, but also a strange dichotomy.

With time, you meet those others. Feminists. You may not have even realized up until this point that you fell under that umbrella, but you're gaining clarity by the minute. Not only do some of these new friends mirror your thoughts and feelings in a way that was never quite reciprocated back home, but others also expose you to exciting new perspectives. They teach you to think outside of the vacuum you were raised in and to consider other narratives. You can feel yourself growing as a person, and it is humbling. You never say it out loud, but you're proud of your growth. It isn't easy to edit your own story.

At some point, you'll start to hear the siren song of the South. Maybe you want to be closer to family. Perhaps there is a job opportunity you can't pass up. Some way, somehow, the South ensnares you once more. You move back home and, for awhile, your nostalgia overrides any second thoughts. People are friendly — everyone waves at you, whether they know you or not. Grandparents sit in rocking chairs on their porches and drink sweet tea while they holler at their grand kids in the yard. They wave at you, too.

You fall back in with old friends, because it's easy and it feels good. It's like slipping your hand back into the softball glove you spent four years breaking into perfection back in high school — comforting in its familiarity. You go to family dinners, and you find a church. It surprises you how quickly the routine becomes habit, and a voice inside of you reminds you not to let the repetition erase your growth.

In time, someone you love will make a comment that makes your skin crawl. You'll speak up about women's rights or the gender wage gap, and you'll be told those are lies made up by fake news and "femi-nazis." Or you'll be told that a woman ought not have such bold opinions. Your Facebook feed will feel overwhelming, because it is filled with friends and family from the small town South. They'll post memes about how they're proud to be anti-feminists, because they like to serve their husband and cook dinner for him. They'll say he is the head of the household, and they respect that hierarchy. Sometimes they flat-out tell you that you should, too. Other times, it is implied.

Not everyone in small town South is like this; there are many who feel the same way you do, and you search for them the same way a sunflower follows the light.

But as for the others...

You'll have trouble reconciling your love for these people with the fundamental differences between their ideologies and your own. Listening to misogynist comments will become a daily occurrence. You try to push back with reason, statistics, cold hard facts, but it largely falls on deaf ears. You'll try to speak to a confidante about your conflicting feelings, but you can tell the entire conversation makes them uncomfortable. Their gaze shifts as you speak, and you know they are quite literally looking for a way out of the conversation.

So you move to a bigger city — a more metropolitan area — in the hopes that you won't feel quite so... alone. You lie in bed at night and think, "Surely I'm not the only progressive, liberal feminist in the South, right?"

Then, you meet them: the feminist who becomes your touchstone. They are bold and empowered, witty and unafraid. At once, you feel less alone and it's as though the space-time continuum shifts to reveal some secret portal you hadn't seen before. Now, every where you turn, you see another feminist. The South is a well-spring of feminists, and you never even knew it before this very moment. And these feminists aren't afraid to say the word out loud. In fact, should you ask, they'd scream it from the rooftop: WE ARE FEMINISTS. They wear their feminism proudly, like a badge of honor.

You join local groups of like-minded people, and you finally feel like you can freely discuss the things that have been burning inside of you, trying to get out. You meet with a local group weekly to write letters, send faxes and make phone calls to congressional representatives. You speak out against sexism in the workplace. You post articles on social media that dare to suggest women should be allowed in STEM careers. You welcome any opportunity to peacefully protest threats to people's rights and their livelihoods. Once again, you feel proud of your growth.

Those friends and family? They're still there. You still love them. But you eventually come to terms with the fact that you can love someone and not understand them. You've made peace with that. Sometimes, they try to dissect your belief system and pin it to a shiny tray they can study, but you resist. You engage them in thoughtful discourse or none at all, because you now know that the best defense is a good offense.