By Javacia Harris Bowser
I often refer to myself as a Southern fried feminist. It’s a cute catchphrase I coined to describe my attempt to reconcile my Southern values with my feminist ideals. For years I’ve viewed my feminist fervor and my Southern pride as two opposing forces struggling to peacefully coexist. But I had it all wrong.
“Southern feminist” is not an oxymoron or a contradiction. In fact, I have realized that my Southern roots don’t make me a bad feminist; they make me a better one. For example, Southern feminists were embracing intersectionality long before anyone ever coined that term. A textbook definition of intersectional feminism describes it as the view that women experience oppression in varying configurations and in varying degrees of intensity. Intersectionality maintains that cultural patterns of oppression are not only interrelated, but are bound together and influenced by the intersectional systems of society such as race, gender, class, ability, and ethnicity.
In spite of Jim Crow laws, or perhaps because of them, Southerners have always been forced to confront issues of race. We can’t skirt around them or pretend they don’t exist. At this year’s TED Women conference, Rich Benjamin, author of the book Searching for Whitopia: An Improbable Journey to the Heart of White America, discussed the time he spent living in America’s whitest communities doing research for his book. Benjamin traveled to suburbs in Utah, Idaho, and even New York. When he began to detail his time in Georgia, the audience laughed, assuming that of all the places he traveled he was least accepted in the South. They were wrong. Benjamin explained that in the South, black people and white folks are used to interacting and so he felt more comfortable there because he wasn’t treated as exotic.
As a Southerner I’m no stranger to racist or homophobic attitudes and I’m not ignorant of poverty or the conditions of the working poor. And thus it is not difficult for the Southern feminist to realize that feminism cannot just be about gender but must also address race and ethnicity, sexual orientation, class, and even physical ability. Southern feminists know feminism must also address religion. The feminist movement must find a way challenge the tendency of the church to treat women like second-class citizens without chastising feminists for being women of faith in the first place.
On a lighter note, as a Southern feminist, I know better than to judge a woman for caring about fashion. I’m not going to look down on a stylish lady, shake my head, and cast her as a victim of the male gaze. I know that when it comes to fashion, it’s not about getting the attention of men. It’s not even just about clothes. Fashion is about confidence and is a type of social communication. As Birmingham-based style coach Megan LaRussa Chenoweth once said, “We as Southerners take pride in our heritage and ourselves and thus dress accordingly.” Style is not about vanity. Good fashion is good manners. In the South, not dressing appropriately for an occasion is considered just plain rude!
As a Southern feminist, I understand the importance of Title IX and the attempt to stop sex discrimination in athletics. I live in a land where sport—especially football—is practically religion and not one reserved only for men. The average Southern woman will know just as much about sports as the average Southern man and will probably yell the loudest at an Alabama or Auburn game. So the idea that a woman shouldn’t just be on the sidelines but also on the field is hardly a strange concept for me.
And finally it is because of my Southern roots that I believe in sisterhood. No, I wasn’t in a college sorority. I believe in sisterhood because I feel a kinship to nearly every woman and girl I meet and I believe Southern hospitality has something to do with that. In the South everyone feels familiar. We smile at strangers on the street and ask about their day. We invite you to come over for lemonade or sweet tea and actually mean it. And when we first meet you we greet you not with a handshake, but with a hug.
Since returning to my hometown of Birmingham in 2009 I’ve fallen head over heels for the South. I’ve often sought to prove to others that I am still a fervent feminist despite my Southern pride, but now I’ve realized I’m a feminist because of it. And so, for me, Southern fried feminism is the best kind.