I must begin by stating the obvious: the major myth about us women from the South is that there is, in fact, such a thing as a Southern Woman. I say this as a true southern woman: born and raised in New Orleans, my family has lived for 200 years in Louisiana; I have ancestors that were both slave owners and slaves, Cajuns and Creoles. But I have now lived half of my life in the Midwest and Northeast and can say without hesitation that most non-southerners have firmly held ideas about what a Southern Woman is and isn't. Call it a myth, a stereotype, call it an archetype, but despite the fact that southern women are as diverse as the population of the United States, the image of a Southern Woman persists in the popular imagination.
The thing is, the South is not a monolithic cultural landscape. I was born to a Cajun father and a Creole mother whose ideas about how to raise a girl were different enough that they might as well have come from different planets. It's not just accents in New Orleans that are utterly different from those in nearby Baton Rouge or Ville Platte, but expectations for women. Similarly, women born and bred in Dallas or Mobile may have little in common with those raised in the lower Rio Grande or Miami. The Deep South has cultural aspects you wouldn't find in Virginia, say, or North Carolina. Women raised in rural or urban poverty in the South may have more in common with women raised in such poverty in the Midwest. Conservative Protestant women from rural Alabama or Mississippi will have utterly different expectations of womanhood than those raised by liberal Catholics, say, from urban areas.
But stereotypes that take hold in the popular imagination are difficult to root out, often because, in this case, there are some southern women who play to the stereotype.
When I was asked to write this article, I did what any self-respecting researcher would do: I queried my family and friends on Facebook, especially those from the South. I had my own ideas, I wrote, but what did they think? I got over 50 responses, and was surprised at the intensity of the conversation. It's clear that women from the South still feel the weight of the huge shadow cast by the Southern Woman. What follows are the beliefs about us that bother us the most.
All Southern Women Have Big Hair. This was the number one misperception my Southern women friends wanted me to mention. Big hair may seem a small thing to worry about, but big hair signifies a woman who spends more time thinking about her hair than anything else: big-hair women may be perceived to have more hair than brains. It may be that some of us like lots of volume in our hair, but so do many of our Northern counterparts. Examples of famous southern women without big hair: Flannery O'Conner, Carson McCullers.
All Southern Women are obsessed with looking like a sex kitten or sultry temptress. The truth is that some southern women do seem to wear dresses more often than their Midwestern or Northern sisters and many of us do tend to use more makeup and take more care with our fingernails (although I still bite mine). It's true that many of us go through a period where we wear tight jeans and low-cut blouses, but most of us grow out of it. Many of us are also extremely successful women, who simply like to look nice. Think: Holly Hunter, Lillian Hellman.
We are all uneducated hicks, rednecks, or airheads, and as a result we are all poor or on welfare. Despite the fact that over half the states that rank worst in education are Southern states, it's a mistake to assume that all Southern women are uneducated and poor. Many of us have advanced degrees, read books, and are financially stable. Think Barbara Jordan, Oprah Winfrey. My mother, a high-school graduate, owns and regularly reads more books than many of my university colleagues.
We all good cooks, and we all hospitable. It is a mistake to think that a woman is a good cook just because she's from the South, although many of us are decent cooks. It's probably truer to say most of us care deeply about food, even truer to say that we mostly care about finding a restaurant that serves good food. Some of us do not know what Southern hospitality means, while others of us are always offering anyone and everyone iced tea or second helpings.
We are all white. Southern women come in all colors. This one is obvious, but must be stated because the Southern Woman stereotype is of a white woman, almost never a woman of color. In fact, #6 below assumes whiteness in order to battle another misperception.
Those of us who are white are racist. In response to Paula Deens' workplace harassment suit many wondered why anyone would be surprised that she might be racist, since "she's an old white lady from the South." I can say without a doubt, having lived in three geographical areas of the United States that racism is alive and well throughout our country, not just imprisoned in the South. Some of us date or marry Black men: according to a 2012 Pew Research study two of the top three states for white-black married couples are southern states: Virginia and North Carolina. Some of us voted happily for a Black president. When I dated a Black man my mother welcomed him into our house.
We are dainty Southern belles in hoop dresses or the modern equivalent: debutantes searching for a husband. One of the more pernicious misperceptions is that we are all (still) like Scarlett O'Hara or come from wealthy families that can afford coming-out balls designed to introduce us to marriageable men. Many of us hunt, fish, build houses, do extreme sports, and some of us are gay and could care less about marriageable men. When married we tend to outlive our husbands, and we are often the central cores of the families during crises. We dislike the cliché steel magnolia, but it is true that women from the south tend to be strong women.
We are obedient, repressed, conservative types. Many of my male friends married to southern women noted how strong and independent their wives were. We are vibrant, often colorful, opinionated and independent. Think Ann Richards, former governor of Texas, civil rights activist Rosa Parks, singer and actress Dolly Parton, writer Zora Neale Hurston.
So stop putting us in a box, you non-southerners. We are writers, we are waitresses, we are nurses and teachers, we are bankers and politicians, artists and clergy; we are nuns and witches, we are poets and photographers. We are black and white and brown. We've burned our hoop skirts. Hear us say ya'll.
Sheryl St. Germain was a contributor to the new book, Southern Sin: True Stories of the Sultry South and Women Behaving Badly, published by In Fact Books. In this collection of twenty-three essays, a diverse group of Southern women explore what it means to defy tradition and forge their own paths, covering a broad range of circumstances and perspectives, with mothers, daughters, sisters, best friends, fiancees, divorcees, professors, poets, lifeguards-in-training, lapsed Baptists, middle-aged lesbians, and tipsy debutantes all lending their own bold voices.