Note: This is a guest post by Katie Rice, who was inspired by Girldrive to go on her own Southern version. Got a great idea for a guest series? Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
When I came home to St. Louis for Thanksgiving break last fall, I found my sister’s copy of GirlDrive sitting on the coffee table in the living room. I flipped through a few pages and quickly got hooked on the idea of traveling, woman-focused journalism —marauding through the country in search of women’s stories.
I was living in Arkansas at the time, in a house with eight fellow students – all young women. One of them, Ashley, was in my Gender and Sexuality in American Politics class. We’d spent all our free time that semester sitting around the house, discussing our readings and asking our roommates all sorts of brazen questions about womanhood, femininity, sexuality, love, faith, self-esteem, and sex. Inspired by the book and by our roommates’ openness, Ashley and I decided to take on our own GirlDrive: Southern Edition for two weeks in January.
I sent out a flurry of Facebook messages to friends from Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, and Tennessee, asking for connections. Although Ashley and I called our plan the “Southern Feminist Road Trip,” we didn’t seek out feminists. In fact, our only qualification was that the person be a woman raised in the South who was willing to talk with us. And with little more than the promise of a free hot beverage and a thoughtful conversation, more than a dozen women in ten cities and towns across the South agreed to meet with us. We started in New Orleans’ famous Café du Monde and ended in a series of Starbucks, with a few local coffee shops in between.
My classmates had warned me that Southern women are famously prudish and private; they’d make my Missouri upbringing seem like a beacon of liberalism. In a way, the friends were right. I was blown away by the sexual and social conservatism of many of the women we met with. But the interviewees were generally receptive to the broad range of personal questions we posed. The women were also strong, independent, thoughtful, open, and likeable. Most were deeply, deeply religious, and although their faith unsettled me, I felt connected to each of them by the time our conversations ended.Here’s a snapshot: A gorgeous, quirky journalist made us turn off the tape recorder before she admitted, hushedly, that she supported abortion – although not divorce. Two tennis teammates from a community college discussed their marriage prospects. A 29-year-old virgin told us how her family’s harsh religious views led her to believe, until age 16, that having a boyfriend was a sin. A misfit at Ole Miss explained that her gay male friends served as her chastity belt. A sorority sister from Mississippi told us that the best thing about Southern men was that they were expected to “take care of” their wives and daughters – by paying for frequent manicures and hair colorings for them.
Our conversations were like speed dating in a way, or CouchSurfing: moving past the BS of everyday chit-chat to discuss deep issues with people from vastly different backgrounds. As the trip wore on, Ashley and I found ourselves in lengthy, personal conversations with practically everyone we met, male of every gender. At a dinner stop in Starkville, Mississippi, our Mexican-American waiter told us his life story, by way of explaining his unexpected Minnesota accent. It was like Ashley and I flicked on an internal empathy switch and started emitting high-frequency “tell me everything” signals.
Our interviewees’ candor was an honor to us, even when they told us things we didn’t like to hear. (The classic, from one of the tennis teammates: A woman can’t be president because she would get PMS and be unstable.) We relished the conversations, even when we they said things that didn’t make sense at first, like the Mississippi woman’s definition of “care”. It took three full minutes of explanations, with Ashley’s cultural translation services, before I understood that the kind of “care” in question was primarily financial and aesthetic. But having the opportunity to discuss grooming rituals with a true Southern Belle – and to discuss abstinence with a 29-year-old virgin, and to discuss liberal politics with a closeted Democrat – let me get a peek behind the wall of stereotypes that guided my understanding of the South.
Our trip was funded as an experiential learning project by Hendrix College, so our lodging and food – not to mention all the cups of coffee we bought during interviews – were paid for. But I would have waited tables and scrounged pennies (as it sounds like Nona and Emma did) for months in exchange for those conversations.