Raising a Strong Southern Woman


I’m a proud Southern woman and proud feminist, and there are times where I struggle to reconcile the two traits.

My daughter is a silly, rosy-cheeked 2-year-old girl, and I want to raise her to be as strong and pig-headed as the South I love so deeply. My hope is to see her grow wild and free like the branches of a live oak, race in tangled, unchecked patterns toward the wide blue sky.

I want her to be obstinate and fiery, to speak her mind, to stand up tall.

If I’m lucky, she will feel the Virginia clay in her veins, catch fireflies in glass jars, suck the sweet sugar out of honeysuckles, swat away mosquitos on muggy summer nights. I hope she can pick crabs, shuck oysters, and gobble blackberries straight from the vine. My wish is that she loves this home of ours, in the way Southerners do, not simply for what it is now, but for what it was, for all of the years and decades and centuries of dirt and sweat and tears beneath our feet.

I want these things for her, and yet I struggle to find a clear path in a world, that for all of its beauty, can cling stubbornly to the past.

The South is not the stereotypical backwater some people like to depict. There are so many open minds here, so much progress and diversity. It’s a complicated, uncategorizable place, vast and immeasurable.

But there are old, entrenched habits, particularly when it comes to women and girls. There are still pervasive ideas about how a woman should dress and behave, the assumption from some that domestic perfection is the primary goal of any woman’s life. There is still a good ol’ boys philosophy, a “can I talk to your husband little lady?” mindset.

I sometimes feel a little lost as I navigate what it means to raise a girl in the South.

My daughter’s hair is always a wild and unruly mess. I’m hopeless with bow or headband or ribbons. I’ve never put her in patent leather shoes or frilly dresses. 

I only recently learned what a “Bishop dress” is. I think smocking and bonnets and bubbles are sweet. However, most of my daughter’s wardrobe is made up of casual clothes that she can run and jump in, cover with mud and paint without worry or fuss.

Unless it is her greatest heart’s desire, she won’t be a debutante. There will be no white dress and coming out party at the club. There are many values I plan to instill in my child. A desire to be a part of high society is not one of them.

I believe in the importance of manners, of thank you and please, of handwritten notes and hostess gifts. But I don’t think it is a woman’s work in life to emulate Emily Post.

My son and my daughter will be taught the value of manners equally. They will also both be taught how to cook and bake, when and if they choose to learn these skills.

If she wants to fish with her dad or learn how to change a tire, I will encourage it. I will never make her sit on the sidelines in an uncomfortable dress while the boys get to play.

I wonder, sometimes, where that leaves us as mother and daughter. If there is some generic Southern mom litmus test based purely on surface traits, I would fail it miserably. However, I’ve started to realize I’ve been searching for examples in the wrong places.

 If I have any worry about how to raise a strong girl in the South, I need only look to the steel magnolias in my own life.

My Hollins-educated, field hockey playing Virginia grandmother raised six children. And she did it while she also single-handedly started and ran a church preschool. My childhood memories of her have nothing to do with crinoline or perfect pie crusts. Instead, I recall the way she captained canoes for us grandkids at the Swift Creek Reservoir. I can still see her as I saw her then, all lean, tan limbs. She was always so strong and assured as she rowed us along the cool, wet surface of the lake.

My Texas grandmother was 16-years-old when she saw the Japanese planes in the sky at the Pearl Harbor military base. She survived and went on to raise two daughters to be practical, strong Texans like herself. When I think of her, I don’t think of perfect hair and makeup, of proper etiquette or manners. Instead, I remember her love of reading. I see the rows and rows of books in her small Texas ranch, the love of words we shared together.

I have five incredible, colorful aunts on my father’s side who fill our family gatherings with their warm presence and laughter. Despite the presence of my father, the eldest and only son, our family is clearly a matriarchy. As a child, they never emphasized appearance or scolded me for acting “unlady-like.” In fact, I remember them leading the charge in watermelon seed spitting contests, the sticky juice rolling down our chins as we belly laughed into the summer sun.

My mother is a wonderful cook. She makes a mean peach cobbler. She can sew a curtain and host a party for 50 without breaking a sweat. But those are not the Southern qualities that I will try hardest to pass on to my daughter. Instead, I will try to emulate the way she refused to let us talk badly about a friend or classmate in her presence. I will try to model her insistence on kindness, and honesty, the practical, decent way she navigates the world.

I have grown up supported by this thick, unbroken root system of female strength.

Most Southern women likely have similar role models. We all know women who may have taught us how to cut biscuits with a juice glass but also taught us how to stand up for ourselves. We all have cheerleaders who encourage us to go after what we want in life, to never make ourselves small or invisible for the sake of men.

So much of what we associate with Southern femininity, the sundresses and pearls, the immaculate pies and tastefully decorated homes, are window dressing. None of those things will define my daughter as a woman in the South.

Her guideposts, her landmarks, will be the same as mine, a constellation of dynamic Southern women, bright and burning and ineffable.

No matter where she goes in life, how far she travels, they will help her, as they helped me, find home.