I feel like I need to start this article with a general disclaimer that not everyone in the South is racist, sexist, or homophobic. I have even met a few feminists in the south. Like, a whole ten of them. Ten and a half if I’m being generous. This article is based on my experience going to high school in Southern Virginia--not quite the Deep South, but not quite a hive of enlightenment.
I wasn’t born in the south; I was born in D.C, lived in Israel for most of my childhood, and moved to Virginia Beach about halfway through the eighth grade. My first experience on a school bus involved hearing the word “Jew” being used as an insult for the first time, and a boy threatening to pants his girlfriend. It was kind of a culture shock. I knew, vaguely, that the South wasn’t exactly progressive, but I had assumed, living in a relatively large city, that it wasn’t going to be that bad.
And then it was.
See, the South, more than any other region in the US, is extremely hung up on the idea of “tradition” and “old fashioned values” and “the confederacy.” Ever since the Civil War (which, I kid you not, I have heard called “The War of Northern Aggression” one hundred per cent seriously), the South has kind of had this chip on its shoulder. Instead of just being prejudiced, the South is bitter and prejudiced. And that bitterness makes all the difference.
The thing that differentiates the South is that it is saturated in a culture of misogyny and racism; The Civil War, the conflict by which we derive our concepts of North and South, is what gives the South the majority of its identity. There’s a reason you see so many people waving Confederate flags in the South; a large portion of its population still defines themselves by the terms established in 1864 and during the Recession Era. The need to uphold the same ideals they did a hundred years ago is what makes it such a prejudiced place, and one that is so hard to function in as a feminist.
For several years, I did not identify as a feminist. I was vaguely annoyed by the same issues I am now enraged by, but I bought in to the whole “feminist=man hater” idea. But even in my “I’m not a feminist” phase, I was still pretty agitated by the things I heard. I would be upset when teachers would lecture the class about girls in short skirts, saying, “they look like street walkers.” But I never attributed that frustration to anything other than being a girl and I sort of let everything go.
Once I became a feminist, whoo boy did I stop letting things go. I couldn’t--nobody else spoke up. I pretty much had to overcome speaking anxiety just to deal with the sheer ludicrousness around me. Even if there were other feminists in the room, they rarely said anything unless an issue was particularly pertinent to them. That meant that I became something of a poster girl for women’s rights in most of my classes, which is actually not fun at all. It kind of felt like being one of the 300 Spartans.
The worst part was that most of the sexist comments made by those around me were never criticized, even by teachers. As I mentioned before, a lot of them bought into the same values. One of my teachers in charge of sex-ed actually almost cried when talking about the “tragedy” of premarital sex. She told us this sob story about imagining if we were walking down the aisle and saw all of these girls winking at our future husbands because they’d slept with him. Clearly, this story had a million and one issues, but what disturbed me the most was how completely she bought into it. I knew that if someone in class made a similarly problematic comment, she wouldn’t penalize them for it in any way. In fact, we weren’t even allowed to ask questions about abortion, homosexuality, or masturbation. There was a sense that we should accept what we were being told at face value.
Now, while the problems with sex-ed may not be exclusive to the South, they are certainly prominent and accepted there in ways that they aren’t in other regions. While the issues intersectional feminism fights against are not exclusive to the southern states, Southern culture perpetuates and glorifies them in ways that are unique to that region. This means that being a feminist in a southern part of the country feels both frustrating and futile.
Having lived in the North, at a pretty liberal campus, for more than a month now, I can attest to a very different feeling. The North doesn’t seem to be as hung up on winning the civil war as the South is on losing it, and I have not seen anything that would indicate it takes its identity from that time. Obviously, Emerson is not exactly a conservative campus, but it is very telling of the location that advocating for equality is not considered “weird” here. I would be lying if I said that everything up North is a-okay in terms of social justice, but I can say that people in the North seem a lot less gung-ho about their opinions, which makes discussing social justice issues a lot less stressful.
The problem in the South isn’t one that can be changed quickly or easily. For feminism to become effective, the South has to change the way it looks at its history, and that isn’t going to happen if everyone keeps their heads turned down.
Mia Young is a Freshman WLP Student, from Virginia Beach, Virginia. She grew up in Jerusalem, Israel, and would have to say her perfect date is April 25th, because it's not too hot, not too cold, all you need is a light jacket