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Memphis Flyer Life Studies

Women, race, class, and engendering the South.

By Leonard Gill

AUGUST 30, 1999:  Thursday, August 26th, marks this year's National Women's Equality Day, a fitting date to bring to your attention Neither Separate Nor Equal (Temple University Press, 273 pp., $19.95) and its editor, Barbara Ellen Smith, associate professor of sociology at the University of Memphis and that institution's director of the Center for Research on Women.

To start, though, start with this question, because Smith's colleagues did when she embarked on this project: "Why work on a book about women in the South? Nobody writes books about women in the Midwest." Smith: Because "[n]onfiction books about women in the contemporary South may be counted on one hand" and that's if you discount the "[h]ackneyed images of Southern women as Scarletts, Mammies, and Daisy Maes."

If you can imagine an enduring line of Scarletts, Mammies, and Daisy Maes a few hundred miles due north, you might just see a book on women in the Midwest. But take those fictional standbys, substitute the words class, race, and history and what you have is the threefold perspective in Neither Separate Nor Equal, plus a baker's dozen of wide-ranging topics by a wide range of authors. The tie that binds? "Race, gender, class, and sexuality as social relationships -- dynamic, contested, and re-created daily by human action, but ultimately not voluntary or individual." (So much for the lately fashionable approaches to doing sociology -- the poststructuralist and the "popular" -- approaches Smith does better to explain and dispose of in a single paragraph than any poststructuralist you or I know.)

But about those topics. Here's a loose sampling: the "'hidden transcript' of resistance to white patriarchy" among Native-American women and Melungeons in the mountain sections of the South in Darlene Wilson and Patricia Beaver's "Transgressions in Race and Place"; dependence on and independence from white employees by black domestic workers in Mahnaz Kousha's "Race, Class, and Intimacy in Southern Households"; the emergence of a black middle class, through the firsthand accounts of four professional women in the Delta, in "Doing Good While Doing Well" by Cynthia Duncan, Margaret Walsh, and Gemma Beckley; in Sally Ward Maggard's "Gender, Race, and Place," a strike by hospital workers in Pike County, Kentucky, in which "gender roles and a supporting gender ideology" (not race) "influenced virtually all aspects" of a decade-long labor conflict; and finally "What's Sex Got to Do with It, Y'All?" in which and not without humor, Mab Segrest looks at "sexuality as a dynamic of power" and "heterosexism and homophobia as part of the tangled intersection of race, class, gender, and sexuality in Southern and U.S. culture."

Is it any wonder Smith characterizes the social relations of Southern women -- as present today as in the past -- as "multivalent"?

Those words race, class, gender, and sexuality run like a mantra throughout Neither Separate Nor Equal, and it's fitting they do because Barbara Ellen Smith has made them her focus since earning a Ph.D. in sociology from Brandeis University in 1981. Since heading the Center for Research on Women at the University of Memphis in 1995, that focus has if anything broadened and more concentrated her attention on the status of women in Memphis, the Mississippi Delta, and the entire Mid-South.

"My interest is looking at people's lives in the context of region and place, and that originally meant Appalachia," she says, referring to her years as research director at the famed Highlander organization in East Tennessee. "Ever since the early '80s, though, it's increasingly meant the South as a whole. But it's becoming difficult to talk about the South as distinctive in any coherent way. There are traces but they're almost intuitive."

Can Smith herself intuit the near-absence of serious studies on women in the South within her discipline?

"It's a combination of things, and I'm not sure I have a definitive answer on that," she admits. "The folks in history and literature have just really taken over the show in Southern studies. That's really where the action's been. I wouldn't want to say there's been no work on the contemporary South (especially in political science), but I think in part it has to do with the mentality of sociology departments (and generally the social sciences) in some of the higher-education institutions in the South. [Sociologists] have sought to 'escape' the South so as not to be seen as parochial, whereas something like Southern history has had just a grand place in U.S. history as a whole for so long."

Was there the assumption that Southern women were not even worth the study?

"Probably, in some cases," according to Smith. "But the contrast with Appalachia is significant because there really was an Appalachian studies movement that was part of the social movements that went on from the '60s forward -- anti-strip-mining, union democracy, for example -- and there was a kind of Appalachian nationalism that grew up in that time, that fed into an academic interest across disciplines. You didn't find that interest in 'the South' as a whole, and I think that has partly to do with the tormented racial history and conflict of that time. To claim identity as a Southerner was much more ambivalent, particularly for whites."

And particularly for wealthy, white women? If you question Smith on this point and the absence of upper-class women in Neither Separate Nor Equal, it's a point and an absence Smith herself faced.

"I was looking for diversity in Neither Separate Nor Equal, and I would have liked to have gotten more on the elite. That would have been interesting. But reluctance [on the part of wealthier women] can be a problem. And I think also, with the critical mass of people in higher education, particularly women in women's studies turning their attention to the South, the tendency is to focus on working-class women and women of color."

On the subject of the rising population of Spanish-speaking Memphians, however, Smith is already positioned to take if not their exact number -- a subject of mounting local concern -- then their exact status into account.

"That's something I'm raising money for right now to do," she says. "Putting together with folks from Highlander, with folks from Atlanta and the Southern Regional Council a project that would look at the ways in which race in Memphis is being reconfigured. Dramatically and I think historically, we're seeing changes that are going to transform, they are transforming ..."

The dynamics of race, class, gender? Insert if you will after reading Neither Separate Nor Equal those issues that have every business of being, male or female, all our business. Trust, with confidence, you've got Barbara Ellen Smith's okay.

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