Yes, the South Organizes

Yesterday, Senator Wendy Davis stood for Texas women. She stood for thirteen hours, without rest, in opposition to the latest Republican assault on abortion rights. The feat is intrinsically remarkable–it demands incredible endurance, and Davis is the first woman in Texas history to filibuster a Senate bill. She didn’t stand alone, either: Texans packed the gallery. And when it became obvious that the GOP intended to twist parliamentary rules to force a vote, Texans revolted, disrupting the vote until the midnight deadline passed.  The 200, 000 individuals fixated on the Texas Tribune’s livestream witnessed a stunning display of dynamic progressive activism.

And yet: if you hadn’t found the livestream, it’s likely you had no idea that any of this occurred. Last night, Davis’ filibuster passed without comment from each of the major news networks. There were no analysts, no pundits. Mainstream media greeted this peculiarly American scene with a yawn. And, startlingly, so did many feminists. A shocking number of East Coast feminists let this pass without remark. Nothing from Jill Filipovic or from Feministe. Nothing from Anne Marie Slaughter. Really nothing at all from the lands to the north, except perhaps for the prevailing shock that such strident progressivism could come from the South.

The South is a complicated place. I should know. I grew up in Virginia’s Appalachian Mountains, and recently returned after a seven year exodus that took me from my mountains to Ohio’s cornfields to London’s rainsoaked streets and back again. It’s been as difficult as you might expect, this adjustment, and my relationship to the South is strained. I love it. I hate it. I think I can endure it and then I think I dream of relocation. If I’m going to be truly honest with myself, there are days when I believe that I do not belong here, and that the reason I don’t belong here is because I think I am too good to be here.

I don’t like myself on those days. I’d like to say those days are born from frustration at unemployment and poor finances, but there’s an element of adolescent angst too. It is not easy to be different here. This is still a deeply religious place and it’s important to understand that the popularity of these beliefs are derived from centuries of poverty. What else is there but God? I know this. But when you are a progressive in the Appalachians, you often feel intensely alone, alienated by a community reliant upon the consistency of tradition.

So I’m a Marxist, and a feminist, and I live in this town and I organize. Today, mere hours after Wendy Davis finally took a seat, my friends and I met up at the local women’s clinic to begin volunteering as clinic escorts. Members of a local church have decided that the clinic is a perfect opportunity to ‘proclaim the Word of God’ loudly from the sidewalk . For context, this isn’t an ordinary church. People from Away moved here specifically to start this church, and they didn’t necessarily do so with the interests of locals in mind. This is an extremist group, founded by Calvinist theologian RC Sproul Jr. They are Quiverfull, they homeschool, and the men are unquestionably Christian Patriarchs.

The man leading today’s picket identified himself as a minister and at first, spoke exclusively to my male friend. He did not acknowledge my presence; in fact, he kept his entire body completely turned away. When I spoke, and then kept speaking, he finally turned toward me and proceeded to talk over me. I did not get to finish a sentence. I got told, instead, to go to talk to a woman protester. When my friend told him I had a master’s degree, this minister of the Lord burst out laughing. His preteen daughter stood there and watched this unfold in total silence. Over the course of several hours, I never once heard her speak. Her father proceeded to abuse and harass women for hours, backed up by other members of his church–and by driver after driver, honking  in support his sidewalk evangelism. That’s what I expected to see. That reflects my experiences with Southern Christianity. But at the end of the day, a clinic nurse thanked us for our help, and told us that despite appearances, they’ve received call after call from community members grateful for the clinic’s services.

It can be lonely to be an Appalachian progressive. But things are changing. My friends and I are optimistic that we’ll be able to recruit more clinic volunteers and demonstrate to the world that our town appreciates the women’s clinic. And so I wasn’t surprised, really, to see that packed Texas rotunda. I felt relief. I felt pride. I felt hope. And I felt confidence, too, that Southern progressives can build on this momentum to deliver real political change to our communities. The campaigns we organize will look different from campaigns in NYC, or anywhere else, for that matter, but they are underway, they are increasingly intersectional and I can promise you one thing: the only progressives surprised by last night’s display of Texan feminism are progressives who don’t understand Southern communities, and haven’t bothered to familiarize themselves with Southern activism.

This Appalachian Marxist would argue this is, at its heart, a deeply classist narrative. No need to learn about Southern activism if Southerners are uneducated racists. For all my irritation with my hometown and its conservativism, I know that change is on the way. We need solidarity, and not surprise, from our progressive peers.

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