My debt to women of strength

Many Southern white women were dependent. Black women often made their own way.

Dick Strobel/AP/File
Three Mississippi women stand outside the US Capitol on Jan. 4, 1965: (l. to r.) Annie Devine, Fannie Lou Hamer, and Victoria Gray were members of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, distinct from the then-segregated state Democratic Party. It was integrated in 1968.

In my early life in the Deep South in the late 1960s, the women’s movement had hardly begun. And, in the milieu in which I was raised, I never really thought about a career of my own.

Back then, Southern ladies were raised to get a good education, marry well, raise a family, and be content. Still, I yearned to be something on my own, though I did not know what. 

I went off to a very fine college in the South, where I encountered a plethora of new ideas. My professors encouraged me. I began to sing and act. After graduation, I went to New York and enrolled in an acting school. Alas, my adventure was cut short when a family loss called me back to the small Southern town of my ancestors and long-lost cousins.

And there I saw it: the sweet iced tea, the butter beans, the kindness, the small-town support. Suddenly I thought, “What am I doing in New York City, preparing to be an actress?” Much soul-searching later, I withdrew from the acting school and returned to the land of my birth. I began to contemplate my fate and the cosmos. When I looked around, I saw that while many – indeed most – of the women in my generation and that of my mother had gotten married and continued in what was expected of them, some had not. They were independent, happy, and seemed more self-confident than most. I looked up to them. 

They were the African-American women of the time who ran the homes of well-off white people, raised their children, and then went home and raised their own. They cooked and cleaned. They rode the bus, sometimes for hours, to get to work – but they were always there.

To me, they were the personification of unconditional love. Despite hardships that included woeful pay, they maintained their dignity and their self-respect. As I continued my search for self-fulfillment, they became my role models. They told me always that I would be happier and more secure in myself if I worked, on my own. And so I strove for that, believing what I saw in them, what I felt from them. These women never left my side emotionally, and they never, never steered me wrong: Be independent, they advised. Earn your own money. Always be yourself.

So I did. I moved to Houston, where I found excellent jobs – in public relations, in art administration. The work fed my self-confidence and my conviction that my mentors knew what they were talking about. I even returned to New York to see if acting was a calling for me. I found another good job there, too, with international art collectors – albeit as their cook. Still, I was striving. The pull of my own desires for self-expression continued to call me away into a life of my own.

But it was back in the South that I truly found my niche as a journalist, writing for a local newspaper. I was well mentored and succeeded. National publication followed. It was sweet. Today I’m grateful there are so many role models for young women to look to and more ways for them to find their own paths – paths much less circuitous than mine, I hope. 

But sitting in my lovely little house in the small town in North Carolina where I have come to live, I’m most grateful that those towering women of my past, long gone now, are still with me in spirit. And, when I walk to the post office or quietly watch fireflies out my window on a summer’s night, in my heart, as the Bible says, I know that “The lines are fallen unto me in pleasant places; yea, I have a goodly heritage.”

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