Women in the Rural South: Toward Economic Equity

By Leslie Lilly

Vol. 8, No. 2, 1986, pp. 5, 8-11

There is a sense of place and time about the South that distorts even as it amplifies its outward character to the nation. We are a region of great diversity even as we pursue the rejection of that diversity. We market our stereotypes at the same time we deplore them.

We are haunted by an historical wishfulness to act and think in terms of privilege.

Our geography is that of rural and small town communities. Our economic progress has been confounded by this ruralness. We have been used as a hinterland--our timber, our coal, our minerals, our water, our agriculture, and even our people exploited as export commodities.

Our political experience is distinguished by a rigid conservatism. Its most ardent expression has been the need to defend and explain about the South. Generations


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of racial role-playing have left a terrible legacy of poverty and powerlessness among the disfranchised. The inertia is seductive. There is a hopelessness about thinking that things can ever be any different. Our self-blame is deeply ingrained. We are primarily a poor and working class people, a people for whom change has meant hard, bitter, and often violent confrontation.

Proclamations demanding rights for women found few initial supporters in the South. What movement there was had a delicate nature due to the hothouse of its growth--an old confederacy of geographic circumstance, steeped in a unique regional history, dominated by a rural and agrarian political economy. If the "southern question" had troubled national politics for more than a century, it was no less a barrier to women working to improve the status of women. From the earliest era of activism in behalf of women's rights, to the more recent struggle to win southern states' ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment, the enrollment of a southern constituency has been problematic.

Ironically it seems that political support for women's equity in the South could not be pursued on the basis of equity. To have done so would have raised an issue that is still controversial: to whom is equity entitled? The implications of this issue are nothing short of revolutionary. That racism should overtake the vision for universal equity was preordained in the South. Alliances across race and privilege were divided by political tactics that required the oppressed to settle first on which oppress-


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sion was of greater priority in the determination of specific reforms.

There is one lesson to be learned from this history. Racism, classism, and sexism mean that women always lose. This reality is nowhere more stark than in the South. Women's historical inheritance is economic subjugation. Their children must necessarily share in this experience since their role of women as bearers and caretakers of children has not significantly changed.

But it isn't as though women haven't fought injustice. Women have a history of struggle as leaders, fighting to end slavery and lynching, as workers in the labor movement, as citizens fighting for franchise, as advocates against child labor, as organizers to achieve civil rights, as supporters of social welfare reforms, as entrepreneurs in development, as voices in behalf of global peace and justice. Racism and sexism are not mutually exclusive, and privilege cannot substitute for the right of self-determination. We came to know this about slavery. We are only now beginning to know this about women.

We are an organization devoted to this struggle. We believe economic equity is at the heart of the effort to achieve civil equality in the United States. Civil equality has limited meaning in the absence of economic resources sufficient to ensure basic quality of life. The issue of economic equity is paramount for women especially. Female-headed households are the fastest-growing segment of the poverty populations in this country. Children are carried on their mothers' breasts throughout households that can't adequately provide educational opportunity, food, shelter, clothing, or health care. Gender, race, and class are the most powerful ingredients in the formula which determines who shall be poor. The final ingredient is geography. In the South and Appalachia, there are few who enjoy escape from the destiny that their birth to this equation implies.

We believe that this report, Women of the Rural South, will underscore the extent to which change must be advocated. We believe that women have the burden of leadership in calling for that change, and that their responsibility to do so is clear. The problem of economic injustice is not solely a women's issue, however, nor will resolution be achieved by women alone. But there is a change of attitude that must be cultivated, and some intellectual reckoning that must occur.

Social movements cannot be sustained if they fail to support the participation of women. Women cannot develop leadership nor mobilize to follow leaders without recognition of the special responsibilities they also have in regard to children. Poverty and vulnerability are inherent in roles of dependency--forced or voluntary. Improvement to the quality of life for all Americans and challenges to the causes and sources of poverty cannot succeed in the absence of an analysis about the economic and political status of those citizens for whom change is being sought. Women of the Rural South is an attempt to provide the anatomy of the problems women are facing in the rural South so that we can more clearly understand the nature of the struggle before us, and the depth of reform that will be required. Strategies to achieve social and economic justice must explicitly recognize the political economy of women if they are to succeed.

And, if we do succeed? Ours is a vision for economic development in the South that is inclusive of women and


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minorities. It is a vision for an economy that is self-sustaining, and that has the capacity to distribute the income necessary to enhance the quality of life throughout our communities, but most especially among women and minorities. It is development that inspires rejuvenation of the old and innovation of the new, and a respect, regard, and appeciation for the human resource upon which economic development depends. It is development that is integrally rooted in a wider sphere, with self-reliance at the heart of its purpose, and with education, community, and independence as parts of its vision. In that spirit, we call on: Policymakers to repudiate the century-old policy of promoting economic growth on the cynical guarantee of low wages and poverty among southern workers. Specifically, we urge them to:

* Allocate fifty percent of state economic development funds to projects benefitting primarily women, and additional funds to projects benefitting people of color in direct proportion to their representation in the state population.

* Earmark a specific portion of economic development funds for rural areas, directly proportionate to the distribution of the state population.

* Establish affirmative action requirements for the civil service and for private contractors rendering services under contract with the state. Initiate strong enforcement of laws guaranteeing nondiscrimination in private and state workforces.

* Arrange immediately for a job evaluation/comparable worth analysis of the state and local civil service systems; and appropriate the funding necessary to close the gaps between workers of different race and gender who perform jobs requiring comparable skills and responsibilities.

* Establish a more favorable political climate in support of working people, and repeal the right-to-work law in your state.

* Bring public assistance payments, specifically AFDC, up to the national average.

* Subsidize locally-owned, quality child care in rural communities.

* Provide vocational education extension courses in rural areas that currently lack opportunities for training, and actively recruit women for nontraditional vocational courses.

* Identify and actively recruit women into positions of policy and decision making at every level.

Grantmakers, especially those in the South, we ask you to evaluate your present funding priorities according to criteria of social responsibility, and to revise your policies accordingly. Specifically, we urge you to:

* Allocate at least fifty percent of your total annual budget to projects that organize and empower the economically disadvantaged.

* Allocate at least half of that amount to projects that address the needs of women, particularly women of color.

* Recruit women from the ranks of community leadership as staff executive officers, board members, and trustees in philanthropic endeavors.

* Collaborate with women community leaders in a process that will eliminate attitudes and beliefs that are barriers to working together in addressing issues of poverty.

* Develop peership with grantseekers on issues of strategy, and build a process for mutual evaluation that reveals the strengths and weaknesses in our collaborative attempts to foster change.

Leaders of Southern Churches and Synagogues, we call on you to speak out for economic justice, and to minister to the economic needs of low-income people, especially women. Specifically, we urge you to:

* Educate your congregations as to the economic injustice experienced by women and people of color in the South.

* Provide food pantries, soup kitchens, shelter, transportation and other services needed by the poor.

* Provide active support for local efforts to organize and empower women.

* Encourage the leadership of women in all areas of religious activity.

* Build on the vision of liberation theology and apply it to the responsibility of your church among the poor and disfranchised in your own communities.

Southern Education Institutions, we call on your faculty, staff and trustees to incorporate the experiences and contributions of women into all areas of the curriculum, and to address the needs of women as students and as employees. Specifically, we urge you to:

* Hire faculty with expertise in women's studies, particularly in the areas of southern working class women and women of color.

* Evaluate existing curricula, especially in the social sciences and humanities, as to their coverage of the experiences and contributions of women and people of color.

* Develop and implement new curricula to remedy identified deficiencies.

* Recruit women and minorities as students.

* Seek scholarship funds and establish financial


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aid policies that enable the attendance of low-income.

* Establish and enforce strict affirmative action procedures for hiring, salaries and promotion, including the granting of tenure, among all faculty.

* Arrange for an evaluation of the comparability of all staff jobs, and revise pay scales according to the principle of comparable worth.

* Establish and enforce affirmative action procedures, hiring, and promotion of staff.

* Establish programs that make the educational, research and other resources of your institution available to the local community, expecially to low-income members, in order to serve needs that they themselves identify.

Finally, we call on Southern Women to come together across the barriers that historically have divided us. Unite! Organize! This report will justify your anger, and support your resolution to act. A single voice can become a mighty shout in the presence of a shared vision among women about what must be different in our lives. No one else can "give" us equity or set us free! We have nothing to lose in this struggle but our poverty and the diminishment we experience because of our oppression. We are powerful and we are needed. Let your children be your inspiration, your sisterhood be your sustenance, and a movement for race and sex equity, your vision. We have generational responsibility to uphold and the strength and capability to meet its challenges. Stand up, reach out, and let the future unroll as if you mattered. In this movement, every person counts!

Leslie Lilly is executive director of the Southeast Women's Employment Coalition. This essay is taken from an extensively researched report: Women of the Rural South. For order information see page 6.