On the Ambition of Southern Women

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I didn’t grow up thinking I would amount to much. It wasn’t because anyone told me that I wouldn’t. My parents were supportive, proud, and encouraging. But it was clear that I wasn’t into school. And even my major in college, English Lit. (because Journalism required an extra Statistics class and I just couldn’t deal), was rather uninspiring because, really, what was I going to do with that?

I met my husband during my junior year of college. We were married the summer after I graduated. I was 23. When we moved to DC to pursue my dream of working for a nonprofit, I was cautiously optimistic about the great job I would land, the doors that would be flung open to us, and the feeling of wholeness that was sure to follow.

What greeted me was something I was not prepared for. You see, in Oklahoma I had been one of the last in my circle to get married. I was a bit of a late bloomer. Many of my friends already had a child or two of their own. But in DC, when I introduced people to my husband, or mentioned that I had recently been married, the responses were … dismayed.

The eyes would widen, the questions about age would follow, the proclamations that I was “a baby” were inevitable. So I stopped mentioning that I was married at networking events. I think I may have even slipped my wedding ring off in an interview or two. I felt sheepish when coworkers at the corner shop I worked at would ask if I was dating anyone.

Could I blame them? I was young. I felt young. I was 23, married, really had no idea who I was, had no focus for my future, and spent my days bagging up expensive wine for twenty-somethings before bagging up expired, leftover food to take home to my husband.

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I also started noticing how women in the South were being portrayed elsewhere in the country. TV shows, movies, and op-eds depicting Southern women as happy little homemakers. Sweet-as-sweetened-iced-tea women who were as oppressed as they were blissfully unable to form thoughts outside of what their men told them to believe.

If only I’d known myself and the women around me well enough then to call bullshit. Bullshit that I should feel less qualified for a job because of my marital status. Bullshit that having a family should make you less ambitious. Bullshit that because you go to church every Sunday, you’re automatically pigeon-holed into being “quaint” or “small-minded.”

The women I grew up with are some of the strongest I know. My aunt Ginger is a career teacher who holds a master’s degree and has spent decades championing students with special needs. My old college acquaintance, Amanda, who organizes and consistently shows up for ACLU, Amnesty International, and Pro Choice events — not an easy thing to do in Oklahoma. And my longtime friend Stacy, who dedicates every day to raising three beautiful girls as honestly and as gracefully as she knows how.

They all do it in the South, and each of them knows their own mind, thank you very much.

What do we do when someone else’s ambition looks different from our own? It’s easy to qualify it as lesser. I think I do it when I’m afraid. Afraid that I’m missing out, or that my own choices won’t amount to “enough.” Why do you do it?

I start a new, seriously great job on Monday. For the first 25 years of my life, I didn’t think I would amount to much. What would I say to myself all those years ago? Bullshit.

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