Things My Grandmothers Taught Me About Being a Southern Woman

All my life I’ve been fascinated by the idea of femininity. What makes a woman a WOMAN and what separates her from the opposite sex? Is it her hair, perfectly coiffed? Is it her dress, flowing and fluid? Is it her manner, soft and gentle? As a Southern woman living in a modern day society, sometimes the messages have been mixed. In a day where sex appeal is valued over character and women are stepping out of traditional roles, it’s sometimes hard to know what it truly means to be a woman.

Unlike many modern women, I’ve had the privilege of knowing many steel magnolias in my time: women who served as an example of womanhood for me, women for whom a gentle exterior camouflaged a backbone of pure steel and whose strength bore the responsibility of home and hearth through generations of war and sickness, graduations and marriages, tragedies and triumphs. Those with less experience might equate femininity with weakness, but I know better. Strength of character and determination of will aren’t impeded by high heels any more than good moral fiber can be covered up by Chantilly lace. As Lee Smith puts it, “The biggest myth about Southern women is that we are frail types—fainting on our sofas…nobody where I grew up ever acted like that. We were about as fragile as coal trucks.” Coal trucks in platform heels, perhaps.

My Mema was the epitome of Southern charm. Born and raised in Virginia, she went to work in the textile mills while my daredevil grandfather was off in WWII, shooting at enemy planes as a tail end Charlie. And when he died, leaving her with two small sons, she went on to become a mill manager and raise them on her own. She bleached her hair blond till the day she died and was resplendent in purples and teals. She’d be the first to tell you a good Southern woman should be sweet as honey with a dash of sass thrown in for good measure. She knew, like any good Southern woman, that the stomach is the fastest way to someone’s heart and could always be counted on for good cookin’ and good advice. I don’t remember it ever raining at her house. I’m sure it must have, but all of my memories are of sunny days spent climbing the magnolia tree in her back yard or painting our nails bright reds and pinks on the front stoop. These are warm and sunny memories that probably have less to do with the weather and more to do with grace and faith inside her that transcended the exterior temperature.

Then there was my great grandmother, a product of Richmond’s high society. Weighing less than 100 pounds, she wore pearls and heels well into her nineties with a grace that age could not deteriorate. A tiny woman, her modest dress and a French twist belied a work ethic that would put most to shame. She was a master in the art of conversation, and her ear was always inclined to our interests and thoughts. Born in 1900, her life transpired through outhouses and horse drawn carriages to cell phones and jet planes with a World War and the Great Depression thrown in between. She knew what it meant to be a Southern lady. Never a harsh word for anyone, she understood that true good manners don’t divide classes of people, but make everyone feel comfortable and welcome.

They weren’t perfect, neither one. They were different as night and day, but both had the intangible quality of spirit that allowed them to handle any circumstance with grace. The lessons they taught me were not because of admonishments, but because of who they were – the way they lived their lives. They were women who embraced their femininity, while maintaining their strength and grit. They understood that being a woman doesn’t mean being weak, but you catch more flies with honey than vinegar. And now it’s my turn to share my Southern heritage of strength and gentleness by living a life worthy of being remembered by the next generation. A challenge all women of Southern heritage share – a life worthy of the women who came before us.