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  • Front Porch
  • Marcie Cohen Ferris

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illustrations by Jane Mount

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On the occasion of this special issue focused on women—thanks to our whip-smart guest editor, historian Jessica Wilkerson—I am grateful for the virtual women’s community I access online in these continued months of lockdown, but I miss the physical presence of the important women in my life. (Roper, the senior female Labrador retriever member of our household, just nudged me with her nose from where she lies under my desk as I write. I stand corrected.)

Isolation reminds me of the many women and women’s spaces I turn to daily—and of our conversations that sustain my work, my personal life and family, and, most importantly, my sense of well-being. Among these women are my intrepid mother Huddy Cohen, who, at ninety-five, is reading her way through the quarantine, including Southern Cultures (she is a big fan), and my amazing stepdaughter Virginia Ferris, a talented librarian and special collections archivist at North Carolina State University. Virginia’s pandemic experience, as well as her unflappable partner Chase’s, has been shaped by her pregnancy and a baby unfazed by “all this” who recently joined us in this South at this alarming time. I know Fiona Grey will grow up and marvel that, in 2020, women remained so scarce at the highest levels of government and industry. I hope she’ll read this special Women’s Issue one day and appreciate the amazing work women in the South have done and are doing to right that wrong.

I am struck by the broad communities of women, including queer, trans, woman-identified, gender nonconforming, and cis womxn, that this collection of essays reveals across time and region. For too long it was assumed that women’s activism and engagement, no matter the cause or identity, was absent in the American South. These essays argue differently and provide evidence of multiple women’s movements, beginning with the late-nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century activism of freedpeople that inspired the work of Ida B. Wells-Barnett in Holly Springs, Mississippi. Contemporary voices share personal histories of sexism, resistance, and suffrage as part of the centennial commemoration of the 1920 right to vote in North Carolina. We learn about the strategic coalition-building of the Atlanta Lesbian Feminist Alliance (alfa) in early [End Page 2] 1970s Georgia, and, in another essay, the late-night gay, trans, and drag cultures and dance clubs of 1970s and ’80s Roanoke, Virginia. A photo essay brings to view the complex lives of working poor women in Appalachian Ohio. And in the migrations of twentieth-century southern women writers, we see how escape from the region, and sometimes return to it, created a shared space of liberation, creativity, and resistance to white supremacy and patriarchy. As Wilkerson writes in her introduction, “Many of the authors here, among some of the most exciting scholars of women, gender, and sexuality, are rewriting histories of the US South. Their goal is not simply to be more inclusive, but to reinterpret southern and women’s history.”

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Across the South and the nation, covid-19 has forced Americans to recognize that essential workers—the majority of them women—risk their health and safety and that of their families as they serve a stricken country and those whose privilege allows them to shelter in place. Each day, we see the faces of underpaid women front-line workers who keep our nation functioning, despite the danger they encounter. As we witness their labor and listen to the rising voices of women, demanding racial justice and economic equity and speaking out against sexual violence and harassment, there is no expression of victimhood. Instead, we see resolute strength, vigilance, outrage, art, and agency. And we see them in this volume, too. A stellar selection of writers and documentarians explores the spaces where southern women have collectively organized, claimed their civil rights, found community, made a living, and demanded their voices be heard.

I’m currently working on a book focused on the contemporary...