About Beyond the Magnolias: A Letter from the Editor
February 1, 2015
My great-aunt Edith was a spitfire. Edith was my grandfather’s sister, and she was one in a family of two daughters and four sons. She lived as a single woman throughout most of her adulthood. She never married and never had children. She traveled extensively and lived by herself well into her eighties, when she developed Alzheimer’s and had to be moved to a rest home. When I was growing up, my family would sometimes jokingly call me “little Edith.” Not only was I repeatedly told that I looked more like her than I did my own parents, I also shared with Edith a certain brand of individualism. Often, when someone referred to me as “little Edith,” it wasn’t exactly a compliment. Edith was quirky, to put it kindly, and she had one hell of a stubborn streak, but she was also sassy, headstrong, and enviably independent. I admired those things about Edith, and I enjoyed visiting with her whenever my parents and I traveled to North Carolina. She was interesting and had a great sense of humor.
Edith was also kind of a rebel. Her decision never to get married might not seem that shocking to us in the twenty-first century, but it was a radical thing to want for herself when she was a young woman. She wasn’t “undesirable” and she wasn’t a “spinster,” as Southern society often defined unmarried women. Edith simply wasn’t interested in getting married. She didn’t want the responsibility. Instead, she wanted to live for herself, and for that she was often criticized.
A few years ago, I learned something about Edith’s past that continues to haunt me. When Edith was about sixteen, she found out she was pregnant. As soon as her father, my great-grandfather, discovered her pregnancy, he marched her down to a doctor friend of his and told him, “Make sure this doesn’t happen again.” This doctor didn’t give Edith an abortion. He gave her a hysterectomy.
The doctor that performed Edith's operation was a well-respected man. Abortions were not widely available at this time, nor were they socially acceptable, and doctors who wanted to maintain their good reputation didn’t perform them. A hysterectomy, however, would accomplish essentially the same purpose as an abortion and could easily be passed off as a medically necessary (and perhaps even safer) procedure. I cannot imagine undergoing something so traumatic. I also can't imagine that Edith was alone in her experience. It was not appropriate in the 1930s and 40s for young, unmarried women like Edith to be sexual. This was particularly true in the South, where white female purity continued to symbolize the ideal goodness and purity of the South itself. Edith’s case may be extreme, but there were many young women like her who faced similar consequences for getting pregnant out of wedlock. Rarely, though, do we hear about these women. This incident undoubtedly shaped the rest of Edith's life. What happened to her—and probably others—is an ugly part of our history, and Southerners don’t like to talk about ugly things. But it was a part of history nonetheless, a part of someone’s life that we should talk about, that shouldn’t be ignored.
Fast forward to January of this year, when I read an article I’d seen circulating in my Facebook newsfeed about Ellen Craft, a Georgia slave woman who escaped to freedom by posing as a white, male plantation owner. Ellen Craft was a badass. She broke racial and gender barriers of her time and in the process risked her own life for freedom. How was it that I had never heard of her before now?
Unlike women in other parts of the nation, Southern women carry with them the weight of their cultural history. As W.J. Cash explains in The Mind of the South, beginning before the outbreak of the Civil War, Southern women were invested with expressions of the South’s ideal. White Southern women were placed on a pedestal and worshipped as “the South’s Palladium…the shield-bearing Athena gleaming whitely in the clouds, the standard for its rallying, the mystic symbol of its nationality in the face of the foe.” The ideal Southern woman was expected to be chaste and virtuous, the center of the domestic sphere, a loving mother who catered to her children and husband. This woman was an indispensable figure of the patriarchy, born out of the discourse of white male supremacy and often used as a means of justifying the sexual exploitation of black women. Even in the twenty-first century, myths about Southern womanhood persist. Allison Glock reminds us of this fact in a 2011 article for Garden & Gun. She writes: “To be born a Southern woman is to be made aware of your distinctiveness. And with it, the rules. The expectations.” That’s why I find it so thrilling to hear about women, like Ellen Craft, who break the rules and eschew convention. I am fascinated by her story, by all stories of Southern women and how they navigate life in the face of such high cultural expectations.
Ellen Craft’s life was dramatically different than Edith’s, but each woman is important in her own right. They are both Southern women with interesting, complicated, and even tragic stories that deserve to be shared, who have voices that should be heard.
And that’s how I decided to start Beyond the Magnolias. I want this magazine to showcase Southern women from the past and present who are in some way remarkable. There are thousands of remarkable Southern women like Edith and Ellen. They are teachers, artists, writers, activists, rebels, housewives, mothers, and daughters. Some are influential and inspire others to do great things. Some make only small waves. Some confront difficulties or face challenges in their lifetime. Some overcome obstacles and some don’t. Some of these women are already a part of the historical narrative, while others may have been overlooked by history books. Most will never make it into a history book, but that doesn’t make the lives they lead any less meaningful. This magazine wants to recognize these Southern women. I want it to take readers beyond the “moonlight and magnolias” myth of Southern womanhood and draw attention to the wide variety of women and women’s experiences in the South.
Edith, circa 1940.
Edith died in 2010. Throughout her life, she was forthcoming about having had a hysterectomy, but she kept silent about the real reason behind it. It makes me angry to think of that reason, to think of how her very bodily autonomy was violated. What happened to her was an absolute injustice, and I don’t know that it’s something she ever overcame. But that she lived through it at all only makes her, to me, a stronger and more remarkable woman. Edith’s story isn’t mine to tell, but it’s a story that needs to be told. To dismiss it or to ignore it or to sweep it under the rug is to perpetrate against her yet another grave injustice.
I always admired Edith, and I wish I had taken the time to tell her how inspiring she was to me.I’ve created Beyond the Magnolias to honor Edith and to celebrate women like her. Southern women are more than delicate magnolia blossoms, and there are so many of us, like Edith, who have voices that deserve to be heard.
—Cameron Williams Crawford
About the Editor
Photo by Carolyn Payne Hutcheson.
Cameron Williams Crawford hails from a long line of remarkable Southern women. In 2014, she received her Ph.D. from Florida State University, where she studied twentieth and twenty-first-century Southern literature. She also concentrated on feminism, gender, and sexuality studies. Her research explores the intersection of sexual violence and gender representation in the fiction of William Faulkner, Harper Lee, and Cormac McCarthy, among others. Her work has appeared in South Carolina Review, Gender Forum, Southern Literary Review, Shakespeare Bulletin, and the Cambridge volume Constructing the Literary Self: Race and Gender in Twentieth-Century Literature. She currently lives in Atlanta and teaches at the University of North Georgia.