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They Persist: Southern Women Writers and Artists Taking Up Space

Posted by: Julia Eichelberger | February 17, 2020 | No Comment |
Drawing by Minnie Evans

Untitled drawing by Minnie Evans, mid-20th century. The Johnson Collection.

On February 19, the Gibbes Museum presents “She Persisted: Women of Letters and the American South.” Authors Michele Moore and Nikky Finney will share with me some of their experiences as writers. This post contains a longer version of my remarks for this event, placing these writers’ work in a larger context of Southern women writers.

This event coincides with the exhibit now at the Gibbes, Central To Their Live: Southern Women Artists in the Johnson Collection. These works were created despite barriers many faced: lack of access to formal training; lack of opportunity to create; racism, sexism and other historical or biographical circumstances that took over the lives of so many Southern women. Nevertheless, these artists persisted.[1] They drew; they painted. They carved sculptures; they carved out time and space to hone their craft, to develop a personal artistic style. They found ways to preserve and exhibit their work, and many found ways to make a living as artists.

Watercolor painting

“Along the Beach,” Alice Ravenel Huger Smith. The Johnson Collection.

Women in this era ventured outside their homes, once considered the only proper place for women to create art, and painted in plein air, producing startling landscapes like “Along the Beach” by Alice Ravenel Huger Smith. They documented women doing non-domestic work, such as Wenonah Day Bell’s “Peach Packing” painting. Others produced monumental portraits of activists, such as the grand, four-foot-tall portrait of Madeline McDowell Breckenridge (a Kentuckian who advocated for women’s suffrage), by Ella Sophonisba Hergesheimer. Abstract art also commanded attention using form and color, such as Mary Alice Leath Thomas’s “Red, Gold and Black,” 4 feet tall. Other artists use detail to compel the viewer to look more closely, like Minnie Eva Jones Evans.  Some writers created smaller-scale portraits and sculptures that carried concentrated power: a factory worker (“War Worker”) by Elizabeth Catlett; a solemn young African American boy, “Gamin,” , by Augusta Christine Fells Savage; Anna Vaughn Hyatt Huntington’s powerful and relaxed “Yawning Tiger.”

Painting by Mary Thomas

“Red, Gold, and Black,” Mary Alice Leath Thomas. The Johnson Collection.

Painting of women sorting peaches

“Peach Packing, Spartanburg County,” Wenonah Day Bell. The Johnson Collection

This art takes up space,[2] and not just because the works are beautiful. Collectively, these artists challenge conventional notions of femininity and power. They reveal Southern experiences and landscapes that were being overlooked in the twentieth century. 21st-century women artists face their own challenges, but they can take inspiration from these artists who preceded them.

In the same era as these visual artists, Southern women writers critiqued conventional notions of Southern womanhood, social class and race. When considering Southern literature from this era, we may first think of William Faulkner, whose landmark modernism challenged conventional modes of storytelling and conventional stories about the South, dismantling the myth of an idyllic Old South. Faulkner’s work also interrogated his readers’ notions of manhood, womanhood, race and social class, suggesting that these are socially constructed rather than permanent and essential elements of a human being. In this regard, some earlier southern women writers like Kate Chopin were actually ahead of Faulkner, and women like Katherine Anne Porter and Zora Neale Hurston, writing at the same time as Faulkner, were offering their own critiques of social constructs that their characters sought to transcend.

Cover of The Awakening by Kate Chopin

First edition of The Awakening, 1899

Kate Chopin’s fiction won praise in the late 1800s for capturing daily life in northwestern Louisiana, but also drew criticism for her frank treatment of topics considered improper for polite society–interracial relationships, and women refusing traditional female roles. Chopin’s 1899 masterpiece, The Awakening, was called “sordid” and “vulgar” because its heroine valued sensual fulfilment found in an extramarital affair, and longed to express herself creatively even when that required abandoning her role as a wife and mother.

Katherine Anne Porter, who lacked the financial security that surrounded Chopin all her life, began publishing fiction in the 1920s. Her characters included a farm woman struggling to care for a mentally disabled son, a hardworking wife and mother whose long life was now slipping away, a young girl struggling to understand birth and mortality.  Porter’s stories challenge the toxic myth that white Southern women were asexual, fragile “ladies” that white Southern men must protect in order to maintain white supremacy.

Also during the 1920s, Zora Neale Hurston studied anthropology and began documenting African American lives, including the all-black town of Eatonville Florida.  Many of Hurston’s female characters lacked access to the education Hurston had managed to obtain, and are hindered by racism and by sexist assumptions that good women obey and defer to men. Hurston’s 1936 novel Their Eyes Were Watching God disproves this assumption through the journey of its protagonist, who ends the novel alone and at peace, commanding her landscape:

She pulled in her horizon like a great fish-net. Pulled it from around the waist of the world and draped it over her shoulder. So much of life in its meshes! She called in her soul to come and see.

photo of Zora Neale Hurston

Zora Neale Hurston

Photo of Eudora Welty

Eudora Welty, 1946

During the 1940s, Hurston’s fortunes began to decline, but another writer’s career was taking off. Eudora Welty wasn’t rich, but had enough financial security to write for years before earning any royalties. Many publishers initially rejected her short stories, and nevertheless, she persisted—as did her loyal and well-connected literary agent. Welty’s published fiction, ranging from humorous to lyric to tragic, was always stylistically innovative. The women in Welty’s works are often judged and acted upon according to conventional notions of womanhood, race, and social class. Often it’s women who impose these conventional limitations on one another, as in a story about a woman working ceaselessly in her flower garden while her neighbors look disapprovingly from their upstairs windows. She gardens

without any regard for ideas that her neighbors might elect in their clubs as to what constituted an appropriate vista, or an effect of restfulness, or even harmony of color. Just to what end [she] worked so strenuously in her garden, her neighbors could not see. . . .

A garden, for Welty, was a place of discovery, an emblem of the creative imagination; she and her mother loved the garden of their upper middle-class home in Jackson, Mississippi. Gardens were also important for women struggling just to make ends meet, as Georgia-born writer Alice Walker noted in an essay called “In Search of Our Mother’s Gardens.” She described her mother’s ability to grow flowers “as if by magic,” despite having to work in the fields and care for her family. Walker wrote,

It is only when my mother is working in her flowers that she is radiant, almost to the point of being invisible-except as Creator: hand and eye. She is involved in work her soul must have. Ordering the universe in the image of her personal conception of Beauty.

Painting of artist's studio

Theresa Pollak, “Art Studio.” The Johnson Collection.

In these writers’ works, Southern women often persist despite being hemmed in by poverty, racism, sexism, or loneliness. Women create their own gardens, like the studio depicted in Theresa Pollak’s painting–places where they can take up space and transform it.

At the Feb 19 event, we’ll hear from two Southern writers who are part of this larger landscape of women writers and artists.  Both Michele Moore and Nikky Finney have told stories about the South that, I believe, have not been told often enough. Some readers may assume that women writers explore familial and domestic situations, but Moore and Finney’s works demonstrate how much the political and the public can influence, and sometimes invade, the personal and the private.

Photo of Nikky Finney

Nikky Finney, John H. Bennett Chair in Creative Writing and Southern Letters, U of South Carolina

Cover of book, Love Child's Hotbed

Love Child’s Hotbed of Occasional Poetry

Nikky Finney’s prize-winning poetry shows us the constant interplay between the inner lives of her Black subjects and the public world that often menaces them, a society whose past crimes haunt and animate the present day. The speakers in Finney’s poems operate against a backdrop of relentless racism, sexism and homophobia that is both systemic and personal. Nevertheless, the speaker’s interior consciousness persists, not defined by those who would harm or exploit them. Finney’s poems create astonishing moments of quiet lyric space, a sanctuary that coexists with the sinister powers that threaten Black bodies. With care and great power, Finney’s work documents the collective histories of our region and the personal histories of Black family members who have survived and even thrived.

Cover of novel, The Cigar Factory

The Cigar Factory

Photo of Michele Moore

Michele Moore

Michele Moore’s 2016 novel The Cigar Factory demonstrates that Charleston has always contained more than wealthy white aristocrats and the very poor. The stories of Charleston’s middle class and working class residents have rarely been fully told, but in this novel we follow 40 years in the lives of families who work at the cigar factory. Both Catholic, but of two different races and separated at work, they don’t know each other for most of the novel. Not only does The Cigar Factory tell the story of the workers who formed an interracial alliance during the 1940s, but it also lets us hear their voices, so much alike at times that readers may wonder whether it’s the African American or Irish American characters who are talking.

May the persistent solidarity of these women move and inspire us, in our own time, to take up space together, forming alliances across races, classes, and sexual identities.


Portrait of Madeline Breckenridge

Portrait of Madeline McDowell Breckenridge by Ella Sophonisba Hergeshiemer. Breckenridge, from Kentucky, was a women’s suffrag advocate. The Johnson Collection

Central to their Lives will be at the Gibbes Museum through May 3. The Gibbes is free on Wednesdays 4-8 PM to students with a valid ID.

A play adapted from Michele Moore’s The Cigar Factory will be performed February 21 and 22.

Nikky Finney’s latest book, Love Child’s Hotbed of Occasional Poetry, will be released in April, but copies will also be available for purchase at the February 19 reading.


[1] Read about the origins of “Nevertheless, she persisted.”

[2] Read one woman’s comments on the way she claims her own space in a world where “women have not been socialized to take up space.”

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