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In Honor of All Steel Magnolias

September 24, 1998|BETTIJANE LEVINE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Even now, there's something different about the South--a sense that it's another country. Is it the accents? The attitudes? Is it the genes of a people with more mixed ethnicity than anywhere else in the U.S.?

Shirley Abbott, born and raised in Arkansas, never thought much about any of this until her parents died, before she had children of her own. Her knowledge of the family's history was limited, and Abbott wondered who would tell her eventual offspring about their ancestors.

She began doing research, which resulted in "Womenfolks: Growing Up Down South" (Mariner / Houghton Mifflin, 210 pages, $12). Written 15 years ago, it has just been reissued in paperback. More than a memoir, it is a cultural voyage taken with women stronger than any in TV's tales of "Xena, the Warrior Princess." This is about warrior princesses of a Southern kind, all of whom really did (and some of whom still do) exist.

Abbott's grandmother (who was Scotch-Irish and Cherokee) and others Abbott knew while she was growing up were just a generation or two removed from pioneers. They were poor, their skin leathery from outdoor work. But they could reason with a mule, shoot their dinner, pickle and preserve, heal like a doctor and soothe like a nurse. They bore broods of children without much help. And despite their primitive lives, they were as inimitably Southern as Scarlett O'Hara or any real-life Southern belle.

Rich or poor, Abbott writes, all Southern women carry the same emotional baggage: "To grow up female in the South is to inherit a set of directives that warp one for life, if they do not actually induce psychosis. . . . No one has ever quite explained it."

Abbott attempts the job: "The cult of Southern womanhood endows [a female] with at least five totally different images and asks her to adopt all of them. She is required to be frigid, passionate, sweet, bitchy and scatterbrained--all at the same time. Her problems spring from the fact that she succeeds."

Furthermore, Abbott says she "grew up believing . . . that a woman might pose as garrulous and silly . . . but at heart was a steely, silent creature with secrets no man could ever know, and she was always--always--stronger than any man. 'Now you don't have to let on about it,' my mother would advise."

Indeed, Abbott writes that "of all the skills a Southern woman was supposed to master, managing men was the most important." The first step was to be a "belle," who thinks only of her looks, her charms, her ability to capture a husband. Once she has succeeded, her position as married woman carried an almost impossible load of work and responsibility. The richer she was, the harder her job.

No matter how large the estate, no matter how many field hands and personal servants she had, Abbott writes, "her force and character pervaded and directed everything"--the cleaning, sewing, cooking, planning. She oversaw the plantation, the servants, her family, their friends, ministered to the poor, the sick, the bereaved. She had to be above reproach, all things to all people, a model of Christian piety and satisfaction to her husband--and yet maintain the illusion of exquisite fragility and beauty, even while pregnant.

Worse than all the work, however, was a simple irony: The better she did her job, the less close she became to her husband. Southern men, pleased to compare their wives to the Virgin Mary in terms of reticence and purity, were not so comfortable bringing their more lustful urges to the marriage bed. Those were for women less pure of heart. And so the myth began (convenient for husbands who wanted to philander) that Southern wives lacked ardor.

Abbott's book covers past and present; it's a depiction of Southern womanhood handed down through generations. Even now, Southern womanhood has not disappeared, she writes.

It's just lying dormant.

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