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A Reader's Guide

Womenfolks: Growing Up Down South

"Wonderful and important." — Pat Conroy

"Regardless of where we are born, Womenfolks gives us the courage and energy to ask who we really are." — Boston Globe

About the Book

In a captivating tribute to the mothers and daughters of the South, Shirley Abbott combines personal memoir with meditation on family, myth and tradition. Here are the gritty, independent women of the backwoods, the South's true heroines, whose hardscrabble world is one of red dirt and backbreaking chores and roof-raising revival meetings — a far cry from the magnolias and mint juleps of Gone With the Wind. As honest, vibrant, and remarkable as the women whose stories illuminate these pages, Womenfolks draws a vivid portrait of a rural culture beset by poverty and sustained by deeply rooted traditions.

About the Author

Shirley Abbott is the author of The Bookmaker's Daughter and Love's Apprentice. Born and raised in Arkansas, she now lives in New York and Massachusetts.

Questions for Discussion

1. Shirley Abbott's father was not a southerner, and Abbott says that his attitudes toward the South put a wedge between her and her mother. What sorts of attitudes do you have about where you were raised? If you have migrated to another part of the country, how have you assimilated? What of your past do you bring with you, and what have you discarded?

2. Abbott states that the worst poverty women or men can suffer is to be bereft of their past. That said, she breaks the presumed stereotype that the pre–Civil War South was populated only by plantation owners and slaves—a sort of Gone With the Wind society—and describes another kind of South altogether. How does she characterize the Scotch-Irish prewar South? How does it differ from the stereotype? Do you feel that the common ideas held about your own native home, wherever it may be, are true or false?

3. The South was actually triracial, with some peaceful coexistence before the deportation of the Indians. What does Abbott think this has meant for her life? Have you ever discovered an ancestor that surprised you?

4. Shirley Abbott at first wanted to boss her family's newly hired black servant. Her mother put a stop to it immediately, giving the servant the authority to discipline young Shirley. Like her ancestors, Abbott's mother was reared to be self-sufficient and not to place herself above anyone. What is at the heart of this seemingly anti-southern view of servants? How do poverty and working-class values become equalizers in southern society? Is this true in other parts of the country?

5. Abbott draws on many sources to portray the plantation mistress as a keystone of the domestic economy. The mistress ran the house, dealt with the servants, gave birth to and reared as many children as possible, and looked after the finances. How were Abbott's mother and the women before her keystones of their smaller domestic economies?

6. Abbott notes that southern culture encourages young upper-class women to assume the persona of southern belle by adolescence. Using manipulative tactics learned from the mother, the belle attempts to catch a suitable husband and perpetuate the competition in the next generation. How did Abbott react to this particular convention? How did she rebel against or adhere to it? Do you and your contemporaries still try to manipulate men?

7. Abbott writes about how important the church was in the lives of settlers, functioning as the social center of the community and the source of law and order as well as a system that women could control. How was this so? How did it affect roles within their society?

8. In the eighteenth century, southern frontier Baptists were ill at ease over the question of slavery—the Baptist church was quite progressive for its time. How did this stance affect their standing in the community? How did it affect slavery? What sort of religious instruction did those who were pro-slavery turn to?

9. "I was always half Yankee," Abbott writes. "I grew up zigzagging between love and antagonism for my mother . . . If there's one thing that seems characteristically southern about the attitudes she wished to pass along to me, it is that sexual passion is not something holy and transcendent but something commonplace, at best; not ecstasy unalloyed but, in the long run, something dangerous and certainly not a reliable foundation for one's feminine self-esteem." How does the author say her mores affect her daughters? What kind of lessons did your mother pass down to you? What would you pass on to your own children?

10. Though Abbott's female relations weren't particularly feminist, they did have a pact of sisterhood—a common bond—that lent support and kept them together. Nevertheless, it was within the company of her female kin that she realized it was time for her to move on. Why did she feel the need to leave? What did she discover in college?

11. The southern social structure is hard on women who want more than marriage, and even harder on its ugly ducklings. Shirley Abbott discovered that her college education was preparation for holding a job to assist a husband. She could be a teacher, a nurse, or a secretary. If she wanted a different life, she would have to break free of the South. If you could rethink your choices, would you have moved to a different part of the country or the world? If you did move elsewhere, how did your home look to you when you returned, either to stay or just visit?

12. Abbott brings up the Grimke sisters as early examples of native southerners who went north to escape the restrictive roles foisted on women. Abbott also writes about Casey Hayden, who states that American culture does not care about children or the work that's done in the home for them. How do you think Abbott regards the contemporary household, in which women have careers equal to those of their spouses? Where does child-rearing fit in this equation?

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