Sorry for the radio silence–we’re back to school and I’m up to my skirt in it already. If you’re looking for something to read over the lunch hour, go read Monica Potts’s sympathetic, sad exploration of the life and death of Crystal Wilson in “What’s Killing Poor White Women?” in The American Prospect.
Wilson isn’t anyone you’ve probably ever heard of, but Potts makes her obscure life and death in Cave City, Arkansas, a fascinating case study. The author aruges that the death of opportunity in rural America has hit girls and women without high school degrees especially hard. It also implies towards the end that feminism is at least part of the cure. In the words of the technology coordinator for the Cave City schools Julie Johnson,
“You don’t even hear about women’s lib, because that’s come and gone. But you hear about glass ceilings, and I think girls, most especially girls, have to be taught that just because they’re girls doesn’t mean they can’t do something. That they are just as smart, that they are just as valuable as males. And we have to teach boys that girls can be that way, too. They all need the love, nurturing, and support from somebody from their family or who’s not their family. Somebody who’s willing to step up. There has to be something to inspire kids to want more, to want better. And they have to realize that they’re going to have to work hard to get it. I don’t know how you do that.
“It’s just horrible, you know? I don’t know if ‘horrible’ is the right word.” Julie puts her face into her hands. “The desperation of the times. I don’t know anything about anything, but that’s what kills them.”
Interestingly, it’s only the lifespans of white women without high school diplomas that have shortened, as their African American counterparts are outliving them. Social conservatives have long argued that marriage alone works as a magic force-field against poverty, but Potts suggests that marriage itself may be what’s killing white Southern women:
Something less tangible, it seems, is shaping the lives of white women in the South, beyond what science can measure. Surely these forces weigh on black women, too, but perhaps they are more likely to have stronger networks of other women. Perhaps after centuries of slavery and Jim Crow, black women are more likely to feel like they’re on an upward trajectory. Perhaps they have more control relative to the men in their communities. In low-income white communities of the South, it is still women who are responsible for the home and for raising children, but increasingly they are also raising their husbands. A husband is a burden and an occasional heartache rather than a helpmate, but one women are told they cannot do without. More and more, data show that poor women are working the hardest and earning the most in their families but can’t take the credit for being the breadwinners. Women do the emotional work for their families, while men reap the most benefits from marriage. The rural South is a place that often wants to remain unchanged from the 1950s and 1960s, and its women are now dying as if they lived in that era, too.