Tuesday, March 05, 2013

Small town women, big political change

There are no popularity contests in small towns. Everyone already knows you, your parents, where you live, and what church you attend—unless you don’t go at all, in which case you are probably on the prayer list.

Growing up, I sang in the Sunday choir with several classmates and regularly saw my teachers in the grocery store. My high school algebra instructor was a stern, no-nonsense woman who also happened to be my youth Bible study leader. Incidentally, it is nearly impossible for a Baptist preacher’s daughter in rural Mississippi to skip school. At least that’s what I hear.

Familiarity on this level within a community is not uncommon and can create an almost impenetrable wall of solidarity. Just ask anyone who’s not from there. Cultural and social norms rooted in a largely conservative ideology have been followed for decades without serious challenge. However, recent legislation authored by some of Mississippi’s most conservative lawmakers has been met with resistance within these same communities not from liberals infiltrating the fold but from God-fearing, church-going southern women.

This shift in perspective was evident last November in Mississippi’s startling rejection of the Personhood amendment, which sought to define life as beginning at fertilization. Originally publicized by supporters as a pro-life amendment that would effectively end abortion in the state, advocates predicted it would pass by a wide margin. But when the far-reaching consequences of the initiative were revealed, there was a groundswell of opposition from conservative women throughout the state.

As recently as this month, lawyers from both sides faced off in federal court over a new law that would close the only abortion clinic in this state. Conservative women who are personally pro-life and politically pro-choice understand that eliminating access to safe abortion will not eliminate abortion in an imperfect world but will instead cause desperate women to seek unsafe, potentially life-threatening solutions. For many, this harsh stance is incompatible with their pro-life values.

Atlee Breland is a Christian wife and mother from Jackson who founded ParentsAgainst Personhood, a political action committee aimed at defeating the amendment. In the weeks leading up to the November election, members of the PAC’s Facebook page often prefaced their concerns about the initiative by identifying themselves as conservative, pro-life, Christian women. It was important to these women for others to know that their personal values remained unchanged; they were drawing a line, not switching sides.

During the last legislative session, Personhood resurfaced as a bill along with legislation that would have required women seeking first trimester abortions to hear the fetus’ heart beat prior to treatment. This medically unnecessary procedure often requires the use of a painfully intrusive trans-vaginal ultrasound probe.

Many conservative women regarded this as yet another attempt to enforce morality by overreaching politicians. When both bills failed, a “heartbeat amendment” was added to an otherwise widely-favored bill in a last-minute attempt to bring it to a vote. Once again, women mobilized and the bill died in committee.
At the same time, controversy over access to contraceptives and Personhood initiatives in other states were making national headlines. Many became alarmed when religious institutions across the country not only sanctioned this expansion of the government’s role as morality police, they wanted to openly participate in it.

For this reason, conservative southern women are pushing back against pressure from their religious leaders. They refuse to conform not because they are rebelling against the church but because many of them are trying to protect it. These women recognize that the powerful ally the conservative church seeks in the government could easily become the monster that consumes it.

House Representative Andy Gipson (R-Braxton) is the author of the Personhood and heart beat bills as well as the driving force behind the last-ditch heartbeat amendment that failed during last session. He is also a practicing attorney and interim Baptist preacher at a church in a small town not far from where I live. 

Around here, Gipson is regarded as a hero fighting to reclaim our country’s Christian heritage. In May, he posted on his personal Facebook wall that he will not check his religious views at the door of the House of Representatives, so voters and constituents can expect similar legislation in the future.

Women in conservative small towns will be watching. Women who understand what is at stake. Women who are influential, resourceful and tenacious. Women who embody the phrase, “If mama’s not happy, ain’t nobody happy.”

Women like me.
This column originally appeared on The Clarion-Ledger website on July 23, 2012. 
Copyright 2012. Natalie Winningham/Business Ink. All rights reserved. 

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