Shirley Abbott was an author and magazine editor whose three memoirs documented her coming of age in Hot Springs, Arkansas. Her books are rivetingly honest explorations of not only her own life but of life in the South during the 20th century.
Shirley Abbott’s first and best-known memoir Womenfolks: Growing Up Down South is the story of Abbott and her family growing up in poverty in the rural South. Abbott’s writing evokes a bygone era of dusty roads, rusty punchcards and the journey of independent working-class women to overcome cultural and economic barriers.
“We all grow up with the weight of history on us. Our ancestors dwell in the attics of our brains as they do in the spiraling chains of knowledge hidden in every cell of our bodies.”
“If I grew up in the simple-minded belief that women were as strong and intelligent as men, it was because I came from a society that had once believed it.”
“They founded a society based not upon currency and commodities but on the elementary notion that if you failed to raise enough to eat, you would go hungry.”
“The frontier will nevertheless survive in the attitudes a few of us inherited from it. One of those attitudes—to me a beatitude—is the conviction that the past matters, that history weighs on us and refuses to be forgotten by us, and that the worst poverty women—or men—can suffer is to be bereft of their past.”
“Besides its content and methods, the cuisine devised by squaws and hillbilly women, as well as slave women, had another thing in common, which was the belief that you made do with whatever you could lay hands on--pigs' entrails, turnip tops, cowpeas, terrapins, catfish--anything that didn't bite you first.”
“The difference between a lady and a belle is that the former has a multitude of responsibilities and hence a more solid power base, while the belle thinks only of herself. Some women become ladies without ever having been belles; some remain belles all their lives, though not always successfully.”
“Within our family, there was no such thing as a person who did not matter.”
“People just showed up and were always made welcome. To stay less than an hour was an insult, and there was always a meal.“
Shirley Abbot lifted herself out of poverty and went on to have a successful career as a writer, editor and professor. Over the course of her career, she wrote for esteemed publications such as Smithsonian, Harper’s, American Heritage, Southern Living, Glamour, Boston Review, and more. Her other memoirs — The Bookmaker’s Daughter: A Memory Unbound (1991) and Love’s Apprentice: The Education of a Modern Woman (1998) — expand on the groundwork laid in Womenfolks. She also opened up about her life and writing in interviews
“All fiction may be autobiography, but all autobiography is of course fiction.” - Quoted in Listen to Their Voices by Mickey Pearlman
"As a child, I scribbled and wrote all the time, but I had no idea what it meant to be a writer. I didn't know you had to have something to write about, a material within you to draw on. It never occurred to me that my own background could be my material.” - On The Issues Magazine
“I learned to respect and love history from being born a Southerner. To come from a definable place and to seek understanding of that place are incentives for the writer’s imagination.”
Shirley Abbott is one of many women writers who made their voices heard in the 20th and 21st centuries.