MTSU history professor chronicles 20th century Sou...

MTSU history professor chronicles 20th century Southern feminists in new book

While New York and San Francisco might be historically seen as hubs for the LGBTQ movement, an MTSU history professor has authored a book that documents some Southern cities that play a prominent role as well.

Dr. La Shonda Mims

La Shonda Mims, assistant professor of history at Middle Tennessee State University, discovered two prominent cities in the South where LGBTQ culture flourished. And she’s chronicled the evolution of those epicenters of advocacy in her book, “Drastic Dykes and Accidental Activists: Queer Women in the Urban South,” recently published by University of North Carolina Press.

“Nobody has looked at women’s history in the U.S. South, from a queer women-centered perspective,” said Mims, a historian of race, gender and sexuality. “I was reading books focused on New York and the Northeast and California … or focused on gay men.”

Mims turned her focus on the urban spaces of Charlotte, North Carolina, and Atlanta, where she found significant differences between gay men and lesbian women’s experiences. She also found strong groups of women challenging the patriarchy in ways that were “sustaining and fierce.”

“In writing about Southern women, my hope is I open this conversation,” Mims said. “So often the South is thought of as rural. … So I wanted to apply this rigorous historical lens … and give historical structure to what lesbians were doing. I hope the book helps people see that not only are there tons of queer women in urban Southern spaces, but I hope it makes an impact in looking at cities, in vibrant urban spaces and looking at them solely through queer women’s eyes.”

Cover for the book "Drastic Dykes and Accidental Activists" by MTSU assistant history professor La Shonda Mims. (Image courtesy University of North Carolina Press)
Cover for the book “Drastic Dykes and Accidental Activists” by MTSU assistant history professor La Shonda Mims. (Image courtesy University of North Carolina Press)

Mims began the road to writing her book while earning her master’s from the University of North Carolina-Charlotte, where her thesis focused on gender in the South.

Eventually Mims won the Mary Lily Research Grant from the Sallie Bingham Center for Women’s History and Culture at Duke University, which helped in researching for her doctorate dissertation at the University of Georgia.

The Bingham Center preserves a wide array of materials focused on women’s evolving history, including the Atlanta Lesbian Feminist Alliance Archives and Periodicals Collections, which serve as a rich source of information about feminist and lesbian activism in the Southeast — especially in Charlotte and Atlanta.

In the archives she found Sinister Wisdom, an all-volunteer journal founded in Charlotte, N.C., by a lesbian-feminist-separatist group called the Drastic Dykes. The publication was and continues to be funded and produced entirely by women.

“I opened up that first issue cover and the address where they were publishing, it was right around the corner from my house in Charlotte,” Mims said. “The house was still there, and I think it was meant for me to learn and write about those women.”

During Pride Month in June, Mims has reflected on the significance of her book and its place in the ever-evolving LGBTQ movement.

“’Drastic Dykes’ (the book) represents a long personal journey for me, and I find the stories of resistance to be vital in the current anti-queer climate of Tennessee,” Mims said. “The battles queer people are fighting today look quite similar to those being waged at the beginning of the 21st century in the urban South.”

“Drastic Dykes and Accidental Activists” is available for purchase at University of North Carolina Press and other major book retailers.

— Nancy DeGennaro (