"i want everyone here today, as we think about each of our identities and roles that we claim, to think about if ‘feminist’ is one of those identities. and if it isn’t, i encourage you to think about why that’s the case and why maybe it should be an identity you claim."
"also, as you all continue to move on with your lives, i will give you one piece of advice: be. persistent."
I watched Dr. Donna Sollie speak these words in her Southern drawl with pride and admiration as she accepted the inaugural “Donna Sollie Vanguard Award” at the 2017 Women’s Leadership Conference at Auburn University shortly after her retirement. I was reminded of the first time I’d ever heard her speak as an 18-year-old college sophomore in her mentoring program, the Young Women Leaders Program. The program, the brainchild and lifelong dream of Dr. Sollie, is run by the Auburn University Women’s Center and pairs eighth grade girls at the local middle school with college-aged young women for a year in a mentoring relationship that is pivotal to each young woman’s development. “I believe that female relationships are the most important relationships you will have,” she said all those years ago as she addressed our class. Words that would become so true in my own life, through my journey with her as my mentor.
I sat down with Dr. Sollie on the day that she accepted her much-deserved award at the Davis Arboretum at Auburn University in Alabama, a setting she chose for its scenery. “The South being home to me has to do with a couple of things, one being the geography. There’s actually trees here to enjoy!” she proclaimed, when I asked her why she called the South home. She also referenced the literature and music of the South as other reasons why the South is Home. "Authors like Eudora Welty, one of my favorites, captured Southern people and their lives so beautifully and lovingly... and the lyrics to 'Look Away' by Kate Campbell express my feelings of the South so well." She recommended both artists for me to delve into after our interview.
“The South has always just felt like home. It’s the geography. It’s the people. It’s the sense of place for me. It’s where I feel like I can really be myself.”
A self-proclaimed “hippie-type” who grew up in Starkville, Mississippi during the thick of the Civil Rights Movement, Dr. Sollie recalls two important things about her childhood: 1) she always knew she wanted to go to school and study people and 2) she knew that the constraints that society put on people like racism and sexism were unfair and wrong. She remembers fondly reading author and civil rights activist, Anne Moody’s Coming of Age in Mississippi around the age of 12. “Because things were segregated in my town, I never knew the personal stories of African Americans affected by segregation. I knew what it was and I knew it was wrong… But I never heard firsthand how it affected people’s lives, until I read this book. And it changed how I thought about many things.” She recalled being so struck when Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated, much like the rest of the country at that time. Still, there weren’t many avenues to discuss its effects with others. Her schools were still segregated, and life was still status-quo in Starkville.
Though there weren’t many outlets to discuss her feelings on these issues in her very Southern hometown back in the 1960s, she often used her father, a sociologist himself, as a sounding-board. “He was probably often frustrated because he would come home from work and I would immediately run to him and start talking, giving him no time to wind down. He never made me feel like he didn’t have time for me though. He always listened.” That was the most important thing she learned from her father: intentionally listening to others. It’s a lesson that is is with her still after his death, and characterizes how she addresses each of her own relationships.
With the support of her progressive parents, Dr. Sollie embarked on a bachelor’s degree in Sociology at Mississippi State University, located in her hometown—a career field that seemed to run in her family. There she found many things: avenues to discuss her thoughts, avenues to put her thoughts in action, new friends with similar values as her, and her very funny, laid back, and supportive husband, Chuck—who she was hesitant to even marry in the first place.
Placing her hands over her eyes, Dr. Sollie laughs at this, “I just remember I did not want to be a wife! And it wasn’t anything to do with Chuck’s expectations of that role. I just didn’t want to be subservient.” Despite her reservations, they eventually married, after knowing each other for four years. And she kept her last name. Prior to marrying him, she recalls visiting Chuck’s family and watching as his parents cooked dinner together. “That became so important to me, within a marriage. Cooking together and sharing the responsibility. I realized that’s what I wanted.”
Her hesitation to become a ‘wife’ was understandable. Throughout her lifetime, she watched many women have difficulties following their dreams because of the expectation society had for them. Women, particularly white women, were expected to aspire to marriage and stay at home with their families. Careers and the pursuit of higher education weren’t necessarily encouraged. Later in Dr. Sollie’s life, her aunt told her that she was living through Dr. Sollie’s experiences and (many) accomplishments. Dr. Sollie was happy to carry the torch, but knew that her aunt also deserved to have her own needs met as well. “It made me feel sad that she couldn’t accomplish her own dream. I know she always wanted to be a teacher, but couldn’t because of her role as wife and mother during that time. And it made me upset that society was stopping so many women from pursuing their dreams.”
She also watched as her older neighbor, who doubled as a friend and mentor, pursued a college degree after having children. She saw the struggle and the doubt that clouded her neighbor’s decision to get a higher education. “The question was always there: should I be doing this when I have kids to take care of?” Dr. Sollie said, recalling that time. I noted in my own head that this question still haunts many women today.
“I didn’t want kids at that time. In my head, it was either you have kids and a family or you pursue your dreams. You couldn’t do both. So I chose my dreams.” After finishing undergrad, Dr. Sollie attended the University of Kentucky to pursue a graduate degree in Sociology. She made the decision after being told by a family friend who was also a professor that it was a “waste of time” to pursue the degree and to get married instead. The comment didn’t sit well with her mother, who told the professor he was wrong.
Dr. Sollie chose Kentucky’s program because it was the only school that had the option to focus on Family Studies. Because studying gender and society always interested her most, she was excited to explore how society’s constraints of gender affected people both personally and within their relationships with others.
Fast forward almost a decade to 1986, Dr. Sollie accepted a position at Auburn University in their Human Development and Family Studies (HDFS) department. There, Dr. Sollie solidified herself as a figure that has changed the lives of many, myself included. Though, her career at Auburn did occasionally come with a couple of titles over the years such as “Feminazi” from her male coworkers. First, she was tasked with creating the HDFS doctoral program, which is now among the top HDFS programs in the nation. She also started a course on sexuality she had previously created during her time at a university in West Texas--a subject she was adamant her students learn about. “We were here teaching students to be care providers and family studies experts, but we weren’t teaching them about the role that sex and sexuality plays in our lives and relationships… So the course was necessary.” This course, which still exists in the department, is arguably just as important today as it was back then. Even today, it is a hot topic among many at Auburn, given the “hush-hush” approach the South takes to speaking about sex and sexuality.
The course was responsible for much needed activism and action on Auburn’s campus in 1992. A student who had taken the class with Dr. Sollie decided to start the first ever Gay Lesbian Alliance (GLA) group at Auburn (now called Spectrum) and had asked Dr. Sollie and her colleague to be the faculty advisors. The group did well in its first probationary year, earning the award of Most Successful New Organization. However, when it came time for Auburn’s Student Government Association (SGA) to vote on the Gay Lesbian Alliance’s permanent status, the request was rejected.
“i have had many people throughout my life who are gay and lesbian, and i knew just like with sexism and racism, they were oppressed because of their identity too. this was an important fight for me and my students and important for auburn to overcome.”
That didn’t stop Dr. Sollie, her colleague, or the organization, from fighting for the safe space for LGBTQ folks at the university. After much pushback, including articles written in publications like the New York Times and involvement from Alabama’s ACLU, the president of the university was forced to override the controversial SGA vote. “I have had many people throughout my life who are gay and lesbian, and I knew just like with sexism and racism, they were oppressed because of their identity too. This was an important fight for me and my students and important for Auburn to overcome.” And it wasn't just a fight for Auburn University to overcome. After a similar situation at the University of South Alabama in Mobile, Alabama, the Alabama state legislature attempted to ban state schools from funding and condoning LGBTQ friendly groups. The effort was led by then Alabama legislator and now U.S. Attorney General, Jeff Sessions, who was said to have warned university presidents that accepting such groups was against state law. In 1996, with the involvement of the Alabama ACLU, a federal judge ruled the law unconstitutional. This legislative process is still familiar to many Alabamians today: Alabama legislature passes a discriminatory and unconstitutional law, a long and expensive legal fight follows, and the federal government overturns said law. Lather. Rinse. Repeat.
In the early 2000s, Auburn was plagued anew. Pictures surfaced from a fraternity party of members wearing blackface and donning t-shirts with the letters of black fraternities. Again, Auburn made national news and again, something had to be done about it. The Office of Inclusion and Diversity (OID) was born, formerly known as the Office of Diversity and Multicultural Affairs. The office is tasked with creating and promoting a safe and inclusive environment for all Auburn students. A position opened up for an Assistant Provost of Women’s Initiatives and Dr. Sollie applied, having served as the Director for Women’s Studies. Within her proposal for the position, Dr. Sollie included a plan for Auburn’s first Women’s Center. Of course, she got the job. And of course, she used her role to advocate for all students at Auburn during her tenure in the position.
“It was evident to me that leadership roles were taken up by men at this university. Men held the keys to getting any position. I wanted to give female students opportunities. That’s why each of the programs we created within the Women’s Center had leadership roles in them.” She wanted to prove that yes, women can work together and that yes, women can lead.
Since its inception, the Women’s Center and the other programs that Dr. Sollie oversaw including the Young Women Leaders Program, have touched the lives of thousands of students. As we talked about this topic, I was overwhelmed by my feeling of indebtedness toward her. Without her tenacity, teamwork, and vision, my own undergraduate career would have looked vastly different.
Her style of leadership and advocating for students was described as “being a voice of reason” by a male colleague. It was a title she had to come around to at first, but later embraced. “There were times when many of us were asking ‘is this feminist enough?’ and I had to come to a conclusion. We as educators are here to inform and widen perspectives. That means that we have to welcome students and not alienate them by sectioning ourselves off. So, being a voice of reason was okay.”
She took her role very seriously as an advocate for women’s issues at the university level and had to find ways to ensure that her concerns would be taken seriously by others at the table. “I kind of became the ‘Token Woman’ in the circles of men at the university and I could bring my concerns to the table where they needed to be. It wasn’t always easy or exactly how I wanted to do it, but it was necessary. I had to find a balance between bringing it up ‘too much’ and still being firm in my need to bring it up.” It’s a dance many people pushing for diversity in spaces dominated by white men have to perform every day: the art of working within systems to change them.
After an almost 40-year career, Dr. Sollie officially retired from her post as Assistant Provost of Women’s Initiatives in December of 2016. However, she’s not done. With the newfound freedom that comes with retirement, she’s got plans. “I intend to keep traveling,” she said. Dr. Sollie is an avid traveler who loves new experiences, but she always returns Home to the South. “I also plan to be more politically involved now that I don’t have to worry about employment,” she said. And before I could get the words “Run for office!” out of my mouth, she stopped me. “I’m not running for office though,” she laughed, “But I will be looking for ways to continue to focus on girls’ education. I don’t know what form that will take, but I will do it.”
Dr. Sollie feels accomplished with her life, and she should. She’s touched the lives of countless students. Her career has shaped Auburn University for the better. She’s experienced many new people and places through her travels. She has garnered many supportive female friendships. She’s had a long and happy marriage--40 years together just last year. And she’s raised a highly independent, passionate son, who joined her and Chuck in her late 30s after she felt she had accomplished many of her dreams.
“Ethan came after Chuck and I were settled in here at Auburn. Though children weren’t initially what we wanted, we eventually realized that we did want a child.” Upon becoming pregnant, she just knew she would have a girl. “I just knew it! I mean, my whole life had been about girls. Of course I would have a daughter.” Well… wrong. She had a son, because that’s just the way life works sometimes. And she couldn’t have imagined a better fit for her and Chuck.
“i’m a feminist. i like heels and lipstick and cussing and dancing and all those other southern things. and i like being me. that’s what southern is.”
In her free time, she is an avid music-lover and attendee of the 280 Boogie festival each year, as well as a traveler, reader, and friend to many. When I asked Dr. Sollie about what it meant to be Southern, she thought for a long minute. Then, in the most profound Dr. Sollie way, she answered, “It just means I can be me. I’m a feminist. I like heels and lipstick and cussing and dancing and all those other Southern things. And I like being me. That’s what Southern is.”
I couldn’t agree more.
Dr. Sollie is just one face of Foreword South and this is her (unfinished) story.