Arts & Culture

20 Southern Women Changing the World

These powerhouses from across the region are making a difference

In honor of Garden & Gun’s new book, Southern Women: More Than 100 Stories of Innovators, Artists, and Icons, we salute women highlighted in the book and beyond who are enriching lives, from their own communities to the world at large. 

Rhiannon Giddens

Southern Roots: Greensboro, North Carolina, native
Known for: Her MacArthur “genius” grant-winning singing, songwriting, and fiddle playing, as a solo act and as a member of the Grammy-winning Carolina Chocolate Drops
Changing the World by: Bringing attention to underappreciated or little-told stories, particularly of African American history, through her music, from scoring the ballet adaptation of Caroline Randall Williams’s book Lucy Negro, Redux, to Omar, the opera she’s composing and writing the libretto for, for the 2020 Spoleto Festival USA
From Southern Women: “I want to tell stories that haven’t been told or haven’t been told enough. If I didn’t have that mission, I probably wouldn’t be in music.”

John Huba

Carla Hayden

Southern Roots: Tallahassee, Florida, native; Baltimore, Maryland, resident
Known for: Her work as Librarian of Congress; when she was confirmed in 2016, she became the first female and the first African American to hold the position
Changing the World by: Making the wealth of information that libraries contain more accessible to all communities by leading efforts to digitize the Library of Congress collections, fighting a Patriot Act provision that would put the privacy of library patrons at risk, and protecting libraries as a space where learning is free to flourish


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Librarian for the Day Adam Coffey, 8, of San Clemente, California helped Librarian of Congress Carla Hayden design a children’s library card yesterday, and showed up to the job dressed for success! #librariesofinstagram #youngreaders #libraryofcongress

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Reese Witherspoon

Southern Roots: Nashville, Tennessee, native
Known for: Being an Oscar-winning actor, as well as an acclaimed producer, philanthropist, and the owner of the Southern lifestyle brand Draper James
Changing the World by: Using her platform in Hollywood to celebrate and elevate the stories of women, whether it’s through her book club; her female-centric production company, Hello Sunshine; speaking engagements such as the #SheIsEqual Summit; or her partnerships with women’s advocacy organizations such as Girls Inc.
From Southern Women: “You can travel to so many places where you only see the same things, but you go to the South and you always experience something unique. It has identity.”


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Bringing a little sunshine 🌞 to my day! Stopped by the office for some exciting meetings, can’t wait to share more with y’all soon! #bigthingscoming

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Jesmyn Ward

Southern Roots: DeLisle, Mississippi, native and resident
Known for: Being a two-time National Book Award–winning writer as well as the recipient of a MacArthur “genius” grant for her poignant Southern books, including Sing, Unburied, Sing and Salvage the Bones
Changing the World by: Telling raw, compelling, important stories of the South punctuated by topics too often shied away from in popular literature, including addiction and desolation. Her books, such as Men We Reaped and Where the Line Bleeds, tackle the topics of race and poverty with nuanced ferocity.  


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MacArthur Genius and two-time National Book Award winner Jesmyn Ward reminded our #PennWomen audience that “sometimes life is hard without reason.” But life is also about making choices, taking steps forward day after day, and constantly learning in order to achieve our dreams.

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Christina Hammock Koch 

Southern Roots: Jacksonville, North Carolina, native
Known for: Her work as an engineer and astronaut for NASA, and most recently, participating in the first all-female spacewalk
Changing the World by: Giving women a prominent voice at the table of human spaceflight and serving as a role model for young women who want to pursue a career in the STEM field 

courtesy of NASA

Mashama Bailey

Southern Roots: Savannah, Georgia, resident
Known for: Being the James Beard Award–winning executive chef of the Grey in Savannah and starring in season six of Chef’s Table on Netflix
Changing the World by: Exposing diners to different cultures through the dishes she creates at the Grey, which combines food from around the world with cooking that champions her Southern and African American heritage; and as chairwoman of the Edna Lewis Foundation, helping preserve and celebrate the history of African American cooking and foodways
From Southern Women: “I believe you don’t really know if you want to make an impact until you actually do make an impact, and then you realize what your power is. I’ve recognized I have power—in food, in culture, and in my personal being.” 

Peter Frank Edwards

Rosalynn Carter

Southern Roots: Plains, Georgia, native and resident
Known for: Her fierce advocacy for mental health, caregiving, and child immunization, especially during her time as First Lady of the United States
Changing the World by: Addressing critical issues facing people living with mental illness, first when she served as the honorary chair of the President’s Commission on Mental Health and still today as the cofounder of the Carter Center, where she works to protect human rights and alleviate suffering 


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Don’t miss our Conversations series this year! Hear Carter Center experts, policymakers, & guests discuss issues that shape your world. Tickets to see Jimmy & Rosalynn Carter on Sept. 17 go on sale at 10 a.m. Wednesday, Sept. 4. See link in bio to purchase tickets. #CarterTownHall19 #jimmycarter #rosalynncarter #thecartercenter #conversationsseries

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Simone Biles

Southern Roots: Spring, Texas, native
Known for: Being the most decorated gymnast in American history, with world medals in every event
Changing the World by: Sharing her personal story of sexual assault and using her experience to demand accountability and protection for athletes from powerful institutions in gymnastics


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feeling GOLDEN this morning 5X WORLD ALL AROUND CHAMPION everytime feels just like the first

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Sara Blakely

Southern Roots: Clearwater, Florida, native; Atlanta, Georgia, resident
Known for: Creating the multimillion-dollar shapewear empire Spanx Inc.
Changing the World by: Helping women feel confident in the clothes they wear, and using her nonprofit, the Spanx by Sara Blakely Foundation, to support charities that empower women and girls through entrepreneurship, education, and the arts; in 2013, she also became the first female billionaire to commit to donating at least half of her wealth to charity by signing on to Bill Gates and Warren Buffett’s “Giving Pledge”


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Oprah Winfrey

Southern Roots: Kosciusko, Mississippi, native
Known for: Hosting the award-winning program The Oprah Winfrey Show; creating and leading Harpo Productions and the Oprah Winfrey Network; and spending millions of dollars on charitable projects such as the Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy for Girls in South Africa
Changing the World by: Using her influence to bring attention to writers through her Oprah’s Book Club; helping produce films and TV series that illuminate the African American experience, such as Queen Sugar; and wielding her affluence to make an impact on the lives of others, particularly women and children, usually through education, whether it be financially supporting mentorship programs for at-risk kids or donating millions to scholarship funds 


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I don’t know who this guy is but he sure is happy to graduate! I shook hands with all 571 members of @coloradocollege’s Class of 2019 and gave them a copy of The Path Made Clear. 📸: Jerilee Bennett/The Gazette

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Vivian Howard

Southern Roots: Deep Run, North Carolina, native and resident
Known for: Being an acclaimed chef, cookbook author, and the star of the PBS series Somewhere South and A Chef’s Life, for which she earned two James Beard Awards, two Emmys, and a Peabody Award
Changing the World by: Using her television shows to keep rural foodways alive and supporting food communities through fundraising efforts in the aftermath of natural disasters, including Hurricane Dorian and Hurricane Florence
From Southern Women:  “As Southern women, the stewards of social grace and open arms, we have the mission to make others feel warm, welcomed, and validated.”

Baxter Miller

Darla Moore

Southern Roots: Lake City, South Carolina, native and resident
Known for: Being one of the most powerful financiers on Wall Street in the eighties and nineties, and now, an influential philanthropist in her hometown of Lake City and beyond
Changing the World by: Donating millions to higher education, from the Darla Moore School of Business at the University of South Carolina, to help pave the way for future women in business, to Clemson University’s Eugene T. Moore School of Education; spearheading projects such as the Moore Farms Botanical Garden and Lake City’s ArtFields that have helped the Palmetto State’s economy thrive

Sully Sullivan

Dr. Regina Benjamin

Southern Roots: Mobile, Alabama, native
Known for: Serving as the eighteenth Surgeon General of the United States, as well as the founder and CEO of BayouClinic in rural Alabama
Changing the World by: Bringing compassionate healthcare to underserved populations in rural Alabama, and as the Surgeon General, placing a new emphasis on preventative health measures by equipping Americans to lead healthier lifestyles

Dolly Parton

Southern Roots: Sevierville, Tennessee, native
Known for: Being one of the world’s most iconic singer-songwriters, businesswomen, and philanthropists
Changing the World by: Donating more than one hundred million books to children through her Imagination Library, and using her music and inclusive messages to empower everyone to embrace their appearance, intelligence, and moxie 


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A kid can never have too many books! What was your favorite story growing up? @imaginationlibrary

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Brené Brown 

Southern Roots: San Antonio, Texas, native; Houston, Texas, resident
Known for: Being a research professor at the University of Houston and the best-selling author of five books that explore topics such as courage, shame, and leadership
Changing the World by: Showing people how to lead more joyful lives through her research on vulnerability, choosing courage over comfort, and channeling that into authentic leadership

Maile Wilson

Gina Chavez

Southern Roots: Austin, Texas, native and resident
Known for: Being a soul-baring Latin folk pop musician and a cultural ambassador with the U.S. State Department
Changing the World by: Sharing the diverse cultures of America through her bilingual music and helping girls in El Salvador afford a college education with her Niñas Arriba scholarship fund
From Southern Women: “I would love it if ‘Southern’ meant sharing and opportunity for everyone.”

General Ann Dunwoody

Southern Roots: Fort Belvoir, Virginia, native
Known for: Being the first woman to become a four-star general in the U.S. Army
Changing the World by: Blazing a trail for women in the military and breaking numerous gender barriers, such as becoming the first female general at Fort Bragg, the first woman to command the Combined Arms Support Command, and the highest ranking woman in the army

Tayari Jones

Southern Roots: Atlanta, Georgia, native and resident
Known for: Being a New York Times best-selling author, most recently with her novel An American Marriage, which won the Women’s Prize for Fiction in 2019
Changing the World by: Telling blisteringly honest stories of the South that elevate the experiences of black Southerners and bring issues of racial injustice, class, and privilege to the forefront
From Southern Women: “It’s wrong to define black life in terms of suffering.” 

Kelly Fields

Southern Roots: Charleston, South Carolina, native; New Orleans, Louisiana, resident
Known for: Helming her renowned bakery, Willa Jean, and being a James Beard Award–winning pastry chef
Changing the World by: Providing a strong network of mentorship and community to female chefs through her Yes Ma’am Foundation, which invests in women in the food industry through personalized continued education, financial assistance, and advocacy
From Southern Women: “I wake up in the morning thinking about if someone on my staff isn’t performing up to my standards or their own, what am I doing to help them? Or what am I doing to stand in their way?”


Melinda Gates

Southern Roots: Dallas, Texas, native
Known for: Cofounding the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, which has given billions of dollars to fight inequality in all its forms
Changing the World by: Using her foundation to find solutions for a wide scale of global problems, from eradicating diseases such as smallpox and polio in developing countries through increased immunization, to boosting graduation rates of disadvantaged students in the United States, to empowering girls to get involved in STEM fields

Southern Women is available online and at bookstores everywhere.