This series aims to highlight Southern women who are forging their own paths and making change in their community. We ask them a bit about this and that to gain a glimpse into the lives of women all around us who are shaping the fabric of our future.
This time around, Jessica Dowd Crouch, archivist and co-owner of a local distillery, tells us about her work and life and how strong, Southern women face down their challenges.
Where do you call home?
West Columbia, South Carolina.
Describe your work life.
I have a work double life.
By day, I’m the archivist in Rare Books and Special Collections at the University of South Carolina where I process the archives of notable literary and historical figures, curate exhibits, assist researchers and patrons with their projects and supervise some of the most enthusiastic and motivated graduate students anyone could ask for. This is my actual career and what I went to college and grad school to do.
By nights and weekends, I co-own a distillery with my husband Phil, called Crouch Distilling. Phil is the master distiller, visionary and the one in charge of day-to-day operations. Phil’s background is milling organic grains. Making whiskey and developing relationships with farmers and others interested in the production of the food and spirits we consume is his dream. My work there involves fretting about finances and running the tasting room.
Share an accomplishment that makes you feel proud.
I lost 125 pounds while I was in grad school. I used to be so ashamed of the fact that I was heavier. If you were to try to piece together my life through social media, you would think I didn’t exist until 2012 because I’ve scrubbed the first 25 years of my life from the internet. The reality is I worked my ass off, literally, and out of all the things I’ve accomplished, that was the most difficult and the hardest won. I completely changed my life and got a Weight Watchers lifetime membership out of the deal.
What does being a Southern woman mean to you?
Being a Southern woman means dealing with the same culture of misogyny and toxic masculinity women everywhere deal with, but in a state where I’m statistically more likely to be killed by a man. Where all of this gendered hate is often masked in religious or moral concern for women or in some twisted idea of chivalry towards us Southern Belles.
Being a Southern woman means having the ambition and savvy to own your own business but having to deal with a certain type of customer (and no it isn’t all, it is a very, very small minority) that sees a woman behind a bar as an object and not as a human deserving of respect, and they sure as hell can’t fathom a woman could be the owner of that business. The type of customer that seeks out your husband to let him know “you trained her well,” or a customer coming in your business and greeting you with “Hey sexy” and then getting offended when you tell them that you didn’t appreciate their “compliment,” or having a customer point at you like you’re inanimate and asking your husband if you’re “his.” Most infuriatingly, the customer that comes to your business when you’re working alone, blocking the door and refusing to let you leave after you’ve told him you’re closed because he’s talking to you and wants to see your tattoos and your time/safety/fear are secondary to him getting attention from a woman. But because you’re a Southern woman, you were raised by rednecks who taught you to be loud and confident in yourself so you have no issue standing up for yourself and all women.
What motivates you?
This is a hard one. Probably because what really motivates me is some deep-rooted anxiety or fear of failure but the reality is that I have always assumed I could and would accomplish anything I set out to do. I also expect that kind of motivation from those around me which can make being my friend, family, student and especially my husband particularly difficult. I don’t have some end goal (other than world domination), I just want to achieve what I set out to do and excel at it.
What is one change Southerners could make to improve our current culture?
South Carolina has such a rich history and culture. We’re creating talented artists, writers, scholars, and crazy good food. There is a lot that South Carolina does right, specifically BBQ.
I also think Columbia has made progress towards becoming a wonderful (and weird) hub of community and acceptance, though of course that isn’t reflective of the whole state. You only have to go so far as the small town I grew up in to see that bigotry, racism, and misogyny are as ingrained in SC culture as the Southern Baptist Church. One way the South could improve that would be by increasing educational opportunities and improving the quality of education K-12 students receive. So much of what ails society could be combated by a more informed populace.
For older generations, it isn’t just the inequities in education but the influx of available information on the internet. There is an entire demographic that doesn’t know how to properly evaluate and analyze that information, and many of them are unable to actually learn and instead absorb whatever they find that already fits a preconceived worldview. Information literacy is a skill that needs to be learned like any other and we are failing current students and ourselves because we don’t emphasize discerning who or what is an authoritative source, only shunning what doesn’t fit our limited world view or filtering new information through our preconceived notions.
Has there been a defining moment that set you on your current life path?
My mother’s death during my senior year of college completely altered my life path. No matter the relationship you have with a parent or the phase of your life you are in when they die, losing a parent is going to change your life. My mother’s death right before I graduated meant that I was starting my life as a “grown up” with a major loss and complete change in my family’s dynamic. It also meant that all of those maternal expectations were lifted from my sister and me and all of the decisions we made were based solely on our own expectations for ourselves. Some of our decisions were bad and based way too much in the “treat yo’ self” school of adult behavior but it was also during that period that I decided to go to graduate school for what I wanted to do (archival work) and not what my mother wanted me to do (teach), I lost those 125 pounds, I bought a house on my own, I adopted my dogs, I learned to cook (really, really well) and to be completely content on my own and in my own skin.
Who do you depend on for support in your life and who depends on you?
I depend on Phil and he depends on me. We are literally partners in all things, business and life.
What brings you the most pleasure in your life right now and how has that changed over the years?
I’m becoming increasingly grateful for the precious few moments when I’m not busy and can sit on my couch with my dogs and husband watching TV. The only change is that I’ve upgraded to a bigger couch to accommodate the addition of a husband and I’m watching more PBS and less CW.
What did you want to be when you grew up and how different is that from where you are now?
I wanted to be a national park ranger, which I still think would be an incredible job. I like to think what I do is philosophically similar. Park rangers are custodians of the natural world and archivists are custodians of the written record. We both guide people through what we’re tasked with preserving and maintaining for the future.
What’s your favorite southern saying?
I make no apologies for my use of the terms “reckon,” “ain’t” and “fixin’ to.”