Girl Power: Inside Roller Derby and Purity Balls

Apr 25, 2018

The Druid City Dames practice in Tuscaloosa.
Credit Allison Mollenkamp

Women’s empowerment is a term that has long been important to feminist scholarship. And as time goes on, it’s come into mainstream language. Many groups for women claim to empower their members, just in different ways.

“My real life name, on my birth certificate, is Princess Nash. And my skating name is Duch-ass of Pain-bridge.”

Princess "Duch-ass of Pain-Bridge" Nash at a Druid City Dames practice.
Credit Allison Mollenkamp

Princess Nash is into roller derby. She’s a member of the Druid City Dames, a team based in Tuscaloosa.

“I got into skating when I was a child cause my mom, she was a single parent so she had multiple jobs, and one of those jobs was the clown at the local roller-skating rink. So the roller-skating rink served as my baby-sitter for half a decade, probably, so I became a really good skater.”

To get a better understanding of the game, we got a crash course, so to speak, from one of Nash’s teammates.

“Each team in a jam, which are two minutes long, the starting line will have four blockers and one jammer.”

This is Danielle Williams, a Maine native who now lives in Northport.

“The jammer is pretty much known for scoring the points. So they will be trying to get through the opposing blockers and then her blockers are trying to hold the other jammer.”

Williams’ explanation makes roller derby seem a little calmer than it is. Things can get pretty rough. Williams is sitting out this season for safety reasons; she and her husband are expecting a baby. Williams came to roller derby because she felt like something was missing in her life.

“Definitely the competitive kind of edge I was missing. Especially being in your late twenties, you get to that point where you’re like ‘I need something, or I’m going downhill.”

The notion of roller derby as a source of empowerment rings true for Princess Nash and her derby personality the Duch-Ass of Pain Bridge. She joined the Druid City Dames in their first season, and felt right at home. Nash also has a deep appreciation for the women she skates with.

“All the women here are amazing women. We have a very diverse group. Everyone from students to researchers to musicians, artists, like, spans the gambit.”

Others have a different path toward female empowerment, which takes place in a different setting….

“God is coming back for a church without a spot or a wrinkle and that can be a spot if you mess that up.”

This is Monaleto Irby. He’s waiting to escort his niece at the purity ball that’s about to start. Purity balls are a ritual in which young women take a pledge to remain pure, partly by not having sex until marriage.

“That’s one of those precious gifts that you have full control over and you don’t want anybody to taint that. Because God has made us all in a perfect image. And if you mess that up, you mess up the image that God has made you in.”

Rooster Hall in Demopolis, where the purity ball took place.
Credit Allison Mollenkamp

Irby drove four hours from Atlanta to Demopolis to be here for his niece. The women participating in the ball are accompanied by their fathers or significant male role models. Mind over Matter Youth Empowerment Ministries is hosting the ball. Irby says he believes the group lives up to its name.

“This women empowerment thing, yeah we’re gonna push our girls, and we’re gonna hold them on a pedestal to show them ‘this is who you are, you’re beautiful, and you can do absolutely anything you want to.’”

To get a better understanding of women’s empowerment, I sat down with Dr. Jennifer Purvis, a professor in the University of Alabama’s department of Gender and Race Studies.

“Women’s empowerment has a history that’s grounded in not accepting that women are second class citizens and less deserving of the spaces in which to flourish.”

Purvis doesn’t think purity balls line up with this ideology.

“Purity balls are, I don’t think in any way empowering to young women or girls. It’s over-sexualizing girls before they’ve even reached maturation or adolescence or any sense of their own sexuality. So it’s actually dangerous because it over-sexualizes girls.”

Of course, the idea of empowerment is a little different for the young women taking part in the purity ball. Here’s Kimberly Branch, of Demopolis.

“Mind Over Matter is a group for young ladies as myself to have a safe place to come to. It’s empowerment like, you, nobody feels left out when we’re at Mind Over Matter.” (nobody feels left out)

She appreciates having a space where she can confide in other girls.

“It means everything to me, like, it’s a safe place to come to. When you share information, no one ever hears about it except the person that, that you tell it to. And it’s just a great thing.”

Back at the roller rink, Danielle Williams and Princess Nash are sharpening their Roller Derby skills ahead of their next bout. Nash’s relationship to roller-skating has evolved now that she’s an adult. As Duch-ass of Pain-bridge with the Dames, she feels empowered not only by the roller derby community, but by the physical athleticism of the sport.

“Figuring out that your body is capable of things you never even knew it could do. And you’re like ‘Oh, that’s interesting.’ And coming every day and you leave and it’s like ‘Oh, I didn’t die.’ And then you keep coming back, and each time it’s like ‘Oh, I didn’t die and I actually got better.”

With its helmets and elbow-pads, roller derby is a far cry from the wedding-like formality of the purity ball in Demopolis. However, both groups provide a place of solace for the women that are a part of them.

They are empowered by a sense of community, and in the case of roller derby, a little bit of violence.