• Q&A

It’s not just ‘coal country’ — what the history of women’s labor reveals about Appalachia

With her recent book “To Live Here You Have to Fight,” Jessie Wilkerson is changing percpetions of Appalachia with stories of its women-led movements.
Historian Jessie Wilkerson (left) with lifelong social justice activist Sue Ella Kobak — who is also the daughter of Edith Easterling. (WNV/Jessie Wilkerson)

After the 2016 presidential election, many people in the United States sought to understand the rise of Trump through stories of rural America. Books like “Hillbilly Elegy” and “Strangers in Their Own Land” examined conservative communities as a way to explain the rise in right-wing politics.

But for historian Jessie Wilkerson, who grew up in eastern Tennessee, there is something important missing from the stories that gained a spotlight after Donald Trump’s election. Wilkerson studies women’s history, particularly the role women have played in social movements in the south and Appalachia. These stories, she has found, shed light on the many myths of “coal country,” including the assumptions that Appalachia is exclusively white and staunchly conservative.

In her recently-released book, “To Live Here You Have to Fight,” Wilkerson tells the stories of several women who led a range of locally-rooted movements during the 20th century — from welfare rights to community health to anti-poverty. She tells of the repression these movements faced, as well as their lasting contributions to the wellbeing of Appalachian communities.

I interviewed Wilkerson about the significance of documenting these little-known stories of women-led movements in Appalachia, and the way this history can reshape our understanding of the region today.

Why did you choose to research the role women played in leading Appalachian social movements?

For me, it was really important to write Appalachian women’s history because the region is so often portrayed as a space of white masculinity. Even up until the present, the icon of Appalachia is a male coal miner. Before that, in earlier histories it was the so-called mountaineer. The region is perceived as a hyper-masculine space of working-class men. That applies to negative caricatures of the region, but also for labor histories of the region that focus on coal miners who were almost exclusively men until the 1980s.

As a women’s labor historian, I wanted to take on the challenge of writing a book about women and labor, and to ask myself how that would change the way we think about Appalachia. Even when women are written about, they are attached to men as coal miners’ wives and daughters. But women always had their own positions of labor and worked to defend their communities.

I started this book a long time ago, never imagining I would be finishing it at a moment when there is suddenly a spotlight on Appalachia, and what the region meant for the rise of Trump and a certain brand of right-wing politics. But I also never could have imagined that there would be so many young activists in Appalachia who — because of how the story of Appalachia has been told since 2016 — were hungry for a deeper, richer history.

That, for me, has been the most rewarding thing about this book coming out. Of course I care what my colleagues will think, but what is more important is seeing that there is something valuable in this book for current day activists. From youth in Appalachia who want to stay in the region and are trying to imagine a post-coal economy to West Virginia teachers on strike — it was so important to me to be able to write a book that resonates with people in the region, many of whom are women and queer folks.

Your book examines two core concepts: the “ethic of care” and “ethos of citizenship.” Why did you choose to focus on the concept of caregiving when researching the role women have played in Appalachian movements?

I grew up in eastern Tennessee, in a household where Appalachian history and women’s history were valued. When I became a historian, I knew I wanted to write about women in Appalachia. I ended up narrowing in on eastern Kentucky, where I could trace a series of events through these women’s lives — from the development of the coalfields to the labor strikes of the 1930s-1970s to President Lyndon B. Johnson’s War on Poverty. Then I started learning about the community health movement. There were all of these movements happening, but they seemed pretty separate. I knew there was a labor movement, an anti-poverty movement, a health movement, but I wasn’t really seeing them as interconnected. Yet, once I started tracing the stories from these women’s lives, I saw they were very much connected. And one of the threads that connected them all was this discourse around caregiving.

I think my research shifted when I started asking the question, “What is the story of women’s labor here?” And women’s labor primarily related to caregiving. When I came to that, I went back through everything and I was struck by how often women framed their activism as driven by their position as mothers, as people caring for someone with disabilities, as women trying to create a safer environment for their children so they could raise them to adulthood. Then, of course, there was a welfare rights movement, which had been totally unknown to me. And welfare rights is all about caregiving, providing support to people who are taking care of children and the elderly and others.

We think of social movements in these particular ways — protests, campaigns, strikes — but what I found was that caregiving was a thread running through these women’s activism. We know that everyone is participating in caregiving every single day. It’s not always a motivation to become an activist. But these stories show how caregiving labor really informed the politics of these women activists.

What did you find most surprising about the stories you learned in your research?

There is this story of white working-class southerners as being anti-big government and anti-welfare. That narrative is so strong that I couldn’t even imagine that a welfare rights movement existed in Appalachia. But it did! This movement was led by both women and men, black and white, who were fighting for federal policy to be implemented in their communities. They were trying to hold public officials accountable. If legislation had been passed to say that all kids should have access to food but kids in their communities didn’t have access to school lunches, they would protest, go to the school board and call federal officials. They fought for those things. They worked in broad coalitions intersecting with indigenous activists and Latinx activists and African American activists, especially black women activists who led the welfare rights movement.

There is still this story that welfare is all about people being dependent, being cheats and frauds and living off the government. I wanted to recapture the narrative of people fighting for the things — food, shelter, basic income — that they saw as a right of citizenship in this country. That’s a very different framing than we have today.

You wrote a lot about how racism — and the assumption that Appalachia is all white people — affected social movements in the region. How did this shape your research?

Growing up in a predominantly white community in Appalachia, I learned a history of Appalachia that is almost entirely about white people and white settlers. I carried those myths with me for a long time. And then I studied the history and read the work of a lot of other scholars who have written about race in Appalachia, and I realized this was much more complicated.

For me, it was really important to be clear that although the primary characters I’m writing about are white working-class women, that is the result of a couple of things. First, the history of race in Appalachia is a history of racial terror and racial violence and discrimination. So to the extent that there are predominantly white areas in Appalachia, that is the result of those structures.

And second, the War on Poverty — which is where the book really starts — fed resources into communities that helped to generate a social movement, but the very fact that the resources flowed to these community members is because they were white. So the entire system of the War on Poverty in Appalachia was built on a racist structure. That was important to understand.

The other part of the region’s racial history that I wanted to show was how the attacks on white activists in the War on Poverty were bound up in attacks on the black power movement. In eastern Kentucky and around the region, the state government set up the Kentucky Unamerican Activities Committee. The targets of that committee were people involved in civil rights organizing and black power organizing in Louisville, Kentucky. There were arrests of black power activists in Louisville and trials targeting them, then they turned focus on activists in eastern Kentucky, because [the committee] was broadly against the War on Poverty as well.

The attacks made it seem like anti-poverty workers were so-called “subversives,” that they were outsiders coming into eastern Kentucky and telling people what to do, or fooling them into becoming part of the movement. Activists like Edith Easterling, who I write about, pushed against this story that people in the mountains are naturally conservative and that they would never be drawn into a movement of their own accord, but could only be manipulated by outsiders. Edith was from the community, and she refused that narrative. She would say, “We are fighting for our community, and you all are lining your pockets cause you’re part of the coal industry.” This is really interesting given narratives today that see Appalachia as a monolith where there are no progressive activists. That’s an old trope that has been used to undermine movements in the region for a long time.

How do you think our collective perception of Appalachia would change if we knew the stories of women, people of color and LGBTQ activists leading movements in the region?

We can understand how these stories shape our perception by looking at which stories of Appalachia make national news. The Blackjewel miner’s protest is really important, but we primarily see images of the male workers in the media. At the same time, not far away in Kingsport, Tennessee, a nonviolent protest led by women has been happening for over 170 days to protest a merger of two hospitals. They would lose the neonatal intensive care unit and Level 1 trauma center, so people would have to drive an hour or more to get to a hospital. For them, this is about rural people and their access to health care, and about hospitals prioritizing profit over the health of rural communities. That’s happening right now, not far from [the Blackjewel blockade].

As a historian, I do think that 50 years from now we will look back and see that there was this upsurge of activism in Appalachia at the same moment that people were talking about “Trump country” and characterizing this place as the way to explain the rise of the right wing. There are right-wing activists in Appalachia too, as there are across the United States, but it does not exclusively define the place. There is so often this focus on electoral politics as the way that people express resistance. But that’s not usually the way change happens. It’s the everyday resistance that doesn’t have a Democrat or Republican gloss to it. It’s about people dealing with their everyday lives. These women activists had a different vision of society, so they started community centers, they created their own libraries, fed children and helped people gain access to Social Security or welfare. They did a number of things to create that vision.

What is one story you learned about in your research that stood out to you as a powerful example of how women’s lives intersected with these overlapping movements over time?

Appalachian anti-poverty activist Eula Hall in 2009. (Wikipedia)

One example from my book is the story of a woman named Eula Hall. She worked as an anti-poverty activist in her community of Floyd County, Kentucky. Eula was born in the 1920s. She was a middle-aged mother by the time of the War on Poverty, and in a pretty difficult situation in her own life. She ended up getting involved in anti-poverty activism and became an anti-poverty worker in federal programs. She helped to start a welfare rights organization in her community, and she was trying to help people gain access to their rights to food or health care or black lung benefits.

Then, when the welfare rights movement weakened, Eula turned to the community health movement. One of her passions was health care because she grew up in a place where she saw people die due to a lack of access to basic health care. She helps to lead the effort to start a clinic, then she learned at a community health fair about the Brookside mine strike in Harlan County, Kentucky. She knew that unions are really important to help working-class people gain labor rights and labor power, so she drove every morning to Harlan County to stand on the picket lines with miners on strike.

She also became part of the anti-strip mining movement, and she helped to start an Appalachian women’s rights organization, which tried to center rural Appalachian working-class women in conversations about what women’s issues are. For them, it wasn’t necessarily just about gaining access to jobs — or credit — that were once closed to women. It was also about welfare, environmental justice and the economy in general.

So I found that when you trace one woman’s life over time, you can see her — in this case, Eula Hall — moving in and out of an array of movements that are interconnected and overlapping. Her clinic is still there. It’s now called the Eula Hall Health Center, and it’s still the only clinic serving that community. For me, doing the life history work and thinking about women’s lives in the context of a lifetime, it was really important not to silo the issues that animated them. I could have written a book about feminists in Appalachia, and it would cover one slice of their activism, or about the Poor People’s Campaign and Appalachian involvement in that. But the power in her story is how she is wherever the movement is. She sees them all as interconnected, and she gives her energy at various times to each of them. I think that is really more instructive for how we live our lives.



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