Survival and Economic Issues Are Women’s Issues: Feminism in the Appalachian South in the 1970s

Sunday, January 10, 2016: 11:00 AM
Crystal Ballroom A (Hilton Atlanta)
Jessica Wilkerson, University of Mississippi
As recent scholarship shows, the women’s movement was defined as much by its grassroots iterations, maybe even more so, than the national organizations that defined policy goals. This is especially so for the women’s movement in the South, where women faced challenges in their daily lives, especially in rural places marked by poverty. For women in rural communities of the Mountain South, gendered struggles extended beyond what scholars generally consider women’s issues, such as sexual harassment, reproductive rights, and domestic violence. While those issues were part of women’s lives and work, women activists in Appalachia argued that labor disputes, poverty, and environmental destruction affected women in profound and particular ways. Their modes of activism demonstrate how gendered experiences of poverty and class disparity informed women’s visions of gender equality.

This paper contends that the regional women’s movement that emerged in the Appalachian South in the 1970s was rooted in capitalist critiques of the coalfield economy. Over the course of a decade a flurry of women’s groups organized and women spoke openly about their visions of gender justice, and they brought gender and class inequality into one frame. Women in Appalachia joined and supported the striking women of the Brookside Women’s Club in Harlan County, KY; they organized the Appalachian Women’s Rights Organization; they published magazines on women’s issues; they organized women’s health retreats; they celebrated International Day of Women’s Rights; and they debated with middle-class feminist groups about the best ways to advance women’s equality. Through all of these episodes, women in Appalachia redefined for themselves the meaning of feminism and women’s rights in their lives, building on many years of activism. The women’s movement did not simply spread to the Appalachian South. Instead, it emerged from an organic response to the particular issues facing women in rural, working-class communities.

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