Mason Adams Published

Historian Jessica Wilkerson Talks About Women-Led Protest Movements In Appalachia

Jessica Wilkerson, a professor of history at West Virginia University, has spent much of her career studying women in labor movements and their impact particularly in Appalachia and the South.

Appalachian history is full of sharp, groundbreaking women who changed the lives of people around them. In the 1960s, a lot of mountain women got involved with the federal War on Poverty to help people access welfare benefits. That led them into partnerships with civil rights activists, disabled miners, and others. They teamed up to fight for everything from poor people’s rights to community health to unionization.

History professor Jessica Wilkerson tracks that history in her book, “To Live Here, You Have to Fight: How Women Led Appalachian Movements for Social Justice.” The author, Jessica Wilkerson, spoke with Inside Appalachia co-host Mason Adams about what led those women into activism — and what their stories tell us about the world today.

***Editor’s Note: The following has been lightly edited for clarity.

Mason Adams: We talk a lot here on Inside Appalachia about the struggle to stay in the region. And it feels like the title of your book ‘To Live Here You Have To Fight’ speaks directly to that. Can you talk about where the title comes from?

Jessica Wilkerson: The title comes from two phrases uttered by women in Appalachia who were part of significant labor and social justice movements.

The first one is very famous; it’s by Mary Harris Jones, known as “Mother Jones.” She was a labor activist who organized miners in the coal fields of West Virginia in the early 20th century, and she famously declared, “Pray for the dead, and fight like hell for the living.”

And then the second phrase is from Bessie Smith- Gayheart, who was an anti-poverty and environmental justice activist in the 1970s. She was a prominent member of the Appalachian group To Save the Land and People, and that group organized to abolish strip mining and Kentucky. Bessie Smith-Gayheart was at a celebration of International Women’s Day in 1975, and she was speaking to an audience of activists and women who were part of the Women’s Liberation Movement, and all kinds of other struggles in Appalachia. She told the audience, “To stay here, you’re going to have to fight like hell.”

So we have these two women — very different moments in history, a part of two different social movements, but the message is generally the same. It’s about a particular place, fighting for people in that place, but I think it goes beyond that. And they’re really talking about how to support communities and how to build solidarity with working class and marginalized groups of people wherever they are.

Adams: Yeah, I love the line in the introduction here where you say, “For working class caregivers in Appalachia, labor struggles, welfare rights movements, and campaigns against environmental destruction, were women’s issues just as much as … reproductive health care and domestic violence.” Because so many of the women in your book were mothers and wives before they were activists, how did that background inform their work?

Wilkerson: Yeah, that’s such a crucial question that really guided my work.

Part of it was playing around with this idea of coal miners wives and coal miners daughters, a phrase that a lot of us are familiar with, and that always suggests that the most important part of those women’s relationships is to the man, to the male worker. I really wanted to challenge that idea to think about how mothers, daughters, people raising families, connected their experiences to politics. They saw those roles as really connected to labor, this caring labor and how well they could do it under the circumstances in which they lived.

As I think most of your listeners will know, [these] were often really difficult circumstances, especially in the coalfields of Appalachia, where, you know, people didn’t have many labor rights around occupational safety and health, and where there were a lot of industrial dislocations occurring. So many, many people were being forced out of employment because of changes in the industry by the 1960s. Women were arguing for labor rights and for all these other human rights, based on their positions as people who took care of their communities and whose labor was really vital to those communities.

Adams: So that brings us to Eula Hall, who some people will know. She just passed away in May. Can you tell us a little bit about Eula Hall? 

Wilkerson: I had the honor and opportunity to interview Eula Hall a few times as I was working on the book. She was just an incredible woman. She was a working class white woman who was born in 1925 in Pike County, but she lived most of her life in Floyd County, Kentucky. And she had grown up in a situation where her family was in poverty. She attended about five years of school, and she worked much of her childhood. So it started with gathering herbs and selling them at the market when she was a girl. Then she worked at a cannery up in New York for a little bit, and then she came back home and was a domestic worker, and she met her husband, and they got married when she was 15. Her husband ended up being incredibly abusive, and she survived decades of abuse as a young woman. She learned how to navigate the welfare office, and that would inform her later activism when she got involved in the regional welfare rights movement of the 1960s.

Adams: What are some of the lessons that these women activists hold for us today?

Wilkerson: You know, I have to say that in many ways, we’re fighting many of the same battles. I think we’re still living in some ways in the same era as them. It’s many of the same battles around environmental justice, around basic quality of life. I think of current day movements like around pipelines and against mountaintop removal. And then there are people like Dani Cook and other activists in East Tennessee who’ve been fighting against a hospital merger that would reduce the quality of health care in rural Tennessee, the “Red for Ed” teacher strikes, in which teachers have argued for higher salaries and better benefits. I think more significantly, they argued for valuing the common good, and at the end of the day, that’s what these women that we’re talking about were fighting for. Valuing their labor as caregivers, providing a broad social safety net, so that people can live healthy and dignified lives.

Jessie Wilkerson is a professor of history at West Virginia University, and a 2021 Andrew Carnegie Fellow. Her book is “To Live Here, You Have to Fight: How Women Led Appalachian Movements for Social Justice.” 

Jesse Wright with 100 Days in Appalachia helped record this interview. 

This conversation is part of an episode of “Inside Appalachia,” featuring stories about women who fight for change and better living conditions throughout our region.