Yoked to Tradition: Kentucky Women and Their Histories, 1900–1945
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Yoked to Tradition:
Kentucky Women and Their Histories, 1900–1945

In 1892, Julia Dempsey read an article in the Journal of the Knights of Labor condemning upper- and middle-class women reformers seeking to end poverty. Women, the author had argued, were not qualified to discuss non-feminine issues such as labor questions or cures for poverty. Dempsey disagreed. “I thought it a little severe,” the forty-two-year-old coal miner’s wife confessed to the United Mine Workers’ Journal under the pseudonym “Laurene Gardner.” Despite her misgivings, however, Dempsey refrained from opposing the author entirely. The women described were probably not competent to discuss labor and poverty, she conceded, “only I think their limitations are more of a social than a natural character.” The reformers in the article, Dempsey believed, were unqualified not because they were women but because they were not poor.

“Tell me, what does Lady Somerset or any of her class know of the questions with which they attempt to deal[?]” Dempsey asked. “Did she ever see the tiny dimpled toes of her children exposed to the winter’s cold? Did she ever go supperless to bed [so] that the smallest morsel of food might not be taken from them?” How many times, Dempsey wanted to know, had these reformers watched a loved one die from these causes? “This is what the laboring man and his wife [End Page 453] as well have felt again and again, and these are the evils these pretty feminine wiseacres in silks and satins have undertaken to ameliorate.” Their goal was noble, Dempsey acknowledged. “Heaven knows I don’t disparage them or their intentions in the least,” but the efforts of “these dainty dames” to save the poor “reminds me irresistibly of a flock of humming birds, coming down to scratch for a brood of hungry chickens.”1

Dempsey’s colorful response to the Journal of the Knights of Labor article is important for several reasons. First, it highlights the hardships thousands of women knew too well. Dempsey, who was born in the coalfields on the Illinois-Kentucky border, knew poverty all her life. Her experiences shaped her opinions on politics and society in ways that caused her to identify starvation and want, not women’s inequality, as the primary challenges working-class women needed to overcome. Second, Dempsey showed that these experiences created powerful divides beyond those characterized by sex. Far from operating in a world separate from their male counterparts, wives such as Dempsey believed they had more in common with their husbands, brothers, and neighbors than they did with wealthier fellow women. In doing so, Dempsey and other women demonstrated that some struggles women endured placed them at odds with those of their own sex.

These issues were so obvious to Dempsey that she and many of her contemporaries took them for granted. Although her letter openly discussed political and economic issues typically associated with the “male sphere,” no reader challenged her right to do so. In the weeks following Dempsey’s letter, miners and wives wrote dozens of letters to the United Mine Workers’ Journal discussing the issues that concerned them the most. But no reader responded to Dempsey’s letter in disapproval or praise of her stance on women or her decision to criticize a male author on political matters. Dempsey’s letter was so unremarkable it was quickly forgotten. [End Page 454]

Yet, as commonplace as Dempsey’s thoughts and actions may have been, they do not fit within our current understanding of women’s experiences. In fact, questions of economic struggle or cooperation between men and women are frequently overlooked in women’s histories. This is because historians seeking to integrate women’s experiences into historical narratives frequently face a double challenge. They must not only locate women’s thoughts and experiences in sources that often favor men but also recognize women’s actions and opinions as worthy of study.

Women’s historians in Kentucky and the nation have made substantial headway in the first respect. We have uncovered remarkable women who took bold stands against societal norms and whose actions were critical in shaping society. Our studies...