Women of the Mountain South: Identity, Work, and Activism builds on the growing body of literature on women and gender in Appalachia. Editors Connie Park Rice and Marie Tedesco have assembled an impressive collection of essays, primary documents, pictures, and reflections analyzing the lives and contributions of Appalachian women.
Over the past several decades, Appalachian studies literature has grown to incorporate more nuanced understandings of women’s experiences in the region. Influenced by advances in feminist theory, gender has become an important tool of analysis for understanding the historical development of Appalachia, which has persistently [End Page 107] been misunderstood and stereotyped, often coded as white and male. Women of the Mountain South provides an important contribution to Appalachian historiography by challenging gendered and racialized assumptions about the region’s history and development.
Contributors to the volume employ a variety of methods to present the stories of Appalachian women. Using census data, interviews, newspaper accounts, historical documents, correspondence, films, and literature, the authors present the diverse experiences and images of women throughout the region. Contributions span both space and time, examining both rural and urban settings and issues of representation, embodiment, maternalism, gendered space, and sexuality. The collection is organized around three themes: identity, work, and activism. Each section includes a collection of essays as well as a series of primary documents such as pictures, interview excerpts, poems, court documents, diary entries, letters, and reflections, all of which add context and depth to the volume. Each section also ends with questions for discussion that reflect larger themes in Appalachian studies.
Several essays explore the role and perception of female reformers in the region. Chapters by Deborah L. Blackwell, John C. Inscoe, Penny Messinger, and Evelyn Ashley Sorrell consider the representations, tactics, and programs of uplift workers. These chapters examine the work of settlement school workers, health-care professionals, and middle-class reformers, exploring issues such as the classed dimensions of maternalist discourses and the role of female reformers in creating the larger image of Appalachia.
Many of the chapters utilize intersectional frameworks to analyze the lives of women, paying particular attention to racial issues in the region. Carletta A. Bush’s account of African American female coal miners examines the discrimination faced by female coal miners and the work of women’s support organizations like the Coal Employment Project. Karen W. Tice’s chapter on beauty pageants in Appalachia deals with issues of embodiment, classed and racialized notions of beauty, and middle-class constructions of acceptable behavior. Several [End Page 108] chapters also provide insights into the lives of important, yet little-known, African American women in the region. For example, Jan Voogd’s chapter shares the seldom-told story of Ethel New, a pregnant woman from Lynch, Kentucky, who was violently removed from a segregated bus in Virginia in 1944. New unsuccessfully sued the bus company for damages after having a miscarriage related to the incident, yet her activism was an important moment in the history of civil rights in the region and country.
The collection ends with a roundtable discussion about the concept of place in Appalachia. Contributors to the volume examine both Appalachia and “Appalachian women” as historically contingent social constructions, often the site of competing definitions and power struggles.
Women of the Mountain South is the most comprehensive and diverse collection of historical writings about women in the Appalachian region. The collection will make a useful teaching tool, filling gaps in the literature and presenting a variety of experiences of Appalachian women. The collection breaks down the hegemonic notion of “Appalachian women,” contesting stereotypes and examining the complex lived experiences of women across different social locations. The book highlights the layered dimensions of identity, different types of women’s work, and diverse outlets for activism, providing an entry point for further scholarship on women in the region.
KATHRYN ENGLE is a doctoral student in the Department of Sociology at the University of Kentucky.