Rurality, Feminism, and Appalachia: Possibilities and Prospects for Appalachian Feminism and Interorganizational Collaboration
“Does rural feminism exist? Are there differences between rural feminisms and urban feminisms? Is there a rural feminist movement? Can there be?”
These questions posed and discussed during the 2015 Rural Women’s Studies Association conference in San Marcos have echoed in my head ever since. As a doctoral student in the Department of Sociology at the University of Kentucky studying women and gender in Appalachia I was so excited to find out about the existence of the RWSA. The conference sounded like a great opportunity to network with others interested in issues related to rural women, especially questions of rural feminism.
I was energized to meet with others who cared about the lives and experiences of rural women and to learn from people researching rural issues in the Midwest and the South. Most of my focus is on Appalachian issues and I found it refreshing to learn about similar histories, representations, silences, and misconceptions about rural women in other parts of the country and to also get an international perspective through the many excellent presentations by international scholars and activists. My presentation examined the gendered work of the Lend-A-Hand Center, a nonprofit community service organization in Knox County, Kentucky, within the context of Appalachian women’s activism. In my research I have been particularly focusing on Appalachian women’s and gender studies and I am thankful to for the opportunity to share my work and get feedback from others interested in rural issues.
A highlight of the conference for me was the exercise interrogating questions of rural feminism. I continued to ruminate on the concepts of rural feminism, grassroots feminism, and agrarian feminism. This led me to wonder about Appalachian feminism and to brainstorm a series of questions: What is Appalachian feminism? Are there several Appalachian feminisms? How has it changed over time? How is it different/similar to other forms of feminism? How does it fit into wider conceptualizations of feminism? Who is an Appalachian feminist? What are the aims of Appalachian feminism? The term “Appalachian feminism” is not a widely cited or used although I feel like it could be a powerful concept. “Appalachian feminism” could use a bit more theorization as both the concepts of Appalachia and feminism are chronically misunderstood and often maligned. I feel as though there is power in naming something and that there is much work to be done considering the particular manifestations, tactics, types of activism, and movements of Appalachian feminism, whether it be rural or urban.
During the conference I also began thinking about possibilities for collaboration between RWSA and the Appalachian Studies Association (ASA). I am a member of the ASA Steering Committee and have been involved with Appalachian Studies for several years. The Association began from conversations in the late 1970s between activists, scholars, artists, and community members considering issues in the Appalachian region including land use, taxation, stereotypes, culture, identity, and environmental degradation. The Appalachian Studies Conference and later the Appalachian Studies Association provided a venue for people interested in issues relating to Appalachia to come together as people began a concerted effort to revise past misrepresentations of the region and produce new scholarship. With strong activist and arts roots, the Association grew over the years, hosting annual conferences, engaging in dialogues about the region’s past, present, and future, and being at the forefront of issues pertinent to the region. Much like Women’s Studies or African American Studies, Appalachian Studies as an interdisciplinary field has strong social justice roots and has continually evolved over the past several decades. As Appalachian Studies scholarship has developed, it continues to provide more complex analyses of gender and more complete inclusion of women’s stories in the history of the region.
Many of the presentations at the yearly ASA conference discuss issues related to gender and rural women that would be of interest to RWSA members. I invite everyone to join us for the Appalachian Studies Association Conference at Shepherd University in Shepherdstown, West Virginia, March 18-20, 2016. I will be participating in the roundtable discussion “Examining Feminism in Appalachia through Historical Scholarship: A Discussion of Women of the Mountain South” with Connie Park Rice and Marie Tedesco, editors of Women of the Mountain South, as well as Jordan Laney, Rachel Terman, and Brandi Slider Weekley. The session is being convened by Barbara Ellen Smith. Hopefully this roundtable will spur further discussion about “Appalachian feminism” that may continue in future conferences. Although it is important to note that the region is not wholly or even very rural as is a common misconception, a growing body of literature examines Appalachian women’s and gender studies and is waiting to be put in conversation with other writings about feminism and rurality.
I see lots of potential for collaboration between RWSA and ASA. I am excited for the next RWSA conference in Appalachian Ohio in 2018. The conference at Ohio University is a great opportunity for both organizations to learn from each other, share insights, and work together. I see lots of possibilities for cross pollination and long-term cooperation. I hope to bring together scholars and activists for a panel on women and gender in Appalachia in 2018 and to continue interrogating questions about rural feminism, Appalachian feminism, and the lives and experiences of rural women.
Suggested readings in Appalachian Women’s Studies:
Anglin, Mary. 2000. “Toward a Workable Past: Dangerous Memories and Feminist Perspectives.” Journal of Appalachian Studies 6(1/2):71–99.
Engelhardt, Elizabeth S. D., ed. 2005. Beyond Hill & Hollow: Original Readings in Appalachian Women’s Studies. Athens, OH: Ohio University Press.
Lewis, Helen. 2012. Helen Matthews Lewis: Living Social Justice in Appalachia. edited by P. Beaver and J. Jennings. Lexington, KY: University Press of Kentucky.
Maggard, Sally Ward. 1994. “Will the Real Daisy Mae Please Stand Up? A Methodological Essay on Gender Analysis in Appalachian Research.” Appalachian Journal 21(2):136–50.
Rice, Connie Park and Marie Tedesco, eds. 2015. Women of the Mountain South: Identity, Work, and Activism. Athens, OH: Ohio University Press.
Smith, Barbara Ellen. 1998. “Walk-Ons in the Third Act: The Role of Women in Appalachian Historiography.” Journal of Appalachian Studies 4(1):5–28.
Smith, Barbara Ellen. 1999. “‘Beyond the Mountains’: The Paradox of Women’s Place in Appalachian History.” NWSA Journal 11(3):1–17.
Stewart, Bruce E., ed. 2010. Appalachian Journal: A Special Issue on Women in Appalachia. 37(3/4) Boone, NC: Appalachian State University.
Kathryn Engle is a doctoral student in the Department of Sociology and pursuing a graduate certificate in Gender and Women’s Studies at the University of Kentucky. She earned an MA in Appalachian Studies from Appalachian State University and is currently the site coordinator for the Lend-A-Hand Center Grow Appalachia Gardening Program in Knox County, Kentucky.
 Elizabeth Engelhardt uses the term in several of her articles.
 For those who may not know much about Appalachian Studies or the development of the field, the recently released volume Studying Appalachian Studies: Making the Path by Walking edited by Chad Berry, Phillip Obermiller, and Shaunna Scott provides an overview and evaluation of the current state of the field. An excerpt from this important collection is available through Southern Spaces entitled “Reconsidering Appalachian Studies.”