The Appalachian Women’s Rights Organization and The Lost Promises of Feminism

Jessica Wilkerson
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Image: Courtesy the University of Illinois Press

“One woman alone can’t do anything,” activist Eula Hall declared at the inaugural meeting of the Appalachian Women’s Rights Organization. The group had met for the first time at the Mud Creek Clinic in Floyd County, in February 1975. The regional magazine and media outlet for social movement news, Mountain Life & Work, documented thirty people in attendance, mostly women, including Eula Hall and Dr. Elinor Graham of the clinic, as well as several women who had traveled from surrounding areas. A few “interested men” attended as well, including Woodrow Rogers, the chairman of the Eastern Kentucky Welfare Rights Organization. Following a three-hour discussion, the group decided they needed a formal organization to promote women’s rights in the region.

To several of the supporters in attendance, a women’s movement made complete sense given the history of women’s activism in Appalachia. They reminded each other that women in the Mountain South had often been the strongest, most dependable fighters in times of crisis, and the women’s rights meeting marked a moment to consider what women as a group needed to thrive. Woodrow Rogers reflected that women were “the most powerful” at “rallies, picketing, and everything else.” During her eight years of community work, declared Sue Fields, a community organizer in southwest Virginia, “It was the women that got things done.” For the past decade, Appalachian women had led numerous social justice efforts, from welfare rights campaigns and women’s self-care meetings to civil disobedience actions to draw attention to poor conditions in the coalfields. The new organization would build on that energy but bring a new gender-consciousness to their analysis of power in the coalfields.

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The AWRO members identified two areas that they believed most important to organizing for women’s rights: gender violence and economic hardship. Too many women simply did not have access to decent, well-paying jobs, and the employment most often available to them—so-called “unskilled” labor—paid too little to support a family. With the tightening of social welfare programs, many women in Appalachia saw few routes to economic stability. Those economic concerns entangled with gender violence in the home. As explained by Dr. Graham, the intersection between poverty, a failing economy, and domestic violence could lead to tragic outcomes. “The job situation in Appalachia is bad. Men get disabled young. Tension builds up at home. Beating begins on the wife and often children . . . the whole thing comes down on the women.”

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The AWRO’s steering committee set up four working groups: workplace organizing, day care, driver’s education, and shelter. All of the areas of interest pointed to the ways that women often felt isolated and without options when they lived in unstable or violent households. Without access to day care or good-paying jobs, they had few resources when facing life with an abusive, sick, or absent partner. That many women could not drive aggravated feelings of helplessness.

Portrait of Eula Hall by Kristen Mendenhall. C. 1971.
Image: Kristen Mendenhall Collection, Appalshop Archive.
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Eula Hall’s imprint was hard to miss here. Her pitch for a women’s organization reflected her own experience of domestic violence, personally and in her work with female patients. “Day after day we [the clinic staff] see the need for a women’s group to counter the things we live with: physical abuse from men; husbands objecting when women try to do anything like take a job or work in a local organization. When a woman tried to do anything, she must fight her husband to do it. If we have a group women won’t be so scared to try.” By 1975, Hall had survived physical and emotional abuse by her husband McKinley for over thirty years. His violent attacks had begun soon after they married and had escalated over the years as she became a more assertive and committed activist. Only when she had enough money to pay rent and feed her kids did she finally leave him in 1976. He continued to harass her when he saw her, so she bought herself a gun and “never went back for no more.” In 1977, she was finally able to divorce McKinley.

Class-conscious, antipoverty feminism buttressed numerous women’s organizations in the 1970s: from community organizations in Atlanta, New York, and Las Vegas, to new lobbying organizations in Washington, D.C., like the National Council on Women, Work, and Welfare. The Appalachian Women’s Rights Organization was a part of a surge of welfare rights activists and their allies who sought to influence emerging feminist policies, especially as related to welfare, work programs, and economic security. Armed with their own stories of resistance and a history of activism that linked women’s liberation to economic security, AWRO members imagined what feminist revolution would look like in their lives. A few days after the AWRO International Women’s Day celebration, members presented demands to the Kentucky Commission on Women, where they hoped to convince commission members, who saw themselves as the vanguard of the women’s movement, to expand their understanding of women’s rights.

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By 1975, the Kentucky Commission on Women had reorganized, and its Democratic leadership showed more interest in interacting with women across the state, including poor and working-class women. Democratic Governor Wendell Ford appointed Marie Abrams, his former administrative assistant, to chairperson of the commission in 1973. She oversaw twelve public meetings when commission members traveled the state in order to compile information about sex discrimination in a series of categories. Although the commission was no longer outright hostile to the concerns of poor women, it continued to reflect a middle-class ideology, focusing on credit, employment, salaries, real estate, day care, and the campaign to pass the ERA. The commission invited women to speak briefly on these topics, and the hearings would be included in an annual report, with recommendations to the governor’s office.

On a wintry evening in March 1975, commission members traveled to Hazard, Kentucky, on a charter plane. Local women activists from across eastern Kentucky navigated difficult road conditions in the dark, as they made their way to the courthouse in Hazard. There they met the commissioners, and they pressed them on the meaning of equality for poor and working-class women.

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Dr. Elinor Graham read a statement prepared by the AWRO. Although she was not from Appalachia, nor was she working-class, she had aligned with antipoverty feminism. The statement pushed the commissioners to “take up the genuine problems of the vast majority of the women in this area and to bring these problems to the attention of the public and government officials.” It continued, “These are problems of finding jobs, getting decent pay and work conditions, trying to feed families with constant inflation of food prices, increasing unemployment for them and their husbands, having to fight for state and federal social service benefits and food programs that should be easily available and now may be cut back, and trying to hold their families together economically and morally in a time of general economic crisis.” The AWRO representatives pressed the commission to use its platform to work toward solutions to the economic crises they faced and to expand services that benefited women and families, including strong welfare and jobs programs. The appeal made one of the commissioners “choke up” and declare that it was “an absolutely stunning statement.” However, at least some women left the meeting skeptical that the Commission on Women had the ability to bring about significant change in the mountains.

Even as they found some of the testimonies emotionally appealing, commission members failed to take seriously the policy implications of the group’s statement. For instance, even as Appalachian feminists urged the commission not to create a false binary between work and welfare, Chairperson Abrams responded by asking about Manpower programs. Created under the Nunn administration before becoming federal policy, these policy initiatives required that welfare recipients enroll in work programs, with the goal of permanent employment and a decrease in the welfare rolls. A discussion followed, during which Appalachian women explained the problem with welfare-to-work programs in a time of economic crisis. One woman stated, “we can’t demand jobs for women and not jobs for everyone.”

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The commission’s vision of women’s advancement by individual uplift made little sense in the single-industry coalfields and in a period of mechanization and deindustrialization. Local women also discussed the conundrum of caring for disabled men but also needing to become the family provider when men could no longer work. Their feminism was bound to structural issues that the commission failed to perceive in their narrow definition of women’s advancement.

The commission’s plan of action simply did not reflect the concerns of eastern Kentucky women who filed into the courthouse that evening. Credit and equal salaries were the “concerns of professional women,” the AWRO noted. Few women in Appalachia could even find opportunities for well-paid employment. Not only were they not considered for industry jobs, the highest paying jobs in the region, they knew the risks that one encountered when employed in the mines. Still, they were open to traditionally male work if it was available, but even that option disrupted gender norms of some middle-class women who could not imagine doing hard labor. Sally Maggard of the Council of the Southern Mountains reported, “When women brought up problems in getting jobs in heavy industry, the Commission members were surprised. . . . [They] had not expected women want these jobs.” The AWRO summed up the meeting: the Commission could not “offer many concrete suggestions to the problems presented to them, the problems of the majority of the women in the area who are in the working class or trying to support their families on a fixed income.”

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Maxine Mitchell, UMWA Miner, Island Creek #2, Vansant, Virginia, 1976.
Image: Courtesy of earldotter.com

The Kentucky Commission on Women of the 1970s proved more invested in women’s equality than the Commission of the late 1960s, yet its set of policy concerns defined equality in ways that too often gave short shrift to the problems facing working-class and poor women, a pattern in liberal feminist organizations. For instance, some of the debates about the relationship between work and welfare, and more generally what it meant for a woman to live a fulfilling life, had arisen in organizations such as the National Organization for Women (NOW), which had built coalitions with welfare rights activists and poor mothers. Yet tensions often came to define the relationship, most notably after the defeat of the Family Assistance Plan by the GOP. In the aftermath, liberal feminists argued against a male breadwinner model that circumscribed women’s economic independence, something that class-conscious feminists supported, but the liberal coalition practiced “benign neglect” when it came to supporting generous public assistance for poor mothers, as AFDC became increasingly stigmatized. As historian Marisa Chappell shows, by the late 1970s “the diffusion of liberal feminist ideology, liberal demands for full employment, and a political climate increasingly hostile to welfare—along with the continuing flood of mothers into the labor market—prompted a shift in emphasis. Now, employment took center stage.” Like liberal feminist organizations more generally, the commission promoted equal employment as the surest way to help lift women out of poverty, even as many women continued to point out the gaps in that formula.

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The AWRO’s encounter with the commission is important for what it reveals about the lost promises of the feminist movement, but also how feminist ideas from previous decades persisted into the 1970s, as well as how women sought to negotiate competing feminist ideologies. Appalachian feminists took a holistic view, arguing for structural changes that would manifest in support of working-class communities. No single approach could solve their problems. They wanted access to well-paying, union jobs, but they also called for robust state support for those who cared for children and other dependent family members.

In this way, they looked more like the “social justice feminists” who were active between the 1930s and 1960s than they did second-wave feminists. As stated by Mary Anderson, appointed the first director of the Women’s Bureau in the 1920s, a feminism that focused on “doctrinaire equality” without “social justice” would fail to improve the majority of working women’s lives. Anderson and others like her were opposed to “equal rights feminism,” which focused on equality between women and men but failed to address the ways that race and class also structured women’s lives. Their conceptions of feminism promoted an expansive social safety net, a robust labor movement, and the valuing of women’s labor in the market and the home. Moreover, like the social justice feminists before them, feminists in Appalachia built on the ideological frameworks of antipoverty, labor, and civil rights movements.

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The commission offered Appalachian feminists a narrow agenda focused primarily on employment. It aimed to remove barriers standing in the way of individual women’s advancement, whereas the AWRO called for structural change and demanded that feminists grapple with the intersections of gender and class. As legal challenges wended their way through the courts and feminist policy organizations solidified their platforms, the former won out. In the following years, the commission continued to feature prominently in its newsletters information about how women could apply for credit, claim property rights, access higher education, and utilize affirmative action. By the late 1970s, it put its resources toward lobbying for domestic violence legislation and providing support networks for victims of rape and domestic violence. While women in Appalachia certainly took advantage of many of these policy changes, their broader vision of a justice that dealt with the distribution of economic power did not gain a hearing. Without a broad agenda, the Commission on Women and the liberal feminism it represented held limited possibilities for working-class women.

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The AWRO and feminists in Appalachia ultimately turned their attention to the one area of feminist policy where they might make economic gains: access to higher paying jobs in male-dominated industry. They began mobilizing for an end to employment discrimination, especially in the coal mines. Over the next several years, they realized success in legal challenges and in breaking down barriers in workplaces. In making this shift they muted their previous indictments of the mining industry, as well as their commitments to a guaranteed income and rights for caregivers. A woman donning coalminer’s garb became the new, iconic image of the Appalachian feminist.

Excerpt from To Live Here, You Have to Fight: How Women Led Appalachian Movements for Social Justice by Jessica Wilkerson. Copyright 2019 by the Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois. Used with permission of the University of Illinois Press.

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