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Writing the history of feminism in the South and Appalachia: WVU researcher earns prestigious Carnegie award

Release from WVU Today:

MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — There’s more to the American women’s movement of the 1960s and 1970s than burning bras and Gloria Steinem. 

Jessica Wilkerson, associate professor of history at West Virginia University, wants to change that narrative to its truest form: The fight for women’s rights was built on the shoulders of women of color, the working class and women in the south and Appalachia – not just white-collar urbanites. 

The Carnegie Corporation of New York has acknowledged Wilkerson’s pursuit, as it named her a recipient of the prestigious Andrew Carnegie Fellowship, also known as the “brainy award,” for 2021. Wilkerson is the second WVU researcher to earn that designation; the first was English Professor Stephanie Foote in 2018. 

For this year’s class, Wilkerson is one of 26 fellows selected from 311 nominations across the country. The fellowship grants each member $200,000 to fund significant research and writing in the social sciences and humanities that address important issues confronting society. 

Wilkerson’s project, “Feminisms in the American South,” will include a book, public history exhibit and series of articles to be published in 100 Days in Appalachia. Her goal is to integrate the stories of the unsung heroes into the history of women’s progressive activism since the 1960s. 

“There’s the image of white women burning bras and marching in city streets,” said Wilkerson, also the Stuart and Joyce Robbins Distinguished Chair in History in the Eberly College of Arts and Sciences. “But it’s much more nuanced and complicated. The women’s movement unfolded everywhere in the United States and fundamentally changed society. The very notion of what constituted the most pressing ‘women’s issues’ was contested.” 

“As president of West Virginia University, I believe that the future of our state, Appalachia and our country requires a more thorough understanding of its history,” said WVU President Gordon Gee, who endorsed Wilkerson for the fellowship. “Dr. Wilkerson’s work shares the forgotten women with the reader and with the public. By doing so, it helps our understanding of what makes our nation.” 

As an undergraduate student, Wilkerson read an article titled “Disorderly Women: Gender and Labor Militancy in the Appalachian South” by her future mentor, historian Jacquelyn Dowd Hall, that opened her eyes to another dimension of the history of women’s activism for gender equality. The article told the story of young women workers at a Tennessee textile mill who led a labor strike in the 1920s. Their actions helped spark a wave of strikes for workers’ rights across the South. 

“That was one of the first times where I understood that women’s movements didn’t happen only in big cities outside of the South,” said Wilkerson, a Tennessee native. “These were hyperlocal events happening in rural places. 

“Too often, women of color, of the working class, and of the South and Appalachia don’t see themselves reflected in the nation’s story of democratic struggle. This exclusion matters because stories inform how we see our world and understand political possibilities in the present.” 

Wilkerson’s motivation also stems from a 2011 interview, archived at the Southern Oral History Program, with Barb Greene, a working-class activist from Jellico, Tennessee. Greene, a self-proclaimed “grassroots feminist” who directed a program addressing poverty, environmental injustice and economic opportunity in Appalachia, told Wilkerson that she “had difficulty with the word feminism for a long time” as she “didn’t see any kinship” with icons of the movement such as Betty Friedan and Gloria Steinem. 

Wilkerson’s Carnegie-funded project will build on her experience directing public history projects on gender and sexuality in the South, teaching women’s history, writing for news outlets and authoring a previous book, “To Live Here, You Have to Fight: How Women Led Appalachian Movements for Social Justice.” 

Her upcoming book, “In Sisterhood, In Struggle,” will be the first major study of how the modern American women’s movement emerged and expanded in the South, including in campaigns for Black and LGBTQ rights, in workplaces, in environmental justice struggles and inside prisons. The book will be based on oral history interviews and other archival research. 

Her planned public history exhibit will focus on feminism in West Virginia and, once complete, will be on display at the West Virginia and Regional History Center at WVU

Wilkerson hopes that her chronicling of the past will help guide the future of the ongoing struggle for not only gender justice, but for the rights of other disenfranchised groups. 

“We like to think there’s a narrative of movements – such as a piece of legislation or policy that goes into effect – that we can look at and say, ‘Oh, we won. Things are better now and we’re a more equal society,’” Wilkerson said. “It’s a bit harder than that, especially in parts of the South. 

“Slow change is not for a lack of trying. Some might assume it’s because women didn’t fight hard enough for themselves. That’s simply not true. They’re coming up against powers that don’t want them to succeed. So it’s part of my duty to tell that story and communicate how these struggles continue into the present.” 

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