Thursday, December 3, 2015

Women of the Mountain South--November Blog Binge

Most of the books I review for AROUND CINCINNATI come from academic presses, most frequently from University Press of Kentucky and Ohio University Press. And since these presses are the “go to” for many poets, I often get to review poetry collections. However, academic presses publish research in many fields, often featuring voluminous works that could easily serve as textbooks for college survey courses or primary sources for those wishing to do even more research.  Such a book is Women of the Mountain South: Identity, Work, and Activism published in 2015 by Ohio University Press’s Series in Race, Ethnicity and Gender in Appalachia.  Edited by Connie Park Rice, a professor of History at West Virginia University and Marie Tedesco, director of the Master of Arts Program in Liberal Studies at East Tennessee State University, this 506 page collection explores the diversity of Appalachian women.

In the introduction, Connie Park Rice sums up the task of providing good sources about Appalachian women for those who would teach the history of women in the Mountain South with this passage:

“In the past four decades, scholars have produced and continue to produce, many fine studies on women in Appalachia, but few provide a broad overview of women across time and place. This book begins to fill that void. Intended as an introduction to the history of women in the Mountain South, Women of the Mountain South: Identity, Work and Activism focuses on three dominant themes over two hundred years of history in various geographic locales.”

Part One of the book explores identity while recognizing the plurality and complexity that topic encompasses for Appalachian women. The essays from part one tackle Cherokee identity, the emergence of Mother’s Day, female stereotypes, Hollywood’s portrayal of benevolent workers, and how body image affects cultural belonging.

Each section of the book also includes primary documents to support the essays.  In part one, there are some diary entries from Moravians and Muslims, a petition for divorce from one Peggy Cox, and a study of undocumented Hispanic mothers with high school-aged children. A number of photographs at the end of the section continue to illustrate the diverse identity of Appalachian women.

Part Two examines Women and Work In Appalachia.  The first essay argues the concept that gender lines often blurred in the Mountain South requiring women to perform many jobs deemed unsuitable elsewhere in order to ensure the family’s survival. The second essay discusses the role of prostitution during the Civil War, which many women entered as a consequence of economic distress, alcoholism, abuse or homelessness. The third essay outlines the role of middle class white women from outside the region in organizing women workers. Female leadership in the Conference of Southern Mountain Workers contributed to the development of social work as a profession. Another essay examines the gendered and racialized myth surrounding black women’s employment in the coal fields. The myth was that by hiring one black woman for the mines, a company could get affirmative action credit for hiring two minorities, thus depriving white men jobs.  That myth preserved white privilege and divided women workers.

Interesting support documents in Part Two include an indentured servant’s papers and the testimony of Mrs. Maggie Waters about the lack of jobs for women, causing them to take in laundry and boarders.  There is also poetry from Coal Mining Women’s Support Team News.

The dominant role of women activists in Appalachia is the topic of Part Three. H. Adam Ackley looks at the work of Florence Reece, Molly Jackson, and Sarah Ogun Gunning in the first essay.
Other essays explore motherhood and sexuality, middle class black women who challenged segregated transportation, and West Virginia women who stood up against mountaintop removal. Documents in this section illustrate the fight for suffrage, statistics about abortion in the mountain south, and access to health care.

In the epilogue, the contributors to Women of the Mountain South:  Identity, Work and Activism discuss the importance of place to the region and to their work. “Diverse and pluralistic, “ says editor Connie Park Rice, “the real Appalachia consists of many places, where people of different social classes, religions, races, ethnicity, and sexual orientation live while maintaining a variety of traditions and interests.”

No comments: