Jessica Wilkerson

  • Fellowship year:2013-2014
  • University: University of North Carolina Chapel Hill
  • Dissertation Topic/Category: Gender and Women's History
  • Dissertation Title: Where Movements Meet: Women's Activism in the Appalachian South, 1965-1980
  •  "Pray for the dead, and fight like hell for the living."  Decades after labor activist Mother Jones spoke these words in 1925, her battle cry continued to resonate and provided a guiding philosophy for many women in Appalachia.  This dissertation traces the alliances forged and the campaigns led by women in the Appalachian South in the 1960s and 1970s, with a primary focus on Eastern Kentucky.  I show that women shaped the federal War on Poverty at the grassroots and then used the skills they learned in antipoverty programs to foster social justice activism that continued into the 1970s and beyond.  Rural, white, poor and working-class women- a virtually invisible group in American history- helped to shape debates about welfare policy, economic justice, and gender equity in the region.  Drawing on a wide variety of sources, including oral history, archival film footage, memorabilia, and manuscript collections, I argue that women in Appalachia developed a strand of gender-conscious activism that reflected the concerns of the civil rights and women's movements while, at the same time, it drew on local traditions and addressed labor exploitation and environmental degradation produced by the coal economy.