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Hillbilly Women

“Hillbilly Women” by Kathy Kahn is a book on cultural diversity focusing on the Appalachian way of life. The focus was on women and their families as coalminers. It is a narrative and an excellent source for a sampling of the culture and the social conditions of the region in 1973. The book has the speaker talk of struggles and happiness of living in the Appalachian region. In the early and middle twentieth century Appalachian women did not have many opportunities to work in the male-dominated labor market.

Deeply rooted in tradition and specific gender roles, most women stayed at home to raise the family and take care of domestic responsibilities. This choice of career is most certainly hard “labor,” and the strength and wisdom that generations of women gained lead to shifts in the traditional “role” of an Appalachian woman. Coal mining and other industries, such as logging and textile mills, exist as the main labor markets in the early and mid-century Appalachian region. Women had very important roles in the community and some had occupations outside of the home, as educators, clerks, or workers in textile mills.

Not all women were conforming to the “passivity” often attribute to Appalachian women. Women’s involvement in labor in the Appalachian Mountains sparked great movements in union organization and activity, opening the eyes of men and women around the country to the strength and perseverance of Appalachian women. According to government records, women did not work in mines until 1973. Mother Jones, a leading historical figure of women’s roles in unions, once stated, “No strike was ever won without the support of the womenfolk” (Kahn, 7).

Even though men controlled much of the work force in the Appalachian region, women fought for and stood up for their own rights as laborers and the rights and safety for their families. Participating and organizing strikes in the textile industry, women demanded better working conditions and equal treatment. In the coal fields, women supported their husbands, sons, families, and friends in the strikes and actions of the United Mine Workers of America. In both of these industries women stood up for justice and equality and existed as a vital part of the labor unions in Appalachia.

In the union movements music served as a vital inspiration and promotion of camaraderie. Among the songs and songwriters, women were integral composers and motivators. Kathy Kahn explains that women songwriters “used their songs to help organize coal-mining families into the union to capture the spiritual, emotional, and physical feelings of people” (Kahn, 28). Some of the more famous Appalachian songwriters include: Florence Reece, Ella May Wiggins, Aunt Molly Jackson, and Sarah Ogan Gunning.

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