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How Women Led Movements for Social Change in Appalachia

Author Jessica Wilkerson will give a talk on her new book, "To Live Here, You Have to Fight: How Women Led Appalachian Movements for Social Justice." 

Jessica Wilkerson book cover
Launched in 1964, the War on Poverty quickly took aim at the coalfields of southern Appalachia. There, the federal government found unexpected allies among working-class white women devoted to a local tradition of citizen caregiving and seasoned by decades of activism and community service. 

Wilkerson tells their stories within the larger drama of efforts to enact change in the 1960s and 1970s. She shows white Appalachian women acting as leaders and soldiers in a grassroots war on poverty — shaping and sustaining programs, engaging in ideological debates, offering fresh visions of democratic participation and facing personal political struggles. 

Their insistence that caregiving was valuable labor clashed with entrenched attitudes and rising criticisms of welfare. Their persistence, meanwhile, brought them into unlikely coalitions with black women, disabled miners and others to fight for causes that ranged from poor people's rights to community health to unionization. 

Inspiring yet sobering, "To Live Here, You Have to Fight" reveals Appalachian women as the indomitable caregivers of a region — and overlooked actors in the movements that defined their time.

The event is sponsored by the Department of History Center for Women's and Gender Studies and WVU Humanities Center

About the Author

Jessica Wilkerson headshot
Jessica Wilkerson grew up on top of a ridge in East Tennessee, on the land where her great grandparents once farmed. It is not far from Knoxville, where her parents worked. She graduated from public school and headed to Carson Newman College in Jefferson City, Tennessee, where she took courses in women's history, southern literature and Appalachian studies. She then found her way to Sarah Lawrence College in Bronxville, New York, where she studied women's and labor history. She also interned at the Tamiment Library and Robert F. Wagner Labor Archives at New York University. That experience cracked open her own family's union organizing history, previously unknown to her. With a master's in history, she returned home and taught community college courses in history and writing. In 2008 she headed to UNC-Chapel Hill, where she received a PhD in history. In 2014 she started a job as an assistant professor of history at the University of Mississippi in Oxford. Her first book, "To Live Here, You Have to Fight: How Women Led Appalachian Movements for Social Justice," was published by the University of Illinois Press in December 2018.