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To Live Here, You Have to Fight: How Women Led Appalachian Movements for Social Justice

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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. Jessica Wilkerson tells their stories within the larger drama of efforts to enact c 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. Jessica 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.


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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. Jessica Wilkerson tells their stories within the larger drama of efforts to enact c 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. Jessica 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.

30 review for To Live Here, You Have to Fight: How Women Led Appalachian Movements for Social Justice

  1. 5 out of 5

    Ai Miller

    I really deeply enjoyed this. Wilkerson does a great job of pushing against stereotypes about Appalachian people, and her careful attentiveness to the women she writes about reveals so much in conjunction with her analysis. Her framework is really compelling and interesting for future use, and this definitely could be used in excerpt for teaching. Definitely a book I want to share with other people and talk about!

  2. 4 out of 5

    josie

    maybe a 3.75? at its best when getting deep into the particularities of care and solidarity, lost me a little in the weeds of very detailed histories of the welfare state. love a history deeply grounded in oral histories and wish there’d been even more

  3. 4 out of 5

    H. P.

    There are two basic problems with academic books for a popular audience. The first is that the academic writing is frequently atrocious. The second is that the topic is often very narrow. I am glad to report that the first is not an issue with Wilkerson’s book. The prose is competent, if pedestrian, and Wilkerson avoids the jargon-laden incoherence that has overtaken the social sciences. The second isn’t exactly a problem, but there is only so big an audience for a book that talks only about poo There are two basic problems with academic books for a popular audience. The first is that the academic writing is frequently atrocious. The second is that the topic is often very narrow. I am glad to report that the first is not an issue with Wilkerson’s book. The prose is competent, if pedestrian, and Wilkerson avoids the jargon-laden incoherence that has overtaken the social sciences. The second isn’t exactly a problem, but there is only so big an audience for a book that talks only about poor, female activists in Kentucky coal country in the wake of the War on Poverty. I might not have picked it up had I appreciated just how narrow the subject matter was, but nevertheless I am glad I did. The result of a narrow focus is a depth that pretty much ensures you will learn something. Wilkerson covers a time period that starts with “the top-down, federal War on Poverty from 1964 to 1968,” but her story stretches beyond the short-lived War on Poverty itself to “the grassroots war on poverty reverberated for over a decade.” Appalachia got pulled into the War on Poverty for political reasons, which is about as good as we can expect, I suppose. Appalachia’s perceived (and, for the most part, actual) whiteness was used to blunt the racial connotations of the anti-poverty program. The War on Poverty may have been much less successful than the New Deal, per Wilkerson, but it had two goals: economic development and “access to health care, food, water, and education.” Importantly, pursuit of this second goal “invited local people to participate in solving problems” with “Community Action Programs (CAPs) [that] made decisions about funding and brought together stakeholders across multicounty regions.” That second goal allowed the participation of local, poor and working class women like Granny Hager, Edith Easterling, and Eula Hall. Wilkerson specifically focuses on Kentucky coal country. After all, the image that “came to represent the War on Poverty” was taken in eastern Kentucky. Discussion of Appalachia is driven in significant part by such images. There is a sense that outsiders see them as a fair representation of Appalachia. The reaction against that often results in ignoring poor and working class hillbillies entirely. Wilkerson focuses on activists who were “solidly working class” like Edith Easterling. As the book progresses, the focus shifts from poverty alleviation to welfare activism to employment opportunity. The initial, vigorous push inevitably leads to a conservative backlash. The new programs upset the power structure and political balance in rural counties that were dominated by upper and middle class locals and most of all the coal operators’ associations. They were frequently less opposed to welfare programs than to funds they didn’t control, with the political and social power that comes with it. This is a story that takes place after the glory days of Appalachian coal. “An out-migration that had begun in the 1920s sped up as war industries attracted workers from Appalachia.” But many of the women who left would return to Appalachia (Edith Easterling worked in a munitions factory in Michigan during WWII). The pull from industrial opportunities would be complemented by a push from reduced opportunities in the coal mines due to increased mechanization. Violence over the mines, though, continued. And the people of the region were left with little to show for it. The broader area still “lagged behind in their access to electricity, plumbing, and paved roads.” Wilkerson writes plainly but doesn’t break from orthodoxy. You get some things you come to expect from contemporary academic writing. “Democratic” is used to mean generically good. “Capitalist” is used to mean generically bad. “Neoliberalism” is used as an epithet. Mostly this is irrelevant, although sometimes it hurts Wilkerson’s argument. She expects the reader to accept “anticommunist” as bad. I suspect she is right—her narrative betrays no communist sympathy, interest, or even inclination among the female poverty activists on which she focuses—but given this was during the Cold War and given (as she admits) the National Miners’ Union had communist backing, we can’t dismiss anticommunist motivation out of hand. On the other hand, I learned a useful term—“social reproduction”—I might not have been exposed to otherwise. Borrowing another scholar’s definition, Wilkerson describes social reproduction as the “array of activities and relationships involved in maintaining people both on a daily basis and intergenerationally.” Wilkerson adds that “[t]hese activities include raising and socializing children, caring for oneself, preparing food, cleaning living quarters, buying consumer goods, and maintaining ties of family and kin. The majority of this labor—both paid and unpaid—has historically fallen to women.” The poverty of the area and the informal role of the women who star in Wilkerson’s book lead them to wear many different hats over the course of the book: mine picketer, community organizer, unofficial social worker, driving instructor, preserver of mountain culture, agitator against strip mining, and coal miner. Wilkerson’s isn’t a story about unions, but the unions and antipoverty activists were natural allies, and unions appear regularly. The unions, at least, rarely had interests that diverged from those of the antipoverty activists. The same could not be said about other groups. The local, female, anti-poverty activists faced internal as well as external obstacles. There were complaints about activists who “cared more about their ‘theories’ than about working on the major issues confronting Appalachians” (an evergreen issue). There were tensions between insider and outsider activists over, for example, the Vietnam War. When the Appalachian Volunteers chose to keep an activist from California over her, Edith Easterling was deeply offended. Wilkerson points to her belief it “was a sign that the organization no longer valued local people’s opinions and leadership.” I would add that Easterling was quick to return to a hillbilly suspicion of outsiders, even after having worked with the Appalachian Volunteers for years. To the extent the women of the book can fairly be labeled feminist, they looked very different from the more prominent feminists of the day. There was a sharp divide between the working-class feminism they represented and the “middle-class feminists who shaped policy decisions.” The hillbilly women were old-school, looking “more like the ‘social justice feminists’ who were active between the 1930s and the 1960s than they did second-wave feminists.” Beyond the core theme, there is a lot in here, including tidbits from a rich, often ugly history that go beyond the narrow subject of the book and should be of interest to any general student of Appalachia and hillbilly studies. In the end, I am plenty glad I picked up To Live Here, You Have to Fight (what a title!). Wilkerson picked a fascinating topic that is surely underserved in the existing literature (the book was adapted from her dissertation, so her first priority was advancing the literature). In exploring that topic, Wilkerson avoids allowing academic theories of her own to lead her to erase the lived experiences of hillbillies. Others insist the hillbilly reputation for violence is entirely a stereotype; Wilkerson implicitly acknowledges it in her title. How could she not? Her story is one of feisty women in a place that seems to breed them. Telling the story of these remarkable women requires a greater comfort level with them than their own culture offered. So it is a narrow work. It starts with the War on Poverty and ends in the 70s with the move toward focusing on employment rather than caregiving. It examines one gender (female), one class (working class, really, not even the poor), in one very specific region (Kentucky coal country). But, for the reader willing to dig a bit deeper, it should be of interest not only for students of Appalachia and hillbilly studies, but also students of the history of feminism, community organizing, the War on Poverty, and the labor movement. Disclosure: I received a review copy of To Live Here You Have to Fight via NetGalley.

  4. 5 out of 5

    Cristie Underwood

    The author did a great job of writing about a period in our history that many do not know too much about. I found myself wanting to learn more after reading this book and spent time researching online. Definitely recommend this one!

  5. 5 out of 5

    Laura Geraghty

    I read this for research on a novel I am writing and I enjoyed it. It is more academic in nature, but that’s what I was using it for so that was fine with me. I enjoyed learning about the women who fought to make Appalachia a better place.

  6. 4 out of 5

    Juliet

    Mentioned on Longreads podcast episode: “Living With Dolly Parton”

  7. 4 out of 5

    Edi McNinch

    This book is more academic in nature and seems to be very much like a dissertation. I must honestly say I only skimmed a lot of the political detail but it seems the author did a lot of research into this project. The most interesting part of the book was the stories of the strong women who sought change and helped their people in Appalach. I would have preferred to read more biography of them rather than the political manutia. (Especially the Easterling women) I gave 4 stars because the author This book is more academic in nature and seems to be very much like a dissertation. I must honestly say I only skimmed a lot of the political detail but it seems the author did a lot of research into this project. The most interesting part of the book was the stories of the strong women who sought change and helped their people in Appalach. I would have preferred to read more biography of them rather than the political manutia. (Especially the Easterling women) I gave 4 stars because the author did apparently work hard on the political details and politicians involved, but they were uninteresting to me. I was aware that mountain people had a hard life, but I had no idea of the reality. I was impressed with the women who rose up and battled the establishment for their families. **This book would make a great study for a political science class or Southern or Appalachian history class. !!!!Not a book for the casual reader.!!! Thank you to the author, NetGalley and the publisher for the ARC for an honest opinion. The opinions expressed are my own.

  8. 5 out of 5

    Nan Williams

    This book was obviously well researched with the author impressing her research on the reader. The author had an agenda to proclaim and made her case over and over again. I’m guessing that this was written in response to some sort of “publish or perish” dictum. This should have been interesting due to the advertised subject matter, but quite honestly, the subject matter was completely overshadowed by the author's agenda. I did not finish and do not recommend it. I received this Kindle edition as a This book was obviously well researched with the author impressing her research on the reader. The author had an agenda to proclaim and made her case over and over again. I’m guessing that this was written in response to some sort of “publish or perish” dictum. This should have been interesting due to the advertised subject matter, but quite honestly, the subject matter was completely overshadowed by the author's agenda. I did not finish and do not recommend it. I received this Kindle edition as an ARC from NetGalley and the publisher, University of Illinois Press, in exchange for an honest review.

  9. 5 out of 5

    Laura Lynn

  10. 5 out of 5

    Marian Phillips

  11. 4 out of 5

    Kari

  12. 5 out of 5

    Irina

  13. 5 out of 5

    cj

  14. 4 out of 5

    Toni (MissPrime)

  15. 5 out of 5

    Carter Hall

  16. 5 out of 5

    jamie middleton

  17. 4 out of 5

    Kasey Prevette

  18. 4 out of 5

    Rebecca

  19. 5 out of 5

    J Hornbuckle

  20. 4 out of 5

    Rebecca

  21. 5 out of 5

    Grace Rogers

  22. 4 out of 5

    Rev. Haberer

  23. 4 out of 5

    Nicole

  24. 5 out of 5

    Eric Toler

  25. 4 out of 5

    Angie

  26. 4 out of 5

    Shannon Johnson

  27. 4 out of 5

    Gurudarshan Khalsa

  28. 5 out of 5

    Elizabeth Tripp

  29. 5 out of 5

    Maguse

  30. 5 out of 5

    Courtney

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