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‘To Live Here You Have To Fight’- How Appalachian Women Today Are Building On Activist Traditions Of The Past

Katie Myers
Participants in the 2018 Appalachian Puppet Pageant pose with a handmade banner.

This week on Inside Appalachia, we’ll hear how women in the mountains spearheaded movements to battle racial injustice, defend healthy communities, and fight for the rights of all Appalachians. We’ll talk with the author of a book called “To Live Here You Have To Fight,” hear from podcaster Anna Sale, and visit a camp that teaches young people to play rock music.

In This Episode:

Women aren’t front and center in accounts of the region’s history, but they’ve been influential in everything from the coal industry to labor movements to preserving traditions. Today, women are building on this history -- continuing to be role models for society, while taking our Appalachian roots into the modern day. In this episode, we’ll learn about several of them, and what their stories reveal about modern movements for change across our region.

Inside Appalachia Is Hiring

We're looking for a part-time associate producer. A full job description can be found here. Email resume and cover letters to kdodd@wvpublic.org and insideappalachia@wvpublic.org.


How Women Led Appalachian Movements for Social Justice

Appalachian history is full of sharp, groundbreaking women who changed the lives of people around them. In the 1960s, a lot of mountain women got involved with the federal War on Poverty to help people access welfare benefits. That led them into partnerships with civil rights activists, disabled miners and others. They teamed up to fight for everything from poor people's rights to community health to unionization.

History professor Jessica Wilkerson tracks that history in her book, “To Live Here, You Have to Fight: How Women Led Appalachian Movements for Social Justice.” Wilkerson spoke with Inside Appalachia co-host Mason Adams about what led those women into activism — and what their stories tell us about the world today.

“They argued for valuing the common good, and at the end of the day, that's what these women that we're talking about were fighting for,” Wilkerson said. Her book also explores how modern-day movements in Appalachia build on these traditions that were led by women. “In many ways, we're fighting many of the same battles around environmental justice, around basic quality of life.”

Nicole Musgrave
Sheyanna Gladson (left) and Adeline Allison learn a new song during Girls Rock Whitesburg in Whitesburg, Kentucky. The music camp held its second week-long camp in the summer of 2019.

Empowering Young People Through Music

Girls Rock Whitesburg in Whitesburg, Kentucky is a music camp for female, gender-fluid, non-binary, and trans youth. Over the course of a week, campers learn an electric instrument, form a band and write songs. At the end, they perform in front of a live audience. While the camp focuses on electric music instruction, participants also learn how music is tied to social justice. Back in 2019, Folkways reporter Nicole Musgrave followed two girls who came to camp and who reinvented a traditional protest song.

Caitlin Myers
Participants in the the annual Knoxville Pride Parade carry a larger-than-life Dolly Parton puppet down Gay Street.

Women-Led Puppetry Group In Knoxville

Throughout history, puppets and marionettes have been used as an accessible means to tell rowdy stories, poke fun at authority figures, and provide cheap entertainment. Puppetry blurs the line between play and politics, between protests, pageants and parades - all of which have a storied history in the South. We’ll hear a story from one of our Folkways reporters Katie Myers, on how a group called Cattywampus Puppet Council in Knoxville, Tennessee, is building on that tradition.

Anna Sale

Anna Sale
Gabriela Hasbun
Anna Sale, author of Let's Talk about Hard Things. She's also the creator and host of Death, Sex & Money, the podcast from WNYC Studios.

West Virginia native Anna Sale is host of the popular podcast “Death, Sex & Money.” It's a podcast that talks about, as she says, “the things we think about a lot and need to talk about more.” Sale’s new book, “Let’s Talk About Hard Things,” is about having frank conversations about topics that can make us uncomfortable, including relationships and death.

“If you are ill, what are the kinds of last conversations you want to have with the people you love? And not try to act like it’s not happening,” Sale told Inside Appalachia co-host Caitlin Tan.

Our theme music is by Matt Jackfert. Other music in this episode was provided by Anna and Elizabeth, Kaia Kater, and Dinosaur Burps.

Roxy Todd is our producer. Our executive producer is Andrea Billups. Kelley Libby is our editor. Our audio mixer is Patrick Stephens. Zander Aloi also helped produce this episode.

You can find us on Twitter @InAppalachia. You can also send us an email to InsideAppalachia@wvpublic dot org.


Caitlin Tan is working as Inside Appalachia’s folklife reporter, as part of a Margaret A. Cargill Philanthropies grant. The goal of her reporting is to help engage a new generation in Appalachian folklife and culture.
Mason Adams grew up near the Virginia/West Virginia border in Clifton Forge, Virginia. He’s covered mountain communities and the issues affecting them since 2001. His work has appeared in Southerly, Daily Yonder, 100 Days in Appalachia, Mother Jones, Huffington Post and elsewhere. He lives with his family and a small herd of goats in Floyd County, Virginia. Follow him on Twitter @MasonAtoms.
Roxy Todd joined West Virginia Public Broadcasting in 2014 and works as the producer for Inside Appalachia. She's the recipient of a National Edward R. Murrow Award for "Excellence in Video," for a story about the demands small farmers face in West Virginia. She also won a National PMJA Award For "Best Feature" for her story about the history of John Denver's song "Country Roads." You can reach her at rtodd@wvpublic.org.