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

We ask authors of books reviewed in Oral History Review to answer 5 questions about why we should read their books. In this week’s installment of the series, Jessica Wilkerson discusses To Live Here, You Have to Fight: How Women Led Appalachian Movements for Social Justice.

Read Joanne L. Goodwin’s review of To Live Here, You Have to Fight: How Women Led Appalachian Movements for Social Justice online and in issue 47.1 of OHR.

What’s it about and why does it matter?

To Live Here, You Have to Fight tells the story of Appalachian women activists in the 1960s and 1970s, primarily through the lives and histories of a group of white, working-class women based in eastern Kentucky. They joined democratic movements that are familiar to many, like the Poor People’s Campaign, the welfare rights movement, and the women’s and labor movements. But they also joined and led others that might be less familiar, like the community health movement and what they called the “Appalachian Movement,” defined by the efforts to challenge the deeply unequal class system of the coalfields. By following these activists’ lives and their involvement in these overlapping movements and campaigns, I show how they connected with white and black women across Appalachia and the South to form a gender-conscious, region-wide democratic movement that challenged the constraints of a capitalist society. In particular, they made pointed arguments about how corporate capitalism relied upon women’s caregiving labor at the same that it devalued that labor and made it difficult to perform, thus raising broader historical questions about women’s labor, the history of labor and capitalism, and battles for gender justice in the twentieth century.

How does oral history contribute to your book?

My book would have been impossible to write without oral history interviews, as many of the major archival collections on Appalachia in this period do not fully capture the range of women’s experiences. The book’s roots lay in an oral history project on the women’s movement in the South (for the Southern Oral History Program at UNC). In those interviews, feminist activists talk about “the women in eastern Kentucky” who led the way and were an inspiration to women throughout Appalachia. Many but not all of those women had died by the time I was working on the project. I interviewed who I could, and then turned to the rich trove of interviews conducted by documentary filmmakers at media centers like Appalshop in Whitesburg, Kentucky, and oral history projects housed at the Louie B. Nunn Center for Oral History at the University of Kentucky and other regional colleges and universities, some of them created as part of class projects. Fortunately, oral historians had recognized the historical significance of many of these women’s stories as early as the 1970s, and I’m grateful that they took the time to record them.

What do you like about using oral history as a methodology?

I am invested in telling women’s life stories, and I am always curious about the broader context for their activism. For me, oral history methodology has been the primary way to think about how women made sense of their activism, what motivated them to become politically active, and how they envisioned a better, more just world. Oral historians of other social movements, especially the Civil Rights Movement and LGBTQ movements, have been especially important guides for me.

Why will fellow oral historians be interested in your book?

My book implicitly brings up a couple of questions or points of debate that I would love to think through with other oral historians. The first is how narrators can help to provide the intellectual framing for a book. Two major concepts in my book come directly from interviews. The first, grassroots feminism, was outlined by one of my narrators, and the second, caregiving, was described across numerous interviews. I would like for us to think more about oral history documents as deeply intellectual sources, not simply stories that a historian analyzes or mines for meaning. Second, I did not quote at length from interviews and instead wrote a narrative, in my own voice, based on the interviews along with many other sources. Thus, I did a great deal of interpretive work, which brings up many questions about sources, authority, memory, and archives.

What is the one thing that you most want readers to remember about the book?

My main concern with this book, as a woman and historian from the Mountain South, was narrating the histories of a group of women in Appalachia and how they navigated the regional and national politics of their day. If a reader remembers one or more of the women as a complex actor in Appalachian history, their nuanced approach to politics, and the vision they had for fairness and gender justice, then I will be satisfied.