The Appalachian woman archetype is rough, hardened and traditional. Men are the head of the household; women mind the house. The labor of men brings money and professional prestige; women’s accomplishments are brushed aside as familial expectations. Cleaning, minding children, providing a refuge for emotional vulnerability, these are all duties that fall to mothers and wives. These are the roles supposedly assumed by Appalachian and Southern women alike.
But the stereotype has forgotten that Appalachia is ruled by the women within it. The idea that Appalachian women are solely homemakers ignores and destroys the reality of life here and furthers a patriarchal idea without critically analyzing the context of Appalachian culture.
My grandmother married a mountain man at the age of 15. Living in what’s now Shenandoah National Park, they remained on his family homestead until eventually moving into the Shenandoah Valley. Four kids and three grandkids later, I am lucky to have a front seat to the perfect case study of Appalachian hierarchy and what it means to be a woman in our region.
My grandmother stands at a whopping 5’0” –– tiny compared to my grandfather’s 6’ frame. She keeps her short hair permed and her pants pressed. She won’t leave the house without lipstick, and she hates pictures.
Her hands have picked the garden since it was tilled. They’ve wiped away tears and raised babies. They’re sturdy and strong.
My grandmother is the ultimate mediator – between cousins, aunts, uncles, brothers and sisters. Every Sunday, she makes dinner for her family. My grandmother is the matriarch of our family.
That’s how it is for many tight-knit, Appalachian families –– there’s a single woman that keeps it all together.
You see, my grandfather is in charge of the garden that grows the food we eat. His vegetables fill the table that feeds our family and brings us together. But it’s my grandmother’s cooking that turns a summer harvest into Sunday dinner.
Everyone has their fill, plus two plates after that. While the men retire to the living room and the kids are ushered away, my aunts rise from their seats and in a loud flurry, the pans are cleaned, the table is wiped and the dishes are stacked away. The kitchen is once again clean and orderly. Everyone leaves with leftovers tightly packed with plastic wrap and dessert on the side.
What I thought I was witnessing growing up in a conservative Appalachian household with these family dinners was the portrayal of traditional, conservative values, where gender roles often stifle the wife, forcing her back into the house with a child in tow. The man provides and the woman abides.
But I could never see myself filling those traditional roles and the gendered expectations my family had for me, so I pushed back. I told them I never wanted a family to tend to or a house to keep in order. My grandparents lamented the idea of never having great-grandbabies. My aunts and uncles couldn’t fathom that I would never want the stability of domesticity. I despised the fact that I could only imagine a world where I was content with children and a husband.
But I have come to realize those roles in Appalachia are so much more complex. I don’t even remember the occasion, but there was a day surrounded by the laughter and joy of my family that a realization shattered the preconceived notions of what society told me being a woman in Appalachia was: Our grandmothers do this not because they have to, this was never something forced onto my grandmother by her husband or the culture she grew up in, Juanita Conley got up and made supper so that her family could be together. She wanted to create this space of love for us to enjoy. As it dawned on me that my grandmother was doing this out of love not obligation, my world was shaken — everything I had assumed had been wrong.
Throughout our history, Appalachian women have been leading the efforts to provide better lives for their families – by doing the work both inside and outside the home. Historians Jessica Wilkerson and Sudie Crusenberry have collected the stories of some of these great women who became centers for political revolution in their respective communities. As reporter S. Heather Duncan wrote for Scalawag, “Wilkerson argues their activism arose from their understanding of how their unpaid caregiving — for children, disabled husbands, and abused wives — was linked to their rights as citizens: the right to affordable child care and health care, clean water, and safe working conditions for raising a family.”
The truth is Appalachia is a matriarchy, relying on the labor of women to keep families together. Their work is often unnoticed because of how our country defines and values “work,” but my mamaw is proof that Appalachian women are dynamic and strong. My grandmother has taken great pride in her ability to run a household, but she also worked for many years alongside her husband to provide for her family. She makes Sunday dinner to see her family together, not because she’s expected to do so. There’s nobody that could possibly tell her what to do anyway.
Women are the backbone of Appalachian families. Without them, our grandfathers would only have a cellar filled with vegetables, cabinets crammed with unused china and a dining room that lies quiet and empty. Appalachian women take four walls and fill them with warm food, loud gossip, tight hugs and the enduring, bountiful feeling of home.
Men may think they run the show, but the truth is they have only been afforded a ticket.
Summer Conley is a senior at James Madison University studying Public Policy and Administration. She was born and raised in Appalachia and currently lives in Elkton, Virginia.
This article originally appeared in James Madison University’s school newspaper, The Breeze, and has been edited here.