Feminine Voices in Appalachian Literature

Celebrate International Women’s Day with the Feminine Voice in Appalachian Literature

In recognition of Women’s History Month, the Shelton Learning Commons is spotlighting The Feminine Voice in Appalachian Literature (LIT 333) with a selection of works studied in the course.

“Women's voices have often been overshadowed by their male counterparts, who write about women,” Associate Instructor Kathy Olson said. “In this course, the Appalachian experience is viewed from a feminine perspective. Some of the writers covered were born in Appalachia and lived their entire lives in the region, while others have lived all over the U.S. and the world.  To read these authors brings new meaning to the term ‘global perspective.’”

The course covers writers like Barbara Kingsolver, Rachel Carson, Lee Smith, and Rebecca Harding Davis. Students engage with the works in a variety of ways, with projects ranging from interviewing an author or exploring the research done on a specific work to developing a creative work that examines the literature. The course sometimes includes specific areas of focus, such as letters and poetry, traveling and journalism, or nature and science writing.

“It really is interesting to be able to focus on the voices of women from Appalachia whose experiences showcase a broad expanse of contributions to the cultural understanding of the lives of women in the region and their many contributions to American Literature and culture,” Olson said. “Most people who take the class comment that they had no idea of the depth and breadth of these female voices.”

The course is currently offered during the summer term in an online setting. It counts as an elective for the English major and the Appalachian Studies and English minors. 

The following list of works, chosen by Olson as representative of the course texts, provide a starting point for those interested in gaining a better appreciation of the scope and impact of Appalachian female authors.

Killing Rage: Ending Racism (1995)

bell hooks

Gloria Jean Watkins, who writes under the pen name bell hooks, was born in 1952 in Hopkinsville, Kentucky, where she attended segregated public schools. As an author, essayist, professor, lecturer, and filmmaker, she tackles issues of racism, sexism, and oppression in the United States. In the 23 essays that make up “Killing Rage: Ending Racism,” hooks addresses the lack of female voices in conversations about race. The “killing rage” mentioned in the book’s titular essay describes the anger that builds over repeated, everyday examples of racism Black people experience and how that rage can be a source of healing and a catalyst for change.

Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life (2007)

Barbara Kingsolver

Kingsolver spent some of her childhood in Carlisle, Kentucky before moving with her family to the Democratic Republic of the Congo. As an adult, she returned to Appalachia, buying a farm in rural Virginia and engaging in an experiment with her family to eat local as much as possible for a full year. “Animal, Vegetable, Miracle” details the family’s experiences learning how to produce and preserve their own food and shifting their diet to only eat food in season in the area. 

Saving Grace (1995)

Lee Smith

Smith was born in Grundy, Virginia, a small coal-mining town in the southwestern region of the state. As a novelist and short story writer, she is known for her authentic depictions of Appalachian women and her mastery in capturing the Southern voice. Smith’s ninth novel “Saving Grace” tells the story of Florida Grace Shepherd, the eleventh child of a snake-handling evangelist who traveled across the Appalachian South in his ministry. The novel explores the difficulties of Grace’s upbringing and how they affect the choices she makes as an adult.

Listen Here: Women Writing in Appalachia (2003)

Sandra L. Ballard

Patricia L. Hudson

This anthology samples the work of 105 female Appalachian writers across a variety of genres and time periods. The collection highlights writers who have been largely forgotten by the American literary community because work about and based in the Appalachian region is seen as outside the mainstream. Even when a female writer from the region receives national attention, her work is rarely discussed in the context of her origin. Ballard and Hudson’s goal in compiling these works is to encourage others to see the women writers of Appalachia as worthy of study and recognition and to acknowledge that Appalachian stories have value for a wide audience.

The Tall Woman (1962)

Wilma Dykeman

Dykeman was born and raised in Buncombe County, North Carolina and lived in both Asheville and Newport, Tennessee as an adult. As an author of both fiction and non-fiction books, a newspaper columnist, and a popular public speaker, she achieved renown throughout both states. She was named the official Tennessee state historian in 1981 and received the North Carolina Award for Literature in 1985. “The Tall Woman” follows Lydia and her family as they experience the chaos of the Civil War and the pain of its aftermath, along with the challenges of carving out a life in a poor Appalachian community.

These and other books addressing the Appalachian experience through a feminine lens are available to Lees-McRae students, faculty, and staff through the Shelton Learning Commons.

Lees-McRae students interested in taking The Feminine Voice in Appalachia Literature (LIT 333) course can direct questions to Kathy Olson, who also teaches the Women in Literature course during the spring semester.

By Emily WebbMarch 08, 2021