Mountain Feminist: Helen Matthews Lewis, Appalachian Studies, and the Long Women's Movement

By Wilkerson, Jessica; Cline, David P. | Southern Cultures, Fall 2011 | Go to article overview

Mountain Feminist: Helen Matthews Lewis, Appalachian Studies, and the Long Women's Movement


Wilkerson, Jessica, Cline, David P., Southern Cultures


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A 1966 photograph of the Appalachian historian and activist Helen Matthews Lewis captures much about a woman who has been studying, writing about, and fighting for the people of Appalachia for three-quarters of a century. In the photo, Lewis sits outside of a mine entrance, hair emerging beneath a hard hat, with a big smile and coal-smeared cheeks. (1) It is the portrait of the scholar as coal miner, the worker as scholar, the academic as activist. The image of Lewis in the garb of a coal miner--hard hat, head lamp, and rolled up sleeves--anticipates the i970s movement of Appalachian women into the male-dominated coal industry following Title VII legislation, while also recalling Lewis's own history as a trailblazer for women in the academy.

Helen Lewis has long been a towering figure in Appalachian Studies, designing the first academic programs and developing an interpretation of Appalachia as an "internal colony" of the United States, a model that influenced a generation of Appalachian scholars and activists. (2) She describes herself as part of the "long movement for women's rights." Her experiences as a child in rural Georgia, her education at a progressive women's college, and her tireless efforts working for justice in Appalachia and the South are emblematic of how a generation of southern women activists who came of age in the 1940s confronted racial, gender, and class discrimination in their native region.

While Lewis's scholarship has been profoundly influential, her personal story is less known. As she recounts it, early encounters with a range of social movement activities informed her work. Lewis's activist career began with the YWCA as an undergraduate at the Georgia State College for Women in the 1940s, where she participated in interracial organizing. As she entered graduate school and began teaching anthropology and sociology in the 1950s, she navigated an academic system that discriminated against her because she was a woman and the wife of an academic. After she left academia, she became an important ally and supporter of grassroots women's activism in Appalachia. Although women's equality was not always at the forefront of her activism, Lewis's struggle for gender equality and her awareness of how it relates to class and race equality weave throughout her narrative.

She was born in Jackson County, Georgia, in 1924. Her mother was a homemaker and dental assistant, and her father was a rural mail carrier who had high hopes for his two daughters, Helen and JoAnn. Despite her loving and secure family, Lewis witnessed the injustice of the Jim Crow racial caste system. She tells a story of meeting a black schoolteacher who was on her father's mail route and whom her father held in high regard. The teacher wrote her name on a card in beautiful calligraphy, and she speaks of cherishing that card and keeping it for years. When she was seven or eight years old, the same man came to her home to see her father. "Mr. Rakestraw is at the door," young Helen announced to her mother, who was quilting with other white women. "The women laughed because you weren't supposed to call a black man 'Mister,'" Lewis explained. "I was so shamed by that ... As a child, to be laughed at is a terrible thing." (3)

When Lewis was ten years old, she and her family moved to Forsyth County, Georgia, where whites had forced nearly all black people out of the county in 1912. Her father, who did not agree with the violent treatment of African Americans, used his position as a mail carrier to warn those who did come into town that Forsyth County was not a safe place for them. Lewis says her father provided a foundation of fairness and caring that later influenced her interracial activism during her college years and her work long afterward. Yet, the story about Mr. Rakestraw captures the social contradictions that she faced as a young woman: her mother allowed her to play with African American children--and behaved kindly toward African Americans--but did not question local customs; her father actively tried to protect African Americans from dangerous encounters in the county. …

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