Firefly Feminism: What We Can Learn from the Women of Appalachia
by Felicia Cooper
I am a transplant to Appalachia, an observer. I seek out the stories of people who have been here far longer than I have. My parents moved here before I was born to live among acres of hardwood forests and the smell of summer sunsets. I do not and cannot claim deep familial heritage or identity with Appalachia, but it is still somehow a part of me. When I think of summer evenings watching fireflies, I think of my mother ready with a mason jar to catch one. When I think of the smell of homemade bread, I think of my aunt tirelessly baking in the kitchen. When I think of the protection of our natural world, the end of mountaintop removal, i think of the women leading the charge.
Over and over again, the leadership of Appalachian culture and justice has fallen to women- I use this term, fallen, in that it is so often the work no one else is willing to do. However, this is the work that sustains and creates opportunity for the future. So often, the women doing this work of protection and sustainment have chosen to do so out of necessity and preservation. They simply had to stand up, or lose their home, their family, their way of life.
Becky Crabtree is a 64-year-old, a retired schoolteacher, and a resident of Monroe County, West Virginia. She was arrested on July 31, 2018, for blockading the path of construction vehicles on their way to build a gas pipeline along Peters Mountain. Sitting in a 1971 Ford Pinto, she refused to budge until she was forcibly removed from the vehicle she first travelled in during her honeymoon. She is also the author of “Hung Over with Grandma”, the second in a series about an Appalachian woman navigating life.
Maria Gunnoe isn’t kidding around. A Cherokee Native and resident of Boone County, WV, she has fought tirelessly for decades to stop mountaintop removal. Radicalized by a flood brought on by strip mining with little care for erosion or environment that all but destroyed her home, she has given speeches at county fairs and has testified against the Army Corps of Engineers. She is also the recipient of the Calloway Award and the Goldman Environmental Prize.
Judy Bonds, may she rest in peace, was a waitress and the daughter of generations of coal miners. She lived in Marfork Hollow until the end of her life, living out the legacy of seven generations of West Virginians. She has been called the godmother of the anti-mountaintop removal movement and wore the title well. A waitress by trade, she became an organizer and activist when the creek behind her house, downstream of Massey Energy Mines, flooded with water as black as coal. She testified against the company at regulatory hearings, filed lawsuits against surface mining and led protests against Massey. She led campaigns and organized groups in order to halt mountaintop removal. She wasn’t afraid to go after Massey Energy directly, and she wasn’t afraid to fail. She organized the largest ever reenactment of the Battle of Blair Mountain.
Our feminism must be on the side of these women, those who have become symbols of strength through elbow grease and apron strings, who not only make time for the community picnic, but use it as a rallying point and a place to voice political thought. Funny that elbow grease- a name for the strength and resilience most closely associated with women comes from a joint that bends. We must become activists through our public lives, the channels by which we are empowered.
Recently, we see women in positions of power who have gotten there by playing the games of the boy’s club, by taking every insult and every instance of sexual harassment in stride. As an attendee of many a “Women In ______” forums, I cannot count the times a woman has been asked about challenges emanating from her gender in relationship to her role and shrugged it off, saying that it wasn’t “that bad”. The model of corporate feminism is a model exclusive to the highest class of people willing to shift their social position and meet the expectations of who they ought to be. This is not the type of power which is useful to a failing economy, a dying people, or a devastated landscape. They’ve broken the glass ceiling, but who is left to sweep up the shards left behind?
If we are to elevate women in Appalachia as a whole, not just those who have made it to a higher position by taking on the role of a man, we must embrace the necessity of creating a new role for ourselves, over and over again. We must at least attempt to carve out the shape of the space we need, to create our own Appalachia and our own positions. Those positions ought to inhabit the type of power that is useful to use. Power grown from the soil, power captured in firefly jars. We must look to these women who have created for themselves a place from which to speak, roughly shaped to their own dimensions.