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West Virginia University professor, author receives Andrew Carnegie Fellowship

MORGANTOWN — A West Virginia University faculty member was a recipient of the Andrew Carnegie Fellowship for 2021 in recognition of ongoing research and work regarding the diversity of gender justice.

The Carnegie Corporation of New York’s Andrew Carnegie Fellowship awards each recipient $200,000 to fund “scholarship in the humanities and social sciences that addresses important and enduring issues confronting our society.” This year, 311 individuals were nominated nationwide; 26 individuals received the fellowship.

Jessica Wilkerson, associate professor of history, Stuart and Joyce Robbins Distinguished Chair and researcher at WVU, is one of those 26 individuals and is the second-ever researcher at WVU to receive the fellowship. She has been with the university since last August.

Wilkerson’s project is titled “Feminisms in the American South.” It includes a book, “In Sisterhood, In Struggle,” a public history exhibit and a series of articles that will be published in 100 Days in Appalachia. Wilkerson has been working on the project non-exclusively for about a decade with the intent to tell the previously untold stories of marginalized groups of women — women of color, working-class women, and women of the South and Appalachia — in relation to gender justice and women’s activism.

Wilkerson said that “Feminisms in the American South” is a project that is linked to her first book, “To Live Here, You Have to Fight: How Women Led Appalachian Movements for Social Justice.” As Wilkerson was writing that book, she repeatedly came across stories of women’s feminist activism throughout the South and Appalachia. She collected those stories as she went along.

At the time, Wilkerson was also working on an oral history project for the Southern Oral History Program at the University of North Carolina. The oral history project focused on the history of the women’s movement in the South.

“I always thought that eventually I wanted to write a book based on that research, so that’s how I initially came to it,” Wilkerson said.

One of the goals of Wilkerson’s work is to dispel misconceptions, stereotypes and tropes surrounding the American women’s movement.

For example, one instance that has defined many individuals’ ideas of what feminism or gender activism means is the report that feminist activists burned their bras during the 1968 protest of the Miss America Beauty Pageant in Atlantic City.

But there was no bra burning. Activists threw “instruments of control” — bras, girdles, other undergarments — into a trash can but did not burn them.

According to Wilkerson, this is a myth that was perpetuated by false media reports at the time and could be linked to young men of the period burning draft cards in protest of the Vietnam War. There was an established idea of burning things as part of protest. That idea became an image that somehow defined moments from women’s protests. It became a trope about the women’s movement that is not based in fact.

“I think it becomes popular as a way to undermine the goals of feminist activism and the women’s liberation movement,” Wilkerson said. “I think it’s a way of mocking it, and undermining it, and making it seem kind of silly.”

While one of the goals of the research and project is to challenge others’ preconceived notions about gender justice and feminist activism, Wilkerson said her own misconceptions have been challenged for years. This is part of her motivation to write her second book.

Wilkerson grew up in east Tennessee in a small, rural community. She said she never learned about the women’s movement or feminist activism as something that happened where she grew up, or something that even affected women and men in the area where she grew up.

Though she said the women’s movement and feminist activism in general has had a profound effect on the way she has lived and the way future generations of women in her family will live, the history connected to the women’s movement and feminist activism in east Tennessee feels distant.

“When I started doing research, I realized that it’s just more that the feminist activism in those places sometimes looked different than what we often think of,” she said.

What many may often think of when trying to picture feminist activism is women in cities marching in the streets, having consciousness-raising meetings or reading books that became popular as part of the women’s movement.

“That’s not always what it looked like in places like east Tennessee, but it doesn’t mean it didn’t exist there. It just took on different forms because it was always very grassroots. It was always very organic. So, that’s part of the history that I’m telling,” Wilkerson said.

Wilkerson feels that the work she has completed so far has accomplished or worked toward accomplishing her goal of amplifying the voices of underrepresented groups of women.

Another misconception about the women’s movement relevant to Wilkerson’s goal is that the movement was and is a space predominantly for white, middle-class women, usually outside of the South and Appalachia. What Wilkerson wanted to do, and what her research shows, is that in Southern places, the activism that has been happening since the 1960s has always been incredibly diverse.

“Why that’s significant, in part, is that it means how women’s issues get defined — the very definitions themselves — are contested and are diverse,” she said.  

This means that while misconceptions might perpetuate that the women’s movement was primarily concerned with women getting jobs or other things that have to do with women’s lives, there were a whole range of other issues that were being addressed on the ground.

Some women advocated for environmental justice, access to clean water and land that wasn’t polluted and toxic; other women voiced concerns regarding labor struggles that included the men in their communities.

“I’m looking at a wider range of feminist activism than I think we typically see, and it involves Black and Brown women, working class women, women in prisons — just a wider range of people,” Wilkerson said.

The way that Wilkerson sees feminism playing out in the South from the 1960s to the present is that women, LGBTQ+ individuals and sometimes men are organizing for gender justice. They’re breaking down or addressing the many ways that inequity impacts their lives, often structured along the lines of gender and sexuality.

“When we think more broadly about gender justice, not simply women’s advancement, we can see how people are addressing class inequality, racial inequality and white supremacy, homophobia and attacks on LGBTQ+ people’s safety. There’s a wider range of issues at play that all intersect with gender justice,” she said.

The Andrew Carnegie Fellowship will provide Wilkerson with the time and space to focus on her continued research and to work on her second book.

She said it was an honor to even be nominated for the fellowship by WVU President E. Gordon Gee, but receiving the fellowship was a career-defining moment for her.

“It gives me the support to do the work that I really love doing,” Wilkerson said.

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