Over the past few decades, Americans as a whole have began to realize a truth folks from the hollers of Appalachia have known from the beginning: Women-folk are tough as nails!
Unlike the southern belles of Dixie, or the refined women of New England, the females who lived in Appalachia a century ago were not afforded the luxuries of fancy dresses, extravagant social gatherings or lives of excess. Existing in the mountains beyond the Blue Ridge has always been unforgiving, difficult and in many cases downright deadly.
Home to scorching summers, harsh winters, endless toils, mountain lions, venemous snakes, and living in a state of near starvation countless times a year, the rugged hills of Appalachia — whether in East Tennessee or West Virginia — created a world where only the strongest survived and this was not just limited to the men.
The result: An entire culture built on the backs of strongwilled women who weren’t afraid to fight and feared neither man nor beast.
Beraded and cartooned by national media, the women of Appalachia from a century ago gave little thought to mainstream American fashion or opinions of them — their chiefest goal was simply keeping their children and husbands alive until the next harvest.
Isolated from the rest of the nation by the mountains, young girls who had first crossed into the region by foot with their parents would become brides of one of the few boys they had ever known. And naturally, not long after this, another generation of fearsome and rugged mountain women would be on their way… Provided they could make it past that most critical hurdle of childbirth.
Though there are no official counts, we know that the birthing process often resulted in tears of great sadness in the dank woods of yesteryear, leading a countless multitude of young women to early graves.
A succesful childbirth, however, offered little opportunity for celebration, as an approaching winter or impending planting season were always jsut around the corner — requiring labor so extreme few would be able to comprehend in modern society.
Like their husbands and children of the mountains, the work of Appalachian women was never complete. Their days would begin by building a fire in the cookstove, which was then followed up by cooking a meal for the famliy. Somewhere over the course of the morning, they’d check the perimeter of their house to see if any snakes had slithered across the dirt which had been swept the previous night — if there had been, more often than not, it would be the job of the wife to find it.
After this task had been completed, she would then go about her many other pressing chores. While her husband toiled in a nearby field, she’d spend her morning collecting eggs, milking cows, maintaining the homestead, feeding livestock, and possibly even killing a squirrel or turkey if the opportunity presented itself.
A far cry from the Victorian women in paintings, Appalachian mountain women wore a visage that was rough to the eyes and their bodies were aged much too soon, but they were undoubtedly among the toughest women alive on the planet during their time.
The handful women who were fortunate enough to have survived childbirth and then successfully keep their own children alive often became highly respected members of early Appalachian communities, becoming affectionately known as “Granny Women”.
At a time and in a culture where books were scarce and far away, the life’s experiences and acquired knowledge of Appalachian women became a commodity in great demand — first as a midwife and birthing coach and later as a full-fledged medical professional and life coach. A professional who had never stepped a single foot into any school, but one whose knowledge of herbs and “healing ticks” were second to none.
Separating themselves from other medical workers, Granny Women fancied themselves to not have expected or received payment for their services and were viewed as critical elements to mountain life.
In 1921, John C. Campbell wrote about the remaining Granny Women of Appalachia:
“There is something magnificent in many of the older women with their stern theology—part mysticism, part fatalism—and their deep understanding of life. Patience, endurance, and resignation are written in the close-set mouth and in the wrinkles about the eyes; but the eyes themselves are kindly, full of interest, not unrelieved by a twinkling appreciation of pleasant things. ‘Granny’
“‘Granny’ —and one may be a grandmother young in the mountains—if she has survived the labor and tribulation of her younger days, has gained a freedom and a place of irresponsible authority in the home hardly rivaled by the men of the family. Her grown sons pay to her an attention which they do not always accord their wives; and her husband, while he remains still undisputed master of the home, defers to her opinion to a degree unknown in her younger days. Her daughters and her grandchildren she frankly rules. Though superstitious she has a fund of common sense, and she is a shrewd judge of character. In sickness, she is the first to be consulted, for she is generally something of an herb doctor, and her advice is sought by the young people of half the countryside in all things from a love affair to putting a new web in the loom.
“It is not surprising if she is something of a pessimist on the subject of marriage. ‘Don’t you never get married’ is advice that is more than likely to pass her lips.”
Many of these Granny Women’s words of wisdom have been lost to time, but one their daughters, granddaughters, and great-granddaughters continue to carry on their legacy: Often fearless, proud and strong, Appalachian women today should take great pride in the women from whom they descend.
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