Mountain Mothers and Coal Miners’ Daughters: Gender Roles and Educational Attainment in Appalachia from the 1800s to the 2000s by Emily Prichard

In spite of the sense of heightened cultural sensitivity that has characterized much of the 2010s and the uptick in people-centered activism it has wrought, Appalachians fail to stand out as a grossly underserved population. Of the scant political dialogue that has been spared to it, it is not infrequent to hear Appalachia likened to an LIC; and for the few laypersons that are more than peripherally aware of its existence, the mention of Appalachia conjures up the harmful stereotype of toothless, illiterate, inbred, fiddle-playing, heroin-users living out of trailers. In a country that has succeeded in elevating much of its rural populace out of poverty, the pall of food scarcity, internet droughts, joblessness, poorly developed public infrastructure, and low educational attainment persists in Appalachia. Moreover, due to a litany of complicated historical and socioeconomic factors, the scourge of extreme poverty in Appalachia has disproportionately affected women. Owing to the strength and endurance of native traditions underscoring women’s roles as caregivers and the volatility of the resource-extractive industries that Appalachia has historically been heavily dependent on, women are a population subset in Appalachia that is uniquely susceptible to educational disparities and financial instability. 

One can begin to fully appreciate the complexity of modern factors working against Appalachian women’s educational and professional achievement by looking at the beginning of the Common Schooling and Compulsory Education Movement and taking inventory of its failures. The Common Schooling Movement, considered to be formally ratified in 1837, was religious at its inception and beset with an agenda to Christianize and Americanize poor and newly immigrated citizens. It was met with a less than lukewarm reception in Appalachia as the urban-inspired missionaryism of curricular mandates spurred disagreeance between rural constituents and school reformers. A culturally collectivistic attitude towards learning—that family homes and community functions should serve as the chief institutions for moral instruction—prevailed in mountain communities, which conflicted with the function of government schools to impart education to students irrespective of community or family interests. Thus, Appalachian states were among the last to formalize public schools and their mandatory attendance, only having done so in the early 1900s.

The uptake of formalized education in Appalachia was slow going into the 1900s owing not only to its cultural differentness, but to its geographic isolation. Professional school reformers had difficulty penetrating the challenging mountainous terrain. As such, state curricular interests were rudimental to nonexistent as late as WWII. Government literacy sponsors and auditors, purveyors of the more dominant urban culture, took note shortly following the acceptance of the Common Schooling Movement in Appalachian states, criticizing the quality and scope of mountain education. From the early 1900s to roughly WWII, a series of aggressive reforms were instituted in Appalachian schools that fundamentally altered Appalachians’ relationship with education and literacy at the expense of cultural erasure. These ventures were of arguably mixed success, as can be gleaned from interactions between Appalachian students and scholars studying cross-regional educational attainment. It can be said that to mountain communities, government schooling represented a forced assimilation campaign. 

Donehower, in her 2003 study involving interviews with adult literacy-learners in Appalachia, suggests that government schools, literacy sponsors, and other newly formed learning institutions were regarded by Appalachians as impressing on them the notion of their native culture’s inferiority, as instigating the severance of family ties, and as force-feeding them a ‘decontextualized knowledge’ that does not take into account individual or cultural preferences for electing an education. The interviews also serve to highlight the commonness of corporal punishment and extensive classroom humiliation as reprimand for students’ Appalachian dialectical inflection. Suffice to say, the animosity fostered in mountain communities towards culturally insensitive educational practices on the part of government educators and literacy sponsors did little to promote school attendance.

These government schooling mandates functioned in tandem with pre-existing social forces (namely the region’s economic dependence on resource-extractive labor) to produce a trend of low educational attainment wherein women fared comparatively worse than their male counterparts: Brandt writes, “Social forces, such as poor healthcare and stereotypical gender roles, played a significant part [in low educational attainment in Appalachia] as well. Literacy spread last and always less well to remote rural areas and newer, poorer industrial areas—a geographic and political legacy that, even today, in the United States, helps to exacerbate inequalities by race, region, and occupation (88).” In a region characterized by historically minimal job prospects, Appalachia is notable for its former prominence in the coal industry. As late as WWII, the relative abundance of coal in Appalachia made mining the region’s dominant wealth-generating activity. Educational barriers to working in the mines were minimal to nonexistent, and since few other viable job opportunities existed, school completion was not properly incentivized. Moreover, participation in mining operations was a labor activity strictly reserved for men. As virtually no alternative labor opportunities existed for women, their schooling was an afterthought at best. For men, “educational attainment beyond the eighth grade was exceptional . . . until about WWII;” conversely, it was remarkable for Appalachian women to have an education going beyond the fifth grade, as can be gleaned from the attached census excerpt:

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(Fig. A. Census report demonstrating a trend of comparatively lower educational achievement among women compared to men in Flatwoods, KY. It should be noted that numerous women were born and raised out-of-state in other regions formally classified as Central Appalachia such as West Virginia. Personally identifiable information has been censored.)

The relationship between women’s limited labor participation and patriarchal social organization is well-established. The dangers of physical labor (agriculture, hunting, warfare, etc.) are not amenable with pregnancy or childrearing; therefore, across most societies, women have historically been allotted the role of caregiver. Mining as a dominant wealth-generating activity in a region otherwise devoid of labor facilitated a trend of male-led households in Appalachia; and where men assumed the role of breadwinner, women managed family homes in their stead. This mode of family organization outlived the socioeconomic setting from whence it arose and was codified into societally prescribed gender expectations. Such gender expectations, to this day, still work to prevent women from occupying the same professional and social arenas as men. In Appalachia, the modern enforcement of gender roles and consequent low educational attainment among women is, no doubt, a legacy inherited from their coal worker ancestors. 

Following WWII, coal mining fell out of vogue as the United States increasingly transitioned to alternative forms of energy. Remaining coal mining jobs were becoming increasingly automated. Post-war affluence instigated a shift from goods-generating labor to service-based labor and energy sector jobs were increasingly outsourced to the Middle East. These changes proved disastrous for coal-dependent Central Appalachia as immediately thereafter, job opportunities were eliminated en masse and the economy capsized. The challenging mountainous terrain of Central Appalachia did not lend itself to economically rehabilitative activities such as industry development; furthermore, the region hosts no population centers that are sufficiently large enough to attract businesses.

The lack of incoming money into the region stunted the furbishing of its public sector. Especially in exceptionally remote communities, modern-day Appalachians lack access to public transportation, childcare services, healthcare, and services that impart job skills; and pre-existing amenities are in a state of decay. The traditional nuclear family structure has historically predicated a male head-of-household and female unemployment; and, as has been established, that is true of Appalachia. However, nowadays, societal secularization and the consequent dissolution of the traditional nuclear family structure (a trend that Appalachia has not been spared in spite of its remoteness, largely owing to the globalizing effect of the internet) has also created an epidemic of female-led households in an economy that increasingly mandates multiple household income-earners to survive. Appalachian women are at-risk for unwanted premarital pregnancies due to a substandard education in sexual health and a lack of access to abortion providers. Family commitments preclude single mothers’ attainment of higher education and limit women to part-time service-industry employment (which comprises the better part of work opportunities in Appalachia as of the 2000s).

In short, women’s lack of upward mobility in Appalachia has been manufactured by a perfect storm of market volatility, a legacy of gender roles inherited from ancestors that were reliant on now-obsolete resource-extractive industries, substandard childcare amenities, and decaying public infrastructure. Moreover, Appalachian women that may opt to pursue a higher education may be actively thwarted by social pressure from peers and loved ones. In her series of 2003 interviews with modern-day Appalachian women about their decision to pursue a college education, Webb-Sunderhaus notes that to this day the expectation to rear children and stay at home is a common refrain afforded to them by all members of their family units. She explains:

“Gender roles can play a large part in circumscribing the opportunities available to men and women within the Central Appalachian region . . . [Appalachian] men traditionally have not gone to college because jobs that could support a family were available to them without a degree. Yet given the exodus of jobs from this region, as well as changing life circumstances, gender roles are in flux. Whether it is due to a job being outsourced or due to workplace injury and subsequent addiction, many men are no longer the primary breadwinners for their families. For couples steeped in the region’s traditional gender roles (Bush and Lash 170), this break from tradition could have significant consequences.”

As of the early 2000s, “fourty-eight of the fifty-seven counties [that ethnographers define as] Central and rural Appalachian (84%) are classified as [financially] distressed . . . In the Central subregion, 64% of [female-led] households are in poverty. In distressed counties, it is approaching an appalling 70%.” These statistics serve to suggest that single-mother-led households comprise the overwhelming majority of distressed households in the region. Appalachian Americans, disenfranchised as many of them are, are largely alone in hastening their region’s economic restoration. However, as a profound testament to the grit and tenacity they are known for, many Appalachian women have undertaken founding their own organizations to bolster underserved women in the region. Notable examples include the New Opportunity School For Women in Kentucky, which was devised to impart job skills to subliterate women, the Appalachian Savings Project, which exclusively aids female childcare workers in saving up enough money for living expenses and retirement, and the Appalachian Women’s Alliance, a female-centered human rights advocacy organization that publishes the Appalachian Women’s Journal.

Make no mistake—it would be remiss to simplify the nuances of the contemporary Appalachian identity as being shaped squarely by paradigms of class structure and inequality; likewise, it is similarly ill-advised to romanticize and infantilize rural Appalachians as being salt-of-the-earth, rustic folk that, by virtue of an absence of opportunity, are ill-equipped to fend for themselves in a world defined by rigid hierarchies and systems of power. Even so, as modern political talking points have been increasingly devoted to rectifying issues of systemic injustice and social inequality, the innumerable Appalachians affected by the joblessness and poverty that unfortunately characterizes the region—especially women—remain largely invisible. In academia, even fewer soundboards exist to amplify Appalachian voices and the responsibility of grafting together an exhaustive history for the region and its people often falls on native scholars themselves. Given that women are at a marked disadvantage in terms of college achievement in Appalachia, the finer talking points of Appalachian feminist anthropology and mountain women’s lived experiences are all too often subletted to male voices.


1940 United States Federal Census, Flatwoods, Greenup County, Kentucky, digital image s.v. “Highest Grade Completed,”

Donehower, Kim. “Literacy Choices in an Appalachian Community.” Journal of Appalachian Studies 9, no. 2 (2003): 341-62.

Francis, Caroline. “New Opportunity School for Women: A Unique Career and Education Program in Appalachia,” National Career Development Association, 1 Feb. 2013.

Latimer, Melissa, and Ann M. Oberhauser. “Exploring Gender and Economic Development in Appalachia.” Journal of Appalachian Studies 10, no. 3 (2004): 269-91.

Ludden, Jennifer. “Rural Appalachia Helps Some Women Save for Retirement,” All Things Considered, NPR, 30 Mar. 2014.

Oakes, Anna. “Appalachian Women’s Alliance: Celebrating and Strengthening Appalachian Women.” Appalachian Voices, 4 Feb. 2011.

Shaw, Thomas C., Allan J. DeYoung, and Eric W. Rademacher. “Educational Attainment in Appalachia: Growing with the Nation, But Challenges Remain.” Journal of Appalachian Studies 10, no. 3 (2004): 307-29.

Simpson, Barry D. “The Common School Movement and Compulsory Education.” Mises Daily Articles, Mises Institute, 29 Nov. 2004.

Thorne, Deborah, Ann Tickamyer, and Mark Thorne. “Poverty and Income in Appalachia.” Journal of Appalachian Studies 10, no. 3 (2004): 341-57.

Webb-Sunderhaus, Sara. “A Family Affair: Competing Sponsorships of Literacy in Appalachian Students’ Lives.” Community Literacy Journal, 2007.