MORGANTOWN, W.Va. – Jessica Wilkerson, associate professor of history at West Virginia University, wants to change that narrative to its truest form: The fight for women’s rights was built on the shoulders of women of color, the working class and women in the south and Appalachia – not just white-collar urbanites.
Her research has not gone unnoticed. According to a WVU release, recently, the Carnegie Corporation of New York has acknowledged Wilkerson’s pursuit, as it named her a recipient of the prestigious Andrew Carnegie Fellowship, also known as the “brainy award,” for 2021.
I’ve known for a little bit because you may know, they often tell you first, and then there’s build-up to the press release and all of that so I couldn’t share it widely, so I haven’t. I’ve known for a few weeks. But I was completely surprised. I’m completely honored, and it’s the sort of award that can be career-defining, I think. So I’m, you know, I take that very seriously and I’m just really grateful to have the support to do the kind of work that I love to do.Jessica Wilkerson – Associate Professor, WVU
Wilkerson’s research focuses on how the women’s movement of the 20th century and even leading into the modern era is not a monolith. There were varying ideas, means of taking action and many ideas of what gender equality looked like.
Even the motivations, Wilkerson argued, of feminists in the South and Appalachia were, often, fundamentally different than their counterparts up north and in large, urban environments.
“In, say, Jellico, Tennessee, where a group of women organized around anti-strip mining campaigns and the fact that all the factories had left that community starting in the 70s and 80s,” Wilkerson said. “So, their approach to gender justice and to feminism was informed by what was happening in that particular place. And the same thing is true for women who were organizing in New York City, or, L.A., or wherever. So I mean, I would say that it’s always — feminism is always shaped by people’s experiences in the particular place where they live and work and raise families.”
At the core of her research, she is asking the question “what does it mean to tell the history of the women’s movement and feminist activism in the United States from the perspective of women in the South and Appalachia; the major concerns, the major struggles around battles for gender justice since the 1960s?”
“That’s really the core of it, and the project will include a book, a public history exhibit. And series of articles for 100 Days in Appalachia.”
According to WVU, for this year’s class, Wilkerson is one of 26 fellows selected from 311 nominations across the country. The fellowship grants each member $200,000 to fund significant research and writing in the social sciences and humanities that address important issues confronting society.
Wilkerson said her grant funding will enable her to do more research by allowing her to travel extensively to archives and libraries around the country.
“I’ll be doing interviews with people all across the country and I’ll be able to hire research assistants and then, I’ll be able to support a public history exhibit,” Wilkerson said. “That costs money, of course, to do that kind of project and have an exhibit. So, the money mostly goes toward — I mean, to do this kind of project just takes a lot of funding and historians, often, are just kind of piecing together grants and things like that. It’s very piece work trying to find the support and this just takes away any anxiety or worry about funding it. I know I can do everything I want to do with the financial support.”
This project, Wilkerson said, is something she has been working toward for about a decade, she described her work as “near and dear” to her heart.
That is why she is so grateful for the grant funding, which will allow her to be able to do “everything”.
“I’m incredibly grateful and having funding for this kind of project elevates it, and in ways that I, you know, it has never happened for me before,” she said. “And so I mean, it’s partly the financial support helps me do the things that I need to do to write the book and to do this project. But, it also shows that there are people out there who value the kind of research and so that’s also really important to me to see that work on women and gender in Appalachia and the South is valued enough by the Carnegie Foundation and by WVU to put their financial backing behind it. “
Wilkerson is the second WVU researcher to earn that designation; the first was English Professor Stephanie Foote in 2018.