Juanita and Clee Conley.jpeg

Summer's grandparents, Juanita and Clee Conley, run their household the way they want to.

The Appalachian woman archetype is rough, hardened and traditional. Men are the head of the household, women mind the house. These are the roles supposedly assumed by Appalachians and Southerners alike.

The lore has forgotten that Appalachia is ruled by the women within it. 

My grandmother married a mountain man at the age of 15. Living in what's now Shenandoah National Park, they remained on his family homestead until eventually moving into the Valley. Four kids and three grandkids later, I’ve been granted the perfect case study of Appalachian hierarchy and what it means to be a woman. 

Although I spent half of my childhood at the epicenter of a very Southern family, I’ve never subscribed to traditional gender roles. Growing up in a family with these expectations was difficult in most regards, but I’ve realized that Appalachia isn’t as clear-cut as I was led to believe. 

For example, my grandfather is in charge of the garden that grows the food we eat. His vegetables fill the table that feeds our family and brings us together. But it’s my grandmother’s cooking that turns a summer harvest into Sunday dinner. 

Everyone has their fill, plus two plates after that. While the men retire to the living room and the kids are ushered away, my aunts rise from their seats and in a loud flurry, the pans are cleaned, the table is wiped and the dishes are stacked away. The kitchen is once again clean and orderly. Everyone leaves with leftovers tightly packed with plastic wrap and dessert on the side. 

Women are the backbone of Appalachian families. 

Without them, my grandfather would only have a cellar filled with vegetables, cabinets crammed with unused china and a dining room that lies quiet and empty. Appalachian women take four walls and fill them with warm food, loud gossip, tight hugs and the enduring, bountiful feeling of home. 

My grandmother stands at a whopping 5’0” –– tiny compared to my grandfather’s 6’ frame. She keeps her short hair permed and her pants pressed. She won’t leave the house without lipstick, and she hates pictures. 

Her hands have picked the garden since it was tilled. They’ve wiped away tears and raised babies. They're sturdy and strong. 

She's the matriarch of our family. 

My family would be nothing without her. My grandmother is the ultimate mediator between cousins, aunts, uncles, brothers and sisters. That’s how it is for many tight-knit, Appalachian families –– there’s a single woman that keeps it all together. 

The South is notoriously conservative. Gender roles stifle the wife, forcing her back into the house with a child in tow. The man provides and the woman abides. This is what I thought Appalachia was, but it isn’t. Even though the women in my life enjoy creating these spaces, they aren’t required to do so. Appalachian women are too strong, too stubborn to blindly follow a man’s orders. My grandmother makes Sunday dinner to see her family together, not because she’s expected to do so. There’s nobody that could possibly tell her what to do anyway. 

This isn’t to say that different experiences are invalid. Some women find empowerment in the family, and some find joy in work outside the home. Men should be expected to contribute to the household beyond their expected scope. These are truths I also hold dear. 

The South has a reputation, but it’s wrong. Women don't follow men in Appalachia. My grandmother has taken great pride in her ability to run a household, but she also worked for many years alongside her husband to provide for her family. Appalachian women are dynamic and strong. They cannot be broken and divided into simple gender roles. 

The truth is that the South is a matriarchy, relying on the labor of women to keep families together. Their work is often unnoticed because of the preconceived notions regarding the private sphere. Labor in the home isn't considered real labor. My mamaw is proof of that. 

Men may think they run the show, but the truth is they have only been afforded a ticket. 

Summer Conley is a junior public policy and administration major. Contact Summer at conleysr@dukes.jmu.edu.