68: Elizabeth Engelhardt’s Tangled Roots of Feminism

In The Tangled Roots of Feminism, Environmentalism, and Appalachian Literature, Elizabeth Engelhardt situates close readings of the writings of turn-of-the-century Appalachian women within their social, political, cultural, and geographical context.  While this project does work to recover these writings, many of which live in regional college archives and have never been published, it also shows  how Appalachia’s women writers and activists at the turn of the last century “defined a philosophy of living that can help address social and environmental justice issues” that may be applicable today.  The book thus examines the “tangled roots” of women’s writing, the environments in which they lived, and their connection to place in terms of “ecological feminism.”

 The basic premise of ecological feminism is that there is no separation between humans and nature.  Humans and non-humans have a reciprocal relationship, where “self-Other” is replaced with “self-another” and both parties must take care of one another and help preserve the total ecology.  As the least-empowered in society, women can and must look out for the least-empowered in the total ecological system.  Therefore, all feminist activism must lead to long-term community stability, both environmentally and socially.  Ecological feminism in Appalachian women’s writing thus led to critiques of capitalism and American corporations, as well as of any social structures that used hierarchies (race, gender, class, species, etc) to oppress, silence, or damage community members.  In defining ecological feminism, Engelhardt is careful to note that this is not an essentialist project; feminism and turn-of-the-century womanhood were not the same for all women, and activism took many historically specific forms.

Tangled Roots traces the development of ecological feminism through a series of case studies.  She connects voyeurs’ and tourists’ view of Appalachia with the systems of power that established Appalachia’s damaging extractive industries; she analyzes social crusaders’ views of Appalachia and the ways in which they denigrate Appalachian culture to reinforce the hegemony of white, middle-class womanhood; and she reads novels, poetry, and other writings by women from Appalachia as alternative ecological feminist voices that connect women’s rights with Appalachian nature and protest this exploitation from without.

Engelhardt concludes that Appalachia is not unique, and that recovering the voices of Appalachian women writers both records their resistance in the historic record and provides a model for connecting feminism and environmentalism today.  She thus links literary criticism, attachment to place, and vestiges of the new social history to argue for an alternative vision of feminism.

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