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Mountain women defying tradition: WCU exhibit showcases groundbreaking roles of Appalachian women

In modern America, the term ‘women’s work’ is not exactly a complimentary phrase. It’s less descriptive, more derisive, not so much an adjective as an epithet.

It’s a wordplay not lost on the curators of the exhibit by the same name that’s taken up residence at Western Carolina University’s Mountain Heritage Center. The display showcases Appalachian women who have, over the last century, ventured outside the traditional vocations of their gender, catapulting them to prominence and success in a range of fields.

There’s a corner devoted to Samantha Bumgarner, a Jackson County native and the first woman to be recorded singing country music; a panel paying homage to Gertrude Dills McKee, the state’s first female senator; and half a wall in honor of the legendary Monteith sisters, Edith and Edna, one of whom was the Jackson County postmaster for 45 years, against all gender odds.

The gallery showcases these women’s spunk and tenacity, as well as their commitment to Western North Carolina, that set them apart from other women of their eras.

Those unique stories of perseverance in the face of mainstream ideas and norms, said curator Pam Meister, are exactly what set Appalachian women apart in the last century, and it’s exactly what she and her colleagues wanted to celebrate with his exhibit.

“There are amazing stories to be told,” said Meister. “North Carolina’s very first woman senator grew up in Dillsboro and lived in Sylva. The very first woman to be a licensed dentist from North Carolina is from Sylva. The very first woman ever to be recorded singing country music and the first person of any gender to be recorded playing banjo is a Jackson County native,” she rattled off, listing just a few of the women who made the region what it is today, and who made such an exhibit worthwhile.

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The showing is not, however, only about women flying in the face of tradition, but embracing tradition even as they embraced non-traditional careers and passions.

On display is a magnificent and intricate quilt, hand-stitched by the Monteith sisters, juxtaposed against a series of forceful letters written by Edna Monteith lobbying for her reappointment as postmaster.

Covering one wall is a plethora of photographs that features Appalachian women that spans the last 150 years, all doing work of some kind or another. Meister calls this the “Family Photo Gallery” because it mirrors the wall of family photos found in many homes and illustrates the wide range of work long undertaken by Appalachian women, whether traditionally in the realm of the gender or, in the case of Monteith, Bumgarner and Dills McKee, decidedly less so.

The working legacy of Appalachian women, said Meister, is their ability to take to what work needed to be done, mixing the traditional with contemporary, male work with female.

“We wanted to do something that would show the scope [of women’s work],” said Meister, noting that, as they researched and stories developed, connections between working women that spanned generations began to appear, highlighting the strong culture of working women in Appalachia that began centuries ago. “Strong Appalachian women have been there from the time of the Cherokees right up to the present.”

Emma Wertenberger, who works with the Appalachian Women’s Museum and contributed a great deal to the exhibit, said that illuminating the corners of Appalachian female life that were outside the norms was an important part of it.

“We know what the traditional roles were,” said Wertenberger. “But what never gets focused on were the women that were in non-traditional roles.”

It’s those women, she said, and how they were able to blend the long-held realm of women’s work — still difficult and intense work by any standard, especially in the mountains — with successful forays into fields dominated by men that paved the way for modern Appalachian women who are now, with ease, able to do the same.

“Samantha Bumgarner was the mother of all of female Southern women who sing and make money off of it,” said Wertenberger with a laugh.

And indeed, the women who line the walls of the exhibit show that neither the workplace nor the home are the sole preserve of one gender. And the long and storied fight that they represent has laid the framework for the tradition of strong Appalachian women to continue to grow.

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