From frontier days to the Information Age, Kentucky women “have defied the odds and achieved success in all fields and endeavors.”
But, as scholars have bemoaned for years, their exploits have often gone unchronicled and unnoticed.
That’s no longer the case, thanks to a “groundbreaking” work headed by Eastern Kentucky University History Professor Dr. Tom Appleton and Transylvania University History Professor Dr. Melissa McEuen.
Appleton and McEuen are co-editors of a new book, “Kentucky Women: Their Lives and Times,” which Appleton called “first extended treatment of Kentucky women that has ever been published.”
One of the leading scholars of women in the South, Margaret Ripley Wolfe, recently wrote that ‘“Kentucky Women’ will be the publication on Kentucky women for many, many years to come. I hope that it will be adopted and used as assigned reading in all appropriate classrooms throughout Kentucky.”
The book, available in hardcover and paperback, contains 23 essays from 17 contributors, with the subjects ranging from obvious choices like Mary Todd Lincoln and former Gov. Martha Layne Collins to lesser known but still important figures. The publisher, University of Georgia Press, said the essays “highlight women whose aspirations, innovations, activism and creativity illustrate Kentucky’s role in political and social reform, education, health care, the arts and cultural development. With essays on frontier life, gender inequality in marriage and divorce, medical advances, family strife, racial challenges and triumphs, widowhood, agrarian culture, urban experiences, educational theory and fieldwork, visual art, literature and fame, the contributors have shaped a history of Kentucky that is both grounded and groundbreaking.”
Just as the 448-page volume spans all eras of Kentucky history, it also stretches from the flatlands of the west to the mountains of the east.
“Melissa and I made every effort to see that notable women from all regions of the state were covered,” Appleton said. “Too often in writings about Kentucky there has been a tendency to focus on the inner Bluegrass to the neglect of other parts of the state.”
The book also covers contributions from both within and outside “the women’s sphere,” said Appleton, noting that the essay subjects include award-winning authors and sculptors, reform leaders and entrepreneurs, and many more. “Laura Clay of Madison County, for example, was the most prominent leader in the early struggle to gain the right to vote for women. In more recent days, Martha Layne Collins had to battle stereotypes to win the state’s top elected office.”
One of the more interesting essays in the book, Appleton said, deals with trachoma, an eye disease that once blinded untold thousands of Kentuckians, particularly in the mountain regions. In Richmond, the Irvinton estate adjacent to the EKU campus once served as a hospital for persons afflicted with trachoma.
“The tragedy of trachoma was that it was entirely preventable,” Appleton said. “In our book Duane Bolin of Murray State University tells of the work of Linda Neville of Lexington, who worked tirelessly to alert Kentuckians to the dangers of using common washbowls and washcloths. She traveled throughout eastern Kentucky – often by horseback – often going door to door. Imagine the enormous satisfaction she felt when the disease was declared eradicated in Kentucky in 1952.”
Another essay, by Appleton’s EKU Department of History colleague Dr. Carolyn Dupont, is “a wonderfully perceptive essay” on Georgia Montgomery Davis Powers, of Louisville, the first African American as well as the first woman elected to the Kentucky State Senate and a champion of open housing and civil rights.
Appleton, who joined the EKU faculty in 2000, formerly served as editor-in-chief of publications for the Kentucky Historical Society. He is the co-editor of five books, including “Negotiating the Boundaries of Southern Womanhood: Dealing with the Powers That Be” and “Searching for Their Places: Women in the South across Four Centuries.”
McEuen, who joined the Transylvania history faculty in 1995, is also the author of “Seeing America: Women Photographers between the Wars” and “Making War, Making Women: Femininity and Duty on the American Home Front, 1941-1945.”