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Women’s reproductive health in Appalachia

October 1, 2011 in 1920s-30s, 1940s-1950s, Social history

Peggy McDowell CurlinWhile Mary Breckinridge, the nurse-midwife who reformed maternal-child and family health by founding the Frontier Nursing Service, is more famous, we should also celebrate Peggy McDowell Curlin from Harlan, Kentucky. President of the Centre for Development and Population Activities (CEDPA), a non-governmental agency that continues to provide leadership and management training to women involved in reproductive health throughout the world. Her grandmother was the state president of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union and a member of the women’s wing of the Masons called the Eastern Star. A transcript of her oral history interviews is available online from the Population and Reproductive Health Oral History Project in the Sophia Smith Collection at Smith College.

In the spirit of a great many powerful women who have fought against prejudice and ignorance in eastern Kentucky, Our Bodies, Ourselves: East Kentucky Women Speak Out is a storytelling forum of the East Kentucky Reproductive Health Project. The project is led by young women from southeastern Kentucky who are producing and distributing media that explores the reproductive health experiences, concerns and needs of young women in the region. They have created a website that invites story sharing about the many topics surrounding reproductive health. Women from central Appalachia can visit to add their story to the collection. Those whose experiences are not from the Central Appalachian region can visit

Share your story and become part of this important effort. Contact EKRHP and you will be paired with a trained, female filmmaker through AMI, the Appalachian Media Institute. Your story will be documented in a respectful and caring manner for use by the project. You may also choose to document your story anonymously.

By sharing stories and comprehensive, factual information EKRHP works to build a foundation for individual and collective action for reproductive justice in Kentucky, including access and availability of reproductive health care in the eastern region.


Curlin, Peggy. Interview by Deborah McFarlane. Transcript of audio recording, May 13 and 15, 2003. Population and Reproductive Health Oral History Project, Sophia Smith Collection.

Goan, Melanie Beals. Mary Breckinridge: the Frontier Nursing Service and Rural Health in Appalachia. University of North Carolina Press Books, 2008.

“Peggy McDowell Curlin,” Wikipedia article,

Helen Matthews Lewis, Appalachian activist and teacher

September 24, 2011 in 1960s-1970s, Political history, Social history

Dr. Helen Matthews Lewis

Dr. Helen Matthew Lewis speaks at Berea College's 2010 Midyear Graduation Service

Congratulations to Judi Jennings, Executive Director of Kentucky Foundation for Women, co-editor of a new book Helen Matthews Lewis: Living Social Justice in Appalachia which is due to be released on the University of Kentucky Press in January 2012.

Helen Matthew Lewis shaped the field of Appalachian Studies by emphasizing community participation and challenging traditional perceptions of the region and its people. Co-editors Judith Jennings and Patricia D. Beaver highlight the achievements of Lewis’s extensive career, examining her role as a teacher and activist.  The book begins with her job in 1943 on the yearbook staff at Georgia State College of Women with Mary Flannery O’Connor.  Her role as a teacher and activist at East Tennessee State University in the 1960s is described as well.  Lewis participated in many social justice struggles including opposing strip mining and the broad form deed, and supporting the civil rights movement.  The book provides a personal glimpse into the history of progressive activism in Appalachia.

Lewis served as the director of the Berea College Appalachian Center from 1993 – 1995, Appalshop‘s Appalachian History Film Project, and the Highlander Research and Education Center.  She is coauthor of Mountain Sisters: From Convent to Community in Appalachia (see a review from The Journal of Southern Religion Reviews, 2003) and Colonialism in Modern America: The Appalachian Case.  Lewis currently lives in Morganton, Georgia.

For more information on this book, see the University Press of Kentucky’s catalog.

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