Updated: Feb 13
By Jessica Salfia
I have always been a big, strong girl. A natural athlete growing up, I had fairly successful volleyball and basketball careers in high school. I received a small scholarship to play volleyball at Alderson-Broaddus College in Philippi, West Virginia, and I knew what an incredible opportunity this was so I worked hard to be competitive.
One day, leaving the weight room, I found myself in step with a group of baseball players. They were talking about the muscle development of the different boys on the team--chest measurements and “gains.” A boy from outside Baltimore was commenting on another teammate's forearms—the boy in question grew up about 45 minutes from where I did in northcentral West Virginia. Even though our school was right in the heart of Appalachia, besides myself, there were only a handful of athletes from the region. Most of the athletic recruits at the school that time came from Maryland, Eastern Pennsylvania, New York, and a few Mid-western states.
“You know, he doesn’t have to do much there because he’s got that hillbilly strength. Like Jess. Look at her forearms and traps. Already big from building fence and throwing hay and shit.”
Eight sets of male eyes trained on me, first to my forearms, then to my shoulders.
I flinched, uncomfortable to suddenly be put on display. I immediately folded my arms across my body. “Wait. What?” I said. “What’s hillbilly strength?”
“You know, Jess. Hillbilly strength,” a few of the other boys were nodding now, like they had heard that phrase before. “How all you hillbillies from here already have big developed forearms and trap muscles from farm work, digging coal, and fighting and shit. I mean look at your arms and traps. And your hands! They are the biggest hands on a girl I’ve ever seen!” The boy laughed and gestured at my upper body.
All the other boys howled. A few mimicked Hee-Haw-like accents and one asked me “did you use those big hands to fight off your cousins when they were asking for a prom date?”
I knew the phrase hillbilly strength was clearly an insult, but at the time, I didn’t fully understand how or why. I had always been proud of how strong I was, but that day, I nervously threw on my jacket and hid my arms, and told those boys something I won't repeat here. I climbed in my car, stewing, knowing that to those boys “hillbilly strength” wasn’t something I was supposed to be proud of.
That night I examined my arms in the mirror. I thought about the body type my classmates were describing. I knew it well. Every farm boy I had grown up with had a similar build: big shoulders, traps, and forearms. But instead of attributing it to the work of rural people—or people who understood struggle—those boys at the gym made it something other—a strength and body type that came from being different and somehow lesser than them. I thought about the way the boy had added “and shit” to the end of each of his list of activities that developed hillbilly strength: “…throwing hay and shit,” “…fighting and shit.” Equating farm work and struggle with being lesser. With “shit.”
I looked at myself in the mirror. I was strong. And I felt proud of that strength. But I knew that I was strong because I worked hard. Because I was smart. Because I knew what it meant to struggle and overcome struggle.
It wouldn’t be until graduate school that I would really think about the phrase hillbilly strength again. As part of my course requirements, I had to take an Appalachian literature course, and it would be in this course where I, a West Virginian, would first learn at age 28 about Blair Mountain, the Niagra Movement at Harper’s Ferry, the Hawk’s Nest disaster, Sid Hatfield, and Mother Jones.
I was fascinated by the history of resistance, equality, and labor in Appalachia that I had never been taught until then. I remember looking at photos in an article I had been assigned for class of the woman most folks believe to be Mother Jones. She is standing straight and strong in front of a large group of men, her arms outstretched, one finger pointing into the distance. I imagined that she was telling those men to go forward and fight, and that under her long sleeved, frilled frock, that her arms looked like mine. I bet none of those men were trying to explain away her strength.
And for the first time in almost ten years, the phrase hillbilly strength rattled around in my head.
I have been a West Virginia public educator and educational activist for almost 16 years. In 2015 I began developing for my own students a course curriculum and pedagogy rooted in telling the complete story of Appalachia. I wanted them to understand what true strength from this region looks like—that the complete, complex story of our region looks like resistance, activism, and the extraordinary work of the contemporary artists and activists from across Appalachia. Also, during this time, my colleague, Karla Hilliard, and I began working to rebuild a professional development organization for West Virginia’s English teachers that had been defunct for over 20 years, the West Virginia Council of Teachers of English.
Over the last 20 years, there had been a gradual but steady erosion of support services and professional development opportunities for West Virginia’s teachers, and each year more and more legislation was being presented that seemed to be aimed at devaluing and defunding public education. We began organizing grassroots opportunities for teachers to collaborate and learn from one another, and we began pushing back on lawmakers, demanding teachers be given what they deserve and what they need to do the hard work we do
Then, in 2018 the simmering tension felt by education workers across West Virginia boiled over, and collectively we cried out in opposition to the rising costs of health care for public employees in our state, the low pay of educators and education workers, and the lack of teacher support, and student support services in the face of an opioid epidemic that was ravaging communities across our state. This led to a nine-day work action that occurred from February 23-March 7, 2018, and has ignited a fire of resistance, inspiring other educators and workers across the world to stand up against unfair treatment and oppression.
The majority of educators in America are women, and the movement in West Virginia was a movement led primarily by women. When West Virginia’s education workers descended on our state capital, it quickly became clear to me that part of lawmakers’ resistance and dismissiveness to teachers’ requests were not just differences in policy opinion, but also rooted in sexism and misogyny.
While meeting with lawmakers in the Capitol, I heard male lawmakers say things like “who can think with the shrill voices chanting in the halls?” and “are the cheerleaders still here?” These comments were usually accompanied by an eyeroll or a dismissive hand gesture. I was laughed at, called “honey,” handed a 4-inch-thick state budget binder and asked, “now do you think you could understand all that?”
During these days at the Capitol complex, I caught myself thinking a lot about those boys at the gym who all those years ago tried to dismiss my power by labeling it hillbilly strength.
The lawmakers in our state capital tried to laugh away the outrage of West Virginia’s teachers; they tried to dismiss us as hysterical, tried to make us think we couldn’t possibly understand the nuances of running state government. Just like those boys all those years ago couldn’t understand how I could possibly be as strong or stronger than girls from other places, our own lawmakers tried to diminish and dismiss the power of West Virginia’s educators.
But what I’ve learned since that day at the gym all those years ago is that hillbilly strength is in fact real, but it has nothing to do with some strange physical quality that we’ve developed from scratching a tough living out of the mountains. A lot of folks from this region are physically strong and we are tough, but hillbilly strength has nothing to do with actual physical prowess. Hillbilly strength is what we’ve developed from years of pushing back against oppression and extraction. It’s the power to know that even when there are a multitude of odds stacked against you, you have fortitude to push on and persevere.
Pressure and perseverance won education workers in West Virginia a victory in 2018, though there still is not a permanent funding source for PEIA, our health insurance provider. A second work action in February 2019 was necessary to stop a harmful school privatization bill, and the fight for what public schools and education workers in West Virginia continues.
West Virginia’s teachers stand poised and ready to continue fighting for the soul of public education in this state.
In the last two years, I’ve talked to a lot of folks who are having a hard time figuring out “how this could happen in a place like West Virginia”—how West Virginia could become a beacon for resistance and social justice. I’ve seen the West Virginia educators' movement explained by attributing it to good organizing, Bernie Sanders, Donald Trump, Black Lives Matter, the woman’s movement, historical inspiration, our deep history of coal and labor resistance—and all this is both true and untrue.
But I also have my own answer.
I was at an academic conference a few months after the 2018 work action ended when I was asked, not for the first time how "something like this happen in a place like West Virginia?” I smiled at the well-meaning older gentleman who was looking at me so quizzically, a professor at a prestigious school in the North-east, rolled my shoulders, flexed my forearms, clapped him on the shoulder, and smiled.
“Hillbilly strength,” I replied, and I left him to figure out for himself just exactly what that means.
Join the WV United Caucus and author Diane Ravitch to celebrate the historic strength and resistance of West Virginia teachers on February 22! Click here for details!