The Wonderful Women From Appalachia
By: Marcus J. Hopkins
March 1st, 2023
APPLI is celebrating Women's History Month by highlighting the lives of Wonderful Women From Appalachia. This series of six books bring to the fore the work of women who have fought to ensure that those who follow in their footsteps have a trail already blazed.
Check out our Women's History Month 2023 reading list using the link below:
When I think about the people who inspired my pursuit of education, love of reading, and passion for advocacy and equity, that list is populated almost entirely by powerful women from Appalachia.
From an early age, my mother, Rebecca Gwinn, instilled in me a great love for the written and spoken word. My childhood was filled with stories, and by the time I went to school, I was already reading well ahead of my classmates. My mother always strove to ensure that my time with her was filled with adventures, whether those be trips to the swimming pool (despite her inability to swim, which continues to this day), trips to libraries, or trips along the country roads of Appalachia, we always had a soundtrack filled with stories or songs to accompany us along the way.
My mother has always been an inspiration to me, not only because of her love of the arts but because of her unbreakable work ethic and inability to take "No" for an answer. Before retiring in 2020, she served as a highly successful Manager at Bath & Body Works in Kingsport, TN, and Victoria's Secret here in Morgantown, WV. Her ability to lead her teams and set standards in her company has always inspired me. From her, I learned my sense of fairness and insistence that I always be willing and ready to perform any task I set for my teams.
At Dobyns-Bennett High School in Kingsport, TN, I met an amazing English teacher—Nellie McNeil—who showed me the importance of a strong education, a firm handshake, and an uncompromising pursuit of justice in the face of violent (and often vile) opposition.
Mrs. McNeil was a vocal advocate for education, social justice, and women's health, frequently using her weekly column in the Kingsport Times-News to not only bring attention to but defend the rights of women and the oppressed in the Appalachian South. A native of Lawrence County, Alabama, Mrs. McNeil was a powerful educator who held every student accountable for their work, words, and actions.
During my Junior year, she overheard me say to a friend, "Nellie McNeil is the bane of my existence," to which she promptly responded, "What an excellent use of the word! Maybe, next time, you can put it into an assignment and deliver it to me, for once."
It was then that I knew I had found a fantastic mentor and role model. Nellie McNeil lost her battle with breast cancer on November 8th, 2007, and I was privileged to write a Letter to the Editor commemorating the impact she had on the lives of countless East Tennesseeans.
You can learn more about Mrs. McNeil and the vastness of her good works at the following link:
The final amazing mentor and hero I would like to mention is Dr. Kelly A. Dorgan, Ph.D., and Professor Emeritus from East Tennessee State University (ETSU).
I met Dr. Dorgan in the Spring of 2009 when I enrolled in her Communication course as a returning student. On Day One, she presented us with what I remember to be a 20-page syllabus with reading lists, due dates, class schedules, expectations, and guidelines about how to complain to the school administration if we didn't like it.
On that day, I fell in awe of a fantastic educator and soon-to-be mentor.
Under her guidance, I switched my major from Sociology to Health Communication and learned of her outstanding work in public health advocacy in rural Appalachia. After just one semester, Dr. Dorgan asked me to be a part of her graduate-level Health Communication course in the Fall of 2009, and it was her guidance and tutelage that set me further down the path of public health and infectious disease research, patient advocacy, and health literacy.
Dr. Dorgan excels at giving voices to those whose voices have long been ignored, and her work as an author is wonderful, poignant, and lush, filled with provocative imagery and unending compassion.
You can learn more about Dr. Dorgan by visiting her website:
I hope you will share your own stories about the Wonderful Women From Appalachia who have inspired you by reaching out to us on social media @APPLIOrg or sending me your story at firstname.lastname@example.org.