Federal Policies Negatively Effecting Indigenous Food Sovereignty

By Hannah McCandless

From July 2017 to June 2018, I had the privilege of working as a fellow at the National Farm to School Network in Washington, D.C. During my time there, I learned about the federal policies and acts that are driving our federal food aid policies, such as The Farm Bill, Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP; formerly known as Food Stamps), and the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC). In learning about these policies, I became familiar with the programming and grants that my organization used to support Native Communities in food production and consumption. 

In relation to that, last year, this blog published a piece about the Farm Bill’s effects on Native Communities, linked here. I encourage you to read that post in addition to this post as this is a multi-faceted problem. This post is focused first, on how displacement of Native Communities has adversely affected the long term health of Indigenous Communities and second, how SNAP and past federal food policies have affected the health of those communities. 

First, it is important to define food sovereignty. According to Devon Mihesuah, a researcher and coauthor of “Indigenous Food Sovereignty in the United States: Restoring Cultural Knowledge, Protecting Environments, and Regaining Health,” food sovereignty is defined as the “healthy and culturally appropriate food generated by a community that oversees the entire process, from production to trade to sustainability.” [1] It is important in understanding what this looks like in order to be able to understand how federal policies have negated Native people’s ability to feed themselves with their own autonomy. 

At the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues held in 2014, the issue of food rights were brought up by those in attendance. An issue they spoke of specifically was the phenomenon they called “nutrition transition.” Nutrition Transition can be defined as when Indigenous or Native Communities are forced to relocate to reservations by western forces, which caused them to change how they consume food. [2] One example of this would be to think about communities who previously ate bison and buffalo. When Europeans invaded native land, they killed several of those animals, forcing those communities to shift their eating habits. Later, when the US government began forcing Native Communities away from their original native lands, they were often moved to different temperate climates, changing the types of food they could produce. [3] This forced shift has created devastating effects on the health of Indigenous Communities. 

Since 1977, the Food Distribution Program on Indian Reservations program has existed for people living too far away from SNAP approved grocery stores on their reservations. This is one of the alternatives to SNAP for qualifying Indigenous people. Though this program can be a helpful supplement to food sources, some 60% of Native Americans who are on it use the program as their number one resource for food, rather than a supplement. Comparatively, only 37% of Native Americans on SNAP benefits use that program as their number one source for food. The foods provided by these programs are primarily processed staples with long shelf lives, meaning that fresh fruits, vegetables, and unsalted meats are not a part of many Native American’s lives if they rely on these programs for sustenance. [4]

Before Europeans invaded and either destroyed people’s food sources or forced them to change, Indigenous Communities consumed foods such as “elk, white-tailed deer, turkeys, corn, squash, beans and bison.” Once Europeans invaded, they brought in animals such as cows, goats, and chickens, introducing poultry and dairy to the diets of native communities. [1] This initially shifted the diets of many Native Americans in a drastic way. Once federal food assistance programs began providing food to Native Communities, the rate of Native people with Type 2 Diabetes skyrocketed, and Native Americans became twice as likely to have diabetes compared to white Americans. Because SNAP benefits include the types of foods that are extremely salted in order to have a longer shelf life, the foods consumed created long term health issues. 

The ways in which the US federal and state governments have wronged Native Communities are innumerable, but the ways in which the federal food programs have affected their health are long lasting. Food sovereignty is just one of the rights that Native Communities are fighting for, and one that is complicated and multifaceted in its causes and solutions. I encourage you to find more information on this topic to better understand how to be an ally in creating local, state, and federal policy changes.




[2] United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues (2014) 

[3] Native American Food   

[4] How Might Trump’s Food Box Plan Affect Health? Native Americans Know All Too Well

Hannah is a second year graduate student in the Women’s History Program at Sarah Lawrence College. Hannah is writing her thesis on Matilda Hamilton Fee and women in higher education administration in the south during the 19th century. 

Let’s Talk About Sex, Baby

By Hannah McCandless

Hannah is a second year graduate student in the Women’s History Program at Sarah Lawrence College. Hannah is writing her thesis on Matilda Hamilton Fee and women in higher education administration in the south during the 19th century. 

When first introduced to Women’s Studies in college, I initially gravitated toward studying the educational discrepancies I noticed in my high school regarding sex education. Growing up in a relatively small town in the Bible Belt south, I can assure you, there were several. I look back at the startled young woman, realizing for the first time, that her Physical Education and Health classes were nothing more than half facts and shame tactics, and I’m thankful that my college professors were encouraging that I explore that missing part of my education more. In this post, I’ll be looking at state sex education laws, the heteronormativity of the curriculum, and some long term effects of skewed facts and questions left unanswered. 

In my freshmen year college dorm room, I found myself talking with my peers about our experiences with sex education. Students from northern states quickly realized that their experiences were vastly different from those of southern states. Those of us from Kentucky thought we might have similar experiences if we went to public schools, but we found that was not the case. According to federal law, states are allowed to determine their sex education curriculum. Broadly, states’ choices range from one of three mandate options: “sex education,” “HIV education,” and “sex education and HIV education.” Within that’s collection of options, states are allowed to push abstinence only education.  Looking at the map below, you can see which states ascribe to which educational theory. Notice a pattern? 


Yep, that’s right, a lot of southern states coming in strong on that abstinence only curriculum. Digging even deeper, we find that several states, Kentucky included, allow for each county or school district to decide the sex education curriculum. In some states, the Superintendent of a school district can decide what the curriculum will include. In others, site based councils (which often include parent membership) decide what is taught. That kind of power in the hands of few, with varying agendas, leads to inconsistencies in educational outcomes. 

As you may have noticed earlier, when I listed the main types of routes for sex education curriculum, they are all based to some degree in the assumption that sex happens between a cisgender male and cisgender female. The phrasing of abstinence only and other aspects of sex education are extremely heteronormative. That is to say that, in most teacher’s curriculum, straight and monogamous relationships are set as the norm. With that comes strong and harmful gender norms that pigeonhole young people. One study even found that the curriculum taught in several schools, because it plugs heteronormative relationships so strongly, promoted homophobia. 

When we look at the sex education system in the US, there are several long term effects. Mentioned above, one ends up being a complete intolerance for people in relationships that are non heteronormative. Another is a higher rate of teen pregnancy and STIs in states that lack more comprehensive and medically accurate sex education. Another is a friend from college not knowing that the urethra and vagina are two different holes. The system is flawed and it leads to unhealthy relationships with others and our own bodies. If you get nothing else from this piece, look at this website to see what your state says about sex education. If you can reach out to your local school board and ask what the curriculum is and find out if it is medically accurate. Work with parents and site boards to create more inclusive and comprehensive sex education. 






Republican Motherhood and Women’s Emerging Roles in the Classroom

By Hannah McCandless

Hannah is a second year graduate student in the Women’s History Program at Sarah Lawrence College. She is writing her thesis on Matilda Hamilton Fee, a 19th century woman administrator at Berea College. Hannah is also an editor for the Re/Visionist. 

The first time I had a male teacher was for my 7th grade math class. To be completely honest, it was startling and I was not a fan of his teaching style. Less about the work and more about the rules, Mr. Whatshisface (I cannot remember his name for the life of me) made the class unbearable and unenjoyable. I’m sure some of it had to do with his unusual military approach to teaching. Despite the fact that every other non-male teacher in the building seemed to have the attention and respect of their students with little to no major disciplinary action, Mr. Whatshisface was unable to attain either. For me, it solidified in my 7th grade mind that women were naturally better teachers than men. Imagine my surprise when high school rolled around and nearly one third of the teachers were men. 

I didn’t notice at the time (though it seems apparent now) that when children were young, they were predominantly taught by female teachers. Alternatively, when children aged, they were taught more and more by male teachers. Why? I’m sure you noticed it, too. It becomes even more prominent in college when male professors begin to be about equal or greater than the number of female professors. 

There are a lot of reasons why people theorize that women and men teach different age groups. Most of these theories are based in sexism, such as ‘women are a moral center for the family, and therefore make a good teacher for young children.’ (Total BS – “moral” is relative and non-women have every ability to be that ‘moral’ compass.) Another focuses on women being ‘nurturers’ and thus being better suited to teach young children. (Since when can men not be nurturing?) And then when you’re ready for your kid to be thrown into the real world, have them be taught by a man who will be ‘harsh and realistic.’ 

Whatever merit these ideas do or don’t hold, none of them look at where traditional forms of education (i.s. Reading, writing, math) got started. When colonists first began invading the Americas and settling, education was not a major priority unless you were a Puritan (they sure loved reading the Bible). Most people were just working to survive. Once communities had existed for more time, families that had more wealth began teaching their children at home. Who was the primary teacher for those children, you may ask? The head of the house: good ole dad. Culturally, since the man was the head of the household, it was believed that they should be responsible for the moral, social, and intellectual upbringing of their children, both boys and girls. This was all taking place in the early 18th century before the United States was born. 

Though living conditions were better and life got somewhat easier, it became clear pretty quickly that the education of young children took a great deal of time. So gradually, the duties of educating young children in these well to do homes was handed down (yes, that choice of wording was intentional) to the mothers. No worries, though, because now we are entering the cultural phenomenon of “Republican Motherhood.” 

Republican Motherhood was the idea that mothers were now responsible for the upbringing of a new and virtuous nation via raising children who would emulate republican ideologies in order to support that new nation. Republicanism during this time period versus now are very different ideas, so take note that “Republican Motherhood” had the intention of raising children who would engage in democracy and work to support the country. Because of this, several educational institutions were opened up in the 1790s in order to educate women, so they might better educate their own children. 

Fast forward to the mid-nineteenth century. Public education is becoming more common and available to most white children. As long as you lived near enough people to have a school and you were white, there was a good chance that a school might open up near you. Now, the debates about coeducation and class separation are thought provoking and worth taking a look at, but what we are here to focus on is how women were relegated to certain types of teaching roles. Women were often hired as teachers for children for both single sex and coeducational classrooms. The predominantly male administrators seemed to have no problem with this. But when women began applying for jobs to teach young men, there were serious doubts. This debate about women teaching young men would eventually lead to women being almost completely isolated from jobs teaching boys in adolescence. 

The pattern of women being isolated to teaching younger students began long before I entered the 7th grade. As our culture has shifted to value education less and college / job training more, women have become ever more present in the K – 12 educational world. Our culture suggests that the most important learning comes after we finish grade school and thus women in those roles are degraded, underpaid, and overworked. It’s difficult to sum up the issues of our educational system in a quick 1,000 words, but hopefully this gives some perspective. Nothing ever just happens by accident. Women being undervalued as teachers has a starting point. 


Tyack, David B. and  Elisabeth Hansot. Learning Together: A History of Coeducation in American Schools. Yale University Press: 1990. 


Everyday Liberating Forces

By Hannah McCandless

Hannah is a second year student in the Women’s History Graduate Program at Sarah Lawrence College and works as an editor for the Re/Visionist. 

For whatever reason, I was having a difficult time figuring out what to write about this week. For a month focused on “Creating a Liberated Future,” there are thousands of things I could be writing about. As much as I brainstormed, I found myself stuck. The political climate in this country sucks, the social systems in this country suck, and there are so many things that don’t feel like they can be fixed, so I felt stuck. Feeling defeated, I called my mom. (Duh.) Though kind and helpful, her ideas weren’t striking a chord with me, until she said, “Women are being revolutionary and liberating themselves everyday. Sometimes they are Uber Drivers, women wouldn’t be drivers years ago and now they can; it’s the little things.” 

Of course, my mom would help me remember my love for cultural and social history, and telling stories that make you feel positive about the future. So I took some time to think about the moments in my life where I see women making one another feel stronger simply by doing or being something they could not have been several years ago. This list is not exhaustive, but hopefully it is helpful. 

  1. When I have a woman as a Lyft Driver: I know my mom said Uber, but I do my best not to use them. When I do find myself in a Lyft with a woman as my driver, I feel really safe. When I am in cars with men I immediately am on high alert. But in a car with a woman, I feel like I can relax. I feel like if I felt unsafe or needed help, I could tell her. Several years ago, women couldn’t do that. Even today, it is still dangerous to be a woman driver. So when I see one, I feel hopeful and safe. And for me that is liberating. 
  2. When my friends tell me about how they’re feeling: No matter how hard we try, the stigmatization of mental health is overwhelming and everywhere. But sometimes I’ll be in conversation with women I know well or some that I don’t know well at all, and we end up talking about our mental health. To hear someone else speak to their troubles and then listen to you speak about yours? It makes a huge difference. Feeling like you can be fully yourself even when you’re sad or overwhelmed – it’s radical. Though conditioned to believe that my emotions can be too much for others based on my assumed gender, I feel safe when my close friends share fears and anxieties because then I know I can, too. This is the type of radical love that means a lot to me, and to have those friendships is a liberating force. 
  3. Random women’s history talks with strangers: I feel like I think about history all of the time and so when it doesn’t come up in casual, non-academic settings, I wonder if anyone else really cares. But when I was recently at physical therapy, politics came up. And at some point, one of the younger physical therapists said she had never heard of Anita Hill. The women who were patients and medical professionals from all of the surrounding tables jumped in to talk about who she was and how powerful her testimony was. Everyone in that moment was passionate and angry with how that piece of history had played out, and everyone told stories about either learning about it later in life or about living in that moment and feeling disappointed. Hearing non-academics passionately discuss women’s history is absolutely liberating. 
  4. When women are religious leaders: I know this is a pretty specific example and if you know me personally, you would know that my mom is a Pastor. But here’s the thing: women who are religious leaders are seriously amazing. My mom grew up in a church which believed that women can not be pastors. As an adult, she left that church and pursued ministry in another denomination. Today she is a pastor in a tiny church in Ohio. And her sermons? They are liberating. In an effort to not talk about my mother too much, I’ll give another example. When visiting a friend out of state, she asked me to help her rip the bandaid of moving to a new community by attending a new church with her. Walking in, we were skeptical. Though initially reserved, our guards fell when we saw a woman walk up to the pulpit and start talking. After church, my friend said she would return because though the sermon was good, more importantly, she felt better about being in a place where a woman would be helping her figure out her religious journey. 

    I’m sure these examples won’t resonate with everyone. But I hope that thinking about and reflecting on the moments in life where we see women liberating themselves or others will give us strength as we move forward fighting for equity. I think sometimes it’s easy to feel overwhelmed by all that needs to be done, and so remembering the things that make us feel strong, no matter how small, are worth thinking about.

Current Issues in Education: Kentucky Teachers on Strike

By Hannah McCandless

Hannah McCandless is a second year Master’s student at Sarah Lawrence in Women’s History. Her research interests include education, women in Appalachia, and the Civil War.

Though a completely incorrect assumption, I grew up thinking that there were not that many activists in the state of Kentucky. I thought for some reason that activism happened in large cities, which Kentucky is especially short on. I don’t know why I thought this, but that was what I assumed. Sometime during college I realized that activism was everywhere, it was just poorly publicized. It wasn’t until about year ago, in late 2017 and early 2018, that a protest in Kentucky gained the kind of national attention that I imagined was required for activism to really have made it to the big time. (Yes, my ideas about what activism meant were very skewed, I’m working on it.)  

Kentucky teachers went on strike. The Kentucky legislature was working to pass laws that would affect teacher pensions, both those of current and future teachers. Already one of the worst pension programs in the country, teachers were obviously infuriated. Inspired by other states’ teachers, like West Virginia and Oklahoma, Kentucky teachers went on strike en mass. Wearing all red, the teachers worked to have the pension plan not pass. When the plan was signed by the governor, Kentucky’s elected officials overthrew the plan with a veto. Kentucky teachers had in large part been a deciding factor in this political action, and it made a difference. 

Though I did not realize it at the time, Kentucky teachers (largely women) had long been advocating for themselves. The laws on state workers in Kentucky protesting are skewed toward keeping politicians in power without backlash, and so many Kentucky teachers, who are not unionized, found themselves in difficult situations with their activism. But as it turns out, Kentucky teachers have been protesting for many years with some of their most prominent protests happening in the years of 1970, 1976, and 1988, as well as the strikes in 2018. The pattern of activism had to start somewhere, and though it was likely long before 1970, when the first major protest was documented, this is where we begin our historical journey. 

On February 23, 1970, seventeen thousand teachers from 72 districts did not show up to their classes. That day, only 120 of the 193 school districts held classes, while teachers across the state protested. Because so many teachers took off, numerous schools closed. Teachers were fighting for more money and demanded a pay increase of $300. With one of the lowest salaries of any teachers in the country at an opening salary of $5,000, they were fighting with elected officials for a more substantial and economically sustainable pay. Not only was the pay not enough to survive on, but it also caused some teachers to decide to leave the state completely. Because teachers were not unionized, the Kentucky Education Association (KEA) which most teachers were a part of, advocated to have more say in non-salary issues, such as sick and vacation days.  

Throughout that school year, the National Education Association, or the NEA, documented 180 teacher strikes, times when teachers stopped working, or “interruptions of service,” across the country. In the same report, it said that there had only been five state wide strikes across the country in the last ten years. Two of them were in Kentucky, one in 1966 and the other in 1970. Documentation on the 1966 strike is more sparse, but it is clear that the tradition of teacher activism goes back further than what is properly documented. There were numerous protests throughout the 1970s organized by teachers, and their most significant success was a 5% pay raise. Also during these protests, two significant decisions were made. First, these were the protests that would lead to a court battle to prohibit Kentucky teachers from striking in the future. Second, these protests led to an unsuccessful bid to allow teachers to unionize. Both of these losses would create issues for teachers down the road. 

Jumping forward to 1976, a strike by teachers in Louisville, Kentucky, the 18th largest school district in the country, led to just over 100,000 students missing school for multiple days in November. Ths strike came on the heels of a court order to desegregate and the merger of the city school district (which mostly had African American students) and the county school district (which mostly had white students). The merger seemed to put a new strain on teachers whose classes were too big and whose salaries were too small. Teachers were striking for better pay and better over time benefits, but the district was already strapped for money because the merger also took significant funding from the budget. Some 5,600 teachers demanded better pay, especially for teachers who had bachelor’s degrees. The full demand was for an additional $23 million in order to cover the raises. The Board of Education was able to instead pull together a meager $8.1 million for raises and reduced class sizes. Though very little, the teachers once again affected great change in their pay. 

On March 17th, 1988, 92 out of 178 Kentucky school districts voted to close their doors and add an extra day at the end of the year so that their teachers could attend a rally in Frankfort, Kentucky. The rally urged lawmakers to vote no on the new governor’s budget which had low teacher raises and cut successful educational programs while pushing money into new, untested programs. This protest and the reaction of the school districts, many of which had the support of their school boards, was unique in that it was one of the first times where the educational community all seemed to be on the same page regarding what needed to be done in order for education to continue to successfully work for students and teachers state wide. The newly elected governor, Wallace G. Wilkinson, had pledged major changes during his bid for the office. His view was one which mainly supported his new ideas on education and did not take into account the successful measures pushed through the legislature a mere two years earlier which were well supported and liked by the educational community. The protest took place one day before legislators were to vote. It was spurred in part by a desire for change, but also by harsh words from the governor which showed his disinterest in Kentucky teachers, their needs, and their students. A heated debate, massive support, and a petition with 47,000 signatures later, the legislature promised not to let the spending plan go through. 

An absolute powerhouse, the Kentucky Teachers Association and its members would prove to be a force to be reckoned with. In 2005, the governor at the time was going to pass a bill which would increase health insurance costs and dig too deep into the 3% raise teachers received that year. Teachers had already organized for a protest if the governor did not change his plans. Just days before teachers would surround the capital, the governor changed his plans out of fear of backlash. Governor Bevin should have thought back to this when he criticized the teachers for protesting his pension plan in 2018, because when he fought back, he was hit with a firestorm of criticism from teachers in the state and across the country, taking away even more power from his proposed plan. Kentucky apparently does have a long history of activism. With elections around the corner and teachers being one of the largest groups of any profession in the state, candidates better watch out, because those teachers? They’ll get ya. 


Brant, Elizabeth. “Teacher Strikes, Work Stoppages, and Interruptions of Service, 1969-1970 NEA Research Memo.” National Education Association, August 30, 1970, 1-13. Accessed March 8, 2019. https://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/ED070157.pdf.

Hoff, David J. “Kentucky Teachers Cancel Strike Plans.” Education Week. February 22, 2019. Accessed March 09, 2019. https://www.edweek.org/ew/articles/2004/10/27/09caps-1.h24.html.

“Louisville Schools Are Closed by Strike by Teachers.” The New York Times. December 01, 1976. Accessed March 09, 2019. https://www.nytimes.com/1976/12/01/archives/louisville-schools-are-closed-by-strike-by-teachers.html.

“Thousands of Kentucky Teachers Strike on Pay.” The New York Times. February 24, 1970. Accessed March 09, 2019. https://www.nytimes.com/1970/02/24/archives/thousands-of-kentucky-teachers-strike-on-pay-they-want-300-more.html.

Walker, Reagan. “Kentucky Schools Out For Funding Protests.” Education Week. February 24, 2019. Accessed March 09, 2019. https://www.edweek.org/ew/articles/1988/03/23/26ky.h07.html.

A Love Letter to Michelle Obama

By Hannah McCandless

Hannah is a second year student in the Women’s History Graduate Program at Sarah Lawrence College. 

Dear Michelle Obama, 

You’re a great writer. (I mean really, really good.) I think a lot of people ready your book and it filled them up in a way they didn’t know they needed. It did the same for me and sometimes I still go back to read a random chapter or two just because of the comfort of it. Though titled a love letter, this is more of an extremely positive book review of Becoming. (Now that I’ve written it, I can say this is less of a book review and more of a wow-what-a-great-book-I-am-still-processing review.) Don’t get me wrong, I totally love you, Michelle Obama. I am so very thankful that you are a person in this world. But folks gotta know about this book because at its core, it creates strength and hope in others. 

Becoming was a beautifully written reflection on a life, though nowhere near done, was well lived. Splitting the book into three sections, she captured her life development with herself, her life development with a partner and young children, and her life development with the country. This book, the first I have read for pleasure in a long time, I found refreshing, often reading chapters in between readings for class. 

The beginning of her life could be characterized as light. The love she had for her family, her family for her, and the memories she shared were all full of joy. Her mother, stern but understanding, was a driving force throughout. Her father, a man who dealt with MS and various other related health issues, was a mentor and role model she spoke of with high esteem. Her brother, her best friend and fiercest cheerleader from day one, was one of my favorite characters. His name was Craig and he was in so many ways the person who pushed Michelle to be a planner, but also someone who was highly ambitious. Her memories of her childhood neighborhood in Chicago make you miss home. 

Her childhood and young adulthood shaped her to be a woman who was well rounded, strong, determined, loving, ambitious, and so much more. Her education at Princeton and Harvard were shaped by her class and race in major ways which gave her a lens to view the world she did not have when she attended school in a relatively diverse elementary, middle, and high school. She was able to have a complex understanding of class at a young age and that understanding clearly followed her into the work she took on later. 

I remember the love story she described between her and Barack. Their first kiss after an ice cream date made me feel giddy, like I had just heard the story of a friend in middle school having her first kiss. Sometimes I wonder what love means, and I think, among other things, moments where everything melts away are moments of love. Feeling the affection and love of another and feeling like you can find a way to make anything work. As described by Michelle Obama, the love between her and Barack melted away any anxieties either of them had which helped them both become fuller versions of themselves. 

Michelle and Barack found a way to make their love work, much of their lives shaped by his own ambition. Their lives and loves overlapped in a way that allowed them to share values that supported social equity, but different enough that each of them found a sense of self in their own work. Their children brought great joy to them. Michelle’s story about having a miscarriage was powerful, showing women through the written word that it does happen, it is painful, and it is not your fault. Her reflections on motherhood were also meaningful, making me wonder and think about what I might someday be facing as a mother. I think her balance between work and parenting was realistic, and it was something that helped me see that life as something that could work and be meaningful for me as well. 

What ended up sticking out to me about the final set of chapters was how Michelle brought up events that I remembered. Listening to her reflect, I too was able to look back on various times in our country’s recent history where I felt broken and moved, joyous and inspired. Her reflections on these moments were meaningful and often brought me on the verge of tears. For her, I am thankful, because those reflections helped me to feel once again more connected and thankful to my country after feeling very disillusioned after the last election. This was a wonderful book and I am so glad I was able to find the time to read it. 

Please read it. It will hit you right in the feels (in a good way).

Matilda Hamilton Fee: Abolitionist Educator

By Hannah McCandless

Hannah is a second year graduate student in the Women’s History Program at Sarah Lawrence College. 

Having just returned from a period of exile in Ohio, Matilda Hamilton Fee was putting together the frame of a bed in her home when she heard the firing of cannons. Subjected to nearly four years without a house, moving from place to place in Ohio with her family, Matilda finally came home. The decision, spurred by Matilda and her husband John’s ongoing religious passion for building a coeducational and integrated school, was fraught with danger. In the heart of Eastern Kentucky, Berea College sat in a utopian settlement existing inside a donation of land from Cassius M. Clay. This land became the foundation of what is now a bustling college and small town. Situated in the hills of Madison County, Berea was just far enough away from any big cities to feel rural, but close enough to Lexington, Kentucky to hear the battles of the Civil War as they moved south. 

Matilda and her family fled Madison County in 1860 when her husband, Rev. John G. Fee, had been chased by a mob of 62 men out of Kentucky. A non-denominational Christian family with abolitionist values, the Fees started the long process of building Berea College from the ground up in 1853. By 1855, a small church building was raised and would be used for church services and school lessons. Initially opened as a school for primary through postsecondary education, the small schoolhouse was packed with a small and newly flourishing community. Today, the school stands as a haven for liberal arts education in Kentucky that is both high quality and free to those who attend the school. It’s history and founding are of great significance as it was the first college in the state of Kentucky, as well as the first college in the regional south, to allow black and white, female and male students to be educated together. 

Though Matilda Hamilton Fee was one half of the couple and team that took Berea College from a dream to a reality, she is wildly under written about in the school’s history and the town’s history. Born to the Hamiltons, a historically Quaker family, in 1824 in Bracken County, Kentucky, Matilda was grew up to convert to Christianity. Her religious convictions were the foundation for everything she did and believed. Her commitment to building community was seen in everything she did. From active involvement in the church and Women’s Temperance Union, to her organization of the community to clean up the cemetery and to shut down the local saloon, to her role as both a teacher and administrator within the school, Matilda was a powerhouse of a woman. Her work as the President of the first Ladies Board of Care, for example.  stands out as one contribution to the schooling of women which was likely used by other schools moving forward. 

Though often open about her opinions, she was soft spoken and feminine – many spoke highly of her kindness, gentle demeanor, and her flower garden as indicators of her femininity after her passing. Unfortunately, this correct but limited perception of her leaves much of Matilda’s courageous side in the dark. On one occasion, John was approached and surrounded by men on horseback with the intention of harming him. Matilda, a skillful rider, mounted a horse and blocked the men from hurting her husband numerous times before a rock was thrown at John. Though no major injuries came of this, and a judge ordered in the favor of John Fee on the grounds of free speech, the experience is one of many where Matilda pulls herself out of a traditionally feminine role and puts herself in harm’s way in order to protect her husband, family, and mission. 

In another instance, Matilda was forced to flee with her family over the Ohio River in the middle of winter, during which time she lost one of her sons to illness brought on by the cold. Later, when she was finally able to return to Berea, she came with just her and one of her sons. They returned while the Civil War raged on and Matilda ended up being separated from her husband and in Confederate occupied land for ten weeks. When challenged on her views about education and integration by a Confederate soldier, she responded with, “…as for politics, we are for the Union, and believe slavery is wrong, and that the rebels are fighting for a lost cause.” This is merely a glimpse into one instance of her bravery because these instances for her were more common than not. 

Matilda’s bravery is remembered most by her husband and is especially documented in his autobiography. Matilda did not leave much written word behind, forcing this historian to rely heavily on the words of her peers, which often painted a picture of a doting wife. Matilda was a wonderful wife and mother, and those roles were clearly important to her, but her role as a teacher and activist and rebel are overshadowed by a skewed history. A common saying I heard growing up was some variation of, “Behind every great man is a great woman.” I would argue that in the case of the Fees, and in countless other families, next to every great man stands an equally great woman. Matilda and John were a team. I encourage you to stop looking for the shadow of a man who has done great things and start looking for the partner standing next to him, because strength in the Fee home and mission laid within the strength of a team.