The Economy and Relationality of Appalachian "Granny Women."
"Love is a conversion to humanity — a willingness to participate with others in the healing of a broken world and broken lives. Love is the choice to experience life as a member of the human family, a partner in the dance of life."
- Carter Heyward
Granny women have a long tradition in the southern half of the Appalachian mountains, practicing their craft as late as the 1930s. Part midwife, part folk healer, part mountain mystic (a proliferation of popular tales of 'mountain witches' who travel by tip-toeing across treetops, I find, have some resonance here), these elders of small communities were often the only available practitioners of healthcare for the rural poor. Armed with a multi-generational knowledge of herbal remedies, ritual, and oral tradition, granny women normally worked free of charge - a vocation set on communal well-being rather than profit.
Their role is explained by John C. Campbell in The Southern Highlander and His Homeland:
There is something magnificent in many of the older women with their stern theology -- part mysticism, part fatalism -- and their deep understanding of life. ..."Granny" -- and one may be a grandmother young in the mountains -- if she has survived the labor and tribulation of her younger days, has gained a freedom and a place of irresponsible authority in the home hardly rivaled by the men of the family. ...Though superstitious she has a fund of common sense, and she is a shrewd judge of character. In sickness she is the first to be consulted, for she is generally something of an herb doctor, and her advice is sought by the young people of half the countryside in all things from a love affair to putting a new web in the loom (140).
Granny women innately understood that in a political economy that was just seeing the beginnings of the ideological work of veiling the wholesale extraction of both raw natural resources and raw personhood from Appalachia, that the way to overcome extortion and outside pressure was through relationality, love and attuning oneself to the deeper parts of what it means to be fleshly, to be embodied. This meant giving psychological and spiritual support, deep empathy and an understanding of the process of childbirth and healing that weaved creation and newness into the fabric of community narrative, of family story -- something that a woman who had undergone the same experience could provide. It was a holistic step that emerging modern medicine, still crude for much of the history of the granny woman, could not duplicate.
Granny women grasped, I believe, the trueness of the 'erotic,' as feminist theologian Carter Heyward writes, "[a]s we come to experience the erotic as sacred, we begin to know ourselves as holy and to imagine ourselves sharing in the creation of one another and of our common well-being."
Bodies are where life happens and suffering bodies perhaps most of all. Messiness and pain and sickness are part of what it means to experience humanness, but this is not an excuse for exclusion and separation. Granny women understood that wholeness was restored through deep relationality and deep empathy with the world, with the community, with history.
In that notion stands a powerful starting point for theological construction that combats economic marginalization and subverts the dominant culture's patriarchal paradigms of acceptable knowledge.
May Appalachia never forget the legacy of the "granny woman!"