Judi Jennings has had a long and fruitful career of helping to give voice to women artists and rural citizens who want to create a better future for the commonwealth.
The Lexington native recently retired from the Kentucky Foundation for Women, where she served as executive director for more than 15 years. Before her time with the foundation, Jennings was a history professor, fundraiser, and founding director of the University of Louisville Women’s Center. She joined KET’s Renee Shaw on Connections to discuss her life and work.
The Changing Face of Feminism
Jennings contends that the early waves of feminism focusing on voting, employment issues, and reproductive rights were important, but they often didn’t consider the challenges faced by women of color or the working poor. She says she prefers a more diverse version of feminism that includes everyone from high-profile activists down to individuals like the woman who raised her, a single mother working to support her family.
“Poor women didn’t identify with feminism,” Jennings says. “I think that was one of the big mistakes we made in the ’70s is that people thought feminists were only for corporate success.”
While workplace and reproductive challenges remain for women, Jennings is pleased that the movement now seeks to address a broader range of issues. She attributes much of this shift to a younger generation of activists who see feminism as part of wider movements for social, economic, and racial justice.
Roots in Appalachia
After college at the University of Kentucky, where she got a Ph.D. in 18th century British history, Jennings taught at Union College in Barbourville, and worked as a fundraiser for Appalshop. She says her time at the renowned arts and media collective in Whitesburg was a way to honor her mother’s Appalachian roots.
“She had moved to Lexington when she was 14, but I realized that my mother had always been made to feel ashamed of being from Eastern Kentucky,” Jennings explains. “And when she died…I thought a lot about how nobody in America should have to live being ashamed of who they are because this is such a great country.”
Jennings says Appalachian and rural people need to play a greater role in national policy conversations, despite the difficulty of being allowed a voice in those discussions. She believes the strength of rural communities and cultures has much to add to the quality of life for all Americans. Here again, Jennings notes the influence of younger generations in these efforts, especially in the state’s Appalachian counties.
“Young people are going back there and they’re making their own economies with food, with health care, [and] they’re speaking out to make a better Kentucky,” Jennings says. “I think that there is a brighter future for Appalachia and I think it’s going to be from the grassroots up.”