Robin Irwin has personal reasons for helping produce the Mountain Grrl Experience, two days of celebrating the artistry and strength of Appalachian women while supporting women around Pikeville, Kentucky, in need. She knows the cost of domestic violence firsthand. 

“It’s very personal for me because of my mother’s experience being kicked down the stairs by my father when she was pregnant. That just imprints in your brain, even in utero,” said Irwin, executive director of the Appalachia Center for the Arts and co-organizer of the Mountain Grrl Experience. 

The Mountain Grrl Experience, a female-run music and arts festival that fundraises for a local emergency shelter and domestic violence service took over downtown Pikeville, a small town in the mountains of Eastern Kentucky, July 22-23, and was open to people of all genders. When someone expressed a desire for a women’s music festival and Irwin heard about the rise of domestic violence, she decided to make Mountain Grrl happen. 

Vendor area of downtown Pikeville. (Photo by Rebecca Stern)

“We just want to highlight the fact that women are often lost in the equation. We had to bring awareness to [domestic violence] in east Kentucky and we want to empower women in their art, in their way of healing, in their music, in their poetry, in what they generate. That it has value and Mountain Grrl [Experience] was born,” said Irwin.

Outside the “APP” (The Appalachian Center for the Arts), about 10 women and one man painted with the Art Positive Project’s therapeutic art workshop focused on releasing past guilt. Dozens of art and food vendors lined Pikeville’s downtown, along with info booths from domestic violence centers and ROCKS for people in sobriety/recovery. The stage on Friday night was held by Crystal Wilkinson, the event’s keynote speaker and poet laureate of Kentucky, who spoke about Perfect Black, her memoir which explores rural black girlhood, religion, sexual abuse, and growing up in Southern Appalachia.

The packed schedule had a wide array of female musical guests, including Abby the Spoon Lady, a square dance, art and poetry workshops, and a gallery.

What does it mean to be an Appalachian woman to participants, such as vendor Whitney Johnson, also known as the Appalachian Forager?

“Everything! I’m proud of the way I talk, I cook, I eat, the way I care about others. Appalachian just means you know how to cook good, eat good, and be nice to people.”

Whitney has gained a following (530,000 followers and 5.1 million likes) on TikTok for her big personality, foraging, and Appalachian content.

“I think [foraging] is important to connect back to our ancestors and be self-sufficient as much as possible,” said Johnson.

The event also featured a women in leadership panel with Tiffany Craft, mayor of Whitesburg; Angie Hatton, Kentucky state representative; Janet Stumbo, former Kentucky Supreme Court justice; Jean Rosenberg, philanthropist and community advocate; and Connie Little, executive director of Turning Point Domestic Violence Services. 

Turning Point, along with the Westcare Perry Cline Emergency Shelter, were the main beneficiaries of the event.

Women in leadership panel with Little, Rosenberg, Stumbo, Hatton, and Craft, from left to right. (Photo by Rebecca Stern)

Forty-five percent of Kentucky women and 36% of Kentucky men experience intimate partner physical violence, intimate partner rape and/or rape in their lifetimes, according to the National Center for Injury Prevention and Control. In one day in 2019, Kentucky domestic violence programs served 1,420 adult and child survivors; another 128 requests for services went unmet due to lack of resources, according to the Kentucky Coalition Against Domestic Violence.

A study in 2011 found that rural women experience higher rates of intimate partner violence and greater frequency and severity of physical abuse compared to urban/suburban women.  

During the panel, Little explained the barriers to gaining access to support services for abuse victims. 

“There’s more barriers in Eastern Kentucky, in [the] Appalachian region, for women that are living a battered life,” said Little. 

Little has found main challenges to be public transportation and poverty preventing people from getting access to resources to help them leave or restart, as well as cultural barriers. 

“The culture of Appalachia with domestic violence in the past has been a family issue, and we know that it is absolutely not a family issue. It’s due to power and control and it isn’t an anger issue. It isn’t a substance abuse issue. Although some of those things contribute, they’re not the root cause,” Little said. 

“Isolation is one key risk factor, and remote rural areas can be isolating. Some rural studies have noted stronger community ties, which would counteract this isolation, but self-selection to remote rural areas is possible,” Dr. Peek-Asa, leading researcher on rural domestic violence and author of the 2011 study, said in an interview for the Daily Yonder. “Financial stress has also been associated with increased severity of violence, and rural areas have been disproportionately impacted by financial insecurity.”

The study also found the mean distance to the nearest help for people who are victims of intimate partner violence was three times greater for rural women than for urban women, and rural programs served more counties and had fewer on-site shelter services in 2011. Over 25% of women in small rural and isolated areas lived more than 40 miles from the closest program, compared with less than 1% of women living in urban areas. 

“Access to care is somewhat a geographical challenge, but the per capíta and density formulas that are often used to fund programs make it very difficult to have close access in rural areas,” said Peek-Asa. 

To people wanting to help rural intimate partner violence victims, Peek-Asa said, “Violence is preventable and even very small things can make a difference.  Checking on a neighbor, healthcare providers asking about safety, family members having good communication, make a difference.  We also need structural policies such as those that ensure legal protections and justice systems work for and support victims.  And we all need to contribute to a culture that does not tolerate violence.”

For more information on how to support a loved one or to talk about something that has happened to you, call the National Sexual Assault Hotline 800.656.HOPE (4673) or chat online at It’s free, confidential, and available 24/7. You can also reach out to the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-SAFE (7233) or by chat.

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