Mama Learned Us to Work: Farm
Women in the New South.
Lu Ann Jones. University of North Carolina Press,
ISBN 0-8078-2716-9; $19.95 (paper); 272 pp.
18, 2005: A few years ago a public historian was
putting together a museum exhibit on the lives of ordinary
white southerners in the first half of the twentieth century.
He had planned a display on the technologies of laundry before
the advent of the washing machine: fire in the back yard,
iron kettle, galvanized steel wash tubs, and lye soap. The
museum curator told him that the display was inappropriate,
since all white southern women sent their washing out. Had
the museum curator read Lu Ann Jones's excellent new book
on southern farm women in the early twentieth century, he
would have known better.
A skilled and experienced oral historian, Jones was one of
the co-authors of Like a Family: The Making of a Southern
Cotton Mill World. Her project "An Oral History
of Southern Agriculture," supported by the Smithsonian
Institution, produced two hundred interviews of rural southerners
and resulted in articles published in the Journal of American
History, Oral History Review, and elsewhere.
Jones knows a great deal about the rural world of the early-20th-century
South, which is now as swept away by social and economic change
as ever was the Old South. She uses her knowledge to address
questions of gender roles, work, race, and the intersection
of the home and the market economy. As a result, this collection
of interrelated essays is truly "quietly revolutionary,"
as Laura Edwards notes in a jacket quotation.
To explain why, I wish to be much louder, and more blunt,
than Jones herself would probably care to be. Here is a book
about the female half of the southern majority, those who
still made their living on the land as late as 1940; a book
about southern women whose lives are seen through their work,
without either contempt or pity; and a book in which the difference
created by race is illuminated by comparing people of the
same social class, not the rich and the poor. Finally, here
is a book that clearly demonstrates the enormous gap between
Jim Crow-era southern gender rhetoric, which cast white women
as fragile flowers in need of protection, and the actual lives
lived by most women on the land. Jones's women were subordinated,
not sheltered, but they were also active agents in their own
Jones's introduction shows that in the period she studies--roughly
turn-of-the-century to World War II--work dominated the lives
of southern farm women. Whether black or white, theirs were
lives of unremitting toil. The book's title comes from a woman's
description of her mother: "Mama learned us to work,
that's what she done. She learned us to work." When Josie
St. John died, she was buried with a tombstone that said,
"Mother resting from all her labor" (p. 11). W.
J. Bennett's mother "would go to the field of a morning
and work until time to fix dinner. Come out long enough to
fix dinner and then right back until that evening.... She
didn't have no time off. If she weren't in the field, she
was busy at the house" (pp. 8-9).
The farm women portrayed by Jones had hard lives, but in terms
of the early-20th-century South they were relatively well-off.
They were members of what Jones calls a yeomanry, possessed
of enough economic resources to be self-supporting. Small
farmers and renters from the Upper South, particularly North
Carolina, they exhibited a canny understanding of rural economics.
Like Laurel Thatcher Ulrich's Maine frontier women, southern
rural women bought, sold, and traded, but in ways that illustrated
the relative place and power of men and women, as well as
blacks and whites, in rural society. Jones illustrates
this best in her opening chapter on country markets, peddlers,
and rolling stores.
Farm men traded at country markets, or carried produce to
town, and returned with the goods (sugar, flour, and coffee)
requested by their wives, while women rarely went to the store.
Country stores were male environments, complete with a porch
gallery of spitting, whittling, joke-telling oglers guaranteed
to provide any woman with a practical and uncomfortable introduction
to the "masculine gaze."
The rolling store was the alternate market, preferred by women
and often by black men as well, who could buy there free of
white kibitzing and comment. Rolling-store salesmen were the
twentieth-century equivalent of the peddlers, often Jewish,
who carried packs or drove wagons into the remotest regions
of the rural South well before the Civil War. In the first
half of the twentieth century the rolling store, often in
a panel truck and increasingly sponsored by the Watkins or
Raleigh patent medicine companies, traded manufactured products,
medicinals, spices, and small-scale luxury goods for cash
or farm produce. Thus a woman might swap hens for embroidery
floss, a paper of needles and pins, a small tin of camphor
ointment, vanilla extract, and a bottle of perfume. All of
these things could be sent for from most country stores, but
at the rolling store the female customer was queen. She could
handle the materials and hear the news from the salesman.
As one rolling-store salesman noted, "Women very seldom
come to the store. Like in the rolling [store] business, it
was all different. It was all women" (p. 37). For rural
women, the rolling store functioned as a female space, and
the best efforts of disgruntled patriarchs and landlords to
deny them access to it usually failed.
It is tempting to see the rolling store as the rural equivalent
of the great early-20th-century department stores, feminized
spaces that introduced women to consumerism; however, Jones
demonstrates the critical difference. The rolling store was
not just a place where women consumed. It was also a market
in which they sold the products of their own labor.
In chapters 2 and 3, Jones describes the multitude of ways
in which southern farm women's work in the 1920s and 1930s
intersected with the market economy. Women sold farm produce,
wild berries, milk, butter, and, above all, chickens and eggs.
Jones's evidence suggests that most women entered the marketplace
because their children needed things that their husbands could
not, or would not, supply, such as tuition for school. However,
when women had their own money, it changed not only the household
economy, but also the dynamics of family relationships.
Women who had been ignorant about money and markets learned
from participation, particularly as they joined in group marketing
ventures sponsored by home demonstration agents. During the
Depression, agents in North Carolina made note of families
being supported, and farms saved, through the money earned
by farm women. Moreover, agents reported that women gained
a new sense of their own importance and relative power through
participation in the market, and they demonstrated this new
independence in the home. On this topic, Jones's most telling
anecdote demonstrates the connections between economics and
reproductive rights. In a North Carolina mountain community
that had been targeted for a public health experiment in various
methods of birth control, the public health nurse had given
away condoms for free. When the experiment ended, the nurse
reported that one of the women involved was unwilling to go
back to the old ways. She told the nurse (and her husband)
that she would just sell a hen to get the money to buy Trojans.
By the 1930s and 1940s, women became unwitting pioneers in
the creation of the poultry industry. Jones notes that the
history of the poultry agribusiness usually jumps directly
from the small flocks of chickens kept by women on small farms
to the giant post-World War II factory farms. She demonstrates
that it was women who led the transition, building bigger
and bigger flocks until finally what had been mom's trade
in eggs and chickens became dad's egg factory. Southern farm
men had denigrated the poultry business as women's work and
beneath men's notice, until World War II when the federal
government designated poultry producers "soldiers of
the soil" (p. 104) and gave men patriotic cover for going
into women's work. Ironically, Jones says, "As poultry
raising grew in scale and required more capital investment,
farm men usually assumed the position of managers while women
and children performed most of the actual work" (p. 104).
In the following two chapters, Jones shifts her focus from
farm women to the government bureaucrats most likely to interact
with them, home demonstration agents. These chapters, on white
home demonstration agents and their black counterparts respectively,
effectively and subtly delineate the differences that race
made in the lives of bureaucrats and their clients, while
offering another variation on the theme of work.
Chapter 4, "Professional Paradoxes," opens with
a quote from a female journalist describing southern white
home demonstration agents as the descendents of belles who
once "trod a stately minuet." These daughters of
the white South, the journalist said, were now modern young
women engaged in "missionary work" to uplift Dixie
(p. 107). In reality, as Jones notes, home demonstration agents
were not missionaries, but rather women who needed and wanted
to work. Some had husbands who could not make a living, while
others simply enjoyed the independence of their own income.
Administrators like Jane Simpson MacKimmon enjoyed power and
the opportunity to make a difference in a larger world than
the private home.
Significantly, many white home demonstration agents seem to
have come to the work from teaching, another stereotypically
female job, but one that paid poorly and offered less autonomy
and adventure than "home dem" work. An enjoyment
of adventure was useful to home dem agents, particularly in
the early days, when their work took them into remote rural
communities, requiring them to speak tactfully with farm women
about intimate matters of household management.
Pauline Smith, who joined the North Carolina extension service
in 1913 and retired in 1949, stands as Jones's emblematic
white home demonstration agent. Smith loved her work, although
she groused about it, and mentored a tight-knit network of
fellow home dem agents who served as a surrogate family. Smith
needed to work to support herself and family members, but
she also treasured her autonomy. Engaged in 1929, she put
off her marriage to Frank O. Alford until her retirement.
Her letters to Alford explain why: "You would have to
do a mighty lot to take the place of the people here and my
independence and salary" (p. 130).
Emma L. McDougald, North Carolina's first black home demonstration
agent, said that her first question when entering a community
was, "What is the greatest need of the people and how
can I attack it?" In contrast to white home demonstration
agents, who seem to have been more careerists than missionaries,
black home demonstration agents were "Women in the Middle,"
according to Jones. Standing between black communities and
white extension adminstrators, black home dem agents "built
on traditions of self-help and mutual aid and a philosophy
of uplift among African Americans" (p. 140). They were
overworked, underpaid, denied access to resources, and denigrated
as hopeless inferiors by the white supervisors to whom they
reported. Nonetheless, they did what they could with what
they had, earning the gratitude of black farm women.
Black home dem agents paid special attention to health issues,
organizing drives to destroy mosquito habitats, clean up yards,
and build sanitary toilets. They found food for hungry children,
taught sanitation, and encouraged people to get typhoid inoculations.
Like white agents, they organized canning clubs and gardening
schemes. Yet unlike white home demonstration agents, black
agents had to deal with white landlords who did not support
any kind of home improvement for their tenants. Lucy Hicks
Toole DeLaine, a Winston-Salem State College graduate, worked
as an agent in the 1930s. In 1999, at the age of 88, DeLaine
remembered her long campaign to get a white landlord to patch
the cracks in the walls of tenant houses, install window screens,
and build outhouses. DeLaine remembered, "It's a wonder
they hadn't strung me up. It was like pulling eye teeth. You
just worked on them one thing at a time. You couldn't push
too much.... I guess I was as tired when I left extension
as though I had hammered all day. But I got some things done"
In the 1930s, black home demonstration agents created a new
recipe for salt pork, the ubiquitous fatback that was a staple
of poor southerners' diets. Dipped in eggs, rolled in corn
meal, and then fried, fatback apparently could pass for fish
or oysters. But, as Jones notes, it was still fatback. Similarly,
despite all the palliative efforts of black home demonstration
agents, the real problems faced by black farmers remained.
Jones suggests that the agents' efforts were not in vain:
"By helping black women 'make the best of what they had,'
they also gave them the confidence to believe that if one
door was closed another might open--if they knocked loudly
enough" (p. 169).
Jones's book concludes with a brief excursion into material
culture, in this case the fashion in feed bags: "Today
a symbol of simpler times on the farm, feed bags also represent
economic and cultural changes more complex than historians
have imagined" (p. 183). Feed bags, the cotton sacks
in which poultry food was retailed, were themselves indicative
of changes in the scale of poultry production. Moreover, feed
millers and bag manufacturers came to realize that farm women
paid attention to the quality of the bags in which feed was
sold, and wives influenced their husbands to buy bags that
had patterns they liked. Women used the fabric to make all
kinds of household furnishings, as well as dresses. They traded
feed bags and even sold them. As one feed dealer complained
in 1948, "Years ago they used to ask for all sorts of
feeds, special brands, you know. Now they come over and ask
me if I have an egg mash in a flowered percale. It ain't natural"
(p. 177). Trade associations distributed booklets offering
tips on how to sew with feed sacks. In 1959, the National
Cotton Council and Textile Bag Manufacturers Association sponsored
a feed sack sewing contest, with a range of prizes, including
a trip to Hollywood and lunch at Sardi's in New York.
Dining at Sardi's in a dress made of chicken feed bags is
the sort of piquant picture typical of Jones's book. It illustrates
her statement that change in the rural South has been more
complex than has often been acknowledged, particularly by
those who observe the process from the outside, as historians.
Admittedly, I had a hard time maintaining my stance as historian-outsider
while reading this book. I grew up in the world that Jones
describes, and her work unleashed a flood of memories, as
vivid as the color and smell of the King Leo peppermint candies
we used to buy from the rolling store.
Yet it is my position as an insider in the rural South that
leads me to wish that Jones was a little tougher with her
own material. The world that she describes is basically a
good place. But southern farm women left that world in droves,
from the 1920s through the 1950s. During the latter decade,
parts of the rural South were all but depopulated.
That great migration off the land is outside Jones's stated
goals for Mama Learned Us to Work, but it overshadows
the book just the same and raises several questions. Why did
hundreds of thousands of farm women reject the world of their
mothers? Is the answer simply economic--small farming ceased
to "pay" as farmers say, and women left, as did
men, for that reason? Or are there other reasons, related
to the gendered economy of the farm home? Jones's informants
offer hints, as when a daughter relates how her father drank
up her mother's egg money until the daughter intervened, started
a saving program, and set her mother on the road to financial
independence, or when a son interrupts as his mother describes
her egg business to Jones and insists that she never did much
of anything on the farm. True, there are stories of egalitarian
families, of husbands who share with wives, and sons who testify
that their success in agribusiness derives from the support
and teaching they received from their mothers. Yet, one wonders
how many farm daughters would have agreed with farm agent
Pauline Smith when she insisted that she would never put herself
in the position of having a husband supervise her expenditures
or give up her independent income? The rolling-store business
may have been "all women," but farming, as I recall
it, was all men and rare indeed was the farm wife who was
a partner in decision making. Home demonstration agents encouraged
women to participate in the market economy, a step that Jones
sees as empowering. But did empowerment motivate out-migration?
These questions could best be answered by looking at the South
in the second half of the twentieth century. We can hope that
Jones will continue her research into southern rural life
and her interviews with people whose eloquent voices need
to be heard.
Jeanette Keith, Department of History, Bloomsburg University