Mama Learned Us to Work: Farm Women
in the New South.
Lu Ann Jones. University of North Carolina Press, 2002.
ISBN 0-8078-2716-9; $19.95 (paper); 272 pp.
April 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 lives.
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
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
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"
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" (p. 167).
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
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