All We Know Was to Farm: Rural Women in the Upcountry South, 1919-1941.
Melissa Walker's book, All We Know Was to Farm: Rural Women in the Upcountry South, 1919-1941 is a fascinating account of twentieth-century rural America that should be read by all those interested in class relations, commercial agriculture, industrialization, the role of the state, and gender roles. In spite of the somewhat misleading title, Walker's book is not just about women or farming in the Upcountry South. Rather this book is a well researched, imaginatively conceptualized, and readable book about the ways both men and women in the rural South encountered and negotiated numerous facets of modernization.
Instead of using the homogenizing term the South or the myth-laden label Appalachia, Walker created the term upcountry South to capture the distinctiveness of the geographic area she discusses in this book: the foothills and mountains of southwestern West Virginia, eastern Tennessee and northwestern South Carolina. While not overlooking the economic, political, and social differences among these three states, Walker makes a strong case that the women and men of all three areas faced similar pressures from the growing intrusion of the government and the growing presence of industrialization between the two world wars. Labeling this moment as a "liminal", Walker argues that the women and men of the upcountry South struggled to shape their own lives, families, and communities while negotiating the increasingly modern and industrial world that had come in the form of the commercial agriculture, home extension agents, the Tennessee Valley Authority, industry, mining, and tourism.
The first half of the book contains much that will be familiar to rural historians. In the first three chapters, Walker spends a good deal of time laying out agricultural practices and the gendered division of labor on rural homesteads. She highlights the ways that the general transition from subsistence to commercial farming transformed family relations and gender roles, noting that as men spent more time focusing on market production, women assumed more responsibility pursuing subsistence activities that could maintain their farm families. Women's role as subsistence producers gained even greater importance during the 1920s and 1930s as farm prices fell and economic depression descended on the countryside. While many farm men tried to address the economic depression by intensifying commercial agricultural practices and working for wages off the farm, women continued to cultivate subsistence farming practices as well as rely on networks of kin and community. In addition to describing women's subsistence strategies during the 1920s and 1930s, Walker also devotes a chapter to women's cash incomes (including poultry and dairy production as well as roadside stands) that helped their families to survive. And finally, Walker also takes time to analyze the ways that home extension agents in the 1920s and the 1930s challenged rural women and sought to transform their gendered division of labor and modes of consumption to turn them from backward farm women into "modern" rural residents. However, by paying close attention to both extension workers and rural women, as well as the ways the shifting economy and racial assumptions affected the home extension agents' work, Walker highlights how the home extension agents were often forced to modify their program in response to the needs and demands of rural women.
The second half of the book, which is organized around case studies that demonstrate the numerous ways modernization transformed the rural upcountry South as well as the ways that men and women responded, is perhaps the most original and innovative part of the work. In one chapter, Walker revisits the Tennessee Valley Authority relocation practices, to demonstrate the numerous ways the state transformed East Tennessee. Rather than simply lament the forced relocation of thousands of upcountry farm families, Walker presents a balanced account of the "mixed legacy" of the TVA project and relocation efforts. On one hand, the TVA brought new job opportunities and a better of standard of living to thousands of rural men and women. And, those farm families with some economic foundation were often able to use the proceeds from land sales to reestablish themselves elsewhere on a surer economic footing. However, Walker also notes that poorer families, and especially African American families, faced more difficulty with relocation as the loss of kin and community mutual aid networks undermined one of their most important survival tools. In this chapter Walker also discusses the less well known case of forced relocation involving rural residents of Spartanburg, South Carolina who found their lands condemned by the federal government to make way for Army Camp Croft. Once again, Walker notes the ambivalence with which local South Carolinians greeted the news that their town would become home to a camp for 16,500 servicemen. Many viewed the army camp as a chance to create economic opportunity and jobs for local residents while others, and especially those whose land was condemned, resisted the efforts of the state to force them to sell, in spite of enormous pressure due to wartime patriotism.
After discussing government relocation, Walker turns to a number of fascinating case studies of rural industrialization by exploring the arrival of the Aluminum Company of America in Blout County Tennessee in 1914, the growing importance of mining in southwestern West Virginia in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, and the creation of tourism in the Great Smokey Mountains in the 1920s and 1930s. In each case, Walker notes the benefits and risks rural residents faced as they attempted to negotiate an increasingly industrial world. Though rural men and women sought to take advantage of industrialization by combing industrial work with farming, many grew increasingly dependent on the industrial sector for their livelihood. Moreover, these industrial pursuits, which in the case of aluminum and mining relied almost exclusively on men, dramatically affected gender relations, as women sought out new ways to maintain subsistence patterns even while living in company towns. Equally important, these modern and industrial pursuits helped to transform class relations and community ties by disrupting and transforming the upcountry South's rural class hierarchy, which depended less on wealth and occupation than on one's perceived industriousness, one's leadership within the local community, and one's longevity in the local community, to a class hierarchy in which occupation and consumerism determined one's local status.
By writing a history of the upcountry South which demonstrates the connections between agriculture and industry, and the numerous ways the state sought to transform the land and people living there, Walker provides a much needed account of the South that should be of interest to all those who study the twentieth century. Therefore readers should not be fooled by Walker's misleading and unfortunate title, for All We Knew Was to Farm provides an innovative and compelling story of the ways that rural women and men in the upcountry South encountered, embraced, and resisted the multiple facets of modernization.
State University of New York, Geneseo
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|Publication:||Journal of Social History|
|Article Type:||Book Review|
|Date:||Dec 22, 2005|
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