Work, Family, and Faith: Rural Southern Women in the Twentieth Century.
Work, Family, and Faith resulted from a collaboration undertaken by two active oral historians who have spent their careers working with rural southern women's history, Melissa Walker and Rebecca Sharpless. The nine essays address women's responsibilities relative to family and to work--farm labor, factory work, and professional positions in small towns and cities. The anthology covers the South, from Virginia to Texas, though many chapters focus on Virginia and North Carolina. The co-editors summarize their intellectual debts to folk such as sociologists Margaret Jarman Hagood and Arthur E Raper and to pioneering historians of rural women's experiences, for example, Joan Jensen and Lu Ann Jones. Walker and Sharpless indicate the richness of secondary literature and, by presenting these carefully selected and finely edited essays, they "complicate, deepen, and broaden" a respectable and growing body of historic studies on southern women (1).
The editors and contributors use oral history as a means to document southern women's experiences during the twentieth century and give them a voice that traditional historical records often fail to convey. Lu Ann Jones sets the tone with her biographical essay of Nellie Stancil Langley, born in 1918 to landowning southern tobacco growers in North Carolina. Jones' cogent introductory remarks indicate the importance of women's personal remembrances in understanding rural economics during a period of transition, specifically the 1930s. Jones persuasively argues that Nellie's interview, along with those of other southern women, "illuminate a portion of the farm economy that has escaped serious analysis: women's subsistence strategies and their production for market" (20). Jones then shares her interview transcript with readers, thus providing a useful source that readers can analyze with their own questions about the rural twentieth century southern experience in mind.
Four additional articles analyze women and their subsistence strategies. Sharpless and Walker focus on women and field work in tobacco and cotton regions, incorporating perspectives of white and black women. The editors emphasize the tension that societal demands caused women of both races as they tried to devote their energies to domestic work while assisting at critical times in the field. The authors juxtapose attitudes shared by female interviewees with editorial comments from period literature such as Farm and Ranch that indicate how race, class, and personal interest affected women's decisions. Evan Bennett elaborates on the range of work that women undertook in Virginia and Carolina tobacco fields and with the Tobacco Growers' Cooperative Association (also called Tri-State Cooperative). His analysis relies on archival material representing the perspectives of the United States Department of Agriculture, the Progressive Farmer, Federal Writers Project reports, and memoirs, as well as other evidence. From this range of material he documents the gendered division of labor associated with bright tobacco production and marketing, but also Tri-State Cooperative officials' recognition of women's critical role. Bennett effectively argues that "farm women's work placed them in the nexus of domestic and market production" (68). Ann McCleary's essay on curb markets in Virginia during the 1920s and 1930s indicates how rural women took advantage of urban marketing opportunities. Karen R. Utz takes this idea a step further as she documents how rural African American sharecroppers' wives transferred their work, and therefore a semblance of comfort, to Sloss Quarters, a residence populated by Sloss Furnace workers in Birmingham, Alabama. As a group, these five essays could be used effectively to teach students about the kinds of information that can be gained from different types of sources, including oral histories, and about how to build arguments using such varied data.
The remaining essays focus on women who worked outside the home and the farm, in professional positions as home demonstration agents, deaconesses, Salvation Army missionaries, and factory apparel workers. Oral history informs Michelle Haberland in her study of gender and race in southern Alabama's Vanity Fair mills, but she and the other authors also reference annual reports and records of businesses, organizations, and bureaucracies that employed the women. Of these four authors, only Lynne Rieff argues that women working outside the home, in her case, home demonstration agents in Alabama, Georgia, Florida, Mississippi, and Louisiana, did not really challenge southern custom. Instead, the live-at-home program that the home demonstration agents advocated built on routines familiar to middling rural women, namely poultry care, gardening, and canning. The agents did little to address the needs of impoverished women, nor did they challenge the system that trapped many southerners in unhealthy conditions. In contrast, Lois Myers and Connie Park Rice, in separate articles, contend that women involved in the Women's Missionary Council of the Methodist Episcopal Church, South, and Cecil Daisy Brown, who established the first Salvation Army mission in Appalachia in 1935, challenged the conditions that poor rural women face& They worked with the women to improve their situations. Haberland analyzed women workers' situation at Vanity Fair plants between 1937 and 2000 and concluded that the women who chose to leave rural life behind to secure more economic and social freedom as wage earning women found that garment workers still faced gender and race discrimination. Yet, the women's "experiences as industrial workers and later, as unionists helped to both challenge and define new roles for women in the rural South" (282).
The title implies that women depended on their faith to survive, as much as on their work and family, but only two of the articles build their arguments around experiences directly related to faith, and those focus on women involved in mission work. Churches helped women at Sloss Furnace maintain a sense of social cohesion and personal strength, but surprisingly, other articles do not deal in any depth with faith, religion, or church involvement. Regardless, this anthology addresses a range of rural southern women's experiences during the twentieth century and introduces readers to subjects dealt with in more detail in recent monographs by the editors and contributors.
Debra A. Reid
Eastern Illinois University
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|Author:||Reid, Debra A.|
|Publication:||The Oral History Review|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Jan 1, 2007|
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