Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Tenant Women

Wife of Texas tenant farmer.  June 1937.  Dorothea Lange.  Library of Congress.
I came across a fascinating book in the library called Mothers of the South.  Published in 1939 from University of North Carolina, it is a field study white tenant farm women in the Piedmont area of the South, tobacco and cotton lands, by Margaret Jarman Hagood.  One of the fascinating individuals revealed in the book is a single tobacco tenant farm woman with several children.  Here she is described in appearance:

The mother who manages Farm Eleven presents an air of respectability with gold rimmed glasses, carefully mended rayon hose, and a neat black and white checkered dress.  Adorning her bosom is her most treasured possession--a gold plated brooch containing miniatures of herself and a girl friend taken when they were eighteen.  Her graying hair is combed back straight, but neatly, to a knot now stylishly high.  Her features and manner suggest her strength of will and pride in accomplishment.
Wife of tenant farmer near Morganza, Louisiana.  November 1938.  Russell Lee.  LOC.
And here is the summary of her life and condition:

Farm Eleven:  A Mother Manages

In every region of the United States the percentage of women who are widowed or divorced is considerably lower in rural farm than in nonfarm areas.  A farm woman bereft of her husband often remarries quickly, moves into town or village, or is absorbed into some relative's family.  She is divorced rather than widowed.  She began farming alone when her oldest son was only twelve and has retained the managing position.  Although only a sharecropper, she has been successful enough during her ten years of farming without benefit of a husband that she has been in need of relief only once for a short period, and last year she came out far enough ahead to buy a second-hand automobile. 

Wife of tenant farmer living near Muskogee, Oklahoma, peeling tomatoes for canning. July 1939.  Russell Lee.  LOC.
A résumé of her life illustrates several other points of atypicality. She was not born or brought up on a farm, as is the rule, but in a mill village.  She went to work in a cotton mill at the age of eleven after a minimum of schooling and worked there for sixteen years until her first son was born.  Her first marriage at twenty-five was late, and even more unusual was the Enoch Arden behavior of her husband, a World War soldier reported dead, who reappeared after her second marriage.  She chose to keep the second husband because he "would work sometimes," and they began farming twenty years ago.  As his health failed she did a larger and larger part of the field work while he stayed home to look after the baby.  Finally when his drinking became almost continuous, the friction between them unbearable, and his health quite bad, she divorced him, and he went to a government institution. 
Female tenant farmer drawing water at well. McIntosh County, Oklahoma.  June 1939.  Russell Lee.  LOC.
This happened ten years ago.  Her children were all under twelve years of age and she could not find a landlord who would take her with five small children and no man.  A kind old man in the spirit of neighborliness and "helping widows and orphans" finally let her move to an unused house on his land.  Early in the spring some tenants moved away unexpectedly and she prevailed upon him to let her take over their tobacco crop.  Her twelve-year-old boy did the plowing and her nine-year-old boy learned how the next year.  The mother did almost everything else, even to staying up nights to take care of the fire in the curing barns.  She says she "never had no noon"; while the others were eating or sitting around she had all the housework to do.  Things like sewing, mending, and canning had to be done at night.  Neighbors volunteer testimonials to her industry--"she ain't got a lazy bone in her body." 

With her children practically "raised"--the youngest is twelve now--she can take things a little easier.  It is well she can because her health is "giving out" after all that work, her blood pressure is about one hundred and seventy and her eyes are failing. But it is only the hardest work which she forswears.  She still does most of the grading of the tobacco and all of the managing of the farm.  She would have bought a mule when they came out ahead last fall but the landlord wants to work his own team on this place.  She doesn't want to move since this seems like home after ten years of living here even though the house is just a three-room log cabin.  One of her sons who has a job in a grocery store in town started buying a second-hand Model A Ford but could not keep up the payments.  So she bought out his interest, paid the balance owed, and now speaks proudly of "my car."

Wife and child of Alabama sharecropper.  Walker County, Alabama.  February 1937.  Arthur Rothstein. LOC.
This woman of forty-nine is a strange mixture of ancient and modern, conservative and progressive.  Most unusual is her keen interest in politics and in other national and world affairs.  She has decided views about such matters and expresses them without hesitation or timidity. She deplores the present depression, thinks it will get worse as election time approaches because that always makes for more insecurity, but believes that neither Republicans nor Democrats can do anything about the depression because it is caused by machines displacing men from jobs and there not being enough work to go around.  She illustrates her points with concrete examples from her observations in both farming and the textile industry.  She listens tolerantly to minor protests from her grown son, but considers her judgment far superior to his on such matters--an unusual attitude for a tenant farm mother.  She is equally sure about crop control's being for the best.  Her regret is that so many people are already sick of it--even some of those who voted for it but received small allotments--and she is afraid they will not vote for it next year.  She thinks they should consider in terms of two or three years the cumulative effect of control or no control, but she knows most of them are shortsighted and think only of what they can get at the minute. 

She will suffer badly from being cut this year, but she is just as glad not to be able to have such a big crop since she should not work quite so hard now.  She has had as many as seven acres but she thinks they will be allowed only five this year.  The landlord has not yet apportioned his allotted eleven acres among his three tenants, but, since he is now too old to farm himself, it ought to be divided out fairly.  The landlord has always been good to her and she and her children, in turn, work for him on his garden patches without being paid for it. 

Tobacco and corn are the main crops grown.  The land is not good for wheat and, although they have a garden and do some canning, the beetle has become so bad that she can no longer count on getting enough canned to last through the winter.  They killed one hog this year, but of course that will not supply meat throughout the year.  All the children except one seem to have survived the diet without serious injury to health.  The exception is the nineteen-year-old boy who works in town.  He has had rickets and has never been strong enough to do regularly the hard physical work involved in farming.

Wife of sharecropper who will be resettled on Skyline Farms, Alabama.  September 1935.  Arthur Rothstein.  LOC.
In this mother's attitudes and practices, the past is visible in her response to the paternalism of her landlord and in her ideas about "whipping children plenty and starting them to work early to bring them up right."  The present is evident in her emphasis on the cash crop to the exclusion of food needs.  The future is suggested in her growing interest in "what the world is coming to" and "why" and in her political articulateness.  She neither complains unduly over her past hardships nor worries too much about the future, yet she shows a larger comprehension of both past and future in her interpretation of the present than does the modal tenant mother.  Whether she has been able to accomplish what she has done because she had advanced ideas, or whether her ideas have been advanced through her life and experience in areas commonly reserved for men, she exemplifies a stage in both ideas and achievement beyond that reached by most of her sisters.


  1. The book sounds fascinating and those photos! I could look at photos like that all day long.

    1. Aren't those pics incredible? And there are THOUSANDS of them--all on the Library of Congress website. Huge photographic digital archive that is an amazing resource!