Fertile Ground, Narrow Choices: Women on Texas Cotton Farms, 1900-1940 / Edition 1

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Rural women comprised the largest part of the adult population of Texas until 1940 and in the American South until 1960. On the cotton farms of Central Texas, women's labor was essential. In addition to working untold hours in the fields, women shouldered most family responsibilities: keeping house, sewing clothing, cultivating and cooking food, and bearing and raising children. But despite their contributions to the southern agricultural economy, rural women's stories have remained largely untold.
Using oral history interviews and written memoirs, Rebecca Sharpless weaves a moving account of women's lives on Texas cotton farms. She examines how women from varying ethnic backgrounds—German, Czech, African American, Mexican, and Anglo-American—coped with difficult circumstances. The food they cooked, the houses they kept, the ways in which they balanced field work with housework, all yield insights into the twentieth-century South. And though rural women's lives were filled with routines, many of which were undone almost as soon as they were done, each of their actions was laden with importance, says Sharpless, for the welfare of a woman's entire family depended heavily upon her efforts.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"The book covers the life and role of women on the farms in a most delightful way. It is necessary reading for those of us raised on tales of how live was in those years….Rebecca Sharpless did a great service to the history and culture of Central Texas by writing this fine book."—The Mexia News
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780807847602
  • Publisher: The University of North Carolina Press
  • Publication date: 3/1/1999
  • Series: Studies in Rural Culture
  • Edition description: 1
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 352
  • Product dimensions: 6.10 (w) x 9.20 (h) x 1.10 (d)

Meet the Author

Rebecca Sharpless is director of the Baylor University Institute for Oral History in Waco, Texas.

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Table of Contents


Introduction: Women, Cotton, and the Crop-Lien System
1. Women, Daughters, Wives, Mothers: Gender and Family Relationships
2. Keeping Warm, Keeping Dry: Housekeeping and Clothing in the Blackland Prairie
3. Living at Home: Food Production and Preparation in the Blackland Prairie
4. Making a Hand: Women's Labor in the Fields
5. Life Beyond the Farm: Women and Their Communities
6. Staying or Going: Urbanization and the Depopulation of the Rural Blackland Prairie


Major physical features of the Blackland Prairie of Texas
Counties of the Blackland Prairie of Texas
Moves of the Rice family, Hunt County, Texas


Spring plowing, Williamson County
Mother and children at a cotton wagon, Kaufman County
Board and batten tenant farmer's house, Ellis County
Landowner's daughter weighing cotton, Kaufman County
African American church on the open prairie, Ellis County


Table 1. Number of Tenants and Landowners in Four Blacklands Counties, 1900-1940
Table 2. Average Age of Farmers' Wives at First Marriage in Four Blacklands Counties, by Ethnic Group, 1900 and 1910
Table 3. Average Number of Births and Surviving Children Born to Farmers' Wives under Age Forty-Five in Four Blacklands Counties, by Ethnic Group, 1900 and 1910
Table 4. Months of Field Work Women Performed Per Year, by Ethnic Group
Table 5. Percentage of Women Performing Farming Tasks, by Ethnic Group, in Hill County, 1921
Table 6. Literacy Rates for Women under Age Forty-Five in Four Blacklands Counties, by Ethnic Group, 1900 and 1910
Table 7. Change in Numbers of Tenants and Farm Owners in Four Blacklands Counties, 1930 and 1940
Table 8. Population Growth of Towns in Four Blacklands Counties, 1900-1940
Table 9. Population Growth of Major Blacklands Cities, 1900-1940

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