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

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

by Rebecca Sharpless

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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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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780807876138
Publisher: The University of North Carolina Press
Publication date: 10/12/2005
Series: Studies in Rural Culture
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 352
File size: 3 MB

About the Author

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

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

What People are Saying About This

From the Publisher

[This book] brings to the fore a group that has not been studied adequately by scholars of rural women or southern history. Sharpless makes excellent use of oral histories to describe the shared poverty and hard labor of these women. . . . A useful and necessary contribution.—Journal of American History

A careful regional study, sensitive to the differences among rural women as well as the common ground that they shared. . . . a book that farmwomen and scholars alike can enjoy.—Journal of Southern History

Sharpless recreates in meticulous detail (with more than 1200 footnotes) women's day-to-day lives. . . . This book is unsurpassed as a scholarly source for understanding how farm women got their tasks done in the era before widespread mechanization of agriculture. . . . A valuable and informative resource for all scholars in women's history, rural history, and the history of Texas.—American Historical Review

A richly detailed story of women's lives and labor under the despotic rule of King Cotton in early-twentieth-century Texas. . . . Because Sharpless allows her subjects' stories to unfold for the reader just as they were told to her, including occasional digressions and unfinished thoughts, we hear the women's voices. Seldom heard then or now, they offer a haunting and memorable tale.—Journal of Women's History

Drawing upon oral histories and more traditional sources to tell the little-known or -understood story of women in Texas cotton culture, Rebecca Sharpless paints a large canvas of rural southern poverty, relentless toil, racism, and gendered constraints. Best of all, one hears the proud voices of the women themselves throughout this impressive narrative.—Neil Foley, University of Texas at Austin

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