- No Yellow Rose
Fertile Ground, Narrow Choices offers a richly detailed story of women’s lives and labor under the despotic rule of King Cotton in early-twentieth-century Texas. Rebecca Sharpless is director of the Oral History Institute at Baylor University, in the heart of the Blackland Prairie she describes, and her study provides a model of how personal stories augment our understanding of the crucial nature of women’s work. For eighty years after Emancipation, the crop lien system, under which farmers contracted the use of acreage and needed materials in return for a portion of the future crop’s profits, kept cotton production expanding, tenant farmers poor, and elite white male landowners in control. As fathers and husbands, impoverished farmers across racial lines claimed as a social privilege the wage and nonwage labor of wives, mothers, and daughters. With such access to women’s labor, tenant farmers and sharecroppers sustained the illusion that the next year’s crop would bring them out of poverty and closer to land ownership; without it the system would have collapsed earlier than it did. Using the words of the women themselves—emerging from memories sometimes fond but more generally bleak—Sharpless depicts when and where women worked. She is careful to mark racial and class differences and to provide a wider analytical context, yet Sharpless’s best contribution is her “thick description” of rural women’s lives.
The first five chapters of Fertile Ground, Narrow Choices, which cover women’s work within households and in the fields and women’s relationships to families and communities, have a static quality that evokes the endless daily drudgery rural women faced. The 1920s marked the beginning of a movement into cities, but declining opportunity and impending changes of this era have little impact on how women still on the farm spent their days and years, in Sharpless’s analysis. They married young (by nineteen, on average), had large families (averaging four surviving children), and moved often as husbands restlessly sought an employer and land which might enable them to end the year financially ahead. Women kept overhead costs low by producing most of the family’s needs from raw materials, diverging only when desire and expense permitted. They preferred commercially produced soap because it “smell[ed] better” (95) than homemade lye soap, but linens made from gathered feathers [End Page 188] and feed sacks sufficed. Women’s productive tasks also earned extra money which not only helped the family make ends meet, as historian Joan M. Jensen has argued, but also kept their diets varied and allowed small luxuries. 1
Among the farm women this book investigates, there were class and racial differences, although these categories overlapped extensively. Better-off renters and small landowners, the vast majority of whom were white, had resources that enabled women to make virtually everything at home. Sewing machines and hogs saved the expenses of store-bought clothes and meat. By keeping a few turkeys—which were “a lot of trouble” (136)—persevering mothers could sell birds to earn cash in time for holiday gift giving. For those (often nonwhite) women whose husbands were laborers or who borrowed on future crop proceeds for tools and seed, frequent moves and lack of start-up capital meant fewer hogs and cows and less sewing, as well as deeper debt at the community store.
For all rural Texan women, though, economic contributions “had little effect on their authority” (36). Women seldom left home by themselves and husbands often did weekly shopping, even making such key domestic purchases as appliances or furniture. More to the point, women who worked in the fields turned over their wages to their fathers, then husbands. Julia Hardemann, a sharecropper’s daughter and by her own account a good cotton picker, remembered that her father would “collect the money, but he was always good and kind enough to give us a percentage to spend” (187).
Such poignant stories...