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287 Polly Woodham The Many Roles of Rural Women Melissa Walker • • • If you ask Polly Hill Woodham (1930– ) to describe how she spent her adult years, she says she was a farmwife. Yet an outsider listening to Polly’s oral history account might think her involvement in the farm seemed minimal. She was not born to farm life but came to it as a result of marrying into a farming family. The privileged eldest granddaughter of a Spartanburg, South Carolina, textile mill owner, Polly grew up in town. While attending Converse College, she met Willis Woodham, a Lowcountry farm boy who attended Wofford College, the men’s institution across town. Polly married him immediately after her graduation . Willis worked the family farm in Lee County, South Carolina, but the Woodhams lived in the town of Bishopville most of the time. Here, for several years after her marriage, Polly focused on her roles as wife and mother. When her youngest son entered kindergarten, she taught elementary school. Later she started a private riding academy and horse-breeding operation. Not until her fifties, when she embarked on a career as a volunteer activist in the 1970s farm protest movements, did farm-related activities come to take center stage in her daily life. Then she became distanced from the farm again. By her sixties, she had parlayed a part-time job selling Lady Love cosmetics into a full-time job running a distribution center for Lady Love and then into her own retail business specializing in women’s clothing and accessories. Indeed Polly’s life looks much different than the lives of an earlier generation of South Carolina farm women. Take, for example, her husband’s distant relative Mary Skinner.1 Also the wife of a landowning Lee County cotton farmer, Skinner never held an off-farm job. The daughter of another landowning farmer, she lived on the land worked by her husband and his sharecroppers. She spent her days rearing her eight children, sewing the family wardrobe, working the Polly Woodham Courtesy of Converse College Communications Office. Polly Woodham 289 garden, preserving food, and caring for livestock. She made butter and gathered eggs that she sold or bartered for household necessities and luxuries. She supervised the work of her children and her African American domestic servants and farmworkers. The farm was both the location and the source of Mary Skinner’s work, the center of her daily life. By contrast, Polly Woodham seems detached from the farm.2 It is precisely her relative distance from the farm that makes Polly Woodham’s life so instructive regarding the ways that South Carolina agriculture changed in the twentieth century and how those changes reshaped the roles of farm women. Most scholarship on southern farm women examines the pre–World War II period.3 By shifting the focus to the second half of the twentieth century, we gain new insight into the complex ways that twentieth-century changes in the agricultural economy transformed the daily lives of southern farm women, their place in the family economy, and their public roles. Woodham’s experiences mirrored those of many women in her generation of landowning white farm women. For example, by midcentury, the sons of landowning farmers often attended college where they met and married young women who did not have farming backgrounds. Young farm-born women also attended college in record numbers and sometimes married farmers. This new generation of farmwives, more educated than most of the farm women of a younger generation , faced the challenges of farm life with a new and different set of skills. They forged new roles on and off the farm. World War II sparked a revolution in agricultural productivity that transformed rural life and brought industrial agriculture—the application of industrial notions of specialization, mechanization, efficiency, and economies of scale to the farming enterprise—to the South at last. Several factors contributed to this revolution. The first was mechanization, a process that made it possible to work many more acres of land with fewer workers. The introduction of improved varieties of crops and animals, made possible largely by advances in genetics, also fueled increased productivity. Finally, new chemicals eliminated weeds and insect pests that destroyed crops and fertilized the land, making it fruitful.4 In the years during and after World War II, southern farmers bought tractors, mechanical cotton pickers, and combines, used ddt to eliminate the boll weevil and other pests, and applied new herbicides to eliminate the need...


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