Mama Learned Us to Work: Farm Women in the New South

Mama Learned Us to Work: Farm Women in the New South

Mama Learned Us to Work: Farm Women in the New South

Mama Learned Us to Work: Farm Women in the New South


Farm women of the twentieth-century South have been portrayed as oppressed, worn out, and isolated. Lu Ann Jones tells quite a different story in "Mama Learned Us to Work. Building upon evocative oral histories, she encourages us to understand these women as consumers, producers, and agents of economic and cultural change.

As consumers, farm women bargained with peddlers at their backdoors. A key business for many farm women was the "butter and egg trade"--small-scale dairying and raising chickens. Their earnings provided a crucial margin of economic safety for many families during the 1920s and 1930s and offered women some independence from their men folks. These innovative women showed that poultry production paid off and laid the foundation for the agribusiness poultry industry that emerged after World War II. Jones also examines the relationships between farm women and home demonstration agents and the effect of government-sponsored rural reform. She discusses the professional culture that developed among white agents as they reconciled new and old ideas about women's roles and shows that black agents, despite prejudice, linked their clients to valuable government resources and gave new meanings to traditions of self-help, mutual aid, and racial uplift.


Every woman has a farm woman in her family and most of us do not have to go back very far to find that woman.

—Joan M. Jensen, “Recovering Her Story”

MY MOTHER WAS the farm woman in my family, and her story began in 1920 on a farm in northeastern North Carolina. As a child, she studied by a kerosene lamp, rode to school on a bus that routinely mired in the mud, picked cotton, hoed the generous garden that her mother grew, and listened to big band music on a battery-operated radio. She excelled in English, and when she graduated from high school in 1937, my mother's ambition was to attend business school and become a secretary. She rented a typewriter and completed some of the courses at home. Just as she was preparing to go to Norfolk, Virginia, to finish classes, her mother suffered a stroke. My mother, the youngest daughter of the family, turned nurse and household manager. By the time my grandmother recuperated, Mama had lost interest in typing and shorthand. In June of 1941 she married my father, moved to his homeplace eight miles away, and began her life as a farmer's wife. Together my parents shaped and responded to the changes that defined southern rural life during the next forty years.

Little did I know as a child in the 1950s and 1960s that the stories my . . .

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