Women, Work, and Yeoman Households
in Low-Country South Carolina
“Self-working farmer.” That was the face low-country yeomen turned to the world beyond the fence. But it was only one profile of yeoman household economy, inseparable from the other, domestic, one. Infinitely more difficult to see, the domestic face turned into the household, where the daily work of producing independence was conducted. But Abner Ginn and his neighbors were not really “self-working farmers.” On the contrary, the very term expressed their successful appropriation of the labor of others: the women, children, and, sometimes, slaves who peopled their households and tilled their fields. The vitality of male independence that characterized the public sphere of marketplace and ballot box was tied intimately to the legal and customary dependencies of the household. 1 Dependence was the stuv of which independence—and manhood—was made.
In yeoman households, familial and productive relations were virtually indistinguishable and both were defined by a series of dependencies that subordinated all members to the male head. Any number of factors shaped the particular configuration of labor, including the total number of household members, their sex and age, the stage in the family life cycle, and the presence of slaves, whether hired or owned, and their sex and age. But in yeoman households, the work done by wives, sons, and daughters was, by definition, crucial to the calculus of production. Even the ownership of slaves did not change the predominantly familial character of household economy. Thus, while relations between masters and slaves were part of the social dynamics of a substantial