R • O • L • E • S
Historical Research and Narrative
When Illinois became a state in 1818 the industrial revolution had barely begun. The early settlers had to provide nearly all their own needs. They built their homes from logs hewn from trees. They grew flax and cotton and raised sheep for wool, which they processed and spun into thread and then wove into fabric. Hunting and farming provided most of the food; livestock roamed unfenced. Early settlers needed little money, and very little money existed, since the United States had not yet established a currency. A few enterprising farmers established grist and saw mills, which they often combined with distilleries to convert the farmers' corn and fruit into whiskey and brandy that was easier to transport and sell. The few tanneries, potteries, and lime kilns provided leather, jugs and other utensils, and cement to area farmers. Daniel Brush recounts those early years when he traded skins in his store for manufactured goods in his memoir, Growing Up With Southern Illinois. John Mack Faragher writes of a similar pattern in central Illinois in Sugar Creek: Life on the Illinois Prairie.
The cash economy became increasingly important in the early nineteenth century. The Illinois Central Railroad was built in the 1850s, creating a new, relatively efficient mode of transportation through the landlocked mid-section of the state. Industrialists invested heavily in railroads and manufacturing. Yankee entrepreneurs formed towns along the new railroads, linking farmers with the growing manufacturing cities. The original settlers, often from the Carolina Piedmont and other areas of the Upland South, were supplanted by Yankees from New England, by German farmers skilled at draining the boggy prairies, and Irish immigrants who made new lives as farmers and industrial workers in the cities and on the railroads.
Each of these groups brought with them their ideas about how to farm and about how men and women should behave. Often uneasily, they formed discrete communities in the countryside and in the towns and cities centered around their churches. In Prairie Patrimony: Family, Farming, and Community in the Midwest, Sonya Salamon identified distinct patterns in some communities: German farmers placed the highest value on the family's land and the community which was embraced by the church; Yankee entrepreneurs who viewed land as an investment and sent their children out to improve their lot; the Irish who did not form enduring communities; and the immigrants who came from Eastern and Southern Europe in the late-nineteenth century and found most of the land already taken. In southern Illinois, which I have extensively studied in The Transformation of Rural Life: Southern Illinois 1890-1990 and "All Anybody Ever Wanted of Me Was to Work:" The Memoirs of Edith Bradley Rendleman, Upland Southerners predominated in the farming areas, but Yankees and some enter-
prising Scots, French, and English immigrants developed the earliest market-oriented fruit and vegetable farms and the associated marketing and manufacturing systems.
The ethnic differences were, and remain, important. They underlie different styles of farming, different religious convictions, and, most important for this article, different gender roles. Salamon noted that Yankees tended to look down on their German neighbors because the German women worked in the fields. A Yankee man would be shamed, his masculinity in jeopardy, if his wife or daughters worked in the fields. Germans, in contrast, were critical of their Upland South neighbors who did not value neatness or thrift to the same degree as the Germans.
The ethnic boundaries did not often remain rigidly fixed. Newcomers bought land where they could; laborers married into the families they worked for; children who attended the same rural school became sweethearts regardless of their parents' ethnic background. Thus to a considerable extent, farm families, like families everywhere, made up the patterns of their lives out of the often very different patterns they themselves inherited.
My greatest surprise when I began researching the history of farming in southern Illinois, was to discover that women earned a large amount of the family income. The U.S. Census did not count women as members of the labor force unless they worked for wages, while they counted farm men as employed. I was a member of 4-H and my mother a local leader in Home Bureau. But after World War II, the notion that women were "homemakers"—which meant that they met the cash economy only as consumers—predominated. I knew farm women worked hard; I had seen that growing up on a farm. But I did not know that they earned the greater part of the money for the food, clothes, and other household goods that the family purchased.
It has become an anthropological truism that all people everywhere divide roles according to age and sex. However, what different cultures prescribe as appropriate for people of different ages and for men and for women varies widely. In the United States, in general women managed the household and the outbuildings and grounds around the house, while men managed the rest of the farm, including the stock barns and fields.
Before World War II, most farms were more or less diversified. Even the most specialized grain or fruit farms generally had some chickens and other poultry, a milk cow or two, a large garden, and hayfields and pastures for the draft stock. As farms became more commercial during the nineteenth century, raising more and more crops for sale on the market, the distinction between house and farm increased. Men and women raised different crops and were responsible for different jobs on the farm.
Before World War II, farming required a great deal of labor. The farm families we think of, and that people tend to recall, are those that owned or rented their farms and owned their own draft stock and machinery. But many "farmers" were laborers. Some migrated from region to region, following the crops. Some day laborers, mostly young men, lived in their employers' houses. Others lived in houses provided by their landlord. Many of these houses had garden plots in which the family could raise some food and some poultry. Most poor families, however, had few resources. The husband, wife, and children all worked for wages to meet their basic needs. Ironically, these day laborers often depended more on store-bought food and other goods than their wealthier employers, who could raise much of their own food. The account that follows of men's and women's work best describes families that owned or rented their own farms, not landless laborers.
Work in the fields tended to occupy most men. They cleared the forest, plowed the fields, and operated the heavy equipment. Men generally tended the orchards, developed the skills of grafting and pruning, were knowledgeable about when trees should be sprayed, and managed the crews who picked the fruit. Men generally cared for the draft stock, beef cattle, and hogs. They raised the hay and grains for winter feed and tended to their breeding. Men were generally the carpenters and builders.
Women generally worked closer to the house. On most farms, houses were a place of work, not merely comfortably decorated homes. The women cooked three large meals a day in the kitchen for a family that could number more than 10, and with resident laborers could number more than 12 to 14 per meal. All the wood for the cookstove came from the farm and had to be split as it was used.
Farm wives tended large gardens, raising and preserving most of the family's food. They sewed many of the family's clothes.
They cared for the sick and infirm, having primary responsibility for aging relatives. The hardest work was laundry, done by hand. Women ironed with "sad irons"—heavy irons heated on the stove that would easily burn the shirts and dresses. Ironing was an art girls learned as soon as they could handle the heavy implement.
Every drop of water had to be drawn and carried from the well, cistern, or spring. Although some homes had pumps on the kitchen porch or just outside the door, many farm families drew their water from springs or wells at some distance. I recall my neighbors' well, which was across the road and behind the barn—at least a hundred yards from the kitchen.
Most farm women also had at least one source of cash income. Most raised chickens, selling the eggs and young roosters. Many developed sizable businesses selling eggs, fryers, or chicks. Deborah Fink's Open Country, Iowa first brought the importance of women's poultry enterprises to my attention. Except on those farms that specialized in dairy, women were generally in charge of the cows. They milked them, skimmed the cream (or if the enterprise was fairly large, used a mechanized cream separator), and either churned the cream into butter or, as the market for cream developed, sold the cream. Nancy Grey Osterud writes of a dairying region in New York in Bonds of Community: The Lives of Farm Women in Nineteenth-Century New York. Women had numerous other enterprises. Some women in southern Illinois collected and sold corn husks to a tamale factory in Jonesboro. Others raised daffodils and other flowers or managed strawberry patches. Another woman made cottage cheese and peddled it to her neighbors.
In general, men managed the work in the fields and barns, while women managed the work in the house and surrounding lot. Children were integrated into work as soon as they were able to wash a dish or pick a quart of strawberries. Young people tended to work where they were needed; thus girls might help with heavy field work and boys might help with the gardening and milking. A similar division of labor existed in the orchards: the men worked in the trees, while the women worked in the packing sheds. Often, the owning wife kept the books and paid the pickers, and if the operation was not too large, she often "bossed" the packing shed. In general, women and boys earned half to two-thirds of an adult man's wage, which, in 1930, ranged from around $1.50 a day in southern Illinois to around $2.20 a day in the wealthier prairie regions.
Women tended to earn money in small amounts throughout the year, while the men sold their field crops and livestock in lots that brought in chunks of money. Different families organized family finances differently. Some marriages were true partnerships with joint decisions about all large purchases. In others, the husband controlled virtually all the money, including that earned by the wife and children. In southern Illinois, individuals tended to control the money they earned. Wives purchased household goods, spending the money they earned to provision the household and family. Husbands often reinvested their earnings in the farm by buying horses, machinery, or land.
Edith Rendleman recounted in her memoirs that her father would buy a matched set of mules but would not spend money on the house. "I can sit on a nail-keg good as a chair," he said. He did, however, buy the stove, and husbands might purchase other expensive items. One woman I interviewed recounted that her mother, unable to convince her father to build a new house, chopped down one wall of the house while her father was in town. Her mother got her new house.
Farm families never made it entirely on their own. They always relied heavily on their neighbors. Neighbors swapped work for wheat threshing and hog butchering. Young people helped neighbors harvest and helped out at other peak periods, earning pocket money. Neighbors pitched in to help during emergencies, planting or harvesting
crops if the husband was injured or sick. They "loaned" a daughter to tend house when the wife was ill, whether the family could pay or not. Before Social Security and welfare, families relied on one another to provide the "safety net."
People entertained one another with music, storytelling, and other recreation. The rural school was a major center of community life, as were rural churches. A person's life was largely spent within the radius of the community in which he or she lived, although it was enlarged through linkages with kin who married or moved, by relations with merchants in the towns, and by newspapers, magazines, and books. By the 1920s, radio, automobiles, and movies also expanded farmers' horizons.
The Great Depression of the 1930s, followed by World War II, stimulated a great transformation of agriculture. After World War I, international markets for agricultural products slumped, and while farmers grew poor, the rest of the country prospered. Young people left the midwestern farm for urban jobs. Beginning in 1929, when the national economy fell apart, the farms provided a safety net for family members thrown out of work. The Dust Bowl was a different story, where the farms dried up and literally blew away. "We were the fattest people ever going to the Poor House," one woman recalled. On many farms, women's income from butter and eggs pulled the family through, enabling them to pay their property taxes and make ends meet.
New Deal programs aggressively moved into rural areas. The government initiated rural electrification, used the CCC (Civilian Conservation Corps) and WPA (Works Projects Administration) to build roads, install water and sewer systems in small towns, and reforest badly eroded land. The Farm Security Administration built canneries for tomatoes, beans, and other vegetables for relief orders. Lockers were organized in towns to freeze and store home-butchered meats and fruits and vegetables.
War created strong markets for agricultural products, and when the United States entered the war in 1941, the country mobilized. As young men went off to war, women stepped in to take their places. With no consumer goods to buy, farmers put their earnings in U.S. Savings Bonds.
After the war, industries that had built the machines of war retooled to meet the deferred consumer demand. The U.S. took on the task of helping Europe rebuild. As the Cold War developed, the U.S. turned its gaze to the regions once colonized by Europe, where the battle between Soviet-led communism and U.S.-led capitalism now raged. Suddenly the world market for agricultural products expanded.
The post-war period caused fundamental changes in agriculture, and therefore in all aspects of rural life, from the family to the community. Young people left the farm in droves, seeking better paying jobs in cities. Farmers had to mechanize, since hand labor was no longer available. But mechanization required money. To increase their incomes, they had to expand the farming operations. So while thousands of farmers left the farms they rented or owned, unable to make the transition, their neighbors bought more land, bought more equipment, and tried to figure out what to grow to be successful in the rapidly changing markets.
Farmers increasingly relied on experts to guide their choices. No longer was deep knowledge of practical farming adequate; now one must know how to use electricity, understand agricultural chemicals and hybrid seeds, and keep records for the Internal Revenue Service. Farmers had to become businessmen or face failure.
The farm home changed as well. With electricity, indoor plumbing became possible. The electric co-ops promoted "all electric kitchens." Refrigerators and deep freezes allowed women to store their products more easily and safely, while electric stoves freed them from supplying wood to the cook stove. Formica counters and linoleum floors greatly decreased the labor of housecleaning. Electric washing machines or, if the well did not have enough water, laundromats in town, freed women from the drudgery of washday, while electric irons made ironing far easier. Electric lights extended the day and in the 1950s television brought the world into every living room.
The experts assumed that men were the farmers and that their wives were homemakers. It is striking to read through magazines such as the Farm Journal for this period. They addressed women's interests as mothers, cooks, seamstresses, and home decorators, but rarely as people who earned money to support their families. On the other hand, the feed companies recognized that women raised most of the poultry and aimed their ads at them. And the telephone company
recognized that farm women increasingly sought jobs outside the home, pitching ads to farm women to work for Bell Telephone.
With all the credit and advice going to their husbands, farm women were cut out of the changing farm economy. My talks with men and women who farmed through this period indicate that those farms that made it did so because the wives and husbands were equally committed to preserving the farm. Thus as women lost their small-scale enterprises to larger growers, they shifted their economic activity. Many found jobs off the farm. As the national media urged women to leave the job market and become homemakers, farm women entered the labor force for the first time. Stephanie Coontz argues in The Way We Never Were: American Families and the Nostalgia Trap that American women never left the labor force, despite the general ethos that urged them to do so. Thanks to the growing service economy, with the development of a wide array of white-collar jobs traditionally held by women, work was available in many small towns. By 1950, 15 percent of farm women were working off the farm; a decade later that rose to nearly 23 percent, and by 1970, to 30 percent. As one woman said, "Either I work or we sell the farm." Many men also got work off the farm, or developed enterprises like earthmoving to complement their farm work and to help keep their farms afloat.
Women also took up the slack left by the absence of hired labor. They had fewer children, which freed them up, but that also meant that there were fewer children to help out. And those children who remained attended consolidated schools in town, for more hours a day and more days a year than had children before the war. With reliable automobiles, wives became the "go-fer," running errands and pitch-hitting for their husbands. Wives often joined their husbands in the field. One family was not atypical: her husband bought her a tractor for Christmas one year. When she developed a home sewing business, he helped her fit the patterns and cut the fabric. They became partners in every sense of the word.
As this story indicates, many women developed home enterprises that were not that different from their old ones, except that the market had changed. Women baked and sold pies, developed catering businesses, and made and sold handicrafts. Some women took over the farm's financial records, putting training in bookkeeping to good use.
During the 1970s, the women's movement fought to make it respectable for women to work outside the home and to operate businesses. Farm women often wondered what the fuss was about. Most of the women I talked with said, in one way or another, "all I ever knew was to work."
In rural communities, work created one of the most important measures of a person's worth. If a family did not work hard and work well, the farm did not succeed. As we approach the twenty-first century, this is more true than ever. Only now, even the experts know that women contribute more than beauty to the farm.
From the self-sufficiency of early settlers in Illinois, through the diverse farming styles of the immigrants, to the transformation in agriculture brought about by the New Deal and World War II, there have been turning points in the role of farm women. From the Civil War to World War II, producing and consuming goods in the farm household were interrelated, but after the war the home changed from a center of production to a center of consumption.
In the late 1800s and early 1900s a farm woman oversaw the farmhouse along with its adjoining yards and outbuildings. She might care for several children and direct them in helping to grow, process, and preserve food for the family Other duties of a farm wife included obtaining, repairing, and cleaning the family's clothing. Depending on the family's expectations, she might also assist her husband in the barn and field, host boarding farm workers, and perhaps manage a packing shed.
To produce income the farmer's wife would earn money by selling poultry and dairy produce, or she might trade farm products for commodities needed by the family. Serving as a midwife, a schoolteacher, or a houseworker might also provide income for the farm woman.
After World War II changes in production technology and marketing caused a reorganization of the farm woman's work and home life. When men left the labor force to join the war effort, more women moved into the work force. In addition, the advent of supermar-
kets, large-scale poultry and dairy enterprises, and health regulations limited a farm woman's income-producing potential, causing leading her to seek outside employment.
Household duties also changed considerably after the war. Electricity, laundromats, and locker plants that provided and preserved custom-butchered meat and froze meat were some of the amenities leading to an altered lifestyle for the farmer's wife.
Farm women's roles at home and at work changed after World War II. In the late 1800s and early 1900s women on the farm were engaged in producing goods for the household as well as in earning some income from their farm produce. After the war more farm women worked outside the home to earn income for the consumer products they wanted for their families.
Connection with the Curriculum
The transformation of women's labor in rural southern Illinois encompasses the agrarian movements of the late-nineteenth century in the United States to the technological changes in society after World War II. The following activities may be used in interdisciplinary studies as well as in United States and Illinois history units.
The activities are designed for middle school and junior high school students, with adaptations possible for other grade levels.
Materials for Each Student
• A copy of this article's content portion
Objectives for Each Student
• List the many different household chores of southern Illinois farm women in the late 1800s through early 1900s.
Opening the Lesson
Ask the students, "How many of you know or think it possible that some of your ancestors were farmers?" Discuss the contributions of farmers to the growth of the United States and the state of Illinois through the years. Share some of the students' perceptions about farm women's work in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Then discuss some events that brought about changes in the lifestyle of farmers, particularly women, after World War 11.
Developing the Lesson
Direct the students into groups of three or four to list on the Activity 1 Handout many different women's chores in the house and around the farm at the turn of the century. Ideas might be categorized into preparing food, caring for clothing, cleaning the house, raising the children, working outside, and earning money. After about seven to ten minutes of brainstorming, ask a student from each group to share the ideas of their group while the other groups compare and add to their lists.
After a discussion of farm women's responsibilities in the late-nineteenth century through early-twentieth century, direct the students to list in the right-hand column of the activity page ways in which farm women of today might deal with the same situation.
Direct students to the table of "Employment of Union County Farm Men and Women, 1940-1980." Guide students to draw conclusions about changes in the female labor force after World War II by writing at least five statements of contrast in Activity 2.
The percentage of Union County farm women in sales in 1980 was over three times that of 1940.
Guide students to partner with another—there may need to be a group of three students—with one role playing a farm woman of the late 1800s-early 1900s and the other playing the role of a farm woman of today discussing their day's work. (Boys may play the roles of sons, brothers, or husbands of the women as they discuss the work of their mothers, sisters, or wives.) Encourage students to refer to Activity 1 for ideas to be discussed during the role playing. Before the students participate, the teacher might model the activity with another student. Then open the session to simultaneous role-playing among groups. Having shared details about farm women's work in the role playing activity, the students should have ideas for their individual writings.
After about five minutes of student discussion, direct the students to place a check on the activity page beside the situations that were mentioned during the role playing.
Refer the students to Activity 3. Each student chooses to create writings reflecting the day-to-day experiences of farm women. The first choice is to write at least five entries of a daybook in which the student as a farm woman or relative of rural southern Illinois in the late 1800s-early 1900s describes a day's work and a journal of at least five entries in which the student as a woman or relative from rural southern Illinois after World War II describes her day's work. The second option is to write two friendly letters, one in the role of a farm woman or relative of years ago and the other as a present-day farm woman or relative in which at least five work experiences are described.
Review with the students the format for a daybook or journal and for the friendly letter. Encourage the students to include appropriate dates and details in each entry.
Concluding the Lesson
Students may read the daybooks, journals, and the letters created by others with the option of evaluating their writings based on the criteria suggested in the "Assessing the Lesson" section. Computer printouts of each student's entries may be compiled into a "farmer's magazine."
Extending the Lesson
Students may examine primary source materials of daybooks written by farm women of years past. They may also conduct interviews on audio/videotape and compile oral histories of women who lived on farms years ago, or interview those who currently live on farms. The tapes and the transcriptions may be housed in the school library or in the public library for others to access.
Another activity using primary sources may be to analyze early census records and other statistics that reflect a lack of data about women in the work force. In addition, a collection of farm family photographs perhaps obtained from a local family, a library, or a museum may be studied to provide additional details about the lifestyle of farmers through the years.
Students may examine farm magazines such as the Farm Journal or the Prairie Farmer during different eras of publication. By looking at the articles and the advertisements through several years, students may find out about the changing roles of farm men and women.
To incorporate computer technology into the lesson, the students may search the Internet to locate information about farmers of yesterday and today. Successful Farming@griculture Online has a "homestead" site with homepages of farm men and women describing their lifestyles: <www.agriculture.com/scgi/homestead/index.cgi?FNC=search_Astart_html>. Also students may create a multi-media presentation, perhaps using the "HyperStudio" or "Power Point" computer program to communicate the transformation of a rural woman's household and income-producing work after World War II.
Assessing the Lesson
Criteria to assess Activity 1 may be the number and the variety of working experiences listed by the students along with elaboration and uniqueness of those ideas. Activity 2 may be assessed by the accuracy and variety of conclusions drawn. For Activity 3, criteria such as the inclusion of at least five work experiences in each writing, the elaboration and uniqueness of ideas, and the appropriate style for the daybook or journal and the friendly letter may be used for assessment. A rubric may be used to rate the criteria.
Activity 1 — Contrasting Farm Women's Work
Farm women's responsibilities around the house and the farm in the late 1800s and the early 1900s were different than they were after World War II. Think about ways in which farm women before the war prepared food, cared for clothing, cleaned the house, worked outside, and earned money. Then with three or four of your classmates list in the left-hand column many different specific household and farm duties of women years ago. After about ten minutes of brainstorming in your group, discuss your ideas with your class. Example: can fruits and vegetables.
In the right-hand column list many different specific ways in which farm women of today might deal with the same situation. Example: purchase canned goods. Try to talk about some of these activities in the role playing you will do later in the lesson.
Activity 2 — Ways Farm Women Earned Money
Look at the following table showing the ways in which farm women in a southern Illinois county earned money in the early 1940s before World War II, and then study the types of jobs women held up to 1980. On the lines below write many different statements to show changes in women's work outside the home after the war. Example: The percentage of Union County farm women in sales in 1980 was more than three times that of 1940.
Activity 2 — continued
Source; Jane Adams, The Transformation of Rural Life: Southern Illinois, 1890-1900. (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1994), pp. 194-5.
Activity 3 — Daybooks and Letters
Farm women of the late 1800s often recorded their daily activities in a daybook, or they might have written a letter for publication in a farm magazine to share some of their experiences with others. Today women might write about their day in a journal or in a letter. Some write e-mail message or create a homepage describing their lives on a farm.
Think about some of the household chores, farm responsibilities, and money-making work of women in the late-nineteenth century compared to the experiences of farm women today. Choose to:
Write at least five entries that a nineteenth-century farm woman might write in her daybook and at least five entries a woman living on a farm after World War II might write in her journal or diary. In your class talk about the format for a daybook or diary. Use appropriate dates perhaps on different days of a week or even in different seasons.
At 7:30 this evening had quite a shock from an earth quake.
Activity 3 — continued
A friendly letter.