Women in the Rural South: Scraping a Living from Two-bit Jobs

Women in the Rural South: Scraping a Living from Two-bit Jobs

By Barbara Ellen Smith

Vol. 8, No. 1, 1986, pp. 5-8

Southern working class women are survivors. No message emerges as vividly from the stories in this booklet, Picking Up the Pieces. All of these women scraped their livings out of rocky soil and two-bit jobs; all got by on little but their own muscles and wits. Many bore children at a young age, and struggled for the better part of their lives to put food in their mouths and shoes on their feet. All endured the personal insults, self-doubt and, in several cases, physical violence that are the lot of women in this country; many faced the additional barrier

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of racial abuse and discrimination. Their stories are not romantic or pretty; poverty is neither. But they are stories of great courage, humor and strength in the face of formidable odds.

These women are but one generation in a long succession of southern women with similar stories to tell. The history of women’s survival in the South is bound up with the history of agriculture, which remained the foundation of the region’s economy until well into the present century. The first women to eke their livings out of the southern earth were of course Native American. Encroachment and enslavement by European settlers shattered their traditional way of life, but members of the Cherokee, Lumbee and other tribes have survived, especially in North Carolina and Oklahoma. Native Americans were the first of many rural people in the region to be dispossessed of their most precious economic resource–land. They were also among the first to be enslaved in the labor system for which the South became known.

The eighteenth century saw the flourishing of plantation agriculture in the South, based on the labor of African women and men. Although slavery was formally abolished in 1863, the reorganization of agriculture into the sharecropping system ensured the continued poverty of most black families. Concentration of land ownership in the hands of a white upper-class minority denied economic opportunity to successive generations of rural Southerners. Women–both black and white–labored long and hard in cotton fields and on tobacco farms, but remained for the most part landless and in debt.

Industrialization came to the South on a large scale during the last quarter of the nineteenth century. Mines, mills and factories proliferated amidst regional fanfare over the construction of a “New South.” Allocation of the new industrial jobs according to race and gender established a pattern of occupational segregation that is visible to this day. Hard pressed to secure an adequate labor force in the rugged Appalachian mountains of the upper South, coal operators sought workers of all races and nationalities–but hired no women. In the more densely settled piedmont to the South, textile mill owners preferred the low-wage labor of rural white women and originally children. They refused to hire black workers, save for a few menial jobs, though certain other southern employers, such as tobacco processors, relied heavily on black labor. All segregated their workers by race and gender into distinct physical locations and job categories. Coupled with enforced social separation under Jim Crow, occupational segregation maintained a divisive hierarchy of opportunity among Southerners who were increasingly members of the same working class.

Southern women’s present economic status reflects the persistent, detrimental impacts of their segregation into low-wage, often labor-intensive jobs. In the coal-dependent economies of east Kentucky, southern West Virginia and areas further south, women are largely excluded from the most important source of high-wage employment industry, the mining industry. As a result, they have few economic opportunities and extremely low labor force participation rates: in 1984 in West Virginia, 39.2 percent of adult women were in the labor force, the lowest rate of any state in the nation. Over the last ten years, women have fought successfully to gain access to mining jobs; today, however, many coal miners–including most women–are unemployed.

In the piedmont counties of North Carolina, South Carolina and Georgia, women remain concentrated in the low-wage manufacuring industries where they were first employed one hundred years ago. Nearly two-thirds of southern textile and apparel workers are women, and the great majority are rural. Today, women of all races find employment in the mills, but they receive some of the lowest wages in the country for their efforts. In 1983, average earnings in the apparel industry were $5.37/hour, about half the average in manufacturing industries like chemicals and primary metals, where men predominate.

As is true throughout the United States, the rapid growth of the southern service sector has been based on the labor of women. For black women, dependence on service jobs is nothing new; they were long consigned to domestic service, the lowest wage job in the nation. As recently as 1960, nearly half of all employed black women in the South were domestic servants. Many now engage in a commercialized variation of the same activity; they are cooks in restaurants, maids in hotels, laundresses in hospitals. Over one-third of all employed black women in the South work in the service sector.

Southern white women, by contrast, are more heavily concentrated in pink collar ghettos of retail sales and office work. In the urban South, slightly more than half of employed white women are cashiers, secretaries,

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and related workers. In the rural areas of the region, the larger role of manufacturing somewhat offsets dependence on these sectors, though nearly 40 percent of employed rural white women are secretaries and sales clerks. The higher status of this pink collar work does not necessarily bring a higher wage or greater job satisfaction. Southern women of all races often earn scarcely more than the minimum wage: in 1984, half of those with any income at all received less than $6,700 a year; among those who worked full-time the entire year, half earned less than $14,312. Median earnings of black and Hispanic women were over $2,000 a year lower than those of white women.

As the lowest paid workers in the lowest wage region of the country, southern working class women bear a heavy burden of poverty. Their role as caretakers of children magnifies their economic needs and spreads the implications of their poverty to the next generation. Poverty is most severe among those who experience the intersecting discrimination of class, race and gender: working class black women who are single mothers with young children. Over sixty percent are poor. Other southern women of all races live constantly on the margin between destitution and survival–one month unemployed and down to the last dollar, another month with a small paycheck and an uncertain job, yet always without genuine opportunity.

Women survive despite their lack of economic resources by using skills passed down for generations. This is true not only of those who live in remote areas on the margins of the wage economy, but also of women in “developed” locations who work hard for wages yet always remain poor. Both produce and circulate with their neighbors the goods and services necessary for their families’ survival: they patch and sew, swap child care, watch for sales and clip coupons; in rural areas, they also garden, raise chickens and perform other agricultural tasks. In general, women have learned to substitute their own hard work for the commodities that they cannot afford to buy.

Women who have made much out of little may have to do with even less in the future. Current economic trends do not bode well for southern women, especially those in rural locations. Fueled by international competition and the loss of markets, US corporations are engaged in a global search for reduced production costs; their strategies include technological innovation, relocation to lower wage areas, and sometimes a combination of both. For workers, the domestic impacts of this economic transformation include unemployment, irregular work and lowered wages. Labor-intensive manufacturing has been especially hard hit; this is precisely the industrial sector that once favored the rural South and the labor of southern women.

These trends are apparent in mining and manufacturing industries throughout the South. In West Virginia, for example, the unemployment rate has topped all other states’ for over two years. Technological innovations in underground mining, coupled with declining markets for certain grades of coal, have drastically diminished employment in the coalfields. Women who once worked in the mines now stand in unemployment lines with former waitresses and secretaries from the boarded-up businesses of rural county seats. Further south, women who worked in the textile and apparel industries also find that jobs are scarce. Bankruptcies, plant closings and layoffs have swept through the piedmont during the past ten years. Between 1973 and 1983, the work force in textiles and apparel dropped nationwide by over 500,000. Although advocates for protectionist trade policies assert that “unfair competition from producers in Southeast Asia” is the source of declining employment, the situation is far more complex.

Large corporations in the textile industry have transformed the production of cloth from fiber. Since the mid-1970s, they have brought robots, electronic knitting machines and other technological innovations into the mills; the result has been rapidly rising productivity and wide-spread displacement of workers. Although it is true that textile imports have boomed in recent years, they are by no means the sole cause of unemployment. The US textile industry is undergoing a massive shakeout: less productive mills are closing; less well-capitalized companies are going bankrupt. Meanwhile, the larger producers are concentrating production in modern, relatively automated plants. Manufacturers of apparel have taken a different approach to the pressures on international competition. Although some have invested in new, highly productive technologies, many have roamed the globe in search of cheap labor, and have found it among poor women in Hong Kong, Mexico, Taiwan and elsewhere.

Some producers have even found they no longer need to leave the United States to take advantage of Asian and Hispanic women’s cheap labor; there is evidence that rising immigration and high unemployment rates have enabled a return of the sweatshop to cities like New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles.

Women laid off from textile mills and garment factories rarely find a job in the new manufacturing industries that have recently located in the South. Since

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World War II, businessmen in heavy industries have been drawn by the region’s low wages, nonunion work force and accomodating political tradition, which equates “economic development” and the “right to work.” Particularly for capital-intensive operations, in which long-term security of expensive plants and equipment is a serious concern, the political conservatism and stability of the South give it an edge over alternative locations in the Third World. Manufacturers of chemicals, machinery, rubber and other products have all constructed plants in the South. Location of the Saturn automobile plant in rural Tennessee is only a recent and relatively well-publicized example of this larger trend, which has generated considerable regional rivalry, especially during periods of recession in the North. These so-called “emerging” or “non-traditional” industries bring opportunities for some of the highest wages paid to southern workers. But for women, they bring very little: employers in these industries rarely turn to women for their production work force, which is over seventy percent male.

The growth industries in which southern working class women find employment are primarily in the ubiquitous sectors of services and retail trade. The more fortunate land a relatively secure job with the government, which in the postwar era has been an important source of service sector expansion and increased job opportunities for women. Nearly one-fourth of all employed women in the South now work for the government; among black women, public employment is even more significant, accounting for nearly one-third of all jobs. In much of the service sector, however, jobs for women may be plentiful but genuine opportunities are few. Pay in the lower ranks of service employment rarely matches even the $5 an hour that women received in manufacturing. In rural areas where tourism has generated a boom in shops, motels and restaurants, earning a living wage is yet more difficult. Jobs for women in tourist-dependent businesses are frequently seasonal, the hours are often part-time, and the wages are almost invariably low.

Most southern women will no doubt survive the present economic crisis, as they have done for generations back. That does not diminish the injustice of their situation, however. There is a shameful gap between the economic contributions of southern working class women and the economic resources that they actually control. The southern economy has long been dependent on the labor of women. Black women were essential to southern agriculture, white women were central to southern industrialization; and now, women of all races are primary workers in the key growth sector of the economy–services. Moreover, as the unpaid laborers in families and households, women have long maintained the southern work force, and made possible survival in a regional economy premised on subsistence-level wages. Women’s poverty is no indication of their contribution to the southern economy; indeed, it is a terrible indictment of the southern economy. Working class women must share in the benefits of southern growth and prosperity. Justice decrees it, equity requires it and, increasingly, southern women demand it.

Barbara Ellen Smith is director of research and education of the Southeast Women’s Employment Coalition, Lexington, Kentucky. Her essay is the introduction to Picking Up the Pieces, a new booklet by the Highlander Research and Education Center, in which thirty women from ten communities throughout the South talk about their lives–their growth as community leaders, their struggles for integrity and economic survival. Picking Up the Pieces is $5 per copy plus $1 postage from Highlander Center, Route 3, Box 370, New Market, TN 37820.