Unseen Partners in the Economy
By Barbara Ellen Smith
Vol. 9, No. 3, 1987, pp. 4-6
Women have long been “unseen partners” in agricultural production. They have been partners in the sense that their field labor in direct production and their household labor in maintaining the farm labor force have been essential components of U.S. agriculture for centuries. As slaves, black women worked in the fields and houses of the plantation system-picking cotton, stripping tobacco, preparing food for others. Low-income white women worked beside their husbands and children in the fields of family farms, or as tenants or sharecroppers on land owned by others. Wealthier white women functioned as managers and supervisors of the domestic economy of plantations. And yet, all of these women have been “unseen,” invisible, in the sense that their labor, their productive role, has gone largely unrecognized in popular images of the “American farmer” and in scholarly studies of our agricultural system.
For the last century, women have also contributed essential income to the farm economy through their off-farm labor. Black women, for example, long worked as domestic servants in the households of the more well-to-do. As recently as 1960, forty-five percent of all employed black women in the South worked as domestics. Their wages were meager (domestic service is the lowest paying occupation in the U.S.) but essential to farm families chronically strapped for cash.
Farm women, both black and white, have also worked for wages in agricultural processing-whether in canneries, poultry or tobacco plants. Women and, originally, children, predominated in the labor force of the South’s most important manufacturing industry, textiles. In all of these activities, farm women have generated cash income and in occasional cases, health insurance and retirement benefits, which have been critical to their families’ economic survival.
Beyond noting the broad trends of impoverishment and unemployment, it is difficult to gauge the specific effects of the present agricultural crisis on farm women per se. It is generally true in our society that the survival skills with which families weather impoverishment or periods of reduced income are vested primarily in women. It is women who end up patching or making clothes instead of buying them, stretching the food supply to make two meals instead of one, or treating a sick child with home remedies instead of an expensive trip to the doctor. In other words, women tend to intensify their domestic labor during periods of economic hardship, substituting their own hard work for the goods and services that their families can no longer afford to buy. One may surmise that this is happening in many farm families today.
It is also clear that women are increasing their wage-earning labor by seeking employment off the farm. Today, almost half of all farm women in the U.S. are in the paid labor force, as compared to only one-fourth in 1960. Like rural women throughout the South, however, farm women who are looking for jobs these days find few that pay a living wage. The economic crisis in agriculture has coincided with a drastic employment decline in many other traditional Southern industries.
For rural women, who have long been the backbone of the labor force in some of the South’s key manufacturing industries, this loss of jobs has been devastating. Women’s unemployment rates in many Southern states are well above those of men. For black women, unemployment in the fifteen to twenty-five percent range has become standard. The unemployment rate for Southern farm women has been double that of men.
Women of course have found employment in newer non-
manufacturing sectors of the economy. In the rural South, as in other areas of the nation, the service sector is a key source of new jobs and a major employer of women. In the service industries of the rural South, women make up over forty percent of the labor force. For those with professional training in the traditionally female fields of nursing and teaching, the expansion of educational and health services (which account for a large portion of this sector) has brought increased job opportunities.
Women without professional training, however, tend to end up in the bottom ranks of the service sector, where wages are low, benefits few, and opportunities for advancement scarce. Cooks, maids, cashiers, secretaries, waitresses, nurses aides-these are the occupations of most women in the rural South today. Women displaced even from those industries traditionally considered low-wage are hard pressed to find a service job that matches their former wages. The average wage for workers in restaurants and bars, for example, is about two dollars per hour below that in the textile industry.
Crisis on the Farm
This “double whammy”-the farm crisis coupled with the loss of traditional off-farm jobs affects rural women in ways beyond unemployment statistics and wage rates.
Economic hardship also reaches into the heart of family life in the form of suicide, domestic violence, alcohol abuse, and marital breakup. It is difficult to document the extent of these problems among Southern farm families not only because the compilation of data lags behind the problem, but also because events like the breakdown of a marriage may lead one or both partners off the farm altogether. For example, the low percentage of female-headed families in the farm population may be in part because such women don’t remain on the farm.
A recent study of homeless people in Charleston, the West Virginia state capital, is suggestive. Contrary to popular impressions, the research found that the single largest portion of homeless people were not the deinstitutionalized mentally ill, petty criminals, or alcoholics. They were rural people who had been left destitute by economic decline, and who had migrated to the city on a well-worn path called “in search of opportunity.” As part of the growing homeless population of Charleston, most had not found it.
The overall point is that women’s labor has been essential to the rural Southern economy for centuries; as a result, women are deeply affected by present trends in that economy. This occurs not only indirectly through their husbands’ changing economic fortunes, but also directly through their own experiences in the labor market and household. Rural women are intensifying their domestic, household labor at the same time they are increasing their wage-earning labor outside the home. Simultaneously, they are struggling to deal with the destructive effects of economic crisis on their families.
Prospects for the Years Ahead
So, what of the future? What forces are shaping the future for rural women? Specifically, how is public policy shaping their future? First, the obvious must be stated because it is so important: the economic hardship facing rural people, especially women, is being compounded by drastic cutbacks in programs that once cushioned the impact of such hardship. This has occurred not only with transfer payments and income support programs like AFDC and food stamps, but also with programs that helped people participate more fully and fruitfully in the wage economy-retraining programs for displaced workers, job skills development for young people, etc.
Since 1980, funding for all federal employment and training programs has declined by sixty-five percent. These cutbacks have coincided with a policy of actively undercutting affirmative action in both employment and education. Increasingly, women and minorities are neither trained for nor granted access to higher paying jobs. These policies seem so obviously harmful and irrational, given present unemployment and poverty rates in precisely these groups, that they require no further comment.
Other greatly needed programs have never seen the light of day. For example, the need for high quality, locally controlled day care, especially in rural areas, is so urgent it
can scarcely be overestimated. We are long past the time when rural women, including farm women, stay home to tend house and children while rural men go off to the fields or the paid labor force. Indeed, for many rural families, particularly black families, a non-wage-earning wife and mother is a luxury they could never afford. And yet, the fact that a majority of mothers-those in whom primary responsibility for child-rearing traditionally has been vested-now spend at least eight hours each day working in the paid labor force simply has not been absorbed on the social policy agenda. As a result, many lower-income women face a heartbreaking choice between providing direct care for their children, or leaving them inadequately tended while they work to put food on the table.
The irony in this neglect is that child care represents an excellent target for local economic development. Low-interest loans and technical assistance for the development of locally controlled day care centers, coupled with child care subsidies for low-income working mothers, could promote long-term development by directly offering employment to child care workers, providing a service that would enable women to take advantage of education and training programs. Development can also be enhanced by offering enrichment programs to pre-schoolers and after-school programs to older children.
The Price of Economic Progress
Having catalogued some of the activities that governments are not undertaking, what are they doing? One of the most important economic development strategies currently being pursued by state governments across the South is the promotion of tourism. This is important not only in the sense that tourism is growing rapidly in certain areas, but also in the sense that this industry has a deep effect on rural communities where it takes hold.
The Southeast Women’s Employment Coalition is presently working with women in four Southern states who face the growth of tourism in their rural communities. Unfortunately, the stories they tell are not full of promise and hope, but of anxiety and fear. Along the coast of South Carolina, for example, women from predominantly black, low-income island communities are witnessing the destruction of their traditional means of survival: agriculture and fishing. Their story is typical.
Escalating property taxes and land values are forcing indigenous residents to give up their most important resource. Scarcely a week goes by without news of another resident having sold his or her land, often because of inability to pay the rising property taxes. As “prime waterfront” property increasingly changes hands, the indigenous residents find their access to traditional fishing areas closed by new landowners who forbid trespassing. As a result these trends, the indigenous community is rapidly being destroyed.
What is positive about this situation is the fact that people are organizing to challenge these trends. The low-income rural women with whom we’ve been working do not oppose tourism outright, but they understandably do not want it to destroy their own resources-their land, their culture, their community. They are attempting to pull their communities together around a common vision of economic development that preserves their integrity as a community and protects their control over valuable resources, especially land.
If there is hope for the future of the rural South, it lies with women and men in community organizations like these. The South not only has the highest poverty rate in the United States, it also has the most unequal distribution of income. The problem is not simply one of disparity between the South and the rest of the United States, or between the rural and urban South, but within the South. It is between those who have a great deal and those who have almost nothing. It is unrealistic to expect government at any level to take on this fundamental inequality in a consistent, long-term fashion. Poverty will be reduced in the rural South in the same manner that denial of voting rights was reduced. It will come about when those who are rural and poor organize and declare “No More.” Those who wish to serve the rural poor would do well to listen to the voices and support the efforts of those who are attempting to organize their communities to shape their own future-and particularly to the voices of rural women, who have been unheard and unseen for too long.
Barbara Ellen Smith is a researcher with the Southeast Women’s Employment Coalition, Lexington, Kentucky.
Barbara Ellen Smith’s essay is an edited version of a talk presented to the 1986 Professional Agricultural Workers Conference held at Tuskegee University. A collection of the papers of the Conference is available from Dr. Thomas T. Williams, Director, Human Resources Development Center, P.O. Box 681, Tuskegee, Alabama 36088.