Fertile Ground, Narrow Choices: Women on Texas Cotton Farms, i9oo-194o. By
Rebecca Sharpless. (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1999.
Pp. xxvi+319. Preface, acknowledgments, introduction, maps, illustrations,
tables, notes, bibliography, index. ISBN 0-8078-2456-9. $59.95, cloth.)
Rebecca Sharpless's fine-grained study of farm women's life on the Blackland
Prairie of Texas is a valuable addition to the list of books exploring the lost
world of the Southern countryside just before the demise of that world around
World War II. In a social history written from the wife's point of view, Sharpless
explores a rural landscape still thickly populated and "patterned by people" (p.
xii) where mules and horses power the plows, cotton rules the local economy,
and entire families pitch in to make a crop.
All hands were needed. A man might regret putting his wife and daughters in
the field, but he often believed he had to. Cotton farming was a gambler's trade,
with each year's season a new roll of the dice in a chancy interplay of weather,
destructive insects, the exploitive crop-lien system, and the ultimate uncertain-
ties of world economics.
Much has been written about the economic decline and subsequent depopula-
tion of the Southern countryside, but few studies derive from the point of view of
the farm families themselves and even fewer have been written from the women's
perspective. Striving to fill this gap, Sharpless sets out to "analyze the physical
conditions of women's lives in the cotton South and to discover how they coped
with a reality that was bleak for many. ... No single source has discussed the phys-
ical existence of farm women's lives in the American South" (p. xviii).
Basing her analysis upon social scientists' studies of the Texas blacklands
from the 1920S and 1930s, published and unpublished memoirs of farm life,
and oral history interviews, Rebecca Sharpless describes the farm wife's world in
terms of her daunting triple role as mother, housewife, and field hand. The job
of housewife often incorporated a virtual fourth duty-manager of the all-
important subsistence side of the farm-gardens, chickens, milk cows, and all
the rest. The chapters of Fertile Ground, Narrow Chozces discuss each of these
aspects of the farm wife's duties in turn, and the strain on the woman often
shows, as when the cotton picker drags her long sack up the rows with her
youngest child riding along. The mother cannot leave the child unattended,
but the family's cotton must be picked.
Sharpless explores the disadvantages of sex and race in a rural society custom-
arily dominated by Anglo males, and she skillfully uses oral history, "memories
turned to stories" (p. xii), to vividly depict the farm wives' daily round. In direct
quotes, farm women's voices constantly speak through Sharpless's analytical
paragraphs to describe a thousand details of the woman's world, from the mak-
ing of quilts (pp. 99-102), to the Sisyphean task of washing the family's clothes
(pp. 103-7), to the details of plucking a goose (p. 83). For the social historian
"God is in the details," and in this book Rebecca Sharpless proves herself a wor-
thy practitioner of the craft.
Texas State Historical Association. The Southwestern Historical Quarterly, Volume 104, July 2000 - April, 2001. Austin, Texas. The Portal to Texas History. http://texashistory.unt.edu/ark:/67531/metapth101221/. Accessed March 11, 2014.