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All We Knew Was to Farm

Rural Women in the Upcountry South, 1919-1941

In the years after World War I, Southern farm women found their world changing. A postwar plunge in farm prices stretched into a twenty-year agricultural depression and New Deal programs eventually transformed the economy. Many families left their land to make way for larger commercial farms. New industries and the intervention of big government in once insular communities marked a turning point in the struggle of upcountry women—forcing new choices and the redefinition of traditional ways of life.

Melissa Walker's All We Knew Was to Farm draws on interviews, archives, and family and government records to reconstruct the conflict between rural women and bewildering and unsettling change. Some women adapted by becoming partners in farm operations, adopting the roles of consumers and homemakers, taking off-farm jobs, or leaving the land. The material lives of rural upcountry women improved dramatically by midcentury—yet in becoming middle class, Walker concludes, the women found their experiences both broadened and circumscribed.

About the Author

Melissa Walker is an associate professor of history at Converse College in Spartanburg, South Carolina.


"An engaging study... For upcountry southern women, the years 1919-1941 were indicative of the economic, political, and social chaos existing throughout segregated America... Walker capably demonstrates how families were forced by the limitations of race and class to choose situations that provided little or no real opportunity, but she also brilliantly illustrates how some rural people were able to adapt to change."

- Valerie Grim - Journal of American History

"Voices of ordinary women who experienced extraordinary changes resonate in Melissa Walker's incisive study of twentieth-century transformations of southern agricultural communities."

- Elizabeth D. Schafer - H-SAWH, H-Net Reviews

"Melissa Walker has done an admirable job of mining oral interviews, TVA records, letters, diaries, and farming magazines to piece together the story of how women contributed to the family income... Walker deftly negotiates the intersection of race, class, and gender."

- Gaul Graham - Journal of East Tennessee History

"Walker shows how women adapted to rapid change with courage, strength, creativity, and persistence... Walker's fine regional study will be useful to historians of women, the South, Appalachia, rural life, and labor issues. A valuable addition to the growing number of works on women in the early-twentieth-century South."

- Suzanne Marshall - History: Reviews of New Books

"Historian Melissa Walker provides an account of changes in women's labor practices and economic activity in the upcountry South during the inter-war years... Readable, credible, and well-researched."

- Shaunna L. Scott - Journal of Appalachian Studies

"The theme of the study is to show how the status of farm women changes from 1919-1941 in a period of economic crisis. Changing from a region of subsistence farming to one of commercial farming and interference by government action during the depression and New Deal years, women learned to cope... [Walker's] descriptions of rural ways and beliefs are true to form."

- Cline E. Hall - South Carolina Historical Magazine

"Walker does a particularly good job of emphasizing the ambivalence that upcountry farm women felt about leaving the farms... All We Knew Was to Farm makes an extremely important contribution to rural literature by gendering the transformation of the upland South."

- Rebecca Sharpless - Georgia Historical Quarterly

"Walker provides a much needed account of the South that should be of interest to all those who study the twentieth century."

- Kathleen Mapes - Journal of Social History


"Walker's thoroughly researched study of upcountry farm women in the interwar era does for women of this region of the South what Mary Neth's Preserving the Family Farm does for midwestern farm women, meticulously recounting their experience as they cope with economic depression, the increasing influence in their lives of the federal government and urban institutions, and the beginnings of modern agribusiness. Her careful consideration of race and class moves us a step closer to dismantling the myth of Appalachian homogeneity. Her sources are appropriate, and her use of oral history material is particularly skillful."

- Katherine Jellison, Ohio University
Johns Hopkins University Press
Revisiting Rural America
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344 Pages
$58.00 USD
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Country Women Cope With Hard Times

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Southern Farmers and Their Stories

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