Life in the Rural South · Southern Women

Poverty and the Southern Woman

When my sister and I were little, we used to beg our Mama to tell us stories about when she was a little girl growing up on the family farm in Wilkes County. We loved hearing about the time Granddaddy caught a huge carp and let it swim around in the recently flooded root cellar until supper. The time Uncle Harvey fell off the bridge over the creek and got stuck head first in the sand with his little legs churning madly in the air. My Mama’s imitation of Grandma shrieking wildly for Granddaddy to save him was our favorite part. And Uncle Harvey was just fine. Or the time Cousin Bobby came over, caught all the girls’ skinny dipping in the creek, and then caught the rough side of Aunt Erby’s tongue for hollering at them instead of going away.


Even now, years later, each of those stories remains etched in my mind. But the most vivid of all the stories in my memory is the story of the year the crops failed. I suppose there was likely more than one year this occurred, but that year it meant there would only be Christmas for the babies of the family-my Aunt Margaret and Uncle Harvey. My Mama was still just a baby herself, around 8 years old, and she was so disappointed. My mama’s older sisters could see the pain in the little ones’ faces, and so they decided to make sure everyone had Christmas.

Aunt Susie as a girl 1
Aunt Susie

The babies were banished upstairs and a flurry of sewing, baking, and general craftiness took place under the nimble and industrious fingers of my aunts. The babies, my Mama included, were half delirious with joy and curiosity. Defying the will of Grandmama, my Mama snuck to the edge of the stair. She peeked over the banister and saw my Aunt Susie stuffing something in her hands. Craning her neck around the side of the railings she cheekily inquired,

“Whatcha making? A light bulb? It looks like a light bulb? Is it a light bulb? Who wants a light bulb for Christmas?”

Mama as a girl

Aunt Susie firmly pressed her lips together and didn’t answer, while my Grandmama, with a face full of foreboding for her recalcitrant daughter, marched her firmly back up the stairs.

On Christmas morning, my Mama’s favorite present was a lovely rag doll – the light bulb was her head.

Who wants a light bulb for Christmas? It turns out Mama did. Mama apologized to Aunt Susie and loved that doll until it fell into pieces.

Poverty was a part of life for the women in my family when they were young. It shaped the flow of their days.

When my Great Aunt Margaret (she was born in 1925) was growing up her home was still completely lit by kerosene lamps. Her father still went to town in a wagon. The bulk of my Great Grandfather’s farm work was done without any mechanization – that ate too sharply into his profits to be considered. In 1940, after the great flood, Great Aunt Margaret and Great Uncle Paul surveyed the damage on horseback.

In the United States, poverty is still an issue for many. And women bear the brunt of it. I wanted to show, rather than tell, what that looks like for women here in the south so I created this infographic. Hopefully, it will help illustrate some of the disparity faced by women everywhere.

Poverty and the Southern Woman Infographic

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