Fertile Ground, Narrow Choices

Women on Texas Cotton Farms, 1900-1940

By Rebecca Sharpless

352 pp., 6.125 x 9.25, 5 illus., 3 maps, 9 tables, notes, bibl., index

  • Paperback ISBN: 978-0-8078-4760-2
    Published: March 1999
  • eBook ISBN: 978-0-8078-7613-8
    Published: October 2005

Studies in Rural Culture

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Awards & distinctions

1999 Liz Carpenter Award, Texas State Historical Association

1999 T.R. Fehrenbach Award, Texas Historical Commission

1999 Coral Horton Tullis Memorial Prize, Texas State Historical Association

Rural women comprised the largest part of the adult population of Texas until 1940 and in the American South until 1960. On the cotton farms of Central Texas, women's labor was essential. In addition to working untold hours in the fields, women shouldered most family responsibilities: keeping house, sewing clothing, cultivating and cooking food, and bearing and raising children. But despite their contributions to the southern agricultural economy, rural women's stories have remained largely untold.

Using oral history interviews and written memoirs, Rebecca Sharpless weaves a moving account of women's lives on Texas cotton farms. She examines how women from varying ethnic backgrounds--German, Czech, African American, Mexican, and Anglo-American--coped with difficult circumstances. The food they cooked, the houses they kept, the ways in which they balanced field work with housework, all yield insights into the twentieth-century South. And though rural women's lives were filled with routines, many of which were undone almost as soon as they were done, each of their actions was laden with importance, says Sharpless, for the welfare of a woman's entire family depended heavily upon her efforts.

About the Author

Rebecca Sharpless is director of the Baylor University Institute for Oral History in Waco, Texas.
For more information about Rebecca Sharpless, visit the Author Page.


“The book covers the life and role of women on the farms in a most delightful way. It is necessary reading for those of us raised on tales of how live was in those years….Rebecca Sharpless did a great service to the history and culture of Central Texas by writing this fine book.”--The Mexia News

"[This book] brings to the fore a group that has not been studied adequately by scholars of rural women or southern history. Sharpless makes excellent use of oral histories to describe the shared poverty and hard labor of these women. . . . A useful and necessary contribution."--Journal of American History

"A careful regional study, sensitive to the differences among rural women as well as the common ground that they shared. . . . a book that farmwomen and scholars alike can enjoy."--Journal of Southern History

"Sharpless recreates in meticulous detail (with more than 1200 footnotes) women's day-to-day lives. . . . This book is unsurpassed as a scholarly source for understanding how farm women got their tasks done in the era before widespread mechanization of agriculture. . . . A valuable and informative resource for all scholars in women's history, rural history, and the history of Texas."--American Historical Review

"A richly detailed story of women's lives and labor under the despotic rule of King Cotton in early-twentieth-century Texas. . . . Because Sharpless allows her subjects' stories to unfold for the reader just as they were told to her, including occasional digressions and unfinished thoughts, we hear the women's voices. Seldom heard then or now, they offer a haunting and memorable tale."--Journal of Women's History

"Drawing upon oral histories and more traditional sources to tell the little-known or -understood story of women in Texas cotton culture, Rebecca Sharpless paints a large canvas of rural southern poverty, relentless toil, racism, and gendered constraints. Best of all, one hears the proud voices of the women themselves throughout this impressive narrative."--Neil Foley, University of Texas at Austin