Sunday, March 08, 2015

The hardness of the women's lives

Robert A. Caro's multi-volume biography of President Lyndon Johnson is like no other historical/journalistic opus I can think of (except perhaps Caro's own epic life of Robert Moses.)

The first volume, The Path to Power introduces the young Johnson and carries him through his failed Senate campaign of 1941. This takes a good 880 pages.

Johnson was an extraordinarily unpleasant boy and young man: self-centered, ruthless, cowardly, sycophantic toward powerful older men, dishonest, devoid of integrity -- and, until the setback that ends this volume, remarkably successful at clawing his way from poverty into power.

Someday I may write more about some of the insights into U.S. politics that Caro offers in this 1982 volume. (He's still working on Johnson even now; at this point, I just hope he finishes before life finishes him!)

But today, to honor International Women's Day, I want to pass along some excerpts in which Caro describes how Johnson's white women constituents in the rural Texas hill country (think outside of Austin) lived during Johnson's boyhood and the Depression.

But the hardness of the farmer's life paled beside the hardness of his wife's. Without electricity, even boiling water was work. ... without electricity to work a pump, there was only one way to obtain water: by hand.

... If the source was a well, it had to be lifted to the surface -- a bucket at a time. ...

And so much water was needed! A federal study of nearly half a million farm families even then being conducted would show that, on the average, a person living on a farm used 40 gallons of water every day. Since the average farm family was five persons, the family used 200 gallons, or four fifths of a ton, of water each day -- 73,000 gallons, or almost 300 tons, in a year. ...

A farmer would do as much of this pumping and hauling as possible himself, and try to have his sons do as much of the rest as possible (it was Lyndon Johnson's adamant refusal to help his mother with the pumping and hauling that touched off the most bitter of the flareups with his father during his youth.)

... But the water the children carried would be used up long before noon, and the children would be away -- at school or in the fields -- and most of the hauling of water was, therefore, done by women. "I would," recalls ... Mary Cox, "have to get it, too -- more than once a day, more than twice; oh, I don't know how many times. I needed water to wash my floors, water to wash my clothes, water to cook. . . . It was hard work. I was always packing [carrying] water."

Carrying it -- after she had wrestled off the heavy wooden lid which kept the rats and squirrels out of the well; after she had cranked the bucket up to the surface (and cranking -- lifting thirty pounds fifty feet or more -- was very hard for most women even with a pulley); most would pull the rope hand over hand, as if they were climbing it, to get their body weight into the effort; they couldn't do it with their arms alone. ...

The Hill Country farm wife had to haul water, and she had to haul wood. Because there was no electricity, Hill Country stoves were wood stoves. ... A farmer would try to keep a supply of wood in the house, or, if he had sons old enough, would assign the task to them. (Lyndon Johnson's refusal to chop wood for his mother was another source of the tension between him and Sam.)

... The necessity of hauling the wood was not, however, the principal reason so many farm wives hated their wood stoves. In part, they hated these stoves because they were so hard to "start up." The damper that opened into the firebox created only a small draft even on a breezy day, and on a windless day, there was no draft -- because there was no electricity, of course, there was no fan to move the air in the kitchen -- and a fire would flicker out time after time. "With an electric stove, you just turn on a switch and you have heat, " says Lucille O'Donnell, but with a wood stove, a woman might have to stuff kindling and wood into the firebox over and over again. ...

In part, farm wives hated wood stoves because they were so dirty, because the smoke from the wood blackened walls and ceilings, and ashes were always escaping through the grating, and the ash box had to be emptied twice a day... they hated the stoves because they could not be left unattended. Without devices to regulate the heat and keep the temperature steady, when the stove was being used for baking or some other cooking in which an even temperature was important, a woman would have to keep a constant watch on the fire ...

Most of all, they hated them because they were so hot. When the big iron stove was lit, logs blazing in its firebox, flames licking at the gratings that held the pots, the whole huge mass of metal so hot that it was almost glowing, the air in the kitchen shimmered with the heat pouring out of it. In the Winter the heat was welcome, and in Spring and Fall it was bearable, but in the Hill Country, Summer would often last five months. Some time in June the temperature might climb to near ninety degrees, and would stay there, day after day, week after week, through the end of September. ...

No matter how hot the day, the stove had be lit much of the time, because it had to be lit not only for meals but for baking; Hill Country wives, unable to afford store-bought bread, baked their own... As Mrs. O'Donnell points out, "We didn't have refrigerators, you know, and without refrigerators, you just about have to start every meal from scratch."

... Since -- because there was no electricity -- there were no refrigerators in the Hill Country, vegetables or fruit had to be canned the very day they came ripe. ... Canning requited constant attendance on the stove. Since boiling water was essential, the fire in the stove had to be kept roaring hot, so logs had to be continually put into the firebox. At least twice during a day's canning, moreover -- probably three or four times -- a woman would have to empty the ash container, which meant wrestling the heavy, unwieldy device out from under the firebox. ...

Canning was an all-day job. So when a woman was canning, she would have to spend all day in a little room with a tin or sheet-iron roof on which a blazing sun was beating down without mercy, standing in front of the iron stove and the wood fire within it. And every time the heat in that stove died down even a bit, she would have to make it hotter again.

... And there was no respite. If a bunch of peaches came ripe a certain day, that was the day they had to be canned...

... every week all year long -- every week without fail -- there was washday. The wash was done outside. A huge vat of boiling water would be suspended over a larger, roaring fire and near it three large "Number Three" zinc washtubs and a dishpan would be placed on a bench. ... A week's wash took at least four loads: one of sheets, one of shirts and other white clothing, one of colored clothes and one of dish towels. But for the typical, large, Hill Country farm family, two loads of each of these categories would be required, so the procedure would have to be repeated eight times.

... For each load, moreover, the water in each of the three washtubs would have to be changed. A washtub held about eight gallons. Since the water had to be warm, the woman would fill each tub half with boiling water from the big pot and half with cold water. She did the filling with a bucket which held three or four gallons -- twenty-five or thirty pounds. ... Another part of washday was also a physical effort: the "punching" of the clothes in the big vat. "You had to do it as hard as you could -- swish those clothes around and around and around. They never seemed to get clean. And those clothes were heavy in the water, and it was hot outside, and you'd be standing over that boiling water and that big fire -- you felt like you were being roasted alive."

... Tuesday was for ironing. Says Mary Cox, in words echoed by all elderly Hill Country farm wives: "Washing was hard work, but ironing was the worst. Nothing could ever be as hard as ironing."

The irons used in the Hill Country had to be heated on the wood stove, and they would retain their heat for only a few minutes -- a man's shirt generally required two irons; a farm wife would own three or four of them, so that several could be heating while one was working. ... Since burning wood generates soot, the irons became dirty as they sat heating on the stove. Or, if any moisture was left on an iron from the sprinkled clothes on which it had just been used, even the thinnest smoke from the stove created a muddy film on the bottom. The irons had to be cleaned frequently, therefore, by scrubbing them with a rag that had been dipped in salt, and if the soot was too thick, they had to be sanded and scraped. ..

... the irons would bum a woman's hand. ... A Hill Country farm wife had to do her chores even if she was ill -- no matter how ill. ... Many [women suffered third degree perineal tears in childbirth according to a federal study,] "tears so bad that it is difficult to see how they stand on their feet." But they were standing on their fee and doing all the chores that Hill Country wives had always done -- hauling the water, hauling the wood, canning, washing, ironing, helping with the shearing, the plowing and picking.

Because there was no electricity.

So Congressman Johnson got them electricity. This served his interests; he formed a livelong alliance with the engineering firm of Brown and Root which evolved through various permutations into a subsidiary of rapacious government contractor, Halliburton. Without Brown and Root, Johnson would not have been a Senator or President.

But Johnson brought the rural Hill Country electricity and changed those women's lives forever.


janinsanfran said...

My friend Sarah left this comment at Facebook:

Great story. And there is no telling how much rural electrification changed lives and built loyalty for the New Deal and for those politicians who came after to finish the job. Brings to mind Woody Guthrie's Columbia River songs.

My grandmother grew up on a farm in Maine. They did okay; they were in southern Maine, not too hardscrabble. Still, she couldn't believe we heated with wood in the 1970s (I got really good at splitting logs during that period). Her point was we had advanced from all that work to having central heat at the touch of a button. Sadly, her mother, Minnie Caswell, died in a fire set off during canning. In the 1950s I think, and they had electricity and refrigeration, but she kept canning anyway, and had a terrible accident with the sealing wax. I never knew her.

janinsanfran said...

My mother, born 1908, also pickled peaches and made current jelly -- something I remember as an arduous process involving much boiling and squeezing out of juices through a cloth bag. She had little economic need to do this, but she just knew that was what you did, in season.

Michael Strickland said...

I read the first two volumes of the Johnson bio and gave up because I found the guy so unpleasant and Caro's thoroughness became something of a joke. However, his descriptions of what life was like before electricity in the Texas hill towns has stayed with me all this time because it was masterful and did change the way I viewed history and the dreary hardness of womens' lives in that place and time.

janinsanfran said...

Mike: if you ever decide to go back to Caro's opus, I strongly recommend Master of the Senate. That one is still essential for understanding how that constitutional mistake functions.

Rain Trueax said...

I dislike reading anything about Johnson for his unethical behavior. It's hard to get past that. I hold a grudge also that my very first vote for a president was for him. I thought he was okay back then. We knew a LOT less.

The nature of life for women before electricity was pretty much the same everywhere, not to mention the outhouses where my grandmother said her little brother drowned in it and the family blamed her as she was supposed to be watching him.

We heated with wood out here for years and I liked it a lot. Yeah, I fed it all day but it gave such a great heat. Then I began to get sinus infections. I finally figured out even with modern stoves enough smoke leaked in to be a problem. We put in baseboard heaters and my sinus infections mostly disappered. I am still highly sensitive to being around woodsmoke at all.

janinsanfran said...

Kalpana wrote at FB: One of the things that infuriates me is how little understanding contemporary politicians have re: how much rural electrification, the GI education and housing bills, widespread vaccination, Social Security, and other "socialist" projects made it possible for them to get an education, have housing and health care, not have to spend every penny taking care of their older relatives. The "invisible" influence of those projects were incalculable in creating these politicians' opportunities. They aren't self made, but tell themselves they are - and want to pull up that ladder behind them.

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