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Excerpt from Oral History Interview with Ethelene McCabe Allen, May 21, 2006. Interview C-0316. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) See Entire Interview >>

Mother's difficulty in fulfilling prescribed gender roles

Allen discusses her mother's difficulty with work traditionally associated with women. Allen describes how her mother endeavored to quilt, sew, and cook, while simultaneously helping with the farm work. In insisting that her mother "tried hard at everything she did," Allen implicitly raises important questions about the gendered division of labor and the ways in which some women struggled to fit into their prescribed roles.

Citing this Excerpt

Oral History Interview with Ethelene McCabe Allen, May 21, 2006. Interview C-0316. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) in the Southern Oral History Program Collection, Southern Historical Collection, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Full Text of the Excerpt

BARBARA C. ALLEN:
Did she have any interests or skills like knitting or quilting or crocheting? ETHELENE McCABE ALLEN: Quilting. Now, they did quilting. And she would make us something to wear once in a while. But Aunt Nellie felt sorry for us having to wear the things that mama made, so she would make them for us. She would volunteer when mama bought cloth, she'd say, well I'll make that for them, cause Aunt Nellie was a good seamstress. She knew how to sew and it would look good when she made it. But mama couldn't sew a straight stitch, a straight seam.
BARBARA C. ALLEN:
How did you get most of your clothes? ETHELENE McCABE ALLEN: They were mostly store-bought but now mama did make us some of our slips that we wore. We wore dresses all the time.
BARBARA C. ALLEN:
You and Maverene. ETHELENE McCABE ALLEN: We girls wore dresses. I never owned a pair of blue jeans until after I was married. I don't think I ever wore – owned a pair of shorts until after I was married. We wore dresses all the time. Mama did one year - it was awfully cold and we had to walk a little ways to the school bus – and she did get us some corduroy pants of some kind, but we wore them under our dresses. We covered our legs with those pants and wore them under our dresses.
BARBARA C. ALLEN:
Did you have wool tights or cotton tights? ETHELENE McCABE ALLEN: No. Socks and bare legs. A pair of – one pair of brogan type shoes, not brogan, let's see, that was high tops, uhh, ohh, we had the saddle oxfords at one time and uh, anyway, the lace-up kind of shoes.
BARBARA C. ALLEN:
I guess you didn't have many dresses since you bought them at the store and your mother couldn't sew very well. ETHELENE McCABE ALLEN: And sometimes – I started to say she made our slips out of – they bought flour in 50 pound bags and she made biscuits, sometimes twice a day. She'd make them for breakfast, we might eat leftovers once for lunch and then she might cook some more for supper. If she didn't do cornbread, but most time we ate biscuits and we had 50 pound flour – and that was a good-sized flour sack because it was seamless on one side and you could open it up. She would cut slips out of it – out of that white flour sack material and a little thing similar to probably that little dress I made. It just pulled over your head and had the armholes. You wore it under your dress and that was our slip. She bought our underpants at town,
BARBARA C. ALLEN:
Shoes? ETHELENE McCABE ALLEN: Shoes, we got one pair of shoes each fall and then a pair of sandals in the summer.
BARBARA C. ALLEN:
But often I recall you saying you ran around without shoes. ETHELENE McCABE ALLEN: Oh, we went barefooted. We wore the sandals only to church or to town, when we went somewhere. We went barefooted around home, squished mud between our toes.
BARBARA C. ALLEN:
Did you say she was not a very good cook? How was she? ETHELENE McCABE ALLEN: She was not – well, we didn't know the difference at that time, but I realized later she was not really a good cook, either. She cooked things that were good, but when she made a pie, she didn't know that you shouldn't stretch the pie crust into the pan, you should ease it in, so it didn't shrink. She didn't know. And her little pies were real thin.
BARBARA C. ALLEN:
What was she good at? [long pause]
BARBARA C. ALLEN:
You can't answer that question? [Laughter] ETHELENE McCABE ALLEN: I don't know - she would go and quilt. Now she tried hard at everything she did. She worked in the fields. She picked peas. She picked cotton now! She could pick more cotton than a lot of people. She was good at moving at those hands. She and I both, when I got a little bit older, about eleven twelve years old, she and I could hand tobacco. We could bundle it and hand it to somebody who strung it up on the stick, the way they used to do it. We could hand it just as fast as any fast stringer could string it on the stick. Some of those places where we worked, we would get a fast stringer and we would – we were determined to hand it just as fast as she could take it. She would say she was just – we had worn her out. They wouldn't complain, though, people. She thought she was supposed to string it as fast as we could hand it. We thought we were supposed to hand it as fast as she could string it. Sometimes our team would get two sticks while somebody else was doing one. We took pride in doing that. We took pride in our work like that. Mama was fast at some things like that, good at it. But she was not artistic, the things that were artful she couldn't do it. And cooking is an art, to really cook well is an art. When she fried her ham, she fried it flat and sometimes the fatty part didn't get real done. The lean part would be almost burned, cause she had heard that you could get worms from pork if you didn't cook it thoroughly, so she cooked it thoroughly. [Laughter] She cooked it til that fat was dried out and then the lean was almost burned.
BARBARA C. ALLEN:
But at least her children didn't get trichinosis. ETHELENE McCABE ALLEN: No, we didn't get worms.
BARBARA C. ALLEN:
From the pork. ETHELENE McCABE ALLEN: But I learned when I started cooking it, I learned that you could move it around and stack it in such a way that you lean the lean on top of the fat and you brown the fat and you moved it around so that you didn't overcook the lean. Mama didn't seem to sense that. She didn't have a sense for, you know, she didn't have the intuition or what it took to understand that.
BARBARA C. ALLEN:
Apparently she had been a good student in school, though. ETHELENE McCABE ALLEN: Yeah, she could memorize. She could learn things and memorize. She could write and spell. She was good at spelling. She could read very well. She could do what – and she did her math, she made good on math.
BARBARA C. ALLEN:
So she had a good memory, good memorization skills.