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Excerpt from Oral History Interview with Mary Robertson, August 13, 1979. Interview H-0288. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) See Entire Interview >>

Appalachian women embrace gender roles despite their strength

Robertson evaluates the influence of Appalachian culture on the region's women. Unlike other southern women, Robertson explains, mountain women are strong and assertive, but strangely, many still believe in women's natural subservience to men. She offers examples of this contradiction.

Citing this Excerpt

Oral History Interview with Mary Robertson, August 13, 1979. Interview H-0288. 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

JACQUELYN HALL:
Do you think women in the mountains have been in a different position in some ways than, say, women in other parts of the South or women nationally? Do you think it's a more patriarchal culture, or do you think that it's a culture that in some ways has given women…
MARY ROBERTSON:
It's a little of both. Now we're not talking about the plantation South. Now this was the area where women were reduced to little more than a dream-child. The mountain women, like the pioneer women, were forced to assume responsibilities, because it was the only way to survive. In that respect, the mountain woman has a different position than other women of the South, or even other women of other parts of the country. She is more likely to be a decision-maker in the family, and you're more apt to see some signs of a matriarchal society in the mountains on the one hand. And on the other hand, because of their isolation and their meager economic clout and the whole social structure, they're also more apt to bow to some religious social theory that they should be naturally subservient to men. So you get a contradiction there that's very strange. The same woman who is perfectly capable of running the tractor and does, of making decisions about whether we're going to plant wheat or corn, of building a house or deciding to build a house, that same woman is the one that's more than likely to voice an anti-ERA attitude on the grounds that the Bible did not mean for women to play a dominant role. Why this contradiction, I don't know.
JACQUELYN HALL:
Have you seen that in the lives of, say, women in your own family, your mother and her relatives, that kind of contradiction in a concrete sense?
MARY ROBERTSON:
Well, yes, I have. In my mother's family the oldest child was a male, and he went away early on to teach school in Louisiana, which left the next oldest child a girl. And the mother was an invalid, and the father taught school and was away most of the school year, so that my aunt, my mother's oldest sister, ran the family. And she made the decisions without when to plant, when to reap, whether or not to buy a cow, these sorts of decisions. And yet as a woman she was a schoolteacher by profession and had some of the God-awfullest hangups about a woman's place and a woman's role you'd ever seen. And I've seen that repeated in many things. Now Bascom's first wife, my aunt, was one of the best farmers in Buncombe County. There were men who went to her to get her advice, she was that good a farmer. Bascom couldn't make anything grow; he didn't know anything about farming. He could play the banjo, and that not too well, and that's all.
JACQUELYN HALL:
[Laughter]
MARY ROBERTSON:
The thing he could do best was go listen to somebody else play and write it down. That was his great contribution. But my aunt had one of the best farms and the best beef herds and the best cattle herds in Buncombe County, and yet she had an extreme tendency to not do certain things, not go to certain places, not make certain associations, because those things were not proper to a woman's role in society. A woman's role in society was to serve her husband. So I see that contradiction all the time. Obviously it's going to take a young generation of women to resist this, and whether it's going to be this generation of young women, the oncoming generation, or not, I don't know. I would have thought it would have been my generation. It was so logical for it to have been my generation, and yet my contemporaries, my peers, are more apt to have negative attitudes about ERA in this area than my mother's generation had.
JACQUELYN HALL:
Oh, yes.
MARY ROBERTSON:
And why that is would take somebody who has a far deeper understanding of the trends and the makeup of human nature than I have. Because it is a remarkable contradiction here in the mountains especially, where women, because of the impoverished condition of their society, still maintain that same role that the pioneer woman maintained. They have to be able to shoot as well, cut a tree down as well, pull the plow as well as a man, or they don't survive.