Federal Writers' Project – Life Histories/2013/Spring/Mary Staton Jones

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This page is connected with English 105 at University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill - Federal Writers' Project - Life Histories

Woman sitting on porch- Saluda, NC

Overview:[edit | edit source]

Mary Staton Jones was a white, lower-class midwife from Saluda, NC. Her poor health worsened financial issues for her and her family during the Great Depression. She was interviewed by the Federal Writers' Project on April 29, 1939.[1]

Biography:[edit | edit source]

Early Life:[edit | edit source]

Mary Staton Jones, a lower-class, white woman born in Saluda, North Carolina, lived in a cabin on the land she acquired from her father. She lived on her father’s farm in Saluda for most of her life. As a child, Jones worked in the yard harvesting produce to sell in markets for financial support. Her physical labor increased once her mother died from pleurisy when she was very young.[2] Jones had a short absence from her father’s land during a dry season. She and Tom, her boyfriend, went to farm on other land. They returned when she became pregnant and birthed her first son, Hiram. They married the winter after her mother’s death.

Young Adulthood Brings More Labor:[edit | edit source]

Soon after marriage, Jones gave birth to her second son, Hilary. Her duties outdoors extended to male duties when Tom knocked off his kneecap doing yard work. Such duties included tending to stock and plowing the fields. Once her sons were old enough to work the farm, Jones took on jobs outside of the home that were common to uneducated females. Such jobs included weaving and performing midwifery. Birthing over fifty children and only losing two, Jones established herself as a midwife.

Tribulations:[edit | edit source]

One afternoon while washing clothes, an accident occurred that hindered Jones’ productivity forever. She broke her back when she bent over and the large wooden basin of clothes fell onto her. Jones was no longer able to work as a midwife, losing her $8 a week salary. After surviving a life threatening disease, she became very frail. From then on, Jones worked on weaving tapestries. She sold them to support her family in the only way she still could.[3]

Social Issues:[edit | edit source]

American Women’s Work Changes During the Great Depression:[edit | edit source]

The Great Depression forced Jones to take on both traditional male and female roles typical for rural areas. The typical male worked outdoors and women usually worked in the home. When women worked jobs outside of the home it was usually as a weaver or a midwife. This was normal for the 1930s as other women “continued to adopt alternative roles.”[4] The Great Depression called for gender roles to overlap in order to keep households running in the presence of sickness, injury, and financial trouble. “American culture clearly defines men as the ‘breadwinners’ and women as the people socially responsible for managing housework and family life,” but this was soon to change.[5] With the start of the 20th Century, women were beginning to show up in the paid workforce taking on occupations similar to their roles in the home.[6] Jones’ occupation as a midwife demonstrates this social change. “During the Great Depression, these predominately “female” occupations declined less, and later, than the predominately male manufacturing occupations.”[7] Because of this, women were able to stay in the workforce unlike many men who lost their jobs. Mr. and Mrs. Jones were a perfect example of such scenarios.

Changes in American Midwifery Leading up to the Great Depression:[edit | edit source]

“During the Colonial days, it was accepted that it was a woman's job to assist in the birth of children.”[8] African American women on southern plantations commonly participated in midwifery, therefore continuing and strengthening the practice. After slavery was abolished, the Sheppard-Townsend Maternity and Infancy Act of 1921 funded the professional training of midwives.[9] In the rural south, midwives were necessary because it was difficult for doctors to travel great distances to help with deliveries.[10] The funding from the Act in 1921 was removed at the beginning of the Great Depression because of economic restraints. North Carolina attempted to regulate midwifery is the 1930s.[11] As a result, “traditional midwives continued to practice, however they did so at a steadily decreasing rate [in the 1930s].”[12] Jones, a traditional midwife, would have continued her practice if it had not been for her back injury.

Issues of Historical Production:[edit | edit source]

The Federal Writer’s Project was part of the New Deal that attempted to provide jobs for unemployed writers. The project that began in 1935 attempted to gain insight into the many cultures of America by having unemployed writers interview a wide variety of American citizens. These interviews were transformed into life histories whose accuracy is questioned today. Because the interviewees were relying on their memory to tell their life stories, “the portraits that emerge from these life histories add the resonance of memory to the formal record of written history.”[13] Since these memories are published as a formal record of history, they are accepted as valid in spite of the questions that arise from them. There is a possibility the interviewer inaccurately retold the story. Leonard Rapport, a writer for the FWP, wrote a review on the project’s validity. Rapport suggests that “it might have been different if we had had tape recorders. Assuming the tapes survived we would at least have known what the people said.”[14] Such issues of memory are relevant to the life history of Jones due to the problems of time, age and order of events (see footnote 2). A second issue of historical production is how the life histories are written. The use of narrative writing style was popular in the FWP. Rapport states “…[he doesn’t] believe that writers…were the best people for life stories. Unemployed lawyers, teachers, historians, sociologists, economists – almost anybody who had undergone disciplined training, who was reasonably literate, and who would accept and try to follow instructions would have been better.”[15] The official documents in the FWP were often embellished, detracting from their historical accuracy.

References:[edit | edit source]

  1. Jones, Mary Staton. “Waiting for Night to Come.” Federal Writers’ Project. University of North Carolina, Southern Collection. Print.
  2. According to the Federal Writers Project, Jones’ mother died when Jones was nine years old. This would make it biologically impossible for Jones to have a child and get married within the same year’s timespan.
  3. Jones, Mary Staton. “Waiting for Night to Come.” Federal Writers’ Project. University of North Carolina, Southern Collection. Print.
  4. Irr, Caren. “Daughters of the Great Depression: Women, Work, and Fiction in the American 1930s.” American Literature 68.4 (1996): 865-867. Web. 10 April 2013. p.866
  5. Milkman, Ruth. “Women’s Work and Economic Crisis: Some Lessons of the Great Depression.” Review of Radical Political Economics 8.71 (1976): 70-97. Sage Journals. Web. 24 April 2013. <http://rrp.sagepub.com/content/8/1/71.full.pdf+html > p. 73
  6. Milkman 76
  7. Milkman 79
  8. Richardson, Maria. “A Glance at the Tradition of Midwifery in the Southern United States.” The Lambda Alpha Journal. 25/26 (1995): 51-59. Web. 25 April 2013. <http://soar.wichita.edu/bitstream/handle/10057/1263/LAJv.2..?sequence=1> p. 52
  9. Richardson 53
  10. Richardson 53
  11. Mobley, Sarah. “Midwives.” NCpedia. 1 January 2006. Web. 25 April 2013. <http://ncpedia.org/midwives> para. 2
  12. Brucker, Mary. “Parkland School of Nurse Midwifery History of Midwifery in the US.” Parkland Memorial Hospital. 1-5. Jan. 1996. Web. http://www.neonatology.org/pdf/midwifery.history.pdf p. 3
  13. Banks, Ann. "Getting By in Bad Times." The Washington Post Magazine Oct. 1980: 10-11. Print.
  14. Rapport, Leonard. “How Valid are the Federal Writers’ Project Life Stories: An Iconoclast Among the True Believes.” The Oral History Review 7 (1979): 6-17. JSTOR. Web. 10 April 2013. <http://www.jstor.org/stable/3675185> p. 17
  15. Rapport 17