Labor Can't Fight Capital The Life of Betty McCoy

by Sarah Mackenzie

Born in Charlotte, NC, in 1902, Betty McCoy spent the vast majority of her life working in a textile mill. A union-skeptic and defender of women's education, Betty's life history reveals the many challenges of being a working woman in the South during the Great Depression.

Image 2. The Life History Project

The Federal Writers Project

Betty's story comes from a collection of historical documents entitled "The Life History Project." This collection was commissioned by the Federal Writers Project in North Carolina and is a rich archive filled with the thoughts and reflection of everyday people living and working in North Carolina during the Great Depression. The purpose of the life history project was to collect a series of narratives which are readable and available to the general and public and which accurately reflect the “structure and workings of society” (Thurston 752).

With all historical narratives, however, come questions about interpretation and reliability. Betty was assigned an alias and an alternate hometown when she was interviewed, and so her story became listed under the name "Genevieve Avenue." After much consideration, this article uses her original name as a sufficient amount of time has passed since the recording of her story. Though her story appears to be recorded verbatim, there is still no way of knowing how the interviewer manipulated the document, or what they chose to exclude. It is important to consider these limitations while piecing together the nuances of her life.

Betty's story is an assertion that history should be grounded the reality of the common person. It proves, furthermore, that her voice plays an important role in understanding the nuances of the Great Depression.

Childhood and Reflections on Marriage

Throughout Betty's childhood, her mother kept boarders in her house to provide for her family until her children were old enough to work in the mill. Betty was twelve years old on her first day. It is unclear where her father was at this point, but he does not appear to be in the picture, leaving her mother the financial burden of caring for her children. Betty recalled an incident where one of the boarders, a married man, had an affair with another boarder, an unmarried woman, eventually leaving his wife for her. Horrified by this outcome, Betty's mother stopped taking boarders. Betty recalled her saying that Betty and her siblings “could all starve in a pile – she was done” (Brown 2).

Image 3. Women commonly spun fibers in textile mills

To help appease her mother's financial burden, Betty began working at a textile mill when she was only 12 years old. The children working in the mills in Charlotte were paid 25 cents a day. Their job was to “doff,” meaning they removed doffs, or spindles holding cotton or wool from a spinning frame and replaced them with empty ones. Betty never felt as though she missed out on her childhood because all the other children worked in the mill, and she would have been “so lonesome” (Brown 1) had she not been working there too.

While working at the mill, Betty still managed to pursue an education until the ninth grade. She then worked full time in the textile mill. At one point in her career, Betty recalled some men from out of town approached the workers in the mill and collected dues to form a union, then took off with the money. Betty became very skeptical of unions and the ability of workers to fight what she perceived as Wall Street. Though she had no illusions about how poor her wages and work conditions are, she would no longer complain.

Image 4. Girls would often only stay in school until the eighth or ninth grade

Women's Economic Disenfranchisement & Education

Though Betty's mother seemed to have overreacted to the adulterous borders by today's standards, it must be noted that the stability and dependency that working women lacked in employment during that time could be found in marriage. As Lofton states in a study of marital relations during the Great Depression, "marriage became an engine of social stability, diminishing circulating economic upheavals and political confusions with a re-enchanted image of family life” (Lofton 531). Betty's mother must have felt pressured to be seen as respectable and to find solace in the home and family life, while the South was immersed in a period of deep economic and social instability.

Image 5. A couple standing in front of a portrait of FDR in their living room

The Great Depression, the South, and the Making of a Wartime Economy

Though times were often tough for Betty, she recalled that her most lucrative years of employment were during the First World War. Counter-intuitively, “war work made business boom and brought economic opportunity, better living and money in the bank to almost all who participated in it” (Duncan & Coyne 221). The First World war set the standard for high levels of government intervention in the economy. The economic prosperity achieved by government intervention during the war instilled a great deal of trust in the government by the American people, and therefore a mistrust of Unions (McCardle para. 4).

The extra attention that the government paid to the South at this time reinforced the notion that the government was a friend to people like Betty. During Betty's lifetime, the "most attractive asset [of the South]…was the abundance of unskilled, and compared to other regions of the country, cheap labor.” (Edwards 365) Betty’s life story largely deals with how she was paid extremely low wages, and was aware that she was paid too little for the work she does, but she noted that “labor can’t fight capital.” In many ways, Betty's quote illustrates how capitalist ventures were able to strip people of their ability to fight back, because there was intense competition for low paying jobs. In spite of these conditions, Betty remained a skeptic of Unions, and though she did not explicitly endorse President Roosevelt, she did not express the same amount of disdain towards the government.

The theme of working Americans accepting poor working conditions for lack of a better alternative manifested itself in many ways. McCardle notes in her article on the Great Depression era labor force that “among policies approved by roughly two-in-three in 1936-7, was the new Social Security program — this despite the fact that it focused on the compulsory equal monthly contributions by employers and employees rather than on any promised benefits at retirement” (Rosentiel para. 8). This quote confirms that many working Americans, much like Betty, held a deep enough confidence in the government that they would accept the possibility of never retiring instead of trust in a Union.

Betty's story and life reveal crucial details of what it was like to dedicate your life to working in a factory and to do so on another person's terms. As a woman working in the South and doing so in the midst of the Great Depression, Betty knew that "labor can't fight capital," (Brown 5) nor the American government for that matter, without having to ever leave Charlotte.

Sources

Text

Brown, Mary. Labor Can't Fight Capital. May 25 1939. Folder 306 in the Federal Writers’ Project papers #3706, Southern Historical Collection, The Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

Duncan, T. K., & Coyne, C. J. (2013). The origins of the permanent war economy. The Independent Review, 18(2), 219-240. Retrieved from http://libproxy.lib.unc.edu/login?url=http://search.proquest.com/docview/1442998422?accountid=14244

Lofton, K. (2013). More Perfect Unions: The American Search for Marital Bliss. Journal of the History of Sexuality, 22(3), 529-531. Retrieved from http://libproxy.lib.unc.edu/login?url=http://search.proquest.com/docview/1444999834?accountid=14244

Edwards, Pamela C. "In Good Faith": The Rise and Fall of a Company Union in The Durham Hosiery Mills." North Carolina Historical Review 81.4 (2004): 365-392. America: History & Life. Web. 31 Jan. 2017.

McCardle, Megan. "How the Great Depression Affected the Labor Force." The Atlantic. Atlantic Media Company, 7 Sept. 2011. Web. 01 Feb. 2017.

Rosentiel, Tom. "How a Different America Responded to the Great Depression." Pew Research Center. N.p., 13 Dec. 2010. Web. 01 Feb. 2017.

Thuston, Thomas. "American Life Histories: Manuscripts from the Federal Writers' Project, 1936-1940." The Journal of American History, vol. 88, no. 2, 2001., pp. 752 ProQuest Central, http://libproxy.lib.unc.edu/login?url=http://search.proquest.com/docview/224898179?accountid=14244.

Images

Image 1. Delano, Jack. Pickets outside a textile mill in Greensboro, Green County, Georgia. May 1941. Library of Congress, Washington, D.C. Photogrammar. http://photogrammar.yale.edu/records/index.php?record=fsa1998008127/PP Accessed 22 Jan 2017.

Image 2. Brown, Mary. Labor Can't Fight Capital. May 25 1939. Folder 306 in the Federal Writers’ Project papers #3706, Southern Historical Collection, The Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

Image 3. Delano, Jack. At the Mary-Leila cotton mill in Greensboro, Georgia. October 1941. Library of Congress,Washington, D.C. Photogrammar. http://photogrammar.yale.edu/records/index.php?record=fsa1998009527/PP Accessed 22 Jan 2017.

Image 4. Lange, Dorothea. Girls of Lincoln Bench School study their reading lesson. Near Ontario, Malheur County, Oregon. Library of Congress, Washington, D.C. Photogrammar. http://photogrammar.yale.edu/records/index.php?record=fsa2000004755/PP Accessed 15 Feb 2017.

Image 5. Delano, Jack. Mr. and Mrs. Malcomb Mayfield, he is a young textile worker at the Mary Leila cotton mill in Greensboro, Greene County, Georgia. November 1941. Library of Congress, Washington, D.C. Photogrammar. http://photogrammar.yale.edu/records/index.php?record=fsa2000028041/PP Accessed 22 Jan 2017.

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