Labor Can't Fight Capital The Life of Betty MCCOY

Image 1. Pickets outside a textile mill in Greensboro, Green County, Georgia

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 and during the Great Depression.

Childhood and Reflections on Marriage

Betty’s 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; perhaps he was sent to war or simply left his family, but he does not appear to be in the picture, leaving her mother the financial burden of caring for her children. She 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.

Image 2. At the Mary-Leila cotton mill in Greensboro, Georgia.

The children working in the mills in Charlotte were paid 25 cents a day and they all “doffed,” meaning they removed ("doffs") bobbins, or spindles holding spun fiber such as cotton or wool from a spinning frame and replaces 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” had she not been working there too.

Betty pursued an education until the ninth grade, then worked full time in the textile mill. At one point in her career, 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, ultimately deciding that though she had no illusions about how poor her wages and work conditions are, she would not complain.

The Federal Writer's Project

Image 3. Life History Project

The Life History Project was started by the Federal Writers Project in North Carolina and is a collection of the stories of a variety of everyday people living and working in North Carolina. 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)

Betty's life story is demonstration that history is and should be grounded the reality and voice of the common person, rather than told by and about the famous or elite.

With all historical narratives, however, come questions about interpretative ethics 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." Her original name is used here because a sufficient time has passed since the recording of her story and her death. Fortunately, her life history was recorded verbatim, and so there are few questions about how the writer decided to tell her story and whether that was a fair representation of her life. Her voice was truly her own.

Women's Economic Disenfranchisement & Education

Why was adultery such a threat to Betty’s mom? How does this relate to marriage expectations at the time? The stability and dependency that working women lacked in employment during that time could be found in marriage, as "marriage became an engine of social stability, diminishing circulating economic upheavals and political confusions with a re-enchanted image of family life.” (Lofton, 531) In many ways, Betty's mom simply felt the pressure to be seen as respectable and to find solace in the home and family life, while the world was in a deep period of economic and social instability.

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

Betty recalled that her most lucrative years of employment were during the 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, 221)

During Betty's lifetime, “by far 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 is paid extremely low wages, and is aware that she is getting paid too little for the work she does, but she notes 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.

Interestingly, Americans were largely pro-government during the Great Depression, as illustrated by the fact that “among policies approved by roughly two-in-three in 1936-7, was the new Social Security program — this despite the fact that the questions asked about it focused on the compulsory equal monthly contributions by employers and employees rather than on any promised benefits at retirement.” (McCardle) This quote confirms Betty’s confidence that her life was fulfilling enough and her distrust of non-government labor organizations such as unions.

Image 4. Mr. and Mrs. Malcomb Mayfield, he is a young textile worker at the Mary Leila cotton mill in Greensboro, Greene County, Georgia.

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" without having to ever leave Charlotte.

Sources

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.

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.

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.

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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