Federal Writers' Project – Life Histories/2018/Fall/Section 2/Agnes Harrell

Agnes Harrell
BornAgnes Rowe
October 3, 1897
Georgetown County, South Carolina
DiedMarch 8, 1971
Alamance, North Carolina
ChildrenCharlie Harrell, Louis Harrell, Jasper Harrell


Anges Rowe Harrell was a mother and interviewee for the Federal Writers' Project. Harrell was interviewed by Anne Ruth Davis on February 24, 1939.[1]


Agnes Rowe Harrell was born October 3, 1897 in Georgetown County, South Carolina. Harrell was raised on her father’s farm alongside her twelve siblings. Harrell attended Dunnegan School until she dropped out in 1911.[2]

In 1916, Harrell married John Wilson Harrell. The couple's first child died of stomach colitis on an unknown date. Agnes and John Harrell had three more children together, Charlie, Louis, and Jasper. In 1922, John abandoned Harrell to work in a cotton mill, leaving Harrell to provide for their children alone.[3]

After her husband left, Harrell worked on a farm in Georgetown County for five years. Harrell was, "...getting along so poorly a-working so hard" on the farm, that she moved to an unknown county and worked in a cotton mill for twelve years, making $4 a week.[4] The mill eventually shut down, and in 1929, Harrell and her family moved to Marion, South Carolina. Harrell worked odd jobs, such as raking lawns and cleaning houses, to pay the weekly $6 rent for her house on Montgomery Street. In 1934, Harrell joined the Works Progress Administration (WPA) federal relief program, and made $26 a month making quilts. After her son, Charlie, became employed, Harrell lost her federal assistance. There are no records of Harrell's employment past 1934.[5]

On February 24, 1939, Harrell was interviewed by Anne Ruth Davis for the Federal Writers' Project. Davis described Harrell as, "A short woman, only five feet in height and weighing over two hundred pounds, she was dressed in a black silk skirt, blue and white checked cotton jacket, and a big print apron," with a "...well-rounded face, big bright eyes, mass of black wavy hair, and complexion glowing with health."[6]

Harrell died on March 8, 1971, in Alamance, North Carolina from a pulmonary embolism.[7]

Political and Spiritual BeliefsEdit

In her interview with the Federal Writers' Project, Harrell stated her opinions on women's suffrage. Due to her upbringing, Harrell believed that, "It's not right for lady folks to vote." Harrell voted only twice in her life.[8]

Harrell was a member of the United Methodist Church. Harrell also frequented the Church of God, but did not prefer it over the Methodist Church because of their rigid rules. According to Harrell, the Church of God forbade women from cutting their hair too short, wearing jewelry, or wearing short sleeves.[9]

Social IssuesEdit

Marital DesertionEdit
A mother with her son during the Great Depression.

Marital desertion is a legal term that refers to an individual neglecting his or her duties as a parent or spouse[10]. There are many factors that influence marital desertion. Younger couples, couples with large age gaps, low-income couples, and couples who had children before marriage are generally less stable[11].

The implications for the deserted spouse or family are overwhelmingly negative. Family desertion results in single-parent households. Single parents are more susceptible to mental health issues, such as loneliness, depression, and anxiety. In mother-only families, children are more likely to participate in delinquent activity, including high absentee rates at school, alcohol abuse, and drug addiction. Because of the decline in economic status and standards of living, the children of mother-only households typically experience more problems with physical health as well. The female children of mother-only households are more likely to become single mothers themselves.[12]

In the 1930s, divorce rates dropped, but the rates of marital desertion, sometimes called the "poor man's divorce", increased. Unemployed men felt frustrated and embarrassed, creating marital strain. Couples struggling economically could not afford to get a divorce, so men would leave their families without officially ending the marriage.[13]

Currently, research on the historical rates of marital desertion is limited, since there is no documentation of marriages that end unofficially. It has been estimated that during the Great Depression, between 10% and 12% of marriages were unofficially disrupted, and between 7% and 9% of marriages ended in divorce.[14]

Women's Labor in the Great DepressionEdit
A photo of a female worker during the Great Depression.

Even though employment rates of men decreased during the Great Depression, the employment rates of women increased. Between 1930 and 1940, approximately 2.5 million more women began working outside the home. Labor was heavily sex-segregated, offering women relative job security. Women often took up jobs that resembled the unpaid labor in their family role. While many men were fired from production roles, women kept their clerical and service jobs, such as teachers, nurses, housekeepers, and telephone operators. As a result, family economies began to rely on women's wages.[15]

Women were a reserve army of labor power. During times of economic certainty, women would join the workforce, and would drop out when conditions improve. Because women in the workforce were defying cultural norms, women could engage in paid labor only when it was justified by a family emergency.[16]

Even when justified, the rise of women in the workforce attracted criticism. Critics reprimanded women for reducing the number of jobs available for men. In response, many federal agencies gave preference to male applicants, or paid female workers less than their male counterparts. Some federal programs, such as the Civilian Conservation Corps, had formal policies that prohibited the hiring of women.[17]

Outside of the workforce, women also had to keep up with their unpaid domestic labor. During the Depression, women often had to reduce their family's standard of living and cut back family expenses. This could be achieved by replacing goods and services for the labor of women in the home. Home canning, sewing, and gardening saw a revival in the 1930s. The domestic labor of housewives may have been exacerbated because families would often be forced into moving into less comfortable living quarters with lower rent. Women also participated in emotional labor in their households. Unemployed husbands and children would have to stay home, resulting in forced crowding of the home, and consequentially, disputes between family members. Housewives would have to mediate the emotional tension between their family members.[18]


  1. Anne Ruth Davis, "She's Just Done Well", (University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, 1939).
  2. Ibid, 11230-32.
  3. Ibid, 11232-33.
  4. Ibid.
  5. Ibid, 11233-40.
  6. Ibid, 11232.
  7. North Carolina State Archives
  8. Anne Ruth Davis, "She's Just Done Well".
  9. Ibid.
  10. Odekon, Mehmet. "Family Desertion."SAGE Encyclopedia of World Poverty, Second Edition (California, SAGE Publications, Inc, 2015).
  11. Tomas Cvrcek, "When Harry Left Sally: A New Estimate of Marital Disruption in the U.S., 1860 – 1948," (Demographic Research, 2009).
  12. "Single-Parent Families," (Encyclopedia.com).
  13. Lindsey Konkel. "Life for the Average Family During the Great Depression." (History.com, 2018).
  14. Ibid.
  15. Holly Armstrong, "Women in the New Deal Era: An in-depth study of women’s roles and attitudes during the Great Depression," (2012).
  16. Lois Rita Helmbold, "Beyond the Family Economy: Black and White Working-Class Women during the Great Depression," (Feminist Studies, 1987).
  17. Ibid.
  18. Ibid.