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The Great Depression affected women and men in quite different ways. The economy of the period relied heavily on so-called “sex-typed” work, or work that employers typically assigned to one sex or the other. And the work most directly associated with males, especially manufacturing in heavy industries like steel production, faced the deepest levels of lay-offs during the Great Depression. Women primarily worked in service industries, and these jobs tended to continue during the 1930s. Clerical workers, teachers, nurses, telephone operators, and domestics largely found work. In many instances, employers lowered pay scales for women workers, or even, in the case of teachers, failed to pay their workers on time. But women’s wages remained a necessary component in family survival. In many Great Depression families, women were the only breadwinners.
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An important corrective to a male-centered vision of the Great Depression is to note that while men’s employment rates declined during the period, women’s employment rates actually rose. In 1930, approximately 10.5 million women worked outside the home. By 1940, approximately 13 million women worked for wages outside the home. Even so, women’s work continued to be less than well regarded by American society. Critics, over-looking the sex-typing of most work opportunities for women, lambasted laboring women for robbing men of much-needed jobs. Even women’s colleges formally charged women not to pursue careers after graduation so that their places could be filled by men.Federal law stood consistently with this conservative position regarding women workers. Laws in effect between 1932 and 1937 made it illegal for more than one person per family to find employment within the federal civil service.
Despite the protestations of Eleanor Roosevelt, the New Deal program the Civilian Conservation Corps, developed in 1933, had a formal policy against hiring women. Many New Deal job programs cast women in traditional housekeeping roles. Camps operated by the Federal Emergency Relief Administration(FERA) specifically for young women taught household skills. FERA work relief projects employed women in producing such goods as canned foods, clothes, and mattresses for distribution to needy families. Women were employed as housekeeping aides to families in need of household help. The housekeeping aides project kept to traditional racial stereotypes as well as gendered ones, as most of its employees were African-American women.
Other federal agencies paid women much less than men or gave preferences to male job seekers over female ones.Women of minority groups faced particular difficulties. Employers preferred white men, and then white women, over black or Hispanic women in most instances. Relegated to domestic work and farm work through centuries of racism and misogyny in the job market, most African-American women found themselves left out of new laws passed to ensure worker safety. The Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938, with its minimum wage and maximum hour provisions, did not apply to domestic or farm workers. Given the pressures of the economy, many women—white and black—were willing to work in domestic positions, but fewer households had the extra income to hire help. Many cities developed specific locations where prospective domestic workers would stand outside andwait for wealthier women to hire them for a day’s work.
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Given that those seeking employment were most often black and given the low wages one would earn in such arrangements, the process and the area of town associated with it became known colloquially as a “slave market.” The casual nature of the oral contract between employer and employee in this hiring system meant that many women were inadequately paid for their labors.Women in professional careers lost gains made in earlier, more stable periods. Fewer women found positions in business in the Great Depression than in the 1920s.
Losing ground in the traditional male sphere, some men also entered into jobs heretofore relegated to women. This trend occurred even in the very female bastion of teaching. The teaching profession grew slightly less female during the Great Depression; women had constituted 85 percent of teachers in 1920, but by 1940 they constituted only 78 percent.The federal law’s refusal to champion women workers occurred even with the unprecedented presence of women of considerable power in Washington, D.C. Frances Perkins became the first female member of a presidential cabinet when she assumed the post of Secretary of Labor in 1933.Mary McLeod Bethune, head of the Division of Negro Affairs of the National Youth Administration and acting head of Roosevelt’s informal group of black advisors or “black cabinet,” became the highest-ranking African-American woman in government.
Eleanor Roosevelt, first lady from 1933 to 1945, fought the public policies when it came to women on several fronts and led Franklin D. Roosevelt’s presidency more to the political left than it would have otherwise been. The New Deal did not outwardly target women’s issues. Eleanor Roosevelt did, however, provide some moral support to American women in the troubled 1930s. Her newspaper column, “My Day,” in national periodicals reached an eager audience. Although Eleanor Roosevelt was the mother of five children, the first lady was nonetheless not known for her housewifery skills initially. As a young mother Roosevelt had even once hung her daughter Anna outside her bedroom window in a box with wire sides so that the child could nap in fresh air; the child’s cries had significantly scared the neighbors. Yet during the Depression Eleanor Roosevelt inspired less-famous Americans with her earnest example, as when she served Franklin Roosevelt seven-cent meals in the White House.
American women found the task of homemaking increasingly challenging in the face of the sharp cuts in the family budget due to the nation’s economic crisis. Women continued to supervise the feeding and clothing of their families during the period but needed increased creativity to complete these tasks. A common saying of the time explained how to stretch one’s household dollar: “Use it up, wear it out, make it do, or do without.” Although the 1920s had introduced more convenience goods into the mainstream kitchen, housewives in the Great Depression returned to money-saving techniques like canning fruits and vegetables. Women sewed more of the family’s clothes. “Outwork,” or performing labor for wages at home, became a popular way to add to the family income. For instance, many women opted to take in the laundry of others for a fee. Even with these creative choices, malnutrition and disease became the results of extended poverty for some families.
Relations between husbands and wives grew strained because of financial insecurity. The financial downturn disrupted the husband’s traditional role as breadwinner added space for the family, leading to increasingly rancorous marriages. Tight budgets in families led to the end of simple pleasures like leisure-time activities and further added to stress. The rate of husbands deserting their families rose during the period. Couples delayed marriages or even decided not to marry at all given the financial constraints of setting up new households. Childbearing rates decreased, and more couples utilized contraception to limit family size.
Extended families, including multiple generations, also decided to share housing to cut costs.In the face of a collective mood that championed women’s domestic ties and disparaged working women, the feminist ideals that had grown during earlier periods lost momentum. Already waning during the 1920s, feminist sentiments faltered further during the Great Depression due to the pressing economic concerns. Groups that had supported women’s rights, including the radical National Women’s Party and the educational body, the League of Women Voters (formed out of the former National American Woman Suffrage Association in 1920), remained in the political background during the 1930s. The momentum of feminism would not be rediscovered until the late 1960s. Women did, however, take part in labor’s struggle to take advantage of the legal changes that made organizing workers more possible. Women become a vital part of the labor movement during the era of the Great Depression. For example, a particularly spirited group of women took part in the Women’s Emergency Brigade of the United Autoworkers and helped support the lengthy sit-down strike in Flint, Michigan, that brought the General Motors Company to sign a contract with the union in 1937.
Delving into women’s experiences in the Great Depression period leads us to a much broader understanding of the time. While men faced major unemployment, and the disruption of typical bread-winner roles, women maintained employment or even took on new paid labor in order to support their families. While feminism as a concept was not nourished during the economically tumultuous period, women around the nation did become politically and economically active because of the pressures of the time. The societal role of women came under increasing examination during the period, out of the impetus of such factors as the increased numbers of national female leaders, and the absence of substantial places for women in new deal legislation.
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