Women’s Role During The Great Depression

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When the stock market crashed in 1929, women were affected significantly differently than men when it came to employment rates, equality rights, social activities, and wages. Although women’s employment rates increased due to necessity, their wages were significantly lower than men’s. Women’s roles were viewed as just being in the home, while men were the ones making the money for the family. Even African American women and girls were affected differently than white women. African american women’s jobs before the Great Depression were already on the low-end of the economy so when disaster struck, African American women were hit hard. There were a lot of strong leading women who served as activists towards the rights of women. They worked on labor reform, equal rights for blacks, housing, insurance, and served as important role models during the Great Depression. All in all, women and men faced many different challenges that affected all aspects of life from 1929 to 1939.

Before the Depression hit America, men were viewed as the breadwinners of the family and the woman’s place was in the home. When the stock market crashed, employment rates for women increased, unlike men’s. Jobs that were available to women were in industries that were not as impacted by the stock market crash as the industries of men’s jobs were. Employment rates for women rose 24 percent from 10.4 million to a whopping 13 million in the years 1930 to 1940. Although, there was a lot of hostility originating from the fact that the employment of women (25.4%) was almost equal to the unemployment rate of men (25%). Jobs that were available to women included school teachers, nurses, secretaries, beauticians, maids, cooks, and occupations in manufacturing. However, jobs reserved for women paid less than those for men, with annual pay of $525 for women and a $1,047 pay for men, even if a woman was working in the same industry as a man.

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Discrimination towards women’s employment opportunities even followed them into if you were a married woman or not. If you were a married woman during the Great Depression, you were most likely prohibited from employment, as 26 states had laws stating the belief that if a woman was employed, she was taking away a job opportunity from a man. In 1932, the Federal Economy Act aimed to diminish married women’s employment opportunities by banning more than one person in the family from the ability to work for the U.S. government. In Atlanta in the year of 1932 and 1935, they encouraged their schools not to hire married, female teachers or they disallowed their female teachers to get married. Marriages often grew tense due to financial insecurity and tight budgets led to the downfall of enjoying simple leisure-time activities.

Women had to get creative with how they took care of the family as the family budget was cut short due to the economic crash of the nation. Women continued to take care of their families by sewing more of their clothes instead of purchasing new ones or offering to do neighbors’ laundry for a fee. This was called “outwork”. Many women even went to canned fruits and vegetables. There was a common saying: “Use it up, wear it out, make it do, or do without.” Even though these ideas were creative, families still suffered from disease, famine, and malnutrition which resulted from widespread poverty.

Many women even took the opportunity to attend college during the Depression. Some women (most of those that were unmarried) used their time for educational purposes.

There were many prominent women during the Great Depression that fought for equal rights or all women in America. Under the major pressures of this period, women all around the nation became more economically and politically involved Women including Eleanor Rosevelt, Frances Perkins, Molly Dewson, Jane Addams, Grace Abbott and Mary McLeod Bethune, all serving as important activists during the time of the Depression. These women had a very strong role in issues regarding labor reforms, unemployment insurance, social services, and wage discrimination for African American women.

Eleanor Roosevelt accomplished many things while holding the place of First Lady. Roosevelt was a powerful advocate during the Great Depression. She worked on issues regarding American youth as she recognized they could not afford education due to unemployment. She worked on the formation of the National Youth Administration which was an agency that focused on providing Americans between the ages of 16 and 25 with education and work. From 1935 to 1943, the National Youth Administration helped over 4.5 million youths of America receive training and finding jobs to afford higher education standards.

The New Deal was also a great help in the advancement of women’s rights and equality. Eleanor Roosevelt was a principal advocate within the work of the New Deal and was determined to do all she could to further strengthen women’s role in the economy and politics. Roosevelt made sure that opportunities were made available to women for work by partnering with those who were in charge of the federal employment relief programs. Harry Hopkins (FDR’s relief czar) noticed her efforts and created a women’s division within the Federal Emergency Relief Administration and decide to appoint a woman (Ellen Woodward) to head it. With Woodward in charge, each state needed to have an appointed woman that would fully emerge and devote herself to the woman’s program. In November of 1933, R%oosevelt hosted a “White House Conference on the Emergency Needs of Women” to try and draw attention to women’s working conditions on the Depression.

Frances Perkins had a very strong female role during the Great Depression. Perkins was appointed to be Secretary of Labor in FDR’s first year of office. She became the first female cabinet official and she served from 1932 until 1945. Perkins worked on unemployment insurance, the Social Security system, and minimum wage laws. Frances Perkins was then referenced as “the woman behind the New Deal”. FDR was reluctant to implement the Social Security program but Frances Perkins was instrumental in creating funds and recruited help from other organizations. In Kirstin Downey’s biography “The Woman Behind the New Deal” written on Frances Perkins, Downey states, “In a meeting with Roosevelt present, she went around the table and extracted from each of the major members of her committee a pledge to support the program being prepared by the committee. Publicly obligated, they could not back down later”. The Social Security Act provided unemployment insurance and a system of benefits for the elderly. Enacted in 1935 as a result of the Great Depression, Social security became one of the New Deal’s most prominent social safety nets. Currently, one in six Americans receive some form of social security benefits.

Molly Dewson became a powerful female ambassador for the New Deal and was a strong advocate for women working in the Democratic Party. During World War I, Dewson worked with war refugees and then after the war she focused on labor reforms both before and during the Great Depression. She achieved getting women and children’s working hours to a minimum of a 48-hour week and she worked on wage laws for women and children too. Dewson had strong ties to Eleanor Roosevelt as a result of working on Al Smith and Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s campaigns. She was appointed head of the Democratic National Committee Women’s Division.. Dawson was instrumental in putting forward Frances Perkins name as a nominee for Secretary of Labor.

Grace Abbott taught in Chicago at the School of Social Service Administration during the 1930s. In the 1920s, she served as the head of the Children’s Bureau from 1921 to 1934 and she was also involved in the International Labor Organization as a United States delegate in the years of 1935 and 1937. She was the most powerful woman in the United States government during the years of the Great Depression and also was the only trained social worker at the top political levels.

Mary McLeod Bethune had a large role in FDR’s administration. Bethune served as an important part of FDR’s “kitchen cabinet”, and involving the establishment of the Federal Committee on Fair Employment Practice. This worked in the defense industry to end the discrimination on wages and the exclusion of African Americans. Bethune served as president for the National Council of Negro Work and successfully served from 1935 to 1949. Bethune and Eleanor Roosevelt became friends with them soon speaking alongside each other. In the National Youth Administration, she headed the Division of Negro Affairs from 1936 to 1944.

In Chicago, Jane Addams served the immigrant and the poor populations in her project called the Hull House during the ‘30s. She helped provide social services which were a necessity during the Great Depression.

With the establishment of the Works Projects Administration in 1935, women’s benefits towards employment improved tremendously by employing 460,000 women by the year of 1936. The Fair Labor Relations Act led over 800,000 women by the end of the 1930s in unions. The Fair Standards Act set what minimum wages and maximum working hours were for women. By early 1934, in the Civil Works Administration, about 275,000 women were working and the following year in the Work Division of the Federal Emergency Relief Administration about 204,000 women were working. In March 1940, NYU’s student work program enrolled about 235,000 women with the NYA’s out-of-school work program enrolling about 142,000. The WPA peaked with numbers at 409,954 in September of 1938.

During the Great Depression, African American young women and girls faced even greater challenges due to their lack of employment before the stock market crash. They were already employed in the lowest-paid jobs in the economy so when the market crashed, they were left with virtually no opportunity at all. They faced larger amounts of discrimination including issues regarding wages and education.

A very prominent leader, Mary McLeod Bethune, lead the Negro Affairs Division of the National Youth Administration which provided hundreds of thousands of black women and girls with training and education to prepare them for better job opportunities. The NYA’s Special Negro Fund helped black college students with study programs and educational aid and other programs like this allowed women to learn and teach themselves more efficient job skills, remain in college, and by bettering themselves they can instruct and assist other women in the NYA. The NYA wanted to provide women and girls with training in factory jobs, home economics, nursing, and school work by partnering with local hospitals, schools, and the YWCA as well. There were many training centers built on the campuses of black colleges to allow selected girls to travel and to be allowed to learn new skills and trades. The NYA paid black and white students wages that were, in fact, equal, unlike most of the other New Deal programs for work.

Although participants in the NYA program received great benefit from these programs, they also helped people in communities surrounding them. The NYA’s young women helped provide communities with services, improvements in the black community’s facilities which include resources (such as educational and recreational) for youth, meals, and the involvement in helping the black community’s most needy by providing resources to the charitable.

As World War II had begun to manifest, women began to train for industries that were related to the war efforts. Black women and girls that were participants in the NYA were also trained in the defense industry due to the war stimulating the economy and the general labor market. They were also prepared in urban areas throughout the country to work in programs that trained them in machinery, welding, clerical work, sewing, and pattern-making.


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