Women In The Great Depression Essay Research

Women In The Great Depression Essay, Research Paper

Women During the Great Depression


The 1920s was a time of optimism and energy, with a booming American economy that showed no signs of slowing, and no one realized that it was a bubble about to burst. The stock market crash came on Black Tuesday, October 29, 1929, when panicking investors sold an unprecedented 16.4 million shares of stock. The collapse touched every part of the economy. Factories closed. Businesses failed. Five thousand banks collapsed, wiping out the life savings of 9 million families. Many lost their homes. One in every three workers was either unemployed or on short hours and reduced wages. While crops rotted in the fields people starved in the cities. People wore threadbare clothing, while bales of cotton stood unsold Thousands of shoe workers were laid off, while people walked the streets in cardboard shoes. Elected president in 1932, Franklin Delano Roosevelt restored some hope and confidence in people. But despite his efforts to revive the economy through the New Deal, the Great Depression continued year after year. Only the mobilization of resources because of World War II pulled the United States out of its slump, and the economy finally regained its 1929 levels in 1941. But the Great Depression would never be forgotten by those who witnessed it, those who lived through such hard times.


With reduced wages and irregular employment, many families could no longer earn enough money having only the husbands working. Increasingly, women had to work outside their homes to help support their families. In 1930 about a quarter of the female population was in the labor force, and the number of married women working increased by 52 percent in the 1930s. In general, women workers were paid low wages and had to work very long hours.

The public was very hostile to female workers, especially married ones. Many rejected the idea of women working because they believed that women took away jobs from men and that a woman s place was in the home. Women workers faced a great deal of discrimination and were often more vulnerable than men to lose their jobs. Some organizations refused to hire or dismissed women employees simply because they were married. Women factory workers, teachers, and clerical workers who lost their jobs were forced to turn to domestic service. Some, in desperation, turned to prostitution. Some manufacturers, such as those in the tobacco industry and garment industry, took advantage of the situation and hired many women who were willing to work for extremely low wages. Times were particularly hard for black women. Because of racism and their lack of skills, oftentimes they were the first to lose their jobs and the last to get relief from welfare agencies. They got the least desirable jobs, such as street cleaning and garbage collection.


Although more and more women left their homes to work, most of them stayed home and maintained their traditional role as mothers and wives. During the Depression, families were sometimes broken up and disorganized, and women s roles at the center of the family took on even greater significance. To deal with difficult times, neighbors depended on help from each other and had close relationships. Women played a strong role in building such relationships. They were also more willing to ask for help than were men. Since the husband was expected to be the family s provider, it was unacceptable for a man to borrow money or clothing from his neighbors. But women could, because they were believed to be weak.

Birth rates dropped dramatically during the Depression. In 1933, less than 8 percent of women gave birth. One quarter of all women in their 20s never bore children. One reason for this change was that people did not want the financial burden of supporting children. Another major factor was the increased availability of birth control.


Women s political influence increased dramatically in the 1930s. Even though few women held elected office, they were appointed to many high government positions for the first time. Some of the most prominent included Frances Perkins, Secretary of Labor, Ellen Sullivan Woodward, head of Women s and Professional Projects for the WPA, and Josephine Roche, Assistant Secretary of the Treasury. Women enjoyed a lot of success in the early years of the New Deal. As expansion of government services called for social workers, women, who dominated the field of social work, gained power in the new programs. Women s rising influence owed much to the First Lady, Eleanor Roosevelt. She created a powerful network of women politicians and put forward strongly her ideas on social welfare, women s concerns, and black civil rights. No First Lady had been as independent and as public a figure as Mrs. Roosevelt.


The Great Depression changed America: its economy, its people s way of living, its values and attitudes. Among the many changes was the evolving role of women. They had triple responsibilities: the household, child raising, and work. Intense pressure was put on them, as economic need urged them to join the labor force while the public tried to push them back into the household. But perhaps their most important role was holding their families together in the midst of the economic collapse. Women withstood the challenge, displaying their adaptability and strength in a time of desolation and despair.


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