Great Depression: People and Perspectives. Editor: Hamilton Cravens. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO, 2009.
Welcome to Hard Times
In 1933, the first year of Franklin Roosevelt’s presidency and one of the worst years of the Great Depression, First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt found that the economic crisis affected all American women regardless of their age, income, or location. In that year alone, she received more than 300,000 letters from ordinary Americans, mostly women, who sought the First Lady’s aid and advice, vented their frustrations, or expressed admiration for her strength. The letters indicated that for most American women, the Great Depression did not begin in October 1929, but rather it crept into their lives as they or their fathers or their husbands fell on hard times. Few women lost great fortunes or found themselves desperate and homeless, subsisting in Hoovervilles. Yet for nearly all women, life had become uncertain, and they had to find creative ways to cope with less.
In their letters to the First Lady, people wrote about the shame of unemployment and their reluctance to accept relief, or the loss of the family breadwinner to illness, death, or abandonment. They wrote of their inability to find work, or of jobs that simply did not pay enough. For many of those who wrote letters, time-honored family recipes, traditions, leisure activities, and material aspirations had suddenly become too expensive. Women who could not afford clothing asked Eleanor Roosevelt for her old garments. Others wanted work to fulfill their personal dreams. With good jobs scarce, many found it impossible to marry or start a family. If they cared for small children, or found themselves expecting a child, they worried that they could not afford to raise them. And they each asked Roosevelt to do something, ranging from personal favors to persuading her husband, the president, to pass new legislation.
In response, Eleanor Roosevelt reached out to the American public through newspaper and magazine articles, and through the radio. In 1933, she published a book, It’s Up to the Women, in which she outlined the many ways women could cope with hard times. She urged women to become less dependent on material items for their happiness, to set up a family budget, to prepare modest, but nutritious meals, to pursue an education, become politically active, and most important, to strengthen community and family relationships. She believed American women were up to task and, citing women’s important roles throughout history, she wrote, “The women know that life must go on and that the needs of life must be met and it is their courage and their determination which, time and again, have pulled us through worse crises that this one” (Roosevelt 1933, ix).
For the majority of American women, life during the Great Depression meant hard work, getting by with less, and living by the old adage, “use it up, wear it out, make it do, or do without” (Westin 1976). Most adult women during these years worked within the home as wives and mothers, caring for families and children, and making the most of a husband’s limited income. More often than not, men retained their jobs but usually took a significant pay cut or a reduction in hours. Throughout the 1930s, more than half of American families subsisted on an annual income between $500 and $1,500. In 1935 and 1936, the median family income in the United States was $1,160 per year, well below the $2,500 considered necessary for a comfortable standard of living. The median income allowed families approximately $22 per week to pay for food, clothing, housing, and other necessities. Although most families did not live in dire poverty, many lived on the brink, in fear that one illness, accident, or catastrophe would spell the difference between making do and doing without.
Nonetheless, many women, both single and married, sought employment to support themselves and family members. Throughout the 1930s, women accounted for approximately one-quarter of the workforce and were usually employed in unskilled, low-wage occupations such as domestic service or clerical and retail work. They also continued to dominate the professions of nursing and teaching. Women found their options limited due to traditional notions of what was appropriate “women’s work,” and also because most Americans believed that jobs should first go to men supporting families. Working women often faced discrimination and false cultural stereotypes that portrayed women as dependents rather than breadwinners. A 1937 Gallup Poll revealed that 82 percent of Americans objected to women working outside of the home if their husbands were employed, and 67 percent supported a ban on hiring married women if their husbands earned an adequate salary (Ware 1982, 27).
Corporations, as well as state and federal laws, restricted the hours, locations, and occupations in which women could work. It was further reflected in their wages. In 1937, the Social Security Administration reported that women’s average annual salary was just $525, compared with $1,027 for men. Yet the fact that women worked in traditionally female occupations actually may have saved them from unemployment, because men rarely demanded jobs that paid little, commanded no status, and could be demeaning to the men who took them. In other words, the Depression did not affect women’s employment to the extent that it affected men’s opportunities, and throughout the decade, women’s participation in the labor force actually increased.
Women across the country coped with the economic crisis in a variety of ways, and for most women, this meant adapting how they ran households and cared for their families. Family, for better or for worse, played a central role in the lives of American women during the Great Depression. They experienced this era as wives, daughters, and sisters, as members of families struggling to “make do” in hard times. Personal circumstances and challenges depended on a woman’s support network, her ethnicity and social class, where she lived, whether her father or husband was employed, whether she could even afford to marry or continue with her education, and how many children or siblings she had in her care. For every decision she made, a woman had to weigh the impact her personal desires would have on her family members.
In It’s Up to the Women, Eleanor Roosevelt observed that the family was a “powerful force.” She wrote, “Of course, the real advantage in having little money is that families draw closer together; they have to depend on each other and they have to do things for and with each other and the result is that the clan spirit grows” (Roosevelt 1933, 8). She encouraged women, as wives and as daughters, to keep family spirits high by finding enjoyment in simple pleasures, as well as inner strength. Roosevelt concluded, “If [women] can learn to make it a game to get the most out of their dollars and above all spend to spend their money for those things which they really want, then they will have real success” (Roosevelt 1933, 8).
As members of families, most women had to find, in the words of Eleanor Roosevelt, “endless little economies” to make ends meet (Roosevelt 1933, 8). By the 1930s, managing a household was vastly different than it had been just a generation before. More than half of American homes had electricity that powered such appliances as irons, toasters, washing machines, vacuum cleaners, and refrigerators. Furthermore, women could take advantage of new foods, like Jell-o™ and dry cereals, as well as canned soups, vegetables, and precooked meals like Heinz™ spaghetti. Whereas women formerly sewed clothing for all family members, by this period, ready-made clothing was widely available. Yet while these products and technologies made life easier in some ways, they were expensive and out of reach for many families.
Typical of a young wife’s efforts to “make do” were those of Vivian Raymond Weston, who lived in Logan, Utah, with her husband. As Weston’s husband worked his way through college as a night watchman, earning just $15 per month, she did odd jobs, such as picking potatoes. She also kept house in a small attic room they rented for $6 per month. They counted every nickel and dime, finding creative ways to get by. The couple could not afford a refrigerator, so Weston simply hung a washtub outside of the window during the winter where she stored meat, milk, and other perishable foods.
Economizing often meant skimming all extra expenses out of the family budget to pay for the necessities of food, clothing, and housing. What they could not buy, women had to make or trade. By the mid-1930s, the median family income in the United States was $1,160 per year, or about $22 per week. Certainly, many families lived on much less and, depending on the types of work available, some faced seasonal differences in income and could not depend on steady paychecks. As a family’s income wavered, they sometimes canceled magazine and newspaper subscriptions, or they shared with neighbors. They terminated telephone services, limited their use of gas by cooking several dishes at once, and used the radio and electric lights for only a few hours in the evening. Women and families also sought out inexpensive ways to spend their leisure time. Church attendance went up, while board games and playing cards surged in popularity. Instead of going out to dances or dinner, families hosted simple parties in their own homes, or turned on the radio for music and entertainment. Families also saved money by moving to smaller homes or living together with extended family members. Rather than buying new items, women repaired shoes, relined old coats, and altered worn clothes.
Kathryn Haskell Perrigo, a farmwife from Boone County, Missouri, recalled how she sewed all of her children’s clothing. “It’s absolutely surprising the number of things a woman can do to manage,” she said. “I made my boys pants out of old coats, and a ten-pound flour bag was a pair of training pants when they were babies” (Westin 1976, 51). This practice of using flour sacks to make children’s clothing was actually common, and became so popular that many companies sold flour in sacks made from printed fabric. This appealed to women because they could make appealing, stylish clothes for their children without the expense of purchasing new materials.
Likewise, Fern Yowell, from Anthony, Kansas, joined a rural women’s club called Community Helpers where she learned to reupholster old furniture using gunnysacks, the thick, rough material used for bagging seed and feed on the farm. She said, “We’d take them and bleach them until they were soft and just the most beautiful beige color. Sometimes we’d cross stitch them” (Westin 1976, 27). In 1935, members of the Community Helpers won first prize at the Kansas State Fair for their display of an entire living room upholstered and decorated with gunnysacks.
As consumers, seamstresses, and cooks, women were responsible for spending 80 percent of the family earnings and usually had to find creative means to stretch their budget. Mary Grace McKenna Monahan, a young wife from Pittsburg, recalled that rather than going to a salon, she and her friends would cut and style one another’s hair. “It must have looked awful,” she said. “But we used to put it up in coffee can curlers and think we looked like Joan Blondell,” referring to a famous movie star of the era (Westin 1976, 273).
Federal guidelines recommended that families spend 33 percent of their income on housing, set aside 32 percent for clothing, transportation, education, recreation, and emergencies, and spend the remaining 35 percent on food. In urban areas and small towns, many women found it possible to feed a family of six on $5 per week. Stores sold milk at $0.10 a quart, bread at $0.07 a loaf, butter for $0.23 a pound, and two pounds of hamburger for $0.25. Yet this provided a limited diet, and women still struggled to make appetizing and nutritious meals with just a few staple items. The recipes handed down by their mothers and grandmothers called for too many expensive ingredients, such as meat, butter, sugar, lard, and cream, which proved impractical during hard times.
To save money on groceries, women purchased day-old bread and inexpensive cuts of meat, or they grew large gardens, canned their own produce, and baked their own bread. Erma Gage, a wife and mother of three, found a job near her home in a grocery store that allowed her to buy food at a discount. While she worked at the store, Gage could make “good” meat and cheese sandwiches for her children’s lunches. Otherwise, her children ate “bean sandwiches,” or mashed up beans spread over bread. Gage’s family started a large garden in the backyard and grew a variety of vegetables, including pole beans, squash, tomatoes, and potatoes. Nonetheless, the family still found it necessary to economize and to sacrifice many of their favorite foods. Gage recalled, “We ate lots of macaroni and spaghetti and I could make three pounds of hamburger go a long way” (Westin 1976, 33).
Food, Glorious Food
Nutritionists and cooks at the General Mills’ Betty Crocker Kitchens in Minneapolis, Minnesota received thousands of letters from women asking for recipes suitable for families on tight budgets. The staff at the Betty Crocker Kitchens complied, and drew up a number of wholesome menus that won the acclaim of nutritionists and social workers. Women across the country tuned into the Betty Crocker Cooking Hour, a popular weekly radio show, to get these recipes. These menus suggested that women use inexpensive meats, or find alternative protein sources such as skim milk, eggs, and beans. A typical daily menu for a family of six living on relief consisted of the following:
Breakfast: Oatmeal, milk, bread, and molasses, milk for children, coffee for adults
Lunch: Potato soup, crackers, scrambled eggs on toast, orange gelatin pudding, milk for children
Dinner: Macaroni with cheese and tomatoes, onions and bacon strips, raw carrot strips, bread and peanut butter, prune pudding with sauce, milk for children. (Westin 1976, 42)
Because sugar and spices were usually at the bottom of the shopping list, dessert was often a luxury, although women also found it possible to make sweet treats with limited resources. Lois Farley, a young farm wife during the 1930s, could not afford much sugar to make desserts for her family. Instead, she baked “milk pudding.” Farley said,
I’d put a container of whole milk in the oven early in the morning. It was a good wood stove, so a small fire was kept burning all day. After twelve hours or so, it had formed the consistency of pudding and the milk sugar after this slow heating process had become very sweet. I’d take it out and grate a little lemon over it or sprinkle a little cinnamon on top. Delicious! (Westin 1976, 58)
Economizing and “making do” often proved easier for farm women than it did for those in urban areas. Even before the Depression, farm women generally enjoyed fewer conveniences than urban women, and they were more accustomed to having little cash for consumer goods. In 1930, only 34 percent of American farms had telephones and just 13 percent had electricity (though this climbed to 33 percent by 1940 due to the efforts of the Rural Electrification Administration). Indoor plumbing was an expensive luxury that the majority of farm families did not enjoy. During the 1930s, however, many farm women took pride in their homemaking skills because they could be more self-sufficient, escaping many of the hardships faced by urban women. They could also contribute to the family economy by working on the farm, and they did not have to worry about unstable jobs, cash wages, and uncertain hours. And although they worried about unstable crop and livestock prices, they generally did not need to worry about layoffs, unemployment, or lost wages.
Most farm women still grew large gardens and canned the produce as part of their regular work routine. Many women also had the benefit of living in the countryside, where wild game often took the place of expensive meats. Kathryn Haskell Perrigo, the farmwife from Boone County, Missouri, recalled that hunting became a favorite family activity during the Depression. “We just learned to eat squirrel, rabbit, wild ducks, fish, all those,” Perrigo said. “We ate just whatever nature provided. There was really no point in sitting down and crying ‘cause you didn’t have any fresh meat, while there was wild meat out there running loose” (Westin 1976, 58).
Most important, farm women took charge of dairy operations and raised poultry. “Egg money,” or the cash and credit women earned by selling eggs to local merchants, often made the difference between success and failure for many farm families during this era. Women took the eggs into town once or twice each week and sold them to the local grocer, who in turn gave women credit to purchase the materials they desired. Enterprising farm women also sold black walnuts, berries, and herbs gathered from their land, as well as seedlings for others to start gardens, or tomato, pimento, and celery plants. They relied on their unique skills to make braided rugs, quilts, baked goods, or clothing, which they sold at a small profit. Other farm women offered their cooking, baby sitting, or mending services to make extra money.
The seemingly small jobs of farm women actually had a tremendous impact on the family income. In the Midwest, women who sold eggs reported annual average earnings between $120 and $150 per flock. In 1935 and 1936, about one-quarter of American farm homes had an income of less than $500, and half had incomes of less than $1,000. Women’s egg money and profits from home-produced goods represented a sizable percentage of these family income figures and could amount to several hundred dollars in available cash for the household. Typically, farm families had little cash because any profits from crops and livestock went to pay off debts and farming expenses. Women’s egg money and profits from home-produced goods often paid for clothing, children’s education, items for the home, and home improvements. Many women also set their earnings aside and saved to purchase additional land, automobiles, or modern farming equipment to make their family’s farm more profitable.
While all of these “endless little economies” affected how both rural and urban women cared for their families, the conditions of the Great Depression also resulted in a significant demographic shift that further illustrates how women’s lives changed during this period. The national birth, marriage, and divorce rates all fell during the early part of the decade. During these bleak years, couples opted to have fewer children. In 1930, for the first time in American history, the national birth rate fell below replacement level, from 21.3 live births per 1,000 persons, to 18.4 per 1,000 in 1933. For many families, children were seen more as a burden than a blessing.
In January 1935, an expectant mother in Troy, New York, wrote a desperate letter to Eleanor Roosevelt. Because her husband was out of work, she could not afford to buy new baby clothes or pay the doctor’s bills, and she would not accept public assistance. “It is very hard to face bearing a baby we cannot afford to have,” she wrote. “And the fact that it is due to arrive soon, and still there is no money for the hospital or clothing, does not make it any easier … somehow we must manage—but without charity.” The mother enclosed a list of simple baby clothes and asked that the First Lady provide these items until the family could repay the loan. As collateral, the mother enclosed two rings of sentimental value. She concluded, “If you will get these [baby clothes] for me, I would rather no one knew about it. I promise to repay the cost of the layette as soon as possible” (McElvaine 1983, 63).
Another reason for the decline in the birth rate was the fact that fewer couples could afford to marry. In 1929, the marriage rate stood at 10.14 per 1,000 persons, but by 1932, it had fallen to 7.87 per 1,000. Couples without the means to marry postponed their marriages until prosperity returned, though quite often, postponements became permanent.
Ann Marie Low, a rancher’s daughter in North Dakota, often wrote in her diary about her many dates but bleak prospects for marriage. In 1934, Low graduated from college and began working as a rural school teacher, sending most of her wages to her sister and brother who were still in college. She received numerous proposals from the men she dated, but always refused because she would lose her job if she married. In July 1936, she wrote, “One of the many things I’m fed up with is men who get ideas of getting married!” Then, six months later, following yet another proposal from a man she truly admired, she turned him down because he did not earn enough to support them both. She wrote, “And what in the billy-blue-blazes would we live on?” (Low 1984, 100, 150).
On the other hand, marriage was often a woman’s only option if she could not support herself. In 1937, Ann Marie Low quit her teaching job when her ailing parents asked that she come home and help run the family’s ranch. A year later, when her parents no longer needed her help, she was unable to find work as a teacher and finally accepted a marriage proposal from a long-time boyfriend. She wrote that with no job prospects and “with no money, I would be dependent on Dad for support in a purposeless life.” Marriage seemed “the only future” (Low 1984, 182).
Most women were careful in their decisions to marry because they viewed marriage as a permanent decision. Divorce was expensive, and many unhappy couples who could not afford the legal fees, or the cost of supporting themselves and dependent children, remained together out of economic necessity. The national divorce rate fell from 1.66 per 1,000 in 1929 to 1.28 in 1932, although in some areas this was much more pronounced. With work hard to find, families found it easier to support themselves if they pooled their resources, even if they were living in a less-than-ideal family situation.
A common cause of marital discord was a husband’s unemployment or underemployment. The effect of joblessness on men was a subject studied extensively by scholars and often commented on in the media. Sociologist Mirra Komarovsky, in her study of unemployed, blue-collar working men near New York City, found that men often became depressed when they were unable to find work. Ashamed that they could not secure a good job, men blamed themselves rather than economy. While some men actually took responsibility for household chores and childcare, unemployment led some men to become listless, irritable, and disconnected from their families; for others, unemployment led to alcoholism, physical and verbal abuse, or abandonment.
Ella Weesner recalled how her husband changed during the Depression and constantly worried about money. “All that worrying made him spiteful,” she said,
I remember he’d be listening to the radio and I’d call him for dinner, and he’d just ignore me. He’d hear me all right, and that’s when we’d get into it. But I’d always give in. It seems I had to give in to keep peace. There weren’t any divorces in my day. (Westin 1976, 77)
And like many Americans, Weenser’s husband refused to accept relief or charity of any kind because he believed to do so would be a sign of personal failure (Westin 1976, 77).
Several of the couples in Komarovsky’s study argued about how to spend money, how to spend leisure time, what types of food to buy, whether the husband should drink alcohol, how to spend money on the children, who should perform housework, whether the husband should continue to look for work, and most important, whether the wife should seek paid employment. One unemployed husband believed so strongly that women should not work, he said, “I would rather turn on the gas and put an end to the whole family than let my wife support me” (Komarovsky 1940, 76).
Work Outside the Home for Pay
This reaction, however, was extreme. Most men, even if they were unhappy about the decision, recognized that their wives needed to work for the family to make ends meet. During the 1930s, it was economic necessity rather than personal and professional aspirations that compelled most women to find employment. By 1930, approximately 11 million women—or 24 percent of adult women in the United States—were employed, and about 90 percent of these women worked in only a few occupations: domestic service, nursing, teaching, clerical work, and retail work. These figures were much different for African American women, 40 percent of whom worked outside the home for wages. And of these, nine out of ten worked in either domestic service or agriculture. In general, women’s jobs commanded little status, did not usually offer opportunities for advancement, and did not pay adequate wages.
Domestic and personal servants, or 30 percent of all working women in 1930, felt the effects of the Depression most severely. Every week, on average, these women worked fifty to seventy hours or more, earned just $5 or $6, and they did not enjoy protections under the New Deal that guaranteed minimum wages, unemployment benefits, and union protection. Typically, domestic service jobs went to immigrant and monitory women who had been barred from other occupations on the basis of race. Quite often, working in private homes was the only option. For example, 60 percent of African American women who worked held domestic service positions. Wages were not regulated and varied by family, city, and region. Most striking was the regional difference between the North and South. In 1932, a domestic servant in Philadelphia could earn between $5 and $12 per week, whereas a survey of domestic servants in Mississippi revealed an average wage of just $2 per week.
Throughout the decade, domestic servants found it increasingly difficult to find work because families that formerly hired servants and domestic help could no long afford their services. Some families even fired their current help to hire someone else willing to work for less. Furthermore, homemakers who now had vacuum cleaners, electric refrigerators, and washing machines, as well as irons, stoves, and other conveniences, found domestic help unnecessary. Like many other jobs, the number of available positions for domestic servants dwindled.
Yet the decline of domestic service jobs was actually indicative of a changing workforce and the new demands of a modern society. During the Great Depression, the identity of the typical worker changed tremendously. At the turn of the century, most female workers were young, under twenty-five, unmarried, and either ethnic minorities, immigrants, or the daughters of immigrants. By the 1930s, however, more married and educated women sought work, and they found a variety of new opportunities open to them. The expanding municipal agencies, as well as state and federal bureaucracies, required a large clerical staff, while the programs of the New Deal needed administrators and social workers. This decade also saw the expansion of hospitals and the growth of the nursing profession. The number of professionally trained nurses increased from 228,737 in 1930 to 362,897 in 1940.
Still, working women faced considerable discrimination. By the 1930s, Americans accepted the idea of unmarried women pursuing careers, but most were not entirely convinced that married women should work. A 1936 poll in Fortunemagazine asked the question, “Do you believe that married women should have a full-time job outside the home?” Only 15 percent of respondents approved, 48 percent disapproved, and 37 percent gave conditional approval. In general, Americans objected to married women working because they simply believed women should care for their homes and families first, especially if they had children. Others believed that working women took good jobs that should otherwise go to men. Though several laws and corporate policies had banned or limited married women from working for decades, the conditions of the Great Depression accentuated the demand for greater regulation.
In 1932, for example, Section 213 of Herbert Hoover’s National Economy Act prohibited more than one family member from holding a civil service job. Though this act did nothing to alleviate unemployment, many women who earned less than their husbands were forced to give up their jobs. Many companies followed suit, and in 1931 the New England Telephone and Telegraph Company, the Northern Pacific Railway, and the Norfolk and Western Railway fired their married female employees. By 1939, a survey by the National Industrial Conference Board revealed that 84 percent of insurance companies, 65 percent of banks, and 63 percent of public utilities restricted the hiring of married women—although, again, such policies did little to help male jobseekers. For example, when King County, Washington, officials voted to ban married women from local government jobs, they created only fifty vacancies. This was of little help to the 83,000 unemployed persons in King County alone.
Women teachers, in particular, found their jobs threatened by discriminatory policies. Married women had long been barred from holding teaching positions, and it was not unusual that a 1930 National Education Association survey found that 77 percent of school districts did not hire married women, and 63 percent of districts dismissed women if they married.
During the Depression, however, these rules became even more stringent. As many school districts faced budget cuts, they dismissed teachers, and between 1930 and 1940, the number of women teachers fell from 853,976 to 802,264. This was not entirely due to discriminatory policies however. Many schools required teachers to meet higher educational standards, which usually meant holding a college degree. Unable to afford a college education, many women were then unable to attain teaching positions.
In 1930, when Elizabeth Baker’s husband died, the rural Virginia homemaker was left with three young children. In 1931, she moved with her children to Newark, New Jersey, where she hoped to find work as a school teacher. Before she married at age twenty-seven, she had attended college for a few semesters and taught in several rural schools. Baker moved in with relatives and planned to stay only until she could afford a home of her own. When she sought work, however, school administrators told her she was not qualified to teach in the large city schools, and even if she was, school boards could not afford to hire new teachers. Baker eventually gave up the idea of teaching, but still could not find work. She sought positions in department stores, factories, and offices, but did not find a steady job for more than two years. Only then was she hired at a commercial laundry establishment for a mere $11 per week (Baker 1982, 98).
Though Baker was not happy with her job, and she continued to aspire to a better life, she did not question whether she should continue working at the laundry. Her job, no matter how difficult, was essential to her family. In dire economic times, most working women felt fortunate to have steady work and did not challenge poor working conditions or questionable treatment at the hands of superiors. Margaret O’Donnell Paladino, who worked at a variety of clerical jobs, said,
As bad as some of them were, we hung on to our little jobs like they were life rafts. I did not spout obscenities at the boss or go on strike. I did everything possible to keep the axe from falling … anything to keep the paycheck coming. (Westin 1976, 211)
Still, many women who desired better working conditions found strength in unions. The 1935 National Labor Relations Act, also known as the Wagner Act, strengthened labor unions across the nation. Eleanor Roosevelt strongly advocated the organization of working women to attain safer working conditions, fair wages, and better benefits. In It’s Up to the Women, Roosevelt dedicated an entire chapter to women and the National Recovery Act. She encouraged women, even homemakers, to support fair industrial practices and buy goods only from companies in compliance with the law, because this would guarantee good wages and quality consumer products. Furthermore, even if women did not hold jobs, they should be willing to speak out on behalf of workers and actively urge companies to adopt fair policies.
New Deal legislation and the sentiments of Roosevelt provided encouragement to organizations such as the Women’s Trade Union League (WTUL). Founded 1903, the WTUL brought together women in industrial and nonindustrial occupations, and it sought benefits including better working conditions, competitive wages, and shorter working hours. Its membership increased from approximately 250,000 in 1929 to 800,000 in 1939. Likewise, the International Ladies Garment Workers Union (ILGWU) experienced a surge in membership. In 1933, citing debt and economic hardship, membership had dwindled to just 40,000 members, down from 105,000 members in 1920. Two years later in 1935, however, following the passage of the National Industrial Recovery Act that allowed for collective bargaining, the ILGWU organized a membership drive in sixty cities and signed up 200,000 members.
Organized labor offered many women an opportunity to take on leadership positions and become activists. Rose Pesotta was a Russian Jewish immigrant who arrived in the United States in 1912 and found work in the garment industry. Over time, she became interested in union activities and, in 1933, was fired from her job in a Los Angels garment factory as a result of her efforts at organizing the workers. Not discouraged, she began organizing women in cities around the country, including San Francisco, Boston, and Seattle. She served three full terms as the vice president of the general executive board of the ILGWU, becoming the first woman to do so.
Dorothy Bellanca immigrated from Latvia in 1900 and worked in the garment industry. By 1914, she also had become interested in trade unions and organizing workers, particularly women who worked making men’s clothing. During the 1930s, she was active with the Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America (ACWA), and between 1932 and 1934, she organized 30,000 shirt workers in the northeast. Bellanca worked closely with the National Consumers’ League and the WTUL to ensure that industries met the standards established by the National Recovery Act. In 1934, like Pesotta, she, too, became the first woman vice president on the executive board of the ACWA.
Though these women acted nationally, unions offered similar opportunities at the community level as well. During the 1930s, Kate Pemberton worked in a Westinghouse lamp plant in Fairmont, West Virginia, where she joined the United Electrical Workers, under the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO). Though her employers discouraged unions, she and her fellow workers had heard that women working in other plants earned $1 per hour while they made just $0.40. Pemberton considered this unfair and found unionization to be the answer. Within a short time, women were elected to leadership positions within the union, and Pemberton became the business agent, or chief negotiator, at the plant. This was extremely unusual for a woman, however, and local newspapers and radio stations reported Pemberton’s election. She recalled, “I was considered aggressive by some of the other women. But it seemed natural to me … There was a change in the late thirties, especially among union women. We started considering ourselves capable of exerting authority” (Westin 1976, 204).
Even domestic servants, whose occupation was notoriously difficult to organize, attempted to form labor unions to set standard working conditions and wages. Because domestic servants tended to negotiate individual contracts according to regional circumstances, women organized only locally. Some formed small groups to demand certain wages or conditions within a neighborhood. These informal efforts did not go unrecognized, and many employers were compelled to honor demands if they wished to retain their servants. Even the First Lady encouraged women to use fair employment practices when hiring domestic servants. In 1933, Eleanor Roosevelt wrote about a friend who allowed her maid to work for only eight hours each day because she wanted her maid to be happy and to provide good service, rather than coming to work tired and worn out.
A few labor unions for domestic servants did materialize often with the support of the Young Women’s Christian Association, the Urban League, the National Consumer’s League, and other labor organizations. In 1934, for example, African American and white women formed the New York Domestic Workers Union, and urged domestic servants to abandon long working hours in favor of two five-hour shifts, six days per week. They also insisted upon “no window washing.” Though the New York Domestic Workers Union had the support of the Building Service Union Local 149, a subsidiary of the American Federation of Labor, they struggled to find financial resources and to build membership. By 1938, there were only 1,000 members out of a potential 100,000 domestic servants working in the city.
Whether they joined unions or simply accepted their working conditions, women did what they could to retain their jobs because, if they became unemployed, they did not necessarily enjoy the benefits of New Deal programs. Approximately 2 million women lost their jobs and sought relief during the Depression, and compared to the programs offered for men, women found their options limited. Administrators for federal and state relief programs assumed that women had husbands or fathers to support them. Any woman seeking assistance had to prove that she was the head of household and provided sole support for her family. A married woman could not apply for relief on her own, and she did not qualify if her husband was ill or injured and unable to find work, if he refused to apply for relief or federal work programs, or if he was simply unwilling to work. Even if a woman’s husband applied for relief, she did not necessarily enjoy access to that money he earned. In 1935, one frustrated wife from Nashville, Tennessee, whose husband worked for the Works Progress Administration (WPA), wrote to Franklin Roosevelt and asked him to have WPA wages mailed directly to the family. When he picked up his wages, her husband spent most of the money on whiskey before she had an opportunity to buy food and necessities for their children (McElvaine 1983, 127).
Part of the problem was that many of the federal work programs provided heavy construction jobs considered unsuitable for women. The Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), for example, was a New Deal program that employed 2.5 million young men to work on reforestation and soil conservation projects. When critics asked for a similar program for women, the government sponsored only a short-lived, limited program that enrolled just 8,000 women. Hilda Worthington Smith, the director of the women’s camps, complained while the CCC camps operated on large budgets and provided men with education, work, and travel opportunities, she could not provide similar experiences for the women. The program lasted only a short time before it was suddenly ended in 1937.
The WPA was perhaps the most popular New Deal program. Between 1935 and 1943, it provided nearly 8 million Americans with jobs, primarily in the construction of roads, federal buildings, parks, and other public works. At its peak in 1938, 3.3 million Americans held WPA jobs, but only 405,700 of these went to women, and women never made up more than 18 percent of all WPA workers. Under the WPA many women were employed to do research and clerical work, or to establish programs at libraries and community centers. They started programs in nutrition, health, recreation, and canning to teach other families in the community how to survive with less.
Many women also benefited from cultural WPA projects, known as Federal One, which hired writers, actors, photographers, musicians, and artists. Those who participated in these programs established community theaters and held classes, or put on performances and exhibits. They created works of art for government buildings, collected oral histories, and wrote state-by-state travel guides. Women played a key role in administering these projects, including Ellen Sullivan Woodward and Florence Kerr, who oversaw Federal One, and Hallie Flanagan who headed the Federal Theater Project. Famous participants in Federal One included poet and playwright May Swenson, as well as author Zora Neale Hurston. Several women artists also benefited from the programs, including sculptor Louise Nevelson and Lee Krassner. The WPA provided many young artists and writers with unprecedented opportunities, and it often gave women a chance to display their work alongside that of male artists.
Jean Gates Hall, an artist from Hollywood, California, worked as an inker for more than two years at Walt Disney’s studio when she realized the impossibility of advancing her career simply because the studios did not promote women. In 1938, however, Hall applied to the Federal Art Project and became an easel artist. She received $80 per month, enjoyed the freedom of painting any subject she wished, and described it as “the most wonderful year of my life.” Her paintings were displayed in public buildings, and she was even able to create enough pieces for her own art show at the Paul Edder Gallery in San Francisco. She had the opportunity to send her work to the Corcoran Art Gallery in Washington, D.C., where two of her paintings sold for $35 apiece. Hall remembered, “That was big money and a feather in my cap. I thought I was really on my way” (Westin 1976, 124).
Despite their popularity, opportunities for women to participate in community and cultural projects were limited to the women who had the skills to carry out the programs. Even by the 1930s, most American women did not have the appropriate education or job training to carry out community projects, and they demanded jobs suitable to their skills and experiences. As a result, more than half of all women who worked for the WPA worked in sewing rooms. One WPA official equated these sewing rooms with the public works projects for men when she said, “For unskilled men we have the shovel, for unskilled women we have only the needle” (Ware 1982, 40). The women who worked in sewing rooms repaired old garments or sewed new clothing items from surplus materials, which were then given out to needy families (Ware 1982, 40).
Vera Bosanko, a wife and mother in Texas, sought a WPA job following the sudden death of her husband. Even though she raised her own garden and did laundry for others, it was not enough to make ends meet. When she first started working for the WPA, Bosanko canned vegetables, then found a better WPA job in a high school library. Her WPA jobs paid more than doing laundry, but she still found life to be very uncertain.
[The job at the library] paid forty-two dollars a month. But about every few months they’d come in and say they just didn’t have no more money for this project. I’d go home, and there’d come a telegram in the evening mail telling me to go back to work the next day ‘cause they got a bit more money. That went on for about six years. Well, it was kind of scary. I never knowed where the job was going [sic]. (Westin 1976, 206)
Still, for many of those women whose husbands found work with the WPA, his additional earnings often made a significant addition to the family budget and helped them weather hard times. During the 1930s, women, like men, were often hesitant to rely on relief and programs like the WPA. Most families expected relief and WPA jobs to be temporary, and they hoped for better days ahead.
Days of Hope, Years of Sacrifice
The Great Depression was the most severe, prolonged economic crisis in American history. It displaced thousands of families, created hardships for millions of people, shaped an entire generation, and reshaped the way Americans viewed the role of their government. For American women, the 1930s was a decade characterized by uncertainty. Elsa Ponselle, an elementary school principal in Chicago, typified women’s experiences when she said, “The Depression was a way of life for me, from the time I was twenty to the time I was thirty. I thought it was going to be forever and ever and ever. That people would always live in fear of losing their jobs. You know, fear” (Terkel 1970, 390).
On the other hand, Ponselle recalled those years as “a lot of fun,” because she and other educators had to find easy, inexpensive solutions to their problems. Ponselle pointed out that few people actually felt depraved or poor because few families had money. Everyone knew what it meant to “make do or do without” (Terkel 1970, 390).
In 1933, when Eleanor Roosevelt encouraged American women to face the Great Depression head on in It’s Up to the Women, she expressed confidence that women would find creative solutions to the economic crisis. And quite often, they did. Women “made do” in their own homes by economizing, finding new ways to prepare meals, and sacrificing luxuries. They found ways to support their families by working in the home, or going to work for wages. Erma Gage, the wife and mother who bought food at a discount by working at a grocery store, who grew a large garden, and who fed her family inexpensive and filling pasta dishes, agreed with Eleanor Roosevelt that women were resourceful and able in the face of adversity. Gage said, “I did what I had to do. I seemed to always find a way to make things work. I think hard times is harder on a man, ‘cause a woman will do something. Women just seem to know where they can save or where they can help” (Westin 1976, 27).