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Great Depression

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Lecture: Familial Life and State Policies in the 1930s

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Great Depression

  1. 1. Work and Family Life in the Great Depression HIUS157/Prof. Rebecca Jo Plant
  2. 2. Major themes • Setbacks for women – Emphasis on family survival – Hostility toward organized feminism – Cultural backlash against modern sexual and social mores • Progressive maternalists finally see many of their goals realized • New cultural models – Resourceful, self-sacrificing mothers – Plucky, independent single women
  3. 3. “Ma Joad,” Grapes of Wrath Babe Barnett, “Mr. Deeds Goes to Town”
  4. 4. Great Depression • Most severe economic crisis in the nation’s history – Lasted from 1929-41; worst period 1929-33 • Agricultural prices dropped – Fell more than 60% between 1929-32 • Unemployment rose – 1930: 4 million; 1932: 15 million – Nearly one-third of the entire labor force • Affected white-collar workers and skilled blue collar workers (“new poor”)
  5. 5. Depression’s visible impact • 1,000 homes foreclosed each day • Factories stood idle • Breadlines stretched for blocks • Hospitals reported an increase in death from starvation • People looked shabby
  6. 6. “Invisible” poor – single women • Images of urban poverty from the Depression overwhelmingly male – Women and children often did not stand in breadlines • Social services geared to support families – Unrealistic idea that single women should return to their families
  7. 7. Breadline
  8. 8. “Breadline” sculpture at the FDR Memorial in DC
  9. 9. Mexican-American “Repatriation” • Crisis generated hostility to immigrant workers – Municipal govts anxious about welfare rolls • US Government began a program to coerce immigrants to return Mexico – Free train rides • Hundreds of thousands forced across the border – As many as 60% US citizens
  10. 10. African Americans • Higher rates of unemployment – Downward mobility in the job market – 58% black women in Chicago • Received less government help • Conditions especially bad in the South • Some New Deal programs actually made things worse for black sharecroppers
  11. 11. Sharecroppers, Mississippi, 1937
  12. 12. How to respond? • Big changes in ideas re. government responsibility, but not in re. to gender roles • Renewed emphasis on women as homemakers • Hostility toward working women, especially married working women – 82% opposed wives working if their husbands held jobs • Including 75% of women – Roughly 50% opposed wives working under any circumstances • Including 50% of women • Only legitimate reason for women to work: to sustain families
  13. 13. Discrimination in employment • Section 213 of the Economic Recovery Act of 1932 – Married persons whose spouses worked for the federal government fired first • State and local governments refused to hire married women • So did school boards • AFL: married women workers with employed husbands “should be discriminated against” • Even women’s colleges urged graduates not to seek work
  14. 14. Women’s wage work • Nevertheless, the number of married women in the workforce increased 50% in 1930s • Ironically, sexual segregation of labor market provided a measure of protection for women – Male labor concentrated in the industries hit hardest • Construction, heavy industry, manufacturing – Clerical and service work less affected – Few examples of men moving into “women’s work” • Teaching
  15. 15. Women’s household labor • Role of housewife assumed on new importance • Stretching the family budget – ER’s 7-cent meals at the White House • Many women returned to home industry – Sewing – Canning • Others sought ways of supplementing family income – Taking in laundry, boarders, etc.
  16. 16. Orleck article • “Militant mothers”—working-class housewives – Protested evictions – Protested high food prices – Established barter networks • Saw themselves as defending traditional gender roles – Argued that the Depression had made it impossible for them to fulfill their role
  17. 17. Impact on Families • Emotional stress – Rise in domestic violence and desertion – But divorce rate actually fell • Too expensive • Thousands of families broke up; others became more closely integrated – Families pulled together, pooling resources and working together – Turned to cheap entertainment, like staying home to listen to radio
  18. 18. Delaying marriage • Marriage rates fell dramatically in early 1930s – Young people had to help support parents, younger siblings – By 1932, only 3/4ths as many people were marrying as during late 1920s – By 1938, some 1.5 million people had postponed marriage due to hard times • Led to concerns about the decline of public morality
  19. 19. Birth rate and birth control • Birth rate fell below replacement level for first time in American history • Greater public acceptance and increased availability of birth control – Government reversed course • Anxious about swelling welfare rolls – Contraception widely available by mail • Sears Roebuck advertised “preventives” • By 1940, only two states (MA and CT) still prohibited the dissemination of birth control to married couples
  20. 20. Abortion • Rising incidence • Most were not “back alley” procedures – “Professional” abortionists practiced openly – Clinic-like offices; followed medical procedures – Often bribed law enforcement • Leslie Reagan’s study of the Gabler clinic in Chicago: – Most patients (80%) married • Of these, 57% had children – Suggests attempts to limit family size
  21. 21. Ruth Barnett • Ran an abortion clinic in Portland from 1918-1968 – Claimed to have performed 40,000 abortions – Never lost a patient • Arrested for the first time in 1951
  22. 22. Repeal of Prohibition • Critics argued that it led to increased lawlessness – Bootlegging • Large industry under control of organized crime • Women’s Organization for National Prohibition Reform – Pauline Sabin • Children are growing up with a total lack of respect for the Constitution and for the law.” • December 1933: 21st Amendment ratified
  23. 23. WONPR poster, 1932
  24. 24. Movement for Repeal of Prohibition
  25. 25. Progressive maternalists and the New Deal • National Recovery Act of 1933 – Prohibited child labor • Social Security Act of 1935 – Provided maternal and child welfare benefits – Replaced state-level mothers’ pensions • Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 – Guaranteed minimum wages and maximum hours for all workers
  26. 26. Social Security Act • Benefits not linked to citizenship, but to wage-earning – 3 components: unemployment insurance; old age assistance; aid to mothers with dependent children • Reinforced social hierarchies – Excluded: 50% of all workers; 60% of women workers; 85% of African Americans – Still a critical precedent
  27. 27. Frances Perkins • Former Hull House resident • Worked as a legislative lobbyist for the NY Consumer League (1910) – Witnessed Triangle Shirtwaist fire • FDR appointed her Secretary of Labor in 1932, making her the first woman cabinet member – Help craft minimum-wage laws and – the Social Security Act of 1935
  28. 28. Frances Perkins, Secretary of Labor, 1933- 1945
  29. 29. Mary McLeod Bethune
  30. 30. Mary McLeod Bethune • Child of former slaves • Active in black women’s club movement • Most prominent black woman in FDR’s government – Director of the Division of Negro Affairs for the National Youth Administration, 1936-43 • Urged FDR (unsuccessfully) to support an anti-lynching bill
  31. 31. Eleanor Roosevelt
  32. 32. ER • Grew up a rich but unhappy socialite; drawn into reform • New model of a first lady – “My Day” – syndicated column – Outreach to black community • 1939 Resigned from the DAR due to its racism – Women’s press conferences – Strong stand on human rights
  33. 33. Legacies of the Depression • “Invisible scars” • Reinforced commitment to nuclear family model, with a male breadwinner • Helps to explain postwar demographic trends – Youthful marriages – Larger families
  34. 34. Dorothea Lange in Texas, c. 1937
  35. 35. “Migrant Mother” photos Dorothea Lange

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