Essays On Women In The Great Depression

Introduction

The greatest economic calamity in the history of the United States occurred in the third decade of the twentieth century. When the stock market crashed in 1929 and the economy plummeted over the next few years, the nation sunk into the most pervasive depression in American history. No one escaped the suffering that the Great Depression produced. The ranks of the suffering went well beyond those who lost everything as a direct result of the stock market crash. While millions lost their fortunes in investments on and after October of 1929, many more lost their savings when banks collapsed and their livelihoods when whole industries failed and businesses closed their doors. The drought that hit the Midwest produced additional suffering. By 1932, every economic sector and geographic region in the country was in dire condition.

Few persons escaped the disastrous effects of the depression. The hardship of unemployment, the loss of homes and farms, and the lack of institutions that could provide adequate assistance were central to the pain caused by the economic crisis. The personal cost was perhaps greatest to the part of the population on the margin of economic activity. Though women were often faced with caring for families without income from employment or traditional support, the vast majority of the government’s recovery efforts were directed at bringing life to the economy, and men were the primary recipients of these efforts. In this lesson, we will consider the lives of the millions of women in need during the depression. In order to understand the impact of the Great Depression on women, we will read accounts, look at images, and evaluate programs directed toward some of those women. Finally we will analyze society’s expectations of women before, during, and after the Great Depression.

Objectives

  • Students will use a factual understanding of the era to provide the historical setting for a focused analysis.
  • Students will be able to create a model to evaluate historical evidence.
  • Students will be engaged in historical research and the critical analysis of factual evidence.
  • Students will be able to examine government programs directed at relief for women.
  • Students will be engaged in historical research and the critical analysis of gender in the twentieth century.

Activity One: Understanding the Great Depression

Using the sites provided below, research the following:

  • Causes and effects of the Great Depression
  • Women and race in the Great Depression

Websites

  • The Great Depression, David Kennedy, The Gilder Lehrman Institute
  • Timeline of the Great Depression, American Experience, PBS
  • Featured Primary Sources, Gilder Lehrman Institute
  • Life during the 1930s, American Experience, PBS
  • Surviving the Dust Bowl, American Experience, PBS
  • African Americans in 1930s
  • American Indians in the 1930s, Utah.gov

Activity Two: Identifying Gender Assumptions in America

Using your history textbook, define the following terms: cult of domesticity, cult of true womanhood, separate spheres.

Brainstorm, reflecting on the 1890s and the first three decades of the twentieth century, to define gender expectations in the twentieth century.

Discussion: To what extent are gender expectations consistent with the actual lives of women in America when gender intersects with race and economic class?

Activity Three: A Critical Analysis of Government and Women in the Great Depression

Analyze WPA murals. Assign one mural to each student or to a small group of students. Using questions developed by the class, they should analyze the murals. The following questions might be included:

  • What was the purpose of the WPA?
  • Who were the artists?
  • Was there a specific audience for the murals?
  • What is the artist’s message?
  • Is the gender of the artist significant? If so, why?

WPA Murals (all link to www.wpamurals.com)

  • Woodstock, VT
  • Atmore, AL 
  • Tuskegee, AL
  • Scottsboro, AL
  • Thomaston, CT
  • Fort Pierce, FL
  • Chester, IL
  • Downers Grove, IL
  • Forest Park, IL
  • Shelbyville, IL
  • Franklin, IN
  • Lagrange, IN
  • Mooresville, NC
  • Appalachia, VA
  • Tillamook, OR
  • Lexington, TN
  • Helper, UT
  • Casper, WY
  • Powell, WY

Follow-up discussion question

Do these documents help us to understand the lives of women in the 1930s? Is it significant that the artists of these murals are female?

Analyzing images and accounts

Have the class consider both the images and the secondary accounts of women’s lives and work during the depression.

As the students look at the following sites, they should consider how the government included women in New Deal programs. How did government programs created to help women, including those led by women, differ from programs created to help men?

  • "Mary Kellogg Rice, Useful Work for Unskilled Women: A Unique Milwaukee WPA Project," University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee
  • Pack Horse Librarians
  • Women serving soup and bread to the unemployed, Encyclopedia Brittanica
  • Pack Horse Library, New Deal Network 
  • Women of the Great Depression, University of Georgia 
  • Photographs by Dorothea Lange, Library of Congress
  • Mary McCloud Bethune Biography, American Experience, PBS
  • AFL-CIO, Our History

Extension Activity

Essay: To what extent were assumptions about women’s roles in society changed by the Great Depression?

A century ago California granted voting rights to women. California Women and Politics: From the Gold Rush to the Great Depression, an essay collection marking the one hundredth anniversary of that event, suggests it was less a watershed than the [End Page 159] ratification of a longstanding pattern. The contributors to this volume, all alumni of San Francisco State’s history graduate program, document a wide array of women’s civic work in California stretching from the 1850s to the 1920s. Most of the essays recount the work of middle-class clubwomen; a few explore the ideas and activism of their working-class counterparts. As the editors acknowledge, ethnic and racial minorities are mostly missing from the book. Nevertheless, the fourteen essays compiled here offer compelling evidence of the intensity and impact of women’s activism in an important state.

The book makes it abundantly clear that women’s civic work mattered long before they had the vote. Their lobbying ranged from temperance efforts, to saving redwoods, to minimum wage laws, to the policing of dance halls. It seems safe to conclude activist women were key players in nearly every regulatory initiative undertaken by the state and local governments during the period covered by the book. One also comes away with a good sense of the thick web of connections among women activists. Wealthy women such as Phoebe Appleton Hearst (ably profiled by Mildred Nichols Hamilton) and Katherine Edson were at the hub of these networks, but they extended across a variety of organizations and issues.

The sense of density conveyed by the essays collected here reflects the book’s principal strength and its most obvious weakness. The reader gains a clear sense of the significance of the public work undertaken by white middle-class women. But the focus on this cohort also highlights the limited circle of women featured in most of the essays. Several do an excellent job of exploring tensions between working-class and middle-class women’s agendas, particularly Rebecca Mead’s account of the campaign for the minimum wage. But the voices, interests, and efforts of women from California’s racial and ethnic minority communities are largely absent, save for Linda Heidenreich’s intriguing essay on the testimonios of indigenous California women. We know from Mary Ann Irwin’s closing historiographical essay that there has been a good deal of work on the activism of Latino, Asian, and African-American women, but little of it is reflected here.

This limited attention to the distinctive racial and cultural dynamics of California is one reason the book seems to lack a strong sense of place. There are tantalizing hints of what makes the activism of California women distinctive, ranging from the campaign to save the Redwoods to battles against vice in wide-open San Francisco. But most of the essays strive to demonstrate how California women’s activism fit broader patterns evident in other states rather than what made it distinctive. Even so, they pack a punch, illustrating in clear and detailed fashion the enduring vitality, effectiveness, and importance of women’s politics in California.

James J. Connolly

Ball State University

Copyright © 2013 Mid-America American Studies Association

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