Women in Industry Heading

 

   


The Depression and World War II (1930-1945)

Between 1930 and 1945, the Depression, the New Deal program of legislation, and World War II shaped women workers’ experiences in the labor force and in organized labor.  The Depression and World War II pushed more women into the work force than ever before and inspired increased organizational activity. The New Deal both improved working conditions for women, encouraged a high level of women’s participation in organized labor, and overcame some racial prejudices against non-white women workers.  Despite these gains, sexism and racism continued to plague women in the labor force and in labor unions.  The hardships women faced during the Depression, the discriminatory nature of the New Deal, and women’s increased role in the labor force during World War II led women to organize more than ever to secure their consumer and labor rights. 

A shanty in Illinois, 1939
A shanty in Illinois, 1939

Nursing School Class of 1937, University of Virginia
Nursing School Class of 1937, University of Virginia

In general, the early Depression affected male wage earners more severely than women workers.  The stock market crash of 1929 damaged heavy industries like steel, rubber, and chemicals, which were dominated by male workers, much more than light industries like manufacturing, where most female industrial workers were employed.  Manufacturing industries also recovered much faster during the Depression than heavy industries. Therefore, more male workers lost their jobs than female workers, and it was more difficult for men to find work in factories during the Depression than women.  Aside from finding work in manufacturing, women had more wage-earning opportunities in non-industrial work such as teaching, nursing, domestic service, and work from the home, and office work than men. (59) 

Still, women workers did suffer during the Depression.  Many women who had not worked before the Depression were forced to find jobs because their husbands had been laid off or suffered from wage-cuts.  This was especially the case for older, married women who had left the labor force when they had children.  One-third of the Depression-era female work force comprised married women—a 50% increase from the 1920s.  Having a job did not ensure survival, however.  Wages for working women in the 1930s were extremely low: sewing and production of toys and other goods from home yielded only $5 per week.  Although it was easier for women to find work during the Depression than men, there was still high unemployment among women.  Two million women who had had jobs before the Depression, or were seeking jobs because of the Depression, were unemployed in 1931. By 1933, that number had doubled.  For the 20% to 50% of unemployed women who were solely responsible for supporting their families, unemployment was life threatening. (60)

Unemployment was especially severe among African-American women.  Many African American women lost their positions as domestic servants to white women who entered the market during the Depression.  In urban areas, they were forced to convene on city corners in “slave markets,” hoping to be hired for very low-paid day labor. (61)  African American women who worked as agricultural laborers did not fair much better.  Even before the Depression, many southern sharecroppers lived in utter destitution.  In the 1930s, the Department of Agriculture paid landowners not to farm in order to raise crop prices, and many tenant farmers lost their homes and their jobs as a result.(62)  In 1935, 25% of black women were receiving government relief payments.

minnesota woman learning to sew
A young woman in Minnesota sewing, 1936

Arkansas sharecropper, 1936
Arkansas sharecropper, 1936

 

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Image 1 from the Library of Congress, Image 2 from University of Virginia, Image 3 Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library & Museum, Image 4 from the Library of Congress

 

(c) Copyright National Women's History Museum 2007