Women in Industry Heading

 

   


The Depression and World War II (1930-1945)

Unemployed men
Sign, jobless men keep moving, the depression

Unemployed men in soup kitchen line

A migrant mother from Oklahoma in California, 1937
A migrant mother from Oklahoma in California, 1937

In response to poverty and unemployment during the Depression, white and black women began to organize into local groups that worked to control rent and food prices, procure government relief payments, and create employment opportunities, following in the footsteps of the early 20th century meat and rent strikes in New York. Unemployed Councils emerged in cities across the country. Women and men in these neighborhood-based groups organized protests of evictions and picketed government relief offices for more unemployment benefits. Housewives’ Leagues also emerged in both white and black neighborhoods nationwide. Leagues of white housewives organized strikes and boycotts of meat shops that charged unfairly high prices in the Depression economy.  

Women workers also faced heavy discrimination and social criticism during the Depression.  The American public was very critical of women working during the Depression for two main reasons.  The first reason was that they thought women were taking men’s jobs.  In reality, women were entering the work force only in the traditionally female employments of manufacturing, domestic service, and clerical work.  Still, they were seen as a threat to men’s ability to find gainful employment that would support their families.(63)  The second reason behind criticisms of women workers was that they were abandoning their families in a time of extreme need.  The crisis of the Depression caused many Americans to look nostalgically back to their childhoods, when the majority of married women had not worked and had stayed home to take care of their families.  The media railed against working mothers, failing to recognize that the large numbers of married women who entered the Depression-era labor force did so out of absolute necessity in an effort to save their families from starvation and homelessness. (64)

Learn more about the criticism of working women.

The federal government also discriminated against married women workers.   In 1932 Congress passed the Federal Economy Act, which, through explicit language, had the effect of excluding a married woman from working in civil service if her husband did as well.  Twenty-six state and local governments all over the country considered laws that would bar married women from working in government jobs in the early 1930s.  As a result, public school and transportation systems nationwide began to fire and refuse to hire married women.  Banks, insurance companies, public utilities companies, and railways also discriminated against married women in their hiring practices.(65)  Also, traditional labor unions, like those associated with the AFL, almost entirely excluded women during the early 1930s.

With help from the Workers Alliance, Mrs. Toll, a 63-year old chambermaid, wins a law suit to enforce the minimum wage law in Washington. (Sunday News April 8, 1937)
With help from the Workers Alliance, Ms. Toll, a 63-year old chambermaid, wins a law suit to enforce the minimum
wage law in Washington. (Sunday News April 8, 1937)

Detroit Housewives' League meeting
Detroit Housewives' League meeting

The Detroit Housewives’ League took on the meat packing industry itself. In 1935, they burned a huge packinghouse in protest of high prices, and they joined thousands of Chicago housewives in a march that shut down that city’s entire meat industry. African-American Housewives’ Leagues initiated canvasses, negotiations, and boycotts on the local level to convince neighborhood businesses to hire black employees. The Detroit black women’s Housewives’ League was founded in 1930 by Fannie Peck, and by 1935, the League had over 10,000 members. Nationwide, these Leagues created 75,000 jobs for African Americans, overcoming racial discrimination and ameliorating some of the devastating effects of the Depression. (66)
 

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Image 1, 2 & 3 from the FDR Presidential Library , Image 4 from the University of Washington, Image 5 from The Bentley Historical Library of the University of Michigan

 

(c) Copyright National Women's History Museum 2007