Women and The Great Depression

The role that women have played in the economy has dramatically changed in the last 100 years. Having once provided what was viewed as supplementary income, today, women earn 45% of all household income and over seven million families rely mainly or solely on the woman’s income to survive.  During the era that Skyscraper was written this was definitely not the case. As was mentioned in class, Skyscraper does not discuss much about the Great Depression in the book which made me curious as to what life was like for a woman of the time and how far women have come.

 The Great Depression’s effect on women, then, as it is now, was invisible to the eye. The tangible evidence of breadlines, men selling fruit on street corners, and Hoovervilles rarely contained any images of urban woman. Unemployment, hunger and homelessness was considered a “man’s problem.” Women who found themselves in similar dire straits rarely turned up in public spaces like breadlines or street corners; instead they often tried to cope quietly on their own. The women who sought relief or paid employment risked public scorn or worse for supposedly taking jobs and money away from more “deserving” men. The thought that men are “more deserving” than women makes me sick. I understand that traditionally men are the breadwinners however what is it about the fact that a woman might be their equal that they can’t fathom. This is something that can also be seen in the job industry today. The majority of men are higher paid and are more likely to get a job over a woman.


Norman Cousins said “Simply fire the women, who shouldn’t be working anyway, and hire the men. Presto! No unemployment. No relief rolls. No depression.” With those thoughts all of the work that our foremothers have done is practically nonexistent. In rebuttal to Cousins comment though a sociologist stated, “Few of the people who opposed married women’s employment seem to realize that a coal miner or steel worker cannot very well fill the jobs of nursemaids, cleaning women, or the factory and clerical jobs now filled by women.” Although FDR made happenings to start federal assistance programs few women were treated as equal citizens when trying to qualify for these. One-quarter of National Recovery Administration codes set lower minimum wages for women than men performing the same jobs and New Deal agencies like the Civil Work Administration and Civilian Conservation Corps gave jobs exclusively to men over women.

From 1935-1936 the median family income was $1160 (a year), which translated into $20-25 a week to cover all their expenses, including food, shelter, clothing, and perhaps an occasional treat like going to the movies. Most people now make that roughly every one to two weeks. Can you imagine trying to survive on just $20 a week and supporting a family? Now it would be impossible.

When I first read Skyscraper I wondered how people could escape into a pulp fiction novel. But given the realties that many American’s were facing, anything that offers an escape from reality had to be appreciated.

http://gbr.pepperdine.edu/2010/08/women-the-recession-and-the-impending-economic-recovery/ http://www.gilderlehrman.org/history-by-era/great-depression/essays/women-and-great-depression



Filed under City Cultures

4 responses to “Women and The Great Depression

  1. Really interesting materials and background! I think this will really help your classmates imagine the kind of economic reality that was being faced in this period. If you’re interested, there’s another very famous text that deals with the Depression and the ways that people escaped from it. It’s a movie called Gold Diggers of 1933, and this is the opening song: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UJOjTNuuEVw.

  2. jordanorr

    I enjoyed the history in this post. I never knew that women who took jobs during the depression could suffer such hostility for “taking a man’s job.” It really puts a new spin on the whole firing of married women. What really struck me was your last point on this post, women escaping in pulp novels and how it really seemed like an escape to them during this time. Well, it made me giggle a little because I was thinking of our reading “escapes” these days. Fifty Shades of Grey, Sandra Brown Novels…real, true trashy sex novels. We use them to experience hot, passionate romance. It’s comical to think that women used novels like Skyscraper to escape. They fantasized about working and being successfull, all while being in love and a mother. These are things that women today experience and even take for granted – the ability to be really happy in your job as well as your family life. Your post shed alot of light on dreams of women in the Depression versus dreams that women have now. I really liked this post!

  3. aualum12

    I’m in the same position as Jordan. I never knew that women were considered to have stolen the jobs of men. I’ve never really put much thought into it, but now thinking about it I’m sure that women (really people in general) needed an escape from the harshness of their everyday lives. It seems fitting that these women would “escape” their less than desirable lives by reading pulp fiction. The idea of most women working and having the luxury to choose their careers or a husband doesn’t seem like it would be a reality for many women in the Great Depression. Although this luxury of choice doesn’t seem like a reality for most women, dreaming of a life with a career, a loving husband, and a family would be a dream that women during this time period would most likely have.

    I agree with Jordan in the fact that it is easy for women today to take for granted the option of having a career and a family, and not being looked down upon because of it. Thanks for posting. Nice job!

  4. nam88

    I was thinking the same thing about the novels we read as an escape. This past spring semester to just escape from a lot of the heavy reading I was doing for classes I read books like Good Christian Bitches, White Girl Problems, and the Fifty Shades of Grey trilogy. Compared to the books we read now Skyscraper is PG. And as for women now, I definitely think that we are so lucky to be able to have a career and family.

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