Underpaid, But Employed: How the Great Depression Affected Working Women

Underpaid, But Employed: How the Great Depression Affected Working Women

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During the Great Depression, millions of Americans lost their jobs in the wake of the 1929 Stock Market Crash. But for one group of people, employment rates actually went up: women.

From 1930 to 1940, the number of employed women in the United States rose 24 percent from 10.5 million to 13 million. The main reason for women’s higher employment rates was the fact that the jobs available to women—so called “women’s work”— were in industries that were less impacted by the stock market.

“Some of the hardest-hit industries like coal mining and manufacturing were where men predominated,” says Susan Ware, historian and author of Holding Their Own: American Women in the 1930s. “Women were more insulated from job loss because they were employed in more stable industries like domestic service, teaching and clerical work.”

‘Women’s Work’ During the Great Depression

By the 1930s, women had been slowly entering the workforce in greater numbers for decades. But the Great Depression drove women to find work with a renewed sense of urgency as thousands of men who were once family breadwinners lost their jobs. A 22 percent decline in marriage rates between 1929 and 1939 also meant more single women had to support themselves.

While jobs available to women paid less, they were less volatile. By 1940, 90 percent of all women’s jobs could be catalogued into 10 categories like nursing, teaching and civil service for white women, while black and Hispanic women were largely constrained to domestic work, according to David Kennedy’s 1999 book, Freedom From Fear.

The rapid expansion of the government under the New Deal increased demand for secretarial roles that women rushed to fill and created other employment opportunities, albeit limited ones, for women.

READ MORE: Is Marriage History?

Eleanor Roosevelt and Frances Perkins

Women during the Great Depression had a strong advocate in First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt. She lobbied her husband, President Franklin D. Roosevelt, for more women in office—like Secretary of Labor Frances Perkins, the first woman to ever hold a cabinet position and the driving force behind the Social Security Act.

Ironically, while Perkins held a prominent job, herself, she advocated against married women competing for jobs, calling the behavior “selfish,” since they could supposedly be supported by their husbands. In 1932, the new Federal Economy Act backed up Perkins’ sentiment when it ruled that spouses of couples who both worked for the federal government would be the first to be terminated.

READ MORE: Why Married Women Were Banned From Working During the Great Depression

Discrimination Against Women

For those women who managed to stay employed, meanwhile, the fight for decent compensation got tougher. Over 25 percent of the National Recovery Administration’s wage codes set lower wages for women, according to T.H. Watkin’s The Great Depression: America in the 1930s. And jobs created under the Works Progress Administration confined women to fields like sewing and nursing that paid less than roles reserved for men.

While women were permitted to join certain unions, they were given limited impact on policy, Kennedy writes. Ultimately, smaller wages and fewer benefits were the norm for women in the workforce—and this was especially true for women of color.

Mexican-American Women and the Great Depression

Some 400,000 Mexican-Americans moved out of the United States to Mexico in the 1930s, many against their will, according to Kennedy.

“The attitude was ‘they’re taking our jobs,’” says historian Natalia Molina, author of Fit to Be Citizens. “Before the Depression, Mexican immigrants were seen as ‘birds of passage’ coming here do jobs American didn’t want to do, like picking seasonal crops,” she says. “Women were especially targeted, because having families in the states meant the workers would stay.”

Mexican-American women who could find work often participated in the informal economy, working as street vendors or renting out rooms to lodgers as people downsized their homes.

Black Women and the Great Depression

For black women, meanwhile, the entry of more white women in the workforce meant jobs and decent wages became even harder to find.

“In every place where there could be discrimination, black women were doubly disadvantaged,” says Cheryl Greenberg, a historian at Trinity College. “More white women were going into the workforce because they could and because they had to. Black women had been in the workforce since 1865. Black families had virtually never been able to survive on a single wage.”

One-fifth of all Americans receiving federal relief during the Great Depression were black, most in the rural South, according to Kennedy. Yet “farm workers and domestic workers—the two main places you found black women— had no pension or safety net,” says Greenberg, referring to their exclusion from the 1935 Social Security Act. Rather than fire domestic help, private employers could simply pay them less without legal repercussions.

All federal relief programs were administered locally, meaning discrimination was rife, according to Watkins. Despite these obstacles, Roosevelt’s “Black Cabinet,” led by Mary McLeod Bethune, ensured nearly every New Deal agency had a black advisor. The number of African-Americans working in government tripled.

READ MORE: Last Hired, First Fired: How the Great Depression Affected African Americans

Rosie The Riveter

By 1940, only 15 percent of married women were employed vs. nearly 50 percent of single women. But the stigma around married women taking jobs from men was set aside as America hurtled toward World War II. As men were deployed overseas, women were called to take their places in manufacturing roles on the home front. Icons like Rosie the Riveter celebrated women’s newly expanded contributions in the workforce—at least until the war’s end.

READ MORE: Uncovering the Inspiration Behind Rosie the Riveter

World History

The Great Depression in 1930 left a hallmark in American history. It was certainly a dramatic event that happened- an era of stock market crashes, bank runs, and currency speculations. The Depression left unemployment from less than three million to four million in 1930 eight million in 1931 and twelve and one-half million in 1932. In 1929, the average income was $2,300, which decreased into $1,500 in 1933.[1] The Great Depression left high unemployment rates, failing banks, and a changing financial market. From 1930 to 1933, women were forced to work because of poor economic conditions, but faced employment discrimination. The passage of the New Deal greatly improved women’s experience in the workplace.

What led to the Great Depression?

The financial crisis in 1929 occurred when investors were unable to meet margin calls. The increased in stock prices drove investors’ expectation. The number of people buying stocks increased, but people did not have the money to buy stocks so they borrowed money from the banks. Buying in margin came into play brokers and banks protected themselves and many put in a “call provision.” They loaned a certain percentage that banks and stockholders agreed on. When the stock market value fluctuated, the banks started calling stockholders to put more equity to cover what was owed. As the fallacy of composition principle states, “what works in a part, does not work as a whole.” So in 1929 the bankers had made a call provision to protect themselves and demanded more equity from the stockholders. The stockholders were desperately selling their stocks, which further deflated the market. The mass sell off stocks led to decrease of the stock market value, which then led to great depression in 1930.[2]

How did the Great Depression affect women?

While women were employed in sales, clerical, and domestic services as early as 1890s, the Great Depression disproportionately affected men. The composition of family changed over time as they moved through Depression. More than two million women and men faced unemployment and homelessness they slept in city subways, roads, and vacant lands. In 1929, the stock market crash paralyzed industries dominated by men such as steel, rubber, and chemicals. Most males lost their jobs. They had hard time finding jobs in the market. By 1930s, the unemployment on men was twice or thrice times than women during most of the Depression years.[3] On the other hand, manufacturing businesses, where most women were employed, were not affected as much as the big ones. Women had more wages in teaching, nursing, domestic service, and office work.[4] Although women mostly depended on men-wage earnings before the Depression hit, they were compelled to look for job for the survival of their family.

Though many women had not worked before, the economic condition forced women to go out and became the breadwinners of the family since their husbands lost their jobs. Women weighed their responsibilities and attitudes of their family and the difficulty of finding work. The decision whether to work or not depended on women.[5] Working lessened the responsibilities of women- wives and mothers- inside their households.[6] Many women- poor, single, immigrant- considered work as necessity.[7] While more women went out to work, discrimination against married women generated.

During the Depression, the public did not appreciate that more married women were at work. The two reasons why the society discriminated married women were, “they thought women were taking men’s jobs, and they were abandoning their families in a time of extreme need.” [8] Society perceived that men were threatened that women were taking jobs, but in reality, they mainly worked at manufacturing, domestic service, and clerical work. Another criticism was women were neglecting their responsibilities inside their homes. The criticisms caused the federal government to implement a law that married women were not allowed to work in government jobs in 1930. Public schools, transportation systems, banks and other companies fired and refused to hire married women.[9] Instead of looking at women as an ally that supported the family, they were seen as threat because it diminished the role of men in the family units. These discriminations put against women were shallow because they did not realize that they were going in the workforce not to compete with the men, but to save their family from starvation.

During 1930, women consisted of more than twenty-five percent of the total labor in the United States ten million women were working. In the early year of the collapse, they were unable to find sources of income and were mostly discriminated against by public employment (Abelson 106). Most had been unemployed for long months they used up whatever income they had. Almost forty-three percent of the known unemployment in Washington D.C was women. According to the Milwaukee Journal, sixty percent of the non-family women had been self-supporting in 1929. They came to the attention of relief authorities but it did not mean that they were given welfare.[10]

African American single women more likely to be in the workforce they were encouraged to bring money into their homes. This cultural value supported and motivated the black women families to work.[11] Between 1931 and 1934, many were homeless because resources were restricted mostly for women and families with dependent children therefore homelessness could not be avoided.[12] Historian Frederick Lewis Allen wrote, “One of the three strangest things about Depression is the fact that it was so nearly invisible to the casual eye.” And a woman said, “You could feel it, but you could not look out of the window and see it.”[13] The effect of the Depression was very devastating. Everyone was aware, but they could not bear the situation they experienced. The impact of the Depression greatly affected African-American women in the workforce.

African-American women, though, suffered worse- underpaid agricultural laborer, and two-third of domestic servants were black. Less than one-tenth of all black wage- earning women worked in the manufacturing of meats, cigars, and textile industries. They were recommended to do well in their work if they want to stay in their jobs.[14] However, they lost their jobs when white women entered the market during the Depression. In 1935, twenty-five percent of black women were receiving government relief payments. Although married women were employed in the 1930s, the wages were low and did not ensure the family’s survival. For women who worked in sewing and production of toys made $5 each week.[15] The Women’s Bureau surveyed five industries and white women made $18 per week at a time. In 1937, the Department of Labor Women’s Bureau found that more than two and one half million were white women still work in the factories and one- third as domestics.[16] However, when the New Deal was created, it enabled women to experience a change in the workforce.

Did the New Deal improve women’s working condition?

President Roosevelt established the New Deal in 1933. The New Deal partnered with National Recovery Administration, Wagner Act, Works Progress Administration, Social Security Program and Fair Labor Standards. These elements of the New Deal helped and enabled women and men to get jobs to sustain their families. The unemployed women with children were given relief. Through National Recovery Administration (NRA), women were able to work forty hours each week. This drove up the average working female into sixty-three percent. Most women, through Works Progress Administration (WPA), began working at sewing companies and doing office work. Women who had disabled husbands, widows, and singles were given social security payments. It secured women’s rights in labor, “By 1940, 800,000 American women workers were unionized– triple the number in 1930. New Deal programs legitimized women’s collective bargaining efforts, encouraged more women from more industries to unionize, and encouraged traditionally male nationals unions to include women.”[17] NPA and the Wagner Act strengthened women’s roles and helped them get into male-dominated jobs. The New Deal helped raise women’s wages, but a little less than men. It improved working conditions, high level of participation, and overcame discrimination against colored people. After the New Deal was built, the percentage of women in the workforce increased.

One third of the married women worked- which fifty percent of increase from 1920s. The responsibilities of being a mothers, wives, and daughters decrease because of going into the workforce.[18] More unskilled women worked in the automobile factories and job that traditionally for men like rubber, metal, leather, and glass industries however, they get a little less pay than what men got. The New Deal opened the door to employment for women during the Depression.

The Great Depression greatly impacted America and its people. During the crash of 1929, many lost their jobs. It left a high unemployment rate among American people, which was a life-threatening situation because they were not financially secured. In other words, they did not have income to buy necessities for their survival. The crash affected mostly male workers because it hit the industries where a great number of men worked, but not much of the female manufacturing businesses. This led most women to work and served as the breadwinners of their families. The New Deal was established in the midst of the Great Depression, which allowed women to enter the workforce and to obtain opportunities for financial independence and autonomy. It improved the working conditions and encouraged women to join organized work, most importantly, the New Deal secured women’s labor rights.

Abelson, Elaine. “Women Who Have No Men to Work for Them”: The Gender and Homeless in the Great Depression, 1930-1934.” Feminist Studies 29, no. 1 (2003): 106-114. Academic Search Premier, EBSCOhost (accessed April 14, 2014).

Klein, Maury. “The Stock Market Crash of 1929: A Review Article.” The Business History Review 75, no. 2 (2001): 332.

“The Depression and World War II.” National Women’s History Museum. Last modified 2007.

My essay is the correct word count (1000 words) and that I have listed the word count on by the title of the essay. It if it shorter, I understand that I will be marked down based on a percentage. So if I write 500 words, the highest grade will be a 50/100.

I have not plagiarized in this paper. I understand what plagiarism is.

I also did not use websites as secondary sources for my paper. If I did, I know that I will receive a 0/100 for my paper.

I understand that if I plagiarize that I will receive a Fail for the assignment and my actions will be reported to the Dean. I also understand that I could be kicked out of the course and the college.

I also understand that turning in a paper without footnotes/bibliography constitutes plagiarism and I will receive a 0/100 for my paper if I do this.

Sheila Mae Garnace 4/18/2014

[2] Maury Klein, “The Stock Market Crash of 1929: A Review Article,” The Business History Review 75, no. 2 (2001): 332,

[4] “The Depression and World War II,” National Women’s History Museum, last modified 2007,

[8] “The Depression and World War II.”

[9] “The Depression and World War II.”

[10] Elaine Abelson, “Women Who Have No Men to Work for Them”: The Gender and Homeless in the Great Depression, 1930-1934,” Feminist Studies 29, no. 1 (2003): 111, Academic Search Premier, EBSCOhost (accessed April 14, 2014).


Men without work tended to lose their authority within the family. "The eyes of the whole family shifted back to Ma," Steinbeck wrote. "She was the power. She had taken control." Nor was such a power shift in families merely a fictional creation. In his 1940 book Citizens without Work, sociologist E. Wight Bakke found instances of men who lost their jobs and within a year or two the center of authority in the family had shifted to the wife.

Steinbeck uses the image of a stick as an appropriate metaphor for this transfer of authority from men to women. "Time was when a man said what we'd do," Pa Joad complains. "Seems like women is tellin' now." He threatens to get out his stick to put women in their place. "Times when they's food an' a place to set," Ma responds, "then maybe you can use your stick an' keep your skin whole. But you ain't a-doin' your job, either a thinkin' or aworkin'. If you was, why, you could use your stick, an' women folks'd sniffle their nose an' creep-mouse aroun'. But you jus' get you a stick now and you ain't lickin' no woman you're a-fightin', cause I got a stick all laid out, too."

Men whose self-perceived masculinity was a casualty of unemployment yearned for a return to what they believed to be the natural order of gender. This vision was perhaps best captured in the words of the 1933 song, "Remember My Forgotten Man": "Ever since the world began, a woman's got to have a man."

During the Depression that male profession of faith in female dependence no longer seemed certain. We not only see increasing images of women who don't fit either of the categories in the traditional dichotomy, we see whores who are "virgins," such as Dallas in the 1939 John Ford film Stagecoach, and women with "sticks," such as Mae West in She Done Him Wrong and her other films and Scarlett O'Hara in Gone with the Wind. And even if women didn't have sticks, they still had the female powers that had for so long been the source of feelings of inferiority in many men, as Steinbeck so memorably indicated with the novel's ending: a helpless, starving man being breast-fed by the Joads' daughter Rose of Sharon. The female is plainly the provider and the male the dependent one in that scene.


Like other organizations, the University of Washington considered nepotism to be unacceptable and implemented a policy barring it in 1936, but the anti-nepotism sentiments had been growing within the University for some time prior to the official instigation of the policy. In 1934, Lee Paul Sieg was appointed president of the University of Washington. At Governor Clarence D. Martin’s behest, Sieg eagerly took on the issue of nepotism among the University faculty, admitting that the issue was already at the forefront of his agenda.[4] In fact, as historian Richard Berner notes, the Board of Regents had already “anticipated some of Sieg’s enthusiasm as early as 1928, when that body ruled that “no more wives of faculty men should be added to the faculty or office forces.”[5] This suggests that the attitudes of the administration against dual employment had existed since before the economic problems of the Depression, when the policies were implemented.

Even before Sieg’s appointment, the administration had taken preliminary steps toward an official policy barring “dual employment” among faculty, but Sieg’s involvement raised the situation to an extreme level and instigated a chorus of disapproval from the Instructors’ Association. In 1931, University of Washington Vice-President David Thomson had already begun implementing an anti-nepotism policy at the University amidst the intensifying employment crisis of the Depression. With the support of the administration, Thomson and the newly-appointed Sieg determined in 1934 to dismiss all female faculty members whose husbands were also in the University’s employ. In 1936 the policy became official but the Instructors’ Association vehemently protested its inception. Later the same year, under duress from the Instructors’ Association, Sieg agreed to add stipulations to the policy regarding dismissals.[6] The new policy declared that, excepting cases of “extreme aggravation,”[7] short-term faculty could be dismissed with timely notice, but that permanent and tenured faculty should be given one year’s notice prior to termination and should not be dismissed without “faculty consideration.”[8] Sieg also agreed to declare the ruling non-retroactive, also at the insistence of the Instructors’ Association.

Dr. Theresa McMahon, shown here in Seattle in 1938, argued against gender-based discrimination at the Uniiersity of Washington, where she taught as a professor of economics. Prof. McMahon was encouraged to retire under the new anti-nepotism policy. Click image to enlarge. (Courtesy of the Museum of History and Industry)

However, Sieg’s concessions were grudging. In a private 1936 letter to University deans and department heads, Sieg asserted that “the resolution was not retroactive. Nevertheless, it is the desire of the [Board of] Regents that as soon as it can be done without injustice, present cases of dual employment be reduced as rapidly as possible.”[9] Indeed, Sieg attempted to persuade couples whose dual employment occurred prior to the policy’s enactment to resign from the faculty, despite the clear distinction specified in the rule. One such couple, Edward and Theresa McMahon, refused to budge. Prof. Theresa McMahon, a longtime Economics instructor, was known as an unwavering and outspoken proponent for labor rights and labor unions. In a 1937 article in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, McMahon alleged that shortly after the policy’s inception, President Sieg had approached her husband, a History professor, and advised that, while the ruling was “not [made] retroactive, [Mrs. McMahon’s] resignation would be welcome.”[10] Sieg’s attempts to purge the University of married couples who were exempt from the official ruling intimates an underlying crusade separate from any attempts at unemployment relief.

Tension developed between the administration and the Instructors’ Association over the implementation of the policy, and when Sieg ardently attempted to enforce it, a near witch-hunt developed. While several couples on the faculty were allowed, despite Sieg’s fervent disapproval, to keep their employment as part of the non-retroactive addendum, one couple in particular was not so fortunate. Lea Puymbroeck Miller, a highly regarded professor in the Art department, was dismissed in January 1938, under the University’s anti-nepotism policy. Miller took a leave of absence during the previous academic year to study abroad and pursue professional enrichment, during which time she married university Zoology professor Robert Miller. Prof. Lea Miller later alleged that she had never been informed of the 1936 policy, and in fact, was overseas at the time of its inception. Sieg had attempted to keep the (“semi-secret”, as it was called in later newspaper articles[11]) ruling under wraps from the media, but in later communication to Miller and in public statements, Sieg and the Board of Regents maintained that all faculty, including Miller, were advised of the ruling. However, it remains unclear how, if at all, faculty members were actually notified. At the time of the policy’s inception, Miller was not married, and would have been excluded if Sieg had chosen to notify only those faculty members affected. Nevertheless, Miller was terminated on January 4, 1938, only one term into the academic year.

The crisis of the Depression allowed employers in many fields claimed justification in disregarding employment rights and protections already provided to individual workers. In Sieg’s fervor to reduce the number of married faculty and campus staff, he essentially ignored Miller’s contract, which retained her for the entire 1937–1938 school year, as well as his previous concessions to the Instructor’s Association. The overall faculty and the Instructors’ Association viewed this transgression as a betrayal. Miller’s appointment was not short-term, as she had been a member of the faculty for seven years and was contracted to be retained for at least another academic year. Sieg’s amendment to the 1936 decree required faculty consideration and one year’s notice prior to dismissal for tenured employees, excepting cases of “extreme aggravation.”[12] Sieg alleged that Miller’s termination, despite her year-long appointment, was completely in accordance with the Regents’ ruling because “that resolution antedates any notice of appointment. At the time of…appointment [Miller was] not then married to a member of the faculty and, therefore, it was, of course, impossible to qualify [her] notice of appointment.”[13] However, the fact remained that she was appointed, and her employment record did not meet any of the criteria for “extreme cases” outlined in the anti-nepotism policy that would have exempted her from the stipulations of the amendment. In fact, Sieg lauded Miller’s academic performance. He acknowledged in a 1937 letter to Miller that the “ruling [had] nothing whatsoever to do with the passing of judgment upon a person’s ability as an instructor or anything whatsoever with regard to the past record of employment…Please remember that throughout this there is nothing whatsoever personal. We are all deeply appreciative of the splendid work you have done.”[14] If Miller’s performance was, in fact, splendid, then no cause existed to break her contract without notice.

Art professor Lea van Puymbroeck Miller was dismissed by the University of Washington after her marriage to UW zoology professor Robert Miller, as one of the first tests of UW's "anti-nepotism" policies. Miller fought but eventually lost her case. The "anti-nepotism" policies saw married women's jobs as expendable, presuming that their husbands would take care of them, and favoring men as the primary workers. This image from the January 4, 1938 edition of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. Click the image to enlarge.

The University administration and the Instructors’ Association clashed bitterly throughout 1937 and into 1938, and faculty involvement only served to spur the anti-nepotism tensions on campus. In a letter dated January 4th, 1938, Francis Wilson, writing on behalf of the governing board of the Instructors’ Association, attempted to persuade Sieg to operate in accordance with Miller’s contract and the stipulations to which he previously agreed. According to Wilson and the Instructors Association, there was “no basis for terminating her appointment at the end of the fall term, and… [it would have been] in accordance with good academic procedure” to follow the conditions of both Miller’s contract and Sieg’s agreement with the Instructors’ Association by allowing her employment to continue through the remaining academic year.[15] Wilson went on to admonish Sieg for his blatant disregard for the policy agreed upon by Sieg and the Instructors’ Association regarding faculty input. “It was our understanding,” Wilson chided, “that in cases of dismissal a faculty committee would be appointed to consider the matter…this was the type of procedure which you had accepted some time ago.”[16] Convinced that Sieg would not comply with the agreement, the Instructors’ Association consulted the University faculty on Miller’s termination. The results indicated that 72% of the faculty believed that Miller’s case should be reconsidered, 69% believed that intermarriage between faculty members was not cause for termination, and a staggering 98% reminded Sieg that a full year’s notice was required.[17]

Furthermore, Walter Isaacs, Miller’s direct supervisor, appealed to the administration on her behalf.[18] He claimed that her dismissal would cause not only academic detriment to the institution, as she was a highly regarded and established professor, but also financial expenditure, as her wages were significantly lower than a male professor of her caliber would earn. On January 13, 1938, under pressure from the Instructors’ Association and the newly-involved faculty Teachers’ Union, along with the insistence of the University faculty, the Board of Regents held a meeting in which they discussed Miller’s case, but ultimately upheld their initial ruling.[19] Three days later, the Regents released a public statement saying that the anti-nepotism rule had been implemented as “a matter of sound public policy to prevent two persons of the same family from drawing two salaries from a public payroll” that all faculty had been notified of its inception and, as Miller’s case did not fall under any of the exemptions, that “the Board [had] no alternative but to reaffirm and sustain the rule” in her case.[20] Despite the opinions of Miller’s supervisor and the greater University faculty, or the attempted intervention by the Instructors’ Association, Miller’s employment was never reinstated. Miller accepted the Regents’ decision as final and discontinued her appeals for reconsideration. She eventually relocated with her husband to teach at the University of California in Berkeley.

While Miller may have accepted defeat, the controversy escalated and received a surge of local and national attention as the Teachers’ Union, as well as public figures and political organizations nationwide, openly reviled the university and its actions. Seattle City Councilwoman Frances Powell, Washington State Representative Margaret Coughlin, and State Senator Mary Farquarson all publicly condemned the ruling.[21] The National Women’s Party, in Washington D.C., protested Miller’s dismissal to President Sieg, and the University of Washington chapter of the YWCA filed written protests with the Board of Regents and Governor Clarence Martin.[22] Additionally, the State Federation of Business and Professional Women’s Clubs released a statement “deploring the action and calling for the appointment of a committee to talk it over.”[23] The Teachers’ Union organized the Committee for the Defense of Women’s Rights, which fought against such efforts to all but eradicate women from the workplace. Eleanor Roosevelt (though not speaking directly in regard to Miller’s case) openly condemned such campaigns as the “shallow thinking of those who expect to solve the unemployment problem by victimizing working women who happen to be married.”[24] Although such employment practices targeting and openly discriminating against women had long been utilized and widely accepted, the Miller case stirred an indignant and unprecedented response from the public.

Many feminists charged that such firings were a façade for blatant and widespread discrimination against women and that such policies simply served to penalize women for marriage, rather than provide any benefit for the unemployed population. Some alleged that women were being used as a scapegoat for the employment problem and the Depression in general.[25] The scapegoat argument is proved by commentary at the time, as many people indeed believed that working women were a significant element of the unemployment problem. Political journalist Norman Cousins asserted that the simplest solution to the dilemma lay in merely removing women from the workforce and thereby creating employment for all the unemployed, and presumably more deserving, men. “There are approximately 10,000,000 people out of work in the United States today,” he declared in a 1939 article. “There are also 10,000,000 or more women, married and single, who are jobholders. Simply fire the women, who shouldn’t be working anyway, and hire the men. Presto! No unemployment…No depression.”[26] The Women’s Bureau retorted that fewer than 25% of all adult women held employment, less than one-third of those women were married, and nearly one-third of women who held employment were completely responsible for the financial support of their families.[27]

Theresa McMahon and other prominent educators protested the anti-nepotism policy and Miller's firing. This image from the January 7, 1938 edition of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. Click the image to enlarge and read the full article.

Historian Alice Kessler-Harris has charged that such attitudes were not the result of some desperate attempt to secure employment for the unemployed or to find meaning in a shaky, dire economic period. She and other historians contend that these widely held beliefs were an anxious response to the increasing liberation women had found in the decades prior, and the qualms of the general public that the American family structure and values would be abandoned in the upheaval of the uncertain time.[28] Historian Lois Scharf agrees that the fear surrounding women’s employment was rooted in the “conventional social attitudes and values” that many people believed were weakening as women found increasing opportunities outside the home.[29]

Notions of unfairness continued to reverberate throughout public opinion in the months following the Regents’ announcement. A great deal of the debate occurred in newspaper editorials as the common public were finally empowered to speak out, by the outcry of influential public figures like Eleanor Roosevelt and illustrious organizations like the National Women’s Party. A few opponents called attention to the fact that the 1932 Economy Act had been repealed in 1937, which “established the principle of a married woman’s right to earn a living”[30] and that, although the law did not apply to Miller, it suggested the unfairness of her dismissal given federal legal standards. Some noted that Miller’s dismissal “established a dangerous precedent”[31] that allowed an assault on a person’s rights.

Conversely, Miller’s termination also bolstered those who still supported the mass dismissals of women on the grounds of dual employment. Like the opinions Cousins expressed, supporters of Miller’s termination and of the termination of married women in general charged that married women were responsible for hoarding the precious jobs denied to out-of-work men. The Native Sons of Washington, a State historical society, publicly declared support for the ruling and claimed it spoke for all 7,000 members.[32] The Executive Board of the Central Labor Council agreed that women with employed husbands, particularly union members, should refrain from working.[33] After the initial outrage that Miller’s termination caused, the public protest surrounding the incident waned, but the entrenched hostilities on both sides of the debate continued.

Throughout the following decade, the improving economy remedied the employment emergency that had outwardly prompted the unfair terminations, but the anti-nepotism attitude and its friction among the administration and faculty continued at the University of Washington. In 1944, Sieg attempted to make the 1936 resolution retroactive once more, stating that the intent of the administration in enacting the rule was to “arrive at a condition in which there were no married couples on the University staff.”[34] While businesses and other entities had used the employment predicament as justification for enacting and enforcing such rules during the Great Depression, that level of economic anxiety was hardly rampant by 1944 when Sieg attempted to make the ruling retroactive. The ostensible objective was to remove women from superfluous jobs to provide positions to jobless men, but Sieg’s comments, nearly a decade after the policy’s inception, suggest that the timing of the initial resolution was simply coincidental. Indeed, the Board of Regents had already resolved in 1928 to discontinue the hire of married faculty members, before the employment crisis, and Sieg admitted in 1934 that, prior to Governor Clarence Martin’s request, he had already considered the issue of nepotism to be critical.[35] After another battle between the administration and the Instructors’ Association, the notion to make the resolution retroactive was withdrawn in 1945. Although the anti-nepotism controversy peaked during the 1930s, the policy was still in effect, albeit with periodic modifications, until 1971.

The tribulations of the Great Depression created desperation and uncertainty among the nation that, unfortunately, became the guise for discrimination against working women. Miller’s firing created the platform for a bitter debate over women’s right to employment, but her case was neither uncommon nor extreme: working women throughout the nation, some with employed husbands and some without, were discharged in throngs without any recourse. The public protest of Miller’s dismissal was an unexpected and prodigious reaction to a common practice, which made the case a significant event in the history of labor and the Great Depression.

The 1930s – The Depression

The Great Depression began October 1929 with the stock market crash and continued until 1939 in some regions. During this period, Canadians suffered through the worst economic downturn in the country’s history. In British Columbia, one symbol of the Depression was the apple seller, an unemployed man with a basket of apples trying to sell enough to feed himself and his family.

Winfield packinghouse, 1930s

In smaller communities, women worked together to ensure that no family went hungry. Once relief payments were available through the government, the applebox belles of the Oyama packinghouses developed a strategy of working the minimum number of weeks then requesting to be laid off so that other women could also work the number of weeks to qualify for relief payments.

During the Depression, some men applied for work in packing line positions but most packinghouses continued to employ only women as sorters and packers, paying them a lower wage.

Unemployment Great Depression and Germany

Around 90% of the restitution disbursements of Germany were invalidated in 1932. There was far-flung unemployment reaching as high as 25% since every industrial sector was in bad shape. In 1932, the unemployment rate attained as high as 30%

After Adolf Hitler came to the helm of affairs, there was a massive reduction in wages. The Nazi party took over the labour unions and government expenditures. As a result, unemployment dropped considerably by 1935. Extensive outlays for armament played a key role in retrieval.


Blakey, George T. Hard Times and New Deal in Kentucky, 1929–1939. 1986.

Eller, Ronald D. Miners, Millhands and Mountaineers: Industrialization of the Appalachian South, 1880–1930. 1982.

Hall, Jaquelyn Dowd. "Disorderly Women: Gender and Labor Militancy in the Appalachian South." Journal of American History 73 (1986): 354–382.

Heavener, John W. Which Side Are You On: The Harlan County Coal Miners, 1931–1939. 1978.

Kirby, Jack Temple. Rural Worlds Lost: The American South, 1920–1960. 1987.

Lewis, Ronald L. Black Coal Miners in America: Race, Class and Community Conflict, 1780–1980. 1987.

McDonald, Michael J., and John Muldowny. TVA and the Dispossessed: The Resettlement of Population in the Norris Dam Area. 1982.

Salstrom, Paul. Appalachia's Path to Dependency: Rethinking a Region's Economic History, 1730–1940. 1994.

Taylor, Paul F. Bloody Harlan: The United Mine Workers of America in Harlan County, Kentucky, 1931–1941. 1990.

Thomas, Jerry Bruce. An Appalachian New Deal: West Virginia in the Great Depression. 1998.

Trotter, Joe William, Jr. Coal, Class, and Color: Blacks in Southern West Virginia, 1915–32. 1990.

Walker, Melissa. All We Knew Was to Farm: Rural Women in the Upcountry South, 1919–1941. 2000.

Growth in Union Membership

With such support, trade union membership jumped to almost 9 million by 1940. Larger membership rolls did not come without growing pains, however. In 1935, eight unions within the AFL created the Committee for Industrial Organization (CIO) to organize workers in such mass-production industries as automobiles and steel. Its supporters wanted to organize all workers at a company — skilled and unskilled alike — at the same time.

The craft unions that controlled the AFL opposed efforts to unionize unskilled and semiskilled workers, preferring that workers remain organized by craft across industries. The CIO's aggressive drives succeeded in unionizing many plants, however. In 1938, the AFL expelled the unions that had formed the CIO. The CIO quickly established its own federation using a new name, the Congress of Industrial Organizations, which became a full competitor with the AFL.

After the United States entered World War II, key labor leaders promised not to interrupt the nation's defense production with strikes. The government also put controls on wages, stalling wage gains. But workers won significant improvements in fringe benefits — notably in the area of health insurance and union membership soared.


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Kennedy, David M. Freedom from Fear: The American People in Depression and War, 1929–1945. 1999.

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The real danger at the moment is that people are starting to associate women with childcare more strongly than before - Ariane Hegewisch

And across levels of seniority, parental status is affecting how women are seen in the workplace. Women who are pregnant or on maternity leave are reporting being pushed toward redundancy or furlough. Ariane Hegewisch, who leads the Employment and Earnings programme at the Institute for Women’s Policy Research in the US, is concerned that the pandemic “may lead to discrimination going forward, [companies] being less likely to pick out women for fast-track positions or management training”. There’s a risk, she says, that employers may assume that all women are overburdened by caring responsibilities, without taking measures to support them. “The real danger at the moment is that people are starting to associate women with childcare more strongly than before.”

The double-edged sword of flexibility

These pressures, and some potential solutions, can be seen in current debates around flexible working. Flexibility has been invaluable to women juggling multiple demands on their time, but it isn’t a cure-all to achieve gender parity in the workplace.

While inflexibility is a key reason that female employees are considering reducing their hours or leaving their jobs, flexible work tends to be lower-paid, more precarious and less of a stepping stone to top-level jobs. And the especially dark side of flexibility comes when workers are underemployed, underpaid and at the mercy of employers to assign hours, often on unpredictable schedules. Such unpredictability is particularly hard on the working women who now have to act as home-school teachers or carers. For flexible work to play a greater role in chipping away at the gender pay gap, it needs to be better regulated and sustainable for all levels of employees, including high-paying roles.

Flexible work isn't a cure-all, particularly given women assume a disproportionate share of caring responsibilities

Flexible work also needs to be available to and taken up by men. The multiple burdens that suppress women’s achievements won’t ease until men take on a greater share of domestic and caring responsibilities, and also become more likely to downsize or adjust their own hours when family circumstances change. But this is challenging in practice. Hegewisch points out that in a heterosexual couple, “if one person has to cut back… for care, it is likely to be the person who earns less in a couple, and that is more likely still to be the woman.”

Some families can make it work, but a certain combination of advantages has to be in place. “We’re one of the really lucky ones,” says Hellen Stirling-Baker, who has just reopened her business, an ethical children’s shop in Sheffield, UK, called Small Stuff. During much of lockdown she had to move her shop from bricks-and-mortar to online, but sales haven’t suffered hugely. Crucially, she says, she and her husband have been equally dividing domestic tasks and care of their four-year-old son. As he works for a bank and has a more rigid schedule even though he’s working from home, he’s been taking on the evening shift of cooking dinner and caring for their son, as well as helping her reopen the shop.

The period of temporary – though hectic – flexibility for the self-employed Stirling-Baker allowed her to reorient her business and buffer the unpredictability of her son’s new life. She’s now found a new location for Small Stuff that’s larger, allows for social distancing and comes with a rent-free period. It helped that she could compensate for her husband’s strict schedule by making her own hours, but that can’t continue once the shop is running normally. And the hard work is taking a toll. Stirling-Baker hasn’t been sleeping much, she acknowledges, and is focused on the crucial Christmas period for retail sales, while trying not to think too much on the uncertain period beyond that.

Short-term solutions

There are, of course, things that employers can do to incorporate flexibility and help ease the impact of the pandemic recession on women. Managers can set more realistic expectations and re-evaluate performance criteria – for instance, not criticising employees for working outside of core hours. This would help relieve the exhaustion that’s particularly affecting certain groups of women (although companies that are already crunched may find it hard to be generous). Only about half of North American workplaces surveyed by McKinsey and Lean In had communicated their productivity expectations during the pandemic, and just 37% had changed the performance review process.

Employers can improve flexibility, communication and support to employees of all genders. Anita Bhatia, a deputy leader of UN Women, commented in the Women Leaders in Global Health Conference on 15 October: “The private sector has a huge role to play: to say that they will create flexible working conditions for women to come back and that they will not penalise women for stepping off the career track if they have to.”

Watch the video: Women in the workplace during the Great Depression (August 2022).

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