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

March 11, 2019 in History

By Jessica Pearce Rotondi

More women entered the work force during the economically tough era, but the jobs they took were relegated as “women’s work” and poorly paid.

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.”

A large group of women working on sewing machines, circa 1937.

‘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.

Mrs. President: Eleanor Roosevelt (TV-PG; 2:27)

Ironically, while Perkins held a prominent job, herself, she …read more

Source: HISTORY

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