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Why Many Married Women Were Banned From Working During the Great Depression

March 5, 2019 in History

By Erin Blakemore

In 1930, the United States needed a miracle. Months before, the stock market had crashed, and the economy had begun to tank with it. As the Great Depression pummeled millions of American workers, Frances Perkins, New York’s Commissioner of Labor, warned that New York faced a particular threat from a surprising group: Married women with jobs.

“The woman ‘pin-money worker’ who competes with the necessity worker is a menace to society, a selfish, shortsighted creature, who ought to be ashamed of herself,” Perkins said. “Until we have every woman in this community earning a living wage…I am not willing to encourage those who are under no economic necessities to compete with their charm and education, their superior advantages, against the working girl who has only her two hands.”

Frances Perkins in 1933.

Within two years, Perkins would go on to become Secretary of Labor in President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s cabinet. And though she is known as one of the architects of the New Deal, her attitudes toward working women were shared by many who embraced FDR’s seemingly liberal economic policies of relief for unemployed workers.

Perkins wasn’t the only one who was suspicious of married women in the workplace. The 1930s would see a spike in policies and laws that discriminated against, even forbade, women to work when they were married. During the Great Depression, discrimination against their employment even became law.

“Nine states had marriage [work ban] laws prior to the Depression,” writes historian historian Megan McDonald Way, “and by 1940, 26 states restricted married women’s employment in state government jobs.” As women around the country struggled to make ends meet during the nation’s deepest economic crisis, they became an easy scapegoat for people looking for someone to blame.

By the time Perkins made her speech, the debate over working women—and whether women should work once they married—had been raging for decades. Arguments about married women’s work often centered on the idea of “pin money.” Originally coined to refer to the small amounts of money women spent on fancy items, it had become shorthand for all women’s work by the 20th century.

Unemployed, single women protesting the job placement of married women before themselves at the Emergency Relief Administration headquarters in Boston, Massachusetts.

“The revised idea of pin money,” writes Janice Traflet, “increasingly served as a justification for paying …read more


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