Women in the Great Depression: Investigating Assumptions
by Roberta McCutcheon
The greatest economic calamity in the history of the United States occurred in the third decade of the twentieth century. When the stock market crashed in 1929 and the economy plummeted over the next few years, the nation sunk into the most pervasive depression in American history. No one escaped the suffering that the Great Depression produced. The ranks of the suffering went well beyond those who lost everything as a direct result of the stock market crash. While millions lost their fortunes in investments on and after October of 1929, many more lost their savings when banks collapsed and their livelihoods when whole industries failed and businesses closed their doors. The drought that hit the Midwest produced additional suffering. By 1932, every economic sector and geographic region in the country was in dire condition.
Few persons escaped the disastrous effects of the depression. The hardship of unemployment, the loss of homes and farms, and the lack of institutions that could provide adequate assistance were central to the pain caused by the economic crisis. The personal cost was perhaps greatest to the part of the population on the margin of economic activity. Though women were often faced with caring for families without income from employment or traditional support, the vast majority of the government’s recovery efforts were directed at bringing life to the economy, and men were the primary recipients of these efforts. In this lesson, we will consider the lives of the millions of women in need during the depression. In order to understand the impact of the Great Depression on women, we will read accounts, look at images, and evaluate programs directed toward some of those women. Finally we will analyze society’s expectations of women before, during, and after the Great Depression.
- Students will use a factual understanding of the era to provide the historical setting for a focused analysis.
- Students will be able to create a model to evaluate historical evidence.
- Students will be engaged in historical research and the critical analysis of factual evidence.
- Students will be able to examine government programs directed at relief for women.
- Students will be engaged in historical research and the critical analysis of gender in the twentieth century.
Activity One: Understanding the Great Depression
Using the sites provided below, research the following:
- Causes and effects of the Great Depression
- Women and race in the Great Depression
- The Great Depression, David Kennedy, The Gilder Lehrman Institute
- Timeline of the Great Depression, American Experience, PBS
- Spotlights on Primary Sources, Gilder Lehrman Institute
- Life during the 1930s, American Experience, PBS
- Surviving the Dust Bowl, American Experience, PBS
- African Americans in 1930s
- American Indians in the 1930s, Utah.gov
Activity Two: Identifying Gender Assumptions in America
Using your history textbook, define the following terms: cult of domesticity, cult of true womanhood, separate spheres.
Brainstorm, reflecting on the 1890s and the first three decades of the twentieth century, to define gender expectations in the twentieth century.
Discussion: To what extent are gender expectations consistent with the actual lives of women in America when gender intersects with race and economic class?
Activity Three: A Critical Analysis of Government and Women in the Great Depression
Analyze WPA murals. Assign one mural to each student or to a small group of students. Using questions developed by the class, they should analyze the murals. The following questions might be included:
- What was the purpose of the WPA?
- Who were the artists?
- Was there a specific audience for the murals?
- What is the artist’s message?
- Is the gender of the artist significant? If so, why?
- Woodstock, VT
- Atmore, AL
- Tuskegee, AL
- Scottsboro, AL
- Thomaston, CT
- Fort Pierce, FL
- Chester, IL
- Downers Grove, IL
- Forest Park, IL
- Shelbyville, IL
- Franklin, IN
- Lagrange, IN
- Mooresville, NC
- Appalachia, VA
- Tillamook, OR
- Lexington, TN
- Helper, UT
- Casper, WY
- Powell, WY
Follow-up discussion question
Do these documents help us to understand the lives of women in the 1930s? Is it significant that the artists of these murals are female?
Analyzing images and accounts
Have the class consider both the images and the secondary accounts of women’s lives and work during the depression.
As the students look at the following sites, they should consider how the government included women in New Deal programs. How did government programs created to help women, including those led by women, differ from programs created to help men?
- “Mary Kellogg Rice, Useful Work for Unskilled Women: A Unique Milwaukee WPA Project,” University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee
- Pack Horse Librarians
- “The Women Who Rode Miles on Horseback to Deliver Library Books” by Anika Burgess, Atlas Obscura
- “Underpaid, But Employed: How the Great Depression Affected Working Women,” by Jessica Pearce Rotondi, History.com
- Photographs by Dorothea Lange, Library of Congress
- Mary McLeod Bethune Biography, PBS
- AFL-CIO, Our History
Essay: To what extent were assumptions about women’s roles in society changed by the Great Depression?