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I was sorting through some old papers looking for my birth certificate when I came across a history paper I wrote 22 years ago. I had saved it because I was—rightfully I believe—quite proud of it, and because in the course of writing it I had interviewed my father and his sister, my Aunt Floreine, about being children during the Great Depression. My father and his siblings are all gone now, the last brother having died in early September this year, so I am especially glad this bit of family history was retained.

This photo was among Aunt Floreine's papers. Assuming that she kept it because it was her class photo, and further assuming the "27" notation means the photo is from 1927, Floreine would have been about 11 years old, probably dark-haired and on the short side. My guess is that Floreine is the girl in the light-colored dress, next-to-the-end on the left side of the middle row.

But, beyond the personal historical value, in re-reading what I wrote 22 years ago about events that occurred 60 years before that, it struck me just how much the language used about, and attitudes towards, the poor and struggling have remained the same. Today's politician would not have the audacity to suggest outright what Governor Martin (1935-1939) of Oregon proposed: using chloroform on the majority of the residents in the state home for the aged and mentally disabled to save $300,000, but how much different is today's austerity-driven decrease of the social safety net, and diminution of access to healthful food and needed medical care, to the nation's poor?

Below the fold is my paper, as written in December 1991. I have updated to include links where I can.

History may not repeat itself, but it sure as hell can sing in three-part harmony.

When one reads accounts of the Great Depression, or descriptions of relief efforts for the unemployed, one will notice a lack of female pronouns and female names. If one looks with a sensitive eye, she will notice the absence of female faces in pictures of bread lines or mission houses. I began to wonder what efforts were made to assist women during this period of economic dislocation, what programs were available, what jobs they worked, or who assisted them. These questions took on an even more personal note when I realized that my grandfather died at the eve of the Depression, in either 1928 (according to my Aunt Floreine, the eldest of the children), or in 1929 (according to my father, the middle-child, born in 1921, and who remembers being eight years old when his father died). My grandfather was survived by his widow and five children. How did my grandmother manage? What assistance did she have? I could not ask my grandmother, who died two years ago at the age of 97. So I talked to my father, and I talked to my aunt, and I started to research.

When I asked my dad what kind of relief programs were available for women in my grandmother's situation, he snorted and said "there weren't no relief for women." He then recalled there was a little local charity, and remembered hearing that there was some help available for single young women, but for female heads of household there were no specific programs. My father's recollection is borne out by a comment made by Lorena Hickok in a report to Harry L. Hopkins dated February 5, 1934. Writing of the local surplus of clothing produced by the women's sewing rooms in South Carolina, Hickok stated:

One observation I have to make is that possibly many women got jobs who shouldn't have had them. Widows, for instance, who should have been taken care of by the communities.... Not enough unattached, "white collar" women. I thought the women's show was set up principally to take care of unattached women.1
However, relief on the community level had largely exhausted itself during the first couple of years of the Depression. My aunt remembered that there were food boxes "at Christmas, and a toy for each of us kids, and maybe there was some food at Thanksgiving. But Mama never did get any welfare checks or the like." Aunt Floreine's recollection is probably accurate.

My grandmother and the family lived in Oregon's Willamette Valley, which was climatically a very good place to be during the Depression. The winters in the Willamette Valley are mild, rainfall is abundant, and the soil is very fertile. Economically, however, Oregon was a very poor place to be. The Oregon economy, based on lumber and agriculture, had been faltering through the 1920's. Oregon's rate of business failures topped the nation during the years from 1927 through 1929. The stock market crash of 1929 was not felt with a great thud in the state, but speeded up an already precipitous economic slide. Between 1929 and 1933 individual income fell by 59 percent, with a ten-fold rise in tax delinquencies from a 1929 level of $4,000,000, to $40,000,000 in 1933.2

In this midst of economic disaster, Oregon was faced with back-to-back governors who were not of a mind to provide state-supported economic relief believing instead that relief should be provided by private charities, and municipal and county governments.

Julius Meyer, a Republican Portland businessman, was elected governor in 1930. Upon his inauguration Gov. Meier put the state on an austerity budget, cutting state expenditures by 50 percent. The only state action on relief measures was the Governor's formation in 1930 of the temporary State Emergency Employment Commission, succeeded by the State-Wide Relief Council in 1932. These bodies were to act as advisory boards in the coordination of county-financed relief efforts. The counties, however, had had their total revenues decline by half from 1929 to 1933, from $18 million to $9 million, while relief expenditures rose to three times their pre-crash levels.3

Led by Gov. Meier, Oregon's response to New Deal programs was rather schizophrenic. The state did form a State Emergency Relief Committee in 1933 to work with the Federal Emergency Relief Administration (FERA) program, but only reluctantly provided the required matching funds for the $15 million FERA provided the state between 1933 and January 1935. The legislature did create a State Commission for Self-Help and Rehabilitation, and passed an old-age pension act during 1933, but provided no funding for either program. And, while rejecting the notion of relief on a government-wide, rather than local, basis, Oregon benefitted magnificently under the Civil Works Administration (CWA) ($6,527,264 between November, 1933 and March, 1934), the Public Works Administration ($32 million for construction of Grand Coulee and Bonneville Dams), and the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) ($2 million in wages during its first three years).4

By 1934, voters had enough, and replaced Gov. Meier with Democratic Congressman Charles H. Martin, who served from 1935 to 1939. Gov. Martin, however, described himself as a "Hoover Democrat," and opposed relief efforts at any other than a municipal or county level. When FERA ended its funding, the state provided $5.5 million for relief and old-age pensions, but required the financially strapped counties to provide matching funds. Social Security was delayed in Oregon because of Martin's refusal to use existing state revenues to provide matching funds, insisting on the passage of a new sales tax for funding—a source of revenue twice referred to, and twice defeated by, the voters. As an economic measure, Gov. Martin supported using chloroform on 900 of 969 aged and retarded residents of the state-run Fairview Home to save $300,000 over two years. Gov. Martin maintained that those unable to work only required $10 in assistance each month, and those able to work should have no assistance because the "need for the necessities of life will force these people to get some kind of work and care for themselves".5

My grandmother slipped through the cracks of relief efforts in the 1930s. Local government was broke. The state government was reluctant to provide relief. The national government saw widows as the responsibility of local relief efforts. When I asked my father and my aunt how my grandmother supported the family, both said she did whatever she could. Floreine recalled being left in charge of the younger children when her mother went to pick beans for several weeks each summer. My father remembered my grandmother taking in boarders, doing laundry, washing dishes, babysitting and generally never turning down the opportunity to earn some money in whatever way possible.

Aunt Floreine recalls that when my grandfather died, the family owned the property they lived on in Gowdeyville (now Cottage Grove), Oregon. When my grandmother was widowed, my great-grandparents sold her property, and the family moved into a separate house on my great-grandparents' property. Aunt Floreine does not recall what became of the money from the property sale—perhaps it was lost in the banking crisis, or perhaps it was used to supplement my grandmother's income. The family did have the advantage of not having to make rental, mortgage or property tax payments.

My grandmother's situation was not unusual. In general, women were the invisible disadvantaged during the Depression. In the 1930s, the female work force was an estimated 11 million; approximately 3 million women were counted among the unemployed; an additional 1.5 million were employed part time or seasonally; and up to 400,000 were on work relief through the Works Progress Administration (WPA) and other emergency placements6—meaning
approximately 44.5 percent of the female work force was not fully employed in the public sector.

But the public image of the unemployed was that of a male who could not support his family. Women were viewed as being economically tied to a husband or another male family member. Women were not perceived as breadwinners, although a married woman's income often was the means of economic solvency within the traditional family, and many single women were required to support themselves

Women's work in the paid labor force was viewed through the distorted lens of the "pin-money" theory, that women worked only to have a little extra spending money, not out of economic necessity. Because of this societal view, it is impossible to gauge the true extent of unemployment among women during the Depression: Women who would have worked had a job been available, were not listed among the unemployed, having dropped out of the labor market when a job proved unavailable. The "pin-money" theory also affected official policy on women's wages: Of 233 National Recovery Administration (NRA) codes approved by September 1934, 135 allowed lower pay rates for women than for men, with differences ranging from 6.3 percent to 30 percent.7

Married women faced great discrimination in the Depression-era job market. Public perception was that every married women holding a job was taking a job from an unemployed man, although a gender-divided labor market, with women concentrated in lower-paying service, clerical and domestic categories, and men in higher-paying professional or industrial fields, gave lie to this societal myth. Generally, women did "women's work," while a man's job was reserved for a man. Because of this public perception, however, in the few fields where men and women did share job categories women often were fired based on their marital status. In 1930-1931 a National Education Association survey of 1,500 cities found that 63 percent dismissed female teachers upon their marriage, and 7 percent would not hire a married female teacher.8

Lorena Hickok also reported on a problem which was probably faced by thousands of women whose families were able to obtain relief. Often, relief was provided not in cash, but in grocery orders redeemable at the store only for food, much like the current food stamp program. A woman in California told Hickok:

It's this thing of having babies. You've got no protection at all. And here you are, surrounded by young ones you can't support....

You don't have any money, you see, to buy anything at the drugstore. All you have is a grocery order. I've known women to try to sell some of their groceries to get a little money to buy the things needed. But if they catch you at it, they'll take you off relief....

I suppose you can say the easiest way would be not to do it. But it wouldn't be. You don't know what it's like when your husband's out of work. He's gloomy and unhappy all the time. Life is terrible. You must try all the time to keep him from going crazy. And many times — that's the only way."9

For unmarried women, the economic outlook could be even bleaker, and the invisibility even greater. The streets of New York City were home to 75,000 single women by 1934.10 In her October 1933 report to Harry Hopkins, Lorena Hickok states that "relatively few unemployed women without families are being assisted at the present time." When Hickok asked a settlement house worker how these single women lived, the worker replied:
Single women? Why, they're just discards. I'll tell you how they live! Huddled together in small apartments, three or four of them living on the earnings of one, who may have a job. Half a dozen of them, sometimes, in one room. Sharing with each other. Just managing to keep alive.11
Meridel LeSueur wrote in a similar vein. In a 1932 article in New Masses, LeSueur describes the women in a mid-western municipal domestic employment bureau.
It's one of the great mysteries of the city where women go when they are out of work and hungry. There are not many women in the bread line. There are no flop houses for women as there are for men.... You don't see women lying on the floor at the mission... or under newspapers in the park.

...What happens to them? Where do they go? Try to get into the Y.W. without any money or looking down at heel. Charities take care of very few and only those that are called "deserving." The lone girl is under suspicion by the virgin women who dispense charity.12

Even when available, jobs and relief for single women provided an extremely meager existence. Wages for women in the public sector were keyed to the minimum subsistence level which a relief program would provide. The "subsistence level" was pitifully low when, as in Houston, the relief level for single women was cut from 50 cents a day to 39 cents a day for food.13 At a Baltimore office of the National Reemployment Service, women were to be placed in any job, no matter how low the wages or poor the conditions, and the local Relief Commission would supplement income that fell below the minimum subsistence leve1.14 To get a job as a stenographer a woman had to have top-level skills and type at least 60 words per minute, to earn as little as $3 per week.15 A domestic worker might be paid only $2.50 a week, and still be expected to provide her own 20 cents per day carfare. Waitresses earned 25 cents an hour, but only for three hours a day, the employers justifying the practice by claiming the women would earn tips and because they are "nothing but dirty little streetwalkers, anyway.”16 Many young women did turn to prostitution to support themselves, with either one man keeping them, or as streetwalkers. This form of employment was not lucrative either, with streetwalkers often asking for only 10 cents a trick.17

One place where women were not invisible was in Roosevelt's New Deal bureaucracy. Frances Perkins' appointment as Secretary of Labor was the most visible of the New Deal's reliance on women's traditional performance of, and expertise in, social welfare programs. It was largely through the efforts of the many women who found opportunity in Roosevelt's New Deal government, and through the continual lobbying of Eleanor Roosevelt, that there were federally based relief programs for women at all.18 For example, on November 20, 1933, through the coordinating efforts and influence of Eleanor Roosevelt, a White House Conference on the Emergency Needs of Women was held, attended by over 50 prominent and influential women, with Harry Hopkins outlining in his opening address the magnitude of the problem.19

The 300,000 to 400,000 women employed by the WPA represented between 12 to 19 percent of the total jobs provided by work relief. However, the federal government remained sensitive to the overall societal view of the national emergency as consisting of the unemployment of men, so women's programs were consistently either short-lived, extremely limited in scope and funding, or both.20

Another problem faced by work relief efforts directed towards women was in finding forms of "public works" deemed suitable for females. For men, there were construction jobs in the "Civil Works Administration (CWA) and WPA, and reforestation and conservation efforts with the CCC. Manual labor of this type, however, was not viewed as appropriate for women. Instead, under the direction of Ellen Woodward, head of the women's divisions of both FERA and the WPA, skilled and educated women were put to work in research projects, library work, nursing and teaching, and unskilled women were largely assigned to sewing rooms producing clothing for those on relief. However, where one or two major construction projects would provide work for thousands of unemployed men, women's projects were not as work concentrated, more costly in execution, and not as long-lived.21

An often over-looked program in the New Deal was the CCC-type camps for young women. The formation of the first female camp was announced at a joint press conference by Eleanor Roosevelt and Frances Perkins in June 1933.22 There were great differences between the program as set up for young women, and the program for young men. First, the female camps were not wholly federally financed as the CCC camps were, but were primarily financed through state matching grant FERA funds. Second, because conservation and reforestation done by the male CCC was not considered suitable for young women, the camps did not provide employment, and the women were not paid wages. The camps concentrated on providing recreation, health and nutrition instruction, and emergency shelter, food and clothing. Finally, the camps were extremely limited in scope—some 2.5 million young men passed through the CCC, while only 8,500 young women were served through their camps. The female camps were disbanded in 1937 as part of general Congressional budget-cutting of the New Deal.23 Hilda Worthington Smith, principal instigator of the camps and head of the program at the time of its dismemberment, was prompted to comment:

The CCC camps with their millions of dollars for wages, educational work, travel, and supervision constantly reminds me of what we might do for women from these same families. As so often the case [sic], the boys get the breaks, the girls are neglected.24
The National Youth Administration had other programs for the benefit of young women. The NYA was formed in 1935, partially to keep young people from entering a saturated job market, to serve those between ages 16 and 24. Under the NYA, four programs were available for young people: educational assistance through work-study from high school to college, work-relief employment and vocational education, recreation, and job placement in the public sector.25 At least as far as funding went, the NYA endeavored to provide equal opportunity for both young men and young women. Girls had no problem in signing up for NYA programs, as long as the programs were deemed suitable for young women, where emphasis was on keeping girls out of the labor market and dependent upon a male wage earner. Thus, while boys in vocational courses were taught marketable skills such as machine operation or mechanics, girls were shunted into programs to make them more efficient housewives with extended courses in home economics. Some of these skills could be translated into the labor market, but only at the lowest wage levels: work in food preparation, textile work and factory sewing, or as domestics.26 However, as the United States entered into a war-time economy, and young women were needed to fill industrial jobs in defense industries, the NYA became a convenient forum to teach young women the skills necessary to become industrial workers. The funding shift of the NYA vividly shows the change in emphasis from keeping young women out of the labor market, to provide industry with badly needed workers. At its inception in 1935-1936, the NYA was allocated $39 million, $24 million of which was for the aid of students, and $15 million for out-of-school programs. By 1941-1942, Congress allocated $98.5 million for defense training programs, and $16.5 million for student aid, out of a total NYA budget of $122 million—the budget grew by 313 percent, while student aid dropped by 68 percent.27

I asked my aunt, who graduated high school in 1934, if she had been aware of any of the programs available to young women, and she responded in the negative, that she hadn't realized there were any programs which would have been of assistance to her. She had finished school before the NYA student aid programs went into effect, financing her education by "boarding in" with a middle-class family in Roseburg, and earning her keep by providing child care. Aunt Floreine was unaware of any other programs that might have been available to her for help in finding a job after she left high school. Instead, after two years of being unable to find steady employment in Oregon, in 1936 Floreine went to live with an aunt in California, where Floreine obtained a job operating an industrial dishwasher at a steel mill. After "a while," she got an entry-level "apprentice" job at J.C. Penney, earning $16 for a 44 hour week. Floreine remained with J.C. Penney until the formation of the Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service, which she joined in 1943. She never married, and in 1976 retired from the WAVES after 33 years of service.


My Aunt Floreine was surprised that I would be interested in this portion of our family history, because “we were just ordinary people, we weren't anything special.” I view both my aunt and my grandmother as very special women. My grandmother saw five children through the Depression with little, if any, outside assistance. My aunt finished her education and supported herself from her teenage years through her retirement. These were not only special women, but extraordinary women, and I am glad I was inspired to ask some questions about them.


1 Lorena Hickok, One Third of a Nation: Lorena Hickok Reports on the Great Depression, Edited by Richard Lowitt and Maurine Beasley (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1981),p. 173.

2 Robert E. Burton, "The New Deal In Oregon," reprinted in John Braeman, Robert H. Bremner, and David Brody, editors, The New Deal; the State and Local Levels (link opens PDF), Volume II (Columbus: Ohio State University Press), p. 356.

3 Burton, pp. 357-358.

4 Burton, pp. 359-360.

5 Quoted in Burton, p. 365.

6 Winifred D. Wandersee, Women's Work and Family Values 1920-1940 (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1981), pp. 91-92.

7 Wandersee, p. 98.

8 Wandersee, p. 99.

9 Hickok, pp. 324-325.

10 Sara M. Evans, _Born for Liberty (New York: The Free Press, 1989), p. 203.

11 Hickok, p. 49.

12 Meridel LeSueur, "Women on the Breadlines," New Masses, January 1932, reprinted in Susan Ware, Modern American Women, A Documentary History (Chicago: The Dorsey Press, 1989), p. 201.

13 Hickok, p. 216.

14 Hickok, p. 347.

15 Hickok, p. 343.

16 Hickok, p. 343.

17 Hickok, p. 222-223.

18 See generally, Susan Ware, Beyond Suffrage, Women in the New Deal (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1981).

19 Ware, Beyond Suffrage, p. 106.

20 Ware, Beyond Suffrage, p. 110.

21 Ware, Beyond Suffrage, p. 108-109.

22 Lillian Holmen Mohr, Frances Perkins, "That Woman in FDR's Cabinet!" (United States: North River Press, 1979), p. 138.

23 Ware, Beyond Suffrage, pp. 111-114.

24 Quoted in Ware, Beyond Suffrage, p. 114.

25 Official Images: New Deal Photography, Sally Stein, "Figures of the Future: Photograph of the National Youth Administration" (Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1987), p. 94.

26 Stein, pp. 95-96.

27 Stein, p. 95.

Originally posted to Franklin's Tower on Tue Nov 26, 2013 at 12:28 PM PST.

Also republished by Kitchen Table Kibitzing, Genealogy and Family History Community, History for Kossacks, and Daily Kos.

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