The 1929 stock market crash and the ensuing Great Depression rocked the lives of women in the 1930s. High-society ladies and starlets merely scaled back visits to the perfume and jewelry counter, but everyone else struggled just to survive. Women living back then faced a double bind: A woman’s place was supposed to be in the home, but many women were forced to work when industrial production plummeted and men lost their jobs. Women were often criticized for stealing jobs from men, even though men did not want the low-paying service jobs that were available.
The catastrophic economic downturn of the 1930s did not damper the fun of women in the upper echelon. The emerging film and radio entertainment industry created new stars, like Carmen Miranda, a beloved samba dancer and singer. Socialites of the day often visited trendy night clubs that flourished during the depression with the help of their elite clientele. Gossip columnists had no trouble finding extravagant debutante balls where affluent young women were formally introduced into high society. Little worry was given to the struggles of the masses.
Women activists continued to push for equality and gender representation in the political process. Although the 1930s feminist movement was never as strong as it was in the 1920s, progress continued through the work of strong women leaders and progressive thinkers. In particular, first lady Eleanor Roosevelt championed feminism and expanded opportunities for women in the workforce. Further, she advocated for children, social welfare and racial equality. President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s diversity adviser, Mary McLeod Bethune, formed national organizations for civil rights and African-American women. Countless other women also played a big role in advancing women’s political engagement through the League of Women Voters.
Women’s ingenuity helped soften the tough times of the Great Depression. Homemakers stitched garments, patched clothes and made inexpensive macaroni casseroles to fill little tummies. Spirits were buoyed by church activities and neighborhood gatherings that included potluck suppers where all the women brought a dish to share. Empty neighborhood lots were turned into community gardens for families to grow their own food, and canning produce greatly helped stretch the budget. Women worked nonstop cleaning and maintaining households with limited resources, cutting corners wherever possible.
Women entered the workforce in unprecedented numbers during the depression era. Employers were reluctant to hire women for jobs traditionally held by men, so women’s options were mostly limited to stereotypical female jobs like cleaning, cooking, child care, retail and food service. Women with postsecondary education worked as nurses, teachers or secretaries until they found a husband. Some people blamed women for men’s unemployment, claiming that the women were stealing men’s jobs. The number of women in college increased in the 1930s due to women’s growing interest in acquiring skills to support themselves.
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