The Invisible Women of the Great Depression

Throughout the Great anxiety, women constructed 25percent associated with employees, but their tasks were much more unstable, short-term or regular after that males, additionally the unemployment price had been a great deal better. There was clearly also a decided prejudice and cultural view that “women did not work” as well as in reality many have been employed fulltime known as by themselves “homemakers.” Neither males into the workforce, the unions, nor any part of federal government were ready to take the reality of working women, which prejudice caused females intense difficulty through the Great anxiety.

The 1930’s had been especially hard on single, divorced or widowed women, but it had been much harder nonetheless on women who weren’t White. Females of color had to overcome both intimate and racial stereotyping. Black feamales in the North experienced an astounding 42.9percent unemployment, while 23.2percent. of White women were without work according to the 1937 census. When you look at the South, both monochrome women were equally unemployed at 26percent. In comparison, the unemployment price for monochrome males into the North (38.9percent/18.1percent) and South (18percent/16percent respectively) were also lower than female alternatives.

The financial predicament in Harlem had been bleak even before the Great anxiety. But later, the promising Black working class into the North had been decimated by wholesale layoffs of Black professional workers. Is Black and a female alone, made keeping employment or finding another one extremely difficult. The racial work hierarchy replaced Black feamales in waitressing or domestic work, with White women, now eager for work, and ready to just take steep wage cuts.

Survival Entrepreneurs
in the beginning of the despair, while one study discovered that homeless women were probably factory and solution workers, domestics, garment workers, waitresses and beauticians; another suggested that the beauty business had been an important source of income for Black women. These women, later generally “survivalist business owners,” became self-employed in response to a desperate should get a hold of a completely independent ways livelihood.”

Replaced by White feamales in more conventional domestic are chefs, maids, nurses, and laundresses, even skilled and informed black colored women were so hopeless, ”that they actually supplied their services in the so-called ‘slave markets’-street corners where Negro women congregated to await White housewives which arrived every day to just take their choose and quote earnings down” (Boyd, 2000 citing Drake and Cayton, 1945/1962:246). More over, the home domestic solution had been extremely tough, if you don’t impossible, to coordinate with household responsibilities, due to the fact domestic servant had been often on call ”around the clock” and had been at the mercy of the ”arbitrary energy of individual businesses.”

Inn Keepers and Hairdressers

Two professions were sought out by Black women, to be able to address both the dependence on earnings (or barter items) and their domestic responsibilities in north locations through the Great anxiety: (1) boarding home and lodging home keeping; and (2) hairdressing and beauty tradition.

Throughout the “Great Migration” of 1915-1930, tens of thousands of Blacks from the South, mostly young, single males, streamed into north locations, in search of places to stay temporarily as they sought out housing and tasks. Housing these migrants developed possibilities for Black working-class women,-now unemployed-to spend their lease.

Relating to one estimate, ”at the very least one-third” of Black people into the urban North had lodgers or boarders through the Great Migration (Thomas, 1992:93, citing Henri, 1976). The necessity had been so great, numerous boarders were housed, leading one study of north Black people to report that ”seventy-five % associated with Negro domiciles have so many lodgers that they’re actually hotels.”

Females were often in the center among these webs of household and community communities inside the black colored community:

“They ”undertook the greatest area of the burden” of helping the newcomers look for interim housing. Females played ”connective and leadership functions” in north Black communities, not merely because it had been considered old-fashioned “woman’s work,” but additionally because taking in boarders and lodgers aided Black women combine housework with a friendly, income-producing activity (Grossman, 1989:133). Besides, boarding and lodging home keeping had been often coupled with other types of self-employment. A number of the Black women who kept boarders and lodgers also obtained money through artificial plants and lamp tones in the home.” (Boyd, 2000)

Besides from 1890 to 1940, ”barbers and hairdressers” were the biggest portions associated with Black business populace, together comprising about one-third of the populace in 1940 (Boyd, 2000 citing Oak, 1949:48).

“Blacks tended to gravitate into these professions because “White barbers, hairdressers, and beauticians were reluctant or struggling to design the hair of Blacks or even to give you the hair products and makeup utilized by all of them. Therefore, Black barbers, hairdressers, and beauticians had a ”protected customer marketplace” centered on Whites’ desires for personal distance from Blacks as well as on the unique demands of Black consumers. Appropriately, these Black business owners were sheltered from outside competitors and might monopolize the investments of beauty tradition and hairdressing within their very own communities.

Black women who were seeking tasks believed that an individual’s look had been an essential element in finding employment. Black self-help businesses in north locations, such as the Urban League additionally the National Council of Negro ladies, stressed the necessity of great grooming towards the newly arrived Black women from the South, advising all of them to own neat hair and clean fingernails whenever searching for work. Above all, the women were informed avoid using ”head rags” and ”dust hats” in public areas (Boyd, 2000 citing Drake and Cayton, 1945/1962:247, 301; Grossman, 1989:150-151).

These warnings were especially highly relevant to people who were hoping to find secretarial or white-collar tasks, for Black women needed straight hair and light epidermis to own any chance of obtaining these types of roles. Despite the crisis, beauty parlors and barber shops were the essential many and viable Black-owned enterprises in Black communities (e.g., Boyd, 2000 citing Drake and Cayton, 1945/1962:450-451).

Black women business owners into the urban North also started stores and restaurants, with moderate savings ”as an easy method of securing an income” (Boyd, 2000 citing Frazier, 1949:405). Called ” despair companies,” these marginal enterprises were often categorized as proprietorships, and even though they tended to function off ”houses, basements, and old buildings” (Boyd, 2000 citing Drake and Cayton, 1945/1962:454).

“Food stores and eating and consuming places were the most typical among these companies, because, if they were unsuccessful, their owners could nonetheless live off their shares.”

“Protestant Whites Only”
These businesses were absolutely essential for Black women, due to the fact preference for hiring Whites climbed steeply through the despair. When you look at the Philadelphia Public work workplace in 1932 & 1933, 68percent of work sales for women specified “Whites Only.” In nyc, Black women were forced to head to individual unemployment offices in Harlem to get work. Black churches and church-related institutions, a normal way to obtain make it possible to the Black community, were overrun by the demand, through the 1930’s. Municipal shelters, required to “accept everyone,” nonetheless reported that Catholics and African American women were “particularly difficult to put.”

No body understands the amounts of Black women left homeless during the early thirty’s, but it had been no doubt substantial, and invisible towards the mostly white detectives. Alternatively, the news chose to concentrate on, and publicize the plight of White, homeless, middle-class “white collar” workers, because, by 1931 and 1932, unemployment scatter for this middle-class. White-collar and college-educated women, often accustomed “to regular employment and steady domicile,” became the “New Poor.” We don’t understand the homeless rates of these women, beyond an educated guess, but of all of the homeless in urban facilities, 10percent were suggested becoming women. We can say for certain, but that the need for “female beds” in shelters climbed from somewhat over 3,000 in 1920 to 56,808 by 1932 in one town as well as in another, from 1929 -1930, demand rose 270percent.

“Having an Address is an extravagance Now…”
Even these beds, but were the past end in the path towards homelessness and were created for “habitually destitute” women, and prevented at all cost by people who were homeless for the first time. Some number ended up in shelters, but more weren’t registered with any agency. Sources were few. Emergency house relief had been restricted to people with reliant kids until 1934. “Having an address is an extravagance just now” an unemployed college girl informed a social worker in 1932.

These newly destitute urban women were the shocked and dazed which drifted from 1 unemployment office to another, resting in Grand Central or Pennsylvania place, and which rode the subway forever (the “five cent room”), or slept into the park, and which consumed in cent kitchens. Slow to get help, and afraid and ashamed to ask for charity, these women were often in the brink of starvation before they desired assistance. These people were, based on one report, usually the “saddest & most hard to assist.” These women “starved gradually in furnished spaces. They offered their furnishings, their garments, and their health.”

The Emancipated Woman and Gender Myths
If cultural urban myths were that women “didn’t work,” after that the ones that did were invisible. Their particular governmental voice had been mute. Gender role demanded that women stay “someone’s poor connection,” which came back back once again to the outlying homestead during times of trouble, to help out around the house, and received protection. These idyllic nurturing, pre-industrial mythical household domiciles were big enough to accommodate everyone. The newest truth had been much bleaker. Urban apartments, no bigger than 2 or 3 spaces, required “maiden aunts” or “single cousins” to “shift on their own.” What remained associated with household had been often a strained, overburdened, over-crowded household very often included extreme domestic difficulties of their very own.

Besides, few, other than African Americans, were because of the outlying origins to go back to. And also this thought that a female once emancipated and sampling previous success would stay “malleable.” The female role had been an out-of-date misconception, but had been nonetheless a potent one. The “new girl” associated with roaring twenties had been now kept without a social face through the Great anxiety. Without a home–the quintessential component of womanhood–she had been, paradoxically, ignored and invisible.

“…Neighborliness has-been Stretched Beyond Human stamina.”
Actually, over fifty percent among these employed women had never ever married, although some were divorced, deserted, separated or claimed becoming widowed. We don’t discover how many were lesbian women. Some had reliant moms and dads and siblings which relied in it for help. Less had kids have been managing extended household. Ladies’ earnings were typically reasonable for some female vocations, and permitted little convenience of substantial “emergency” savings, but the majority among these women were economically independent. In Milwaukee, including, 60percent of the seeking assistance have been self-supporting in 1929. In nyc, this figure had been 85percent. Their particular available work had been usually the many volatile as well as danger. Some have been unemployed for months, although some for a-year or more. With savings and insurance gone, that they had tapped out their informal internet sites. One personal worker, in belated 1931, testified to a Senate committee that “neighborliness has-been stretched not merely beyond its capability but beyond individual endurance.”

Older women were often discriminated against for their age, and their lengthy reputation for living outside old-fashioned household systems. When work had been available, it often specified, as did one work in Philadelphia, a demand for “white stenographers and clerks, under (age) 25.”

The Invisible Woman
The Great anxiety’s impact on women, after that, as it’s now, had been invisible towards the attention. The tangible evidence of breadlines, Hoovervilles, and males selling oranges on street corners, failed to consist of images of urban women. Unemployment, hunger and homelessness had been considered a “man’s issue” additionally the distress and despair had been measured by doing so. In photographic images, and development reports, destitute urban women were over looked or otherwise not evident. It was considered unseemly becoming a homeless girl, and they were often concealed from community view, ushered in through back-door entrances, and given in private.

Partially, the issue lay in expectations. While homelessness in males had swelled occasionally during periods of financial crisis, because the despair associated with 1890’s onward, large numbers of homeless women “on their particular” were a brand new occurrence. Public officials were unprepared: Without kids, they were, in the beginning, excluded from emergency shelters. One building with a capacity of 155 beds and six cribs, lodged over 56,000 “beds” through the 3rd year associated with despair . Nonetheless, these numbers try not to just take account the sheer number of women switched away, since they weren’t White or Protestant.

As the Great anxiety wore in, wanting just a way to make money, these women were excluded from “New contract” work programs create to help the unemployed. Men were viewed as “breadwinners,” keeping better claim to financial sources. While outreach and non-profit agencies finally did emerge, they were often inadequate to meet up the demand.

Whereas black women had certain crisis playing the conventional economy through the Great anxiety, they did have some opportunity to get a hold of alternate employment within their very own communities, due to special migration habits that had happened throughout that duration. White women, in contrast, had a keyhole possibility, if they were young as well as considerable skills, although their skin color alone supplied all of them better use of whatever old-fashioned employment had been nonetheless available.

The rejection of old-fashioned female functions, additionally the wish to have emancipation, but put these women at serious danger once the economy folded. Nevertheless, single women, with both monochrome epidermis, fared worse and were invisible affected individuals.

Once we enter the Second Great anxiety, who’ll end up being the new “invisible homeless” and can women, as friends, fare better now?


Abelson, E. (2003, Spring2003). Women Who Have No Men to get results for Them: Gender and Homelessness into the Great anxiety, 1930-1934. Feminist Studies, 29(1), 104. Retrieved January 2, 2009, from Academic Research Premier database.

Boyd, R. (2000, December). Race, work Market downside, and Survivalist Entrepreneurship: Black Women in the Urban North throughout the Great anxiety. Sociological Forum, 15(4), 647-670. Retrieved January 2, 2009, from Academic Research Premier database.


Source by Kathy A. McMahon