Where are the Women? An old depression era question with a surprising new answer.

I don’t know about you, but until recently I always had this idea that not many women were working in the years leading up to The Great Depression. I think maybe this came from assumptions I made from women being seldom mentioned in history books, especially where they were discussing unemployment during The Great Depression. By that logic, if women weren’t unemployed, they must not have been employed in the first place, right? Wrong. Let’s talk about it.

By the time that The Great Depression hit in 1930, it is estimated that nearly 1/5 of all American women were employed in something other than homemaking in some fashion.1 One thing I have learned is that this statistic at first appears difficult to quantify for several reasons: the way women were counted in the census, what was considered work, and the fact that this was the first census where the designation of “homemaker” was included. However, according to the official Women’s Bureau Report on the Occupational Progress of Women, there were 10,752,116 women listed as being gainfully occupied by the 1930 census. Evidently you just need to know where to look.

So, what does this tell us? Well, it shows there were plenty of working women to lose their jobs during the depression, and many of them did. Some segments of society blamed working wives for the depression, claiming that the unemployment never would have been as bad if those liberal women hadn’t stolen men’s jobs. However, most of the jobs women were doing right before the depression were ones that had always traditionally been done by women anyway. There was just a small segment of traditionally male jobs being held by women, mainly in agriculture, for as the men went to work in factories, mines, and railroad jobs, the women took over the farming.

By 1931, reports from the Women’s Bureau and the Department of Labor estimated that over 18% of all previously working women were now unemployed.2 (I did the math- that’s 1,935,380.88 women.) Nearly two million women who were unemployed, and rarely mentioned in history. Some of these women were living at home on family farms, or with their parents in small towns, but others, especially those who had relocated to the larger, industrialized cities along the east coast, found themselves out of work, out of their apartments, and out of luck.

By the time FDR assumed the presidency and set his New Deal into motion, these women had become just as desperate as their male counterparts, only women were often not welcomed on the bread lines. They resorted to asking for charity from churches, neighbors, relatives, and strangers, begged for change or food, and at their most desperate moments, turned to prostitution. They slept in parks, under bridges, in alleys, and in subway restrooms hidden behind heat ducts. The desperate plight of these women attracted the notice of new First Lady, Eleanor Roosevelt (ER) who implored her husband to do something for the women as well. FDR agreed, and included women’s relief initiatives under the umbrella of The Federal Emergency Relief Association (FERA.)

Under the direction of Hilda W. Smith, a worker’s rights advocate and educator associated with the Bryn Mawr Summer School for Women Workers in Industry Program, FERA would quickly put together a program. Consisting of a motley collection of resident camps and schools for women across the country, FERA enrolled women from existing relief aid roles as their first residents. Many of the residents agreed to attend in hopes that they would gain vocational skills that would help them reenter the work place, while other women’s families shipped them off for the summer to have one less mouth to feed at home.

Perennially suffering from a lack of cohesive organization and direction, the “She, She She” camps, as they were dubbed by their detractors, would serve over 8500 women in over 90 locations by the time the program was shut down in October of 1937 due to lack of funding. Whether or not the program can ultimately considered a successful relief effort is still up for debate. Either way, it can be said that the instructors and administrators did the best they could with their meager resources to attempt to help save some of these young women from a life of destitution and despair.

Be sure you have signed up for the newsletter, so you can read the first in-depth installment on the history of the “She She She” camps themselves next week. Here on the blog, I will be posting other articles on the “She She She” camp sites, other women’s history and TN history, hiking and camping tips, and some great books I recommend you check out. Thanks for reading, and maybe I’ll see you out there!

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