No can deny that the Great Depression created traumatic times for all the people living in the United States. “I get hundreds of letters each day and practically every one carries the same story, hence I am positively convinced that conditions are extremely bad, not only in our section but throughout the entire country.” In 1932 the front page of The Pharos Tribune reported that “water was being turned off in homes of the poor, meaning that many people were not only starving, but thirsty too.” Across the whole continent there was joblessness and homelessness. The Farm Security Administration Archives provide us with the most lasting memories of that time. The government had to become involved in pulling its citizens out of the poverty and destitution so it did so by paying people to work: from building the Hoover Dam to journalism.
The people in the photos are real people and the photos tell the stories of the 30s from the faces in the pictures. We have learned a lot from the photos of the time that were made with funding from the Farm Security Administration. One of the best known is Dorothea Lange’s photo of the woman with her seven children “Destitute Pea Pickers in California.” Below is a photo from “Farmer and sons walking in the face of a dust storm.” Clearly the plights of unemployed and homeless men are in most of the photos if one looks through the photos of the period. The stories from history are also mostly about men too.
When women were portrayed as part of the historical record, they were there as part of the family. They were not depicted as a woman but as mother. This is a reflection of the culture of the time when wives were expected to keep the home and the children in good shape for when the husbands returned home after work. Throughout the mid-eighteenth century the women had certain well defined place in society.
Historian Barbara J. Harris defines “true womanhood” as “a compound of four ideas: a sharp dichotomy between the home and economic world outside that paralleled a sharp contrast between female and male natures, the designation of the home as the female’s only proper sphere, the moral superiority of women, and the idealization of her role as a mother.” But the Great Depression was a great equalizer and single women were in terribly destitute situations, too. As Abelson points out “Poverty is gendered in specific ways at different times, and although long-term unemployment produced severe hardship for everyone, women and men have had diverse experiences.” Single women who were of all ages ended up homeless. They may have been too young to marry or single their whole live. Many of them were widows. The photo on the right shows a young woman learning how to sew so she would have a skill. A new class within the New Poor was created by the Great Depression of marginalized women living on the edges of society. Women who had once been in the business class had no jobs and no options. In the 1930s fifteen percent of the labor force was made up of women. What happened to these women? What were their experiences?
When roommates, friends and family did not have enough to share what happened to women who ended up on the streets? The research proposes that if a woman identified herself with the ‘ideal woman’ paradigm she was less likely to survive than women who were willing to take risks outside of their societal defined roles.
Handwritten Communication. Elmer Thomas to H. E. Diehl of Lawton, Oklahoma, May 21, 1932. (Elmer Thomas Collection, Subject Files, box 24, folder 50). http://www.ou.edu/special/albertctr/archives/gdweb.htm
Farm Security Administration: Destitute pea pickers in California. Mother of seven children, National Archives Identifier 196261
Franklin D. Roosevelt Library Public Domain Photographs, 1882-1962. Item from Collection FDR-PHOCO. NYA. FSA; Dust Storm; “Farmer and sons walking in the face of a dust storm”; Cimarron County, Oklahoma, ca. 04/1936 ARC Identifier 196414 http://arcweb.archives.gov/arc/action/ExternalIdSearch?id=196414
Franklin D. Roosevelt Library Public Domain Photographs, 1882-1962. Item from Collection FDR-PHOCO. NYA: Minnesota:young woman learning to sew, ca. 1936 ARC, http://arcweb.archives.gov/arc/action/ExternalIdSearch?id=196261
Faulkner, Carol, Compiler. Pathfinder for Women’s History. Archives Library Information Center (ALIC).
“No One Has Starved.” (1932 September) Fortune. Sept. 1932: 19+.
“Relief Demands Submitted.” (1932 July 19), The Pharos Tribune
Abelson, Elaine S. 2003. ““Women Who Have No Men to Work for Them”: Gender and Homelessness in the Great Depression, 1930-1934.”Feminist Studies 29, no. 1: 104-127. OmniFile Full Text Select (H.W. Wilson), EBSCOhost (accessed December 11, 2012).
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Nickles, Shelley. “Preserving Women”: Refrigerator Design as Social Process in the 1930s.” Technology and Culture, Volume 43, Number 4, October 2002, pp. 693-727 (Article)
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, Katrina. “Consumption, Identity, and Desire in Depression-Era Toronto” Journal of Women’s History 19.1 (2007) 82-104 http://muse.jhu.edu/journals/journal_of_womens_history/v019/19.1srigley.htmlClothing Stories
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