During the Great Depression, women made up 25% of the work force, but their jobs were more unstable, temporary or seasonal then men, and the unemployment rate was much greater. There was also a decided bias and cultural view that "women didn't work" and in fact many who were employed full time often called themselves "homemakers." Neither men in the workforce, the unions, nor any field of government were ready to accept the reality of working women, and this bias caused females intense hardship while the Great Depression.
The 1930's was particularly hard on single, divorced or widowed women, but it was harder still on women who weren't White. Women of color had to overcome both sexual and racial stereotyping. Black women in the North suffered an astounding 42.9% unemployment, while 23.2%. Of White women were without work according to the 1937 census. In the South, both Black and White women were equally unemployed at 26%. In contrast, the unemployment rate for Black and White men in the North (38.9%/18.1%) and South (18%/16% respectively) were also lower than female counterparts.
The financial situation in Harlem was bleak even before the Great Depression. But afterward, the emerging Black working class in the North was decimated by wholesale layoffs of Black industrial workers. To be Black and a woman alone, made retention a job or finding other one nearly impossible. The racial work hierarchy supplanted Black women in waitressing or domestic work, with White women, now desperate for work, and willing to take steep wage cuts.
At the start of the Depression, while one study found that homeless women were most likely installation and service workers, domestics, garment workers, waitresses and beauticians; other recommend that the attractiveness manufactures was a major source of wage for Black women. These women, later known as "survivalist entrepreneurs," became self-employed in response to a desperate need to find an independent means of livelihood."
Replaced by White women in more traditional domestic work as cooks, maids, nurses, and laundresses, even skilled and educated Black women were so hopeless, ''that they assuredly offered their services at the so-called 'slave markets'-street corners where Negro women congregated to await White housewives who came daily to take their pick and bid wages down'' (Boyd, 2000 citing Drake and Cayton, 1945/1962:246). Moreover, the home domestic service was very difficult, if not impossible, to coordinate with family responsibilities, as the domestic servant was ordinarily on call ''around the clock'' and was field to the ''arbitrary power of individual employers.''
Inn Keepers and Hairdressers
Two occupations were sought out by Black women, in order to address both the need for wage (or barter items) and their domestic responsibilities in northern cities while the Great Depression: (1) boarding house and lodging house keeping; and (2) hairdressing and attractiveness culture.
During the "Great Migration" of 1915-1930, thousands of Blacks from the South, mostly young, singular men, streamed into Northern cities, finding for places to stay temporarily while they searched for housing and jobs. Housing these migrants created opportunities for Black working-class women,-now unemployed-to pay their rent.
According to one estimate, ''at least one-third'' of Black families in the urban North had lodgers or boarders while the Great Migration (Thomas, 1992:93, citing Henri, 1976). The need was so great, many boarders were housed, prominent one search for of northern Black families to report that ''seventy-five percent of the Negro homes have so many lodgers that they are assuredly hotels.''
Women were ordinarily at the center of these webs of family and community networks within the Black community:
"They ''undertook the greatest part of the burden'' of helping the newcomers find interim housing. Women played ''connective and leadership roles'' in northern Black communities, not only because it was carefully traditional "woman's work," but also because taking in boarders and lodgers helped Black women concentrate housework with an informal, income-producing action (Grossman, 1989:133). In addition, boarding and lodging house retention was often combined with other types of self-employment. Some of the Black women who kept boarders and lodgers also earned money by manufacture synthetic flowers and lamp shades at home." (Boyd, 2000)
In addition from 1890 to 1940, ''barbers and hairdressers'' were the largest segments of the Black firm population, together comprising about one third of this habitancy in 1940 (Boyd, 2000 citing Oak, 1949:48).
"Blacks tended to gravitate into these occupations because "White barbers, hairdressers, and beauticians were unwilling or unable to style the hair of Blacks or to contribute the hair preparations and cosmetics used by them. Thus, Black barbers, hairdressers, and beauticians had a ''protected buyer market'' based on Whites' desires for public distance from Blacks and on the extra demands of Black consumers. Accordingly, these Black entrepreneurs were sheltered from outside competitors and could monopolize the trades of attractiveness culture and hairdressing within their own communities.
Black women who were seeking jobs believed that one's appearance was a crucial factor in finding employment. Black self-help organizations in northern cities, such as the Urban League and the National Council of Negro Women, stressed the importance of good grooming to the newly arrived Black women from the South, advising them to have neat hair and clean nails when searching for work. Above all, the women were told avoid wearing ''head rags'' and ''dust caps'' in public (Boyd, 2000 citing Drake and Cayton, 1945/1962:247, 301; Grossman, 1989:150-151).
These warnings were particularly relevant to those who were finding for secretarial or white-collar jobs, for Black women needed level hair and light skin to have any occasion of obtaining such positions. Despite the hard times, attractiveness parlors and barber shops were the most numerous and viable Black-owned enterprises in Black communities (e.g., Boyd, 2000 citing Drake and Cayton, 1945/1962:450-451).
Black women entrepreneurs in the urban North also opened market and restaurants, with modest savings ''as a means of securing a living'' (Boyd, 2000 citing Frazier, 1949:405). Called ''depression businesses,'' these marginal enterprises were often classified as proprietorships, even though they tended to control out of ''houses, basements, and old buildings'' (Boyd, 2000 citing Drake and Cayton, 1945/1962:454).
"Food market and eating and drinking places were the most common of these businesses, because, if they failed, their owners could still live off their stocks."
"Protestant Whites Only"
These businesses were a necessity for Black women, as the preference for hiring Whites climbed steeply while the Depression. In the Philadelphia public Employment Office in 1932 & 1933, 68% of job orders for women specified "Whites Only." In New York City, Black women were forced to go to isolate unemployment offices in Harlem to seek work. Black churches and church-related institutions, a traditional source of help to the Black community, were overwhelmed by the demand, while the 1930's. Municipal shelters, required to "accept everyone," still reported that Catholics and African American women were "particularly hard to place."
No one knows the numbers of Black women left homeless in the early thirty's, but it was no doubt substantial, and imperceptible to the mostly white investigators. Instead, the media chose to focus on, and publicize the plight of White, homeless, middle-class "white collar" workers, as, by 1931 and 1932, unemployment spread to this middle-class. White-collar and college-educated women, ordinarily accustomed "to regular employment and garage domicile," became the "New Poor." We don't know the homeless rates for these women, beyond an educated guess, but of all the homeless in urban centers, 10% were recommend to be women. We do know, however, that the examine for "female beds" in shelters climbed from a bit over 3,000 in 1920 to 56,808 by 1932 in one city and in another, from 1929 -1930, examine rose 270%.
"Having an Address is a Luxury Now..."
Even these beds, however, were the last stop on the path towards homelessness and were designed for "habitually destitute" women, and avoided at all cost by those who were homeless for the first time. Some amount ended up in shelters, but even more were not registered with any agency. Resources were few. accident home relief was restricted to families with dependent children until 1934. "Having an address is a luxury just now" an unemployed college woman told a public employee in 1932.
These newly destitute urban women were the shocked and dazed who drifted from one unemployment office to the next, resting in Grand Central or Pennsylvania station, and who rode the subway all night (the "five cent room"), or slept in the park, and who ate in penny kitchens. Slow to seek assistance, and fearful and ashamed to ask for charity, these women were often on the verge of starvation before they sought help. They were, according to one report, often the "saddest and most difficult to help." These women "starved slowly in furnished rooms. They sold their furniture, their clothes, and then their bodies."
The Emancipated Woman and Gender Myths
If cultural myths were that women "didn't work," then those that did were invisible. Their political voice was mute. Gender role demanded that women remain "someone's poor relation," who returned back to the rural homestead while times of trouble, to help out around the home, and were given shelter. These idyllic nurturing, pre-industrial mythical family homes were large enough to adapt everyone. The new reality was much bleaker. Urban apartments, no bigger than two or three rooms, required "maiden aunts" or "single cousins" to "shift for themselves." What remained of the family was often a strained, overburdened, over-crowded household that often contained severe domestic troubles of its own.
In addition, few, other than African Americans, were with the rural roots to return to. And this assumed that a woman once emancipated and tasting past success would remain "malleable." The female role was an out-of-date myth, but was nonetheless a potent one. The "new woman" of the roaring twenties was now left without a public face while the Great Depression. Without a home--the quintessential element of womanhood--she was, paradoxically, ignored and invisible.
"...Neighborliness has been Stretched Beyond Human Endurance."
In reality, more than half of these employed women had never married, while others were divorced, deserted, separated or claimed to be widowed. We don't know how many were lesbian women. Some had dependent parents and siblings who relied on them for support. Fewer had children who were living with extended family. Women's wages were historically low for most female professions, and allowed slight capacity for substantial "emergency" savings, but most of these women were financially independent. In Milwaukee, for example, 60% of those seeking help had been self-supporting in 1929. In New York, this shape was 85%. Their ready work was often the most evaporative and at risk. Some had been unemployed for months, while others for a year or more. With savings and assurance gone, they had tapped out their informal public networks. One public worker, in late 1931, testified to a Senate committee that "neighborliness has been stretched not only beyond its capacity but beyond human endurance."
Older women were often discriminated against because of their age, and their long history of living outside of traditional family systems. When work was available, it often specified, as did one job in Philadelphia, a examine for "white stenographers and clerks, under (age) 25."
The imperceptible Woman
The Great Depression's effect on women, then, as it is now, was imperceptible to the eye. The tangible evidence of breadlines, Hoovervilles, and men selling apples on street corners, did not consist of images of urban women. Unemployment, hunger and homelessness was carefully a "man's problem" and the distress and despair was measured in that way. In photographic images, and news reports, destitute urban women were overlooked or not apparent. It was carefully unseemly to be a homeless woman, and they were often incommunicable from public view, ushered in through back door entrances, and fed in private.
Partly, the problem lay in expectations. While homelessness in men had swelled periodically while periods of economic crisis, since the depression of the 1890's onward, large numbers of homeless women "on their own" were a new phenomenon. public officials were unprepared: Without children, they were, early on, excluded from accident shelters. One building with a capacity of 155 beds and six cribs, lodged over 56,000 "beds" while the third year of the depression. Still, these figures do not take catalogue the amount of women turned away, because they weren't White or Protestant.
As the Great Depression wore on, wanting only a way to make money, these women were excluded from "New Deal" work programs set up to help the unemployed. Men were seen as "breadwinners," retention greater claim to economic resources. While outreach and charitable agencies finally did emerge, they were often inadequate to meet the demand.
Whereas black women had singular hard times participating in the mainstream economy while the Great Depression, they did have some occasion to find alternative employment within their own communities, because of unique migration patterns that had occurred while that period. White women, in contrast, had a keyhole opportunity, if they were young and of significant skills, although their skin color alone offered them greater access to whatever traditional employment was still available.
The rejection of traditional female roles, and the desire for emancipation, however, put these women at profound risk once the economy collapsed. In any case, singular women, with both black and white skin, fared worse and were imperceptible sufferers.
As we enter the Second Great Depression, who will be the new "invisible homeless" and will women, as a group, fare good this time?
Abelson, E. (2003, Spring2003). Women Who Have No Men to Work for Them: Gender and Homelessness in the Great Depression, 1930-1934. Feminist Studies, 29(1), 104. Retrieved January 2, 2009, from schoraly quest Premier database.
Boyd, R. (2000, December). Race, Labor market Disadvantage, and Survivalist Entrepreneurship: Black Women in the Urban North while the Great Depression. Sociological Forum, 15(4), 647-670. Retrieved January 2, 2009, from schoraly quest Premier database.