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Understanding the Criticism of Working Women During the Depression

Working class women who entered the workforce during the Depression were subject to heavy media criticism.  Since they were not threatening the economy or men’s jobs, why did these women attract so much negative attention?  The June 1932 Good Housekeeping article, “Marriage—or Career,”(1) in which seven women professionals discuss the possibility of balancing family and a job successfully, illuminates the gender views which caused so much conflict over the issue of Depression-era working mothers.    

None of the seven women professionals in the article was married, but they all championed the idea of motherhood and family.  Elizabeth Marbury, a member of the Democratic Committee if New York, says, “Getting married and having children is a career—the career.  There’s no better one.  Maybe there are abnormal women who really feel otherwise; but every normal one, if she’s honest with herself, admits that she regrets what she has missed.”  While she has rejected marriage and motherhood herself, Marbury believes that having a family is the most valuable pursuit for a woman.  Clearly, the idea that women’s first and foremost duty was to home and family pervaded American society in the 1930s.  Although it was often not their choice to do so, women who went to work during the Depression were challenging an ingrained perception of women’s role in society.  The article’s author, Sarah Comstock, writes in her conclusion, “The career alone does not compensate:  unconsciously, perhaps, a woman seeks compensation in some form of home-making and mothering.”  The idea that the desire to raise a family is a fundamental element of a woman’s nature pervades the article, even though it focuses on women who have not married or had children.  In the 1930s, womanhood was still defined based on motherhood and wifehood. 

Although many women who went to work in the Depression did so out of necessity rather than choice, they were rejecting prevalent social values and therefore seemed threatening and dangerous to many Americans.  Not only did the Depression begin a movement of married women into the paid labor force that would continue through the present day, but it also began to challenge to way Americans define womanhood—a definition that it still in flux today.

 

 

(1) Sarah Comstock, “Marriage—or Career,” Good Housekeeping (June 1932) 32-33, 159-162.

 

 

(c) Copyright National Women's History Museum 2007