Thursday, March 12, 2009

It is Women’s History Month. One thing that is absent from the financial discussions of the past is how did women cope? I think of that time with images of flappers dancing, bread lines and hundreds of men on Wall Street looking solemn. Yet there were women in America in 1929. They are invisible on a surface level but our great-grandmothers and grandmother do have information for their children’s children.

How Did Folks Know What Was Happening?

Well it was hard to hide the fact that 25% of the population was unemployed or displaced. Between the environmental problems of The Dust Bowl and the failure of at least 4,000 or more banks word got around. What jobs there were paid low wages. Some business exploited workers by working them excessive hours.

In 1929 there was newspapers, radio and movies, President Roosevelt made use of both radio and the newsreels to convey his messages. You can listen to him explain in 1933 what the government was doing about the banking crisis or watch a 1933 newsreel video about moving forward toward fairer wages and labor.

I have to be honest here, there was a lot of propaganda swinging both ways in most public media, the journalistic ethics thing had not fully kicked in yet. The citizens at the time would have behaved as we did. Many ignored the warnings or thought it was partisanship at best. Some stood by their current President, Herbert Hoover, who expressed Republican beliefs of capitalism, meaning that government should not be involved in the process of commerce any more than necessary.

Perhaps Herbert got a partially bum rap. He felt that charities and the private sector should have step in to assist Americans. Some did, most did nothing or could not handle the amount of people needing assistance. Hoover did act and implemented assistance programs to help farmers, businesses and public works projects; the same as Roosevelt. There were limits to what he felt he could do. He honored his beliefs but at what cost?

In 2009 we no longer have movie newsreels but 24 hour TV news networks, the Internet and social media. Yes there is radio but it is no longer a unifying source of information. What has remained the same is only when the crisis came knocking on an American’s specific door did most Americans paid attention and start to ask questions. What has also stayed the same is the consistent carping on the role of government to aid or impede the recovery process. Well enough about the men folk.

How Did Women Adapt and Cope 1929?

According to the U.S. Census in 1920 there were 123,202,624 people in the country. The earnings of the average American were low to begin with and most were just making it before the depression. In 1935 the majority of Americans made between $250 and $2,500 a year. They weren’t big spenders. By necessity most Americans were already frugal. They were now being joined by portions of the former middle class. People had to be resourceful or go hungry.

If you were already broke or poor it made living more difficult but you probably had the basic skills to handle the situation. David Griner’s great aunt keep a daily diary of her life as a teenager during the depression. He has transferred it into a Twitter feed. Genny Spencer seemed to have lived a normal life on the farm. Writer Errol Ury has a page on his website of young people who did and did not survive the Great Depression easily. There is a collection of photographs and historical text about how rough the road and rails were for teens.

At the Norfolk Women’s Oral History Project you can read an interview of a “Senior Citizen” who speaks honestly of what was really going on in her life at the time.

Interviewer: Umm -- What kind of clubs or social gatherings did you go to?

Senior Citizen: None. No. No. Well, I'll tell you. My first husband was very active in the Republican Party and he participated in things like that. But when President Roosevelt was running, I think the first time. No, that's right. Because it was in '32. He wanted me - Mrs. Roosevelt was coming to a place not to far from where we lived. So, he wanted me to meet her. And I did. And she was absolutely a lovely, most charming person that one could ever meet. Gracious. And she made you feel like she had known you which is a marvelous, marvelous quality in a person. I only said, "How, do you do? I'm so glad I had this opportunity to meet you", and she said, I'm so glad you are here With -- you know -- and consider my husband if your going to vote. By the way, that was the first time and last time I voted. Of course, I voted Hoover.

Interviewer: You didn't vote for him (FDR)?

Senior Citizen: MMm-hmm!

Many women were traditional homemakers, or if single, lived with the family. Some, like Mayme Reese took comfort in quilting or crafting activities. When the depression hit everybody did what they had to do to survive. Some women couldn’t wait for their husbands to get around to it. Elizabeth Miller needed to have a butchered hog moved inside to be salted. You can read and hear a portion of her interview. Alice Caudle was a mill worker who was interviewed in 1938 by the Federal Writer’s Project. In the recording that is also transcribed at the web site, she talks about how she loved her job.

At the Library of the City University of New York there is a web slide presentation. It explains some of the ways that women survived such as:

  • Buying day old bread
  • Relining coat with old blankets
  • Feeding your family on $5 a week, if you had that much.

Jobs, food and shelter were the main focus of living but keeping your family and yourself entertained was jus as important. The radio was the lifeline. The film industry concentrated on producing products that lifted the nations sprits, such as musicals or gangster movies that you could immerse yourself in just bit of the good life before justice or the next day of looking for work caught up with you.

How Are Women Adapting and Coping 2009?

Thirty Five By Nine has a post up on collecting and using depression era cookbooks. You might have to re-adjust your thinking. I’d lean toward eating vegetarian before I’d eat a squirrel. I’ve seen the squirrels in my neighborhood and they just don’t appeal to me. The cookbooks also assumed a certain level of cooking skills that many modern women do not have; such as canning. For a slightly more contemporary approach it seems that everybody is paying attention to Clara on her YouTube Channel on Depression era cooking.

Over at Mommy and Mami are counting blessings. One has lost her job but can survive in a low rent and dicey neighborhood. She loves Oakland but has an opportunity to move to a new area for the same costs of her current place. It is networking and having connections you did not know you had. Do you take the chance or do you stay put with what you know?

Some bloggers are reaching back and forward at the same time. Uppity Women08 has images of the signs or marking the hobos used to mark on a fence or road sign to let others know to knock on the door or keep moving. She also has an open post on “poverty recipes” contributed by her readers. Some real recipes and some well, seem to be politically inspired in the opposite of left direction.

I’m guessing by the image at the top of the post that Uppity and some of her visitors do not care for the current administration. That’s fine, I dang sure did not care for the prior occupation. But just so they know, there are no more paper food stamps. It is now an EBT (Electronic Benefits Transfer) process.

Employment support or emotional un-employment support is very important. Keeps folks from thinking really bad thoughts. Coleen Canney has some tips to offer the ex-worker. Mrs. Mordecai’s husband is taking a pay cut but is still working and they are grateful. Molly Mac is a writer who is getting to know the unemployment office a little too well for her taste.

I guess we are doing the same things, passing on what we know, helping when we can and relieving the pressure with a bit of humor or a touch of music.

Gena Haskett is Contributing Editor at BlogHer, where this post originally appeared.

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