The Working Woman in the Depression
A Review of Laura Hapke’s Daughters of the Great Depression: Women, Work, and Fiction in the American 1930s
Laura Hapke teaches literature at Pace University in New York City. Her father was a writer, a union man, and a son of the Great Depression—his influence in her life is apparent. A vast majority of her works deal with the Great Depression, including New Deal programs, Depression-era fiction, and feminism.
BY ALDA HUANG
The Great Depression was a difficult time for all minorities, but especially for women. Until recently, studies of the 1930s were centered on men; the Great Depression was the white man’s struggle and eventually, his triumph. To boost the sagging confidence of struggling patriarchs, the image of women was distorted—they were portrayed as hindrances to national recovery, stealing much-needed jobs from men and killing work efficiency. Recent scholars of women’s history resurrected them in their historical context, seeking to dispel the negative portrait of women painted during the Depression and to shift the conventional focus away from men. Among these scholars, Laura Hapke considers “how the Depression…transfigured a decades-old American debate about women’s suitability for paid work outside the home.”1 Analyzing various pieces of Depression-era fiction, Hapke not only shows the great disparity between real-life working women and fictional working women, but also addresses the misconceptions of domestic motherhood that limited women during the time. Juxtaposing fact with fiction, Hapke takes an interesting approach to her analysis in Daughters of the Great Depression: Women, Work and Fiction in the American 1930s.
Hapke organizes her book into a preface, six chapters, and a conclusion; each chapter deals with a different aspect of women’s representation in fiction during the Great Depression. The first chapter provides an overview of the American attitude toward female job seekers. Hapke asserts that the Great Depression caused a frighteningly backwards view of women’s right to work, ending the female job motility of the 1920s. Even before the Great Depression, there was heated debate over female labor outside of the woman’s sphere, as defined by the cult of domesticity—women workers were criticized for waging “warfare on home life.”2 The Depression simply rekindled the debate and provided critics with more ammunition against the women in the workplace because, in addition to being charged with promiscuity and emasculation, female workers were now accused of stealing men’s jobs. Early working-girl fiction began with the Van Vorst sisters; they were joined by other Socialists who demystified labor agitation for middle-class audiences by “featuring firebrand working girls in their novels and muckraking the deplorable conditions under which so many labored.”3 However, by the 1930s, the national focus was on men’s unemployment, not women’s. Women were paid less, deskilled, unprotected by many New Deal programs, and generally occupied lowly jobs that men would not take, such as domestic labor. Black women fared even worse, occupying “ the most unsavory jobs” that mass-production industries had to offer.4 The media and propaganda of the Great Depression were of no help; women were rarely mentioned in articles and when they were, it was usually negatively. Even though females often played key roles in labor unions, labor movements put male agendas first, as did other organizations like the Communist Party. Popular fiction of the time period—John Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath and Erskine Caldwell’s God’s Little Acre—not only reflected the period’s concern for men, but also of the “unnaturalness of the womanly wage earner.”5 Steinbeck glorified Ma Joad as a powerful mother who supported her family while remaining within her feminine sphere; Caldwell censured women’s presence in the workplace as promiscuous and distracting. Although there were voices of opposition to the era’s mother myths like the radical feminist writer Agnes Smedley, Hapke describes them as faint, for they were scattered and few. Hapke states that all Depression-era works “[attempted] to reconcile the masculine struggle for the dignity of labor with that of a needy feminine workforce,” but due to the focus on men, they tended to deem women’s work as subversive.6
After the overview of the issue, Hapke then begins analyzing the fictional works, beginning with masculine social protest fiction comprising Chapter Two. Hapke examines how men’s social protest novels supported the “left-Socialist cultural denial of women’s work identity” and created the earth-mother stereotype.7 One of the most popular writers of the time, John Steinbeck popularized the mother myth through Ma Joad from his famous Grapes of Wrath by separating her from egalitarian working women. Hapke shows how Steinbeck generally avoided including women in the scene of the workplace, only grudgingly acknowledging waitresses and female field workers. He also regards rich women as “fallen women” because “they have sold themselves to wealthy men…[and have sacrificed] true womanliness for economic power” because they do not keep house or bear children as poorer women do.8 Other Depression-era authors such as Gold and Conroy, used the “Bottom Dogs” subgenre to demonstrate the gender democracy of the working class through the “experience of the same degradation” by men and women alike.9 However, these authors focused in on women’s propensity to turn to prostitution during times of economic hardship, thus bolstering the arguments of less sympathetic writers, such as Algren and Cantwell, that women earned at men’s expense; this attitude further supported Steinbeck’s earth mother myth. African American writers, like Langston Hughes, “cast a cold eye on the exploitation of black women…without denying their labor the dignity it deserved” but still played along with the female stereotypes of mother or whore.10 Chapter Three contrasts the male perspective with countervisions of the most radical female novelists of the Depression: Tillie Olsen, Meridel Le Sueur, and Agnes Smedley. These three women writers focused their works on female working-class women, challenging the earth mother myth and examining “the troubling emotional baggage” carried by female breadwinners.11 Olsen and Smedley “questioned the role of the heroine housewife” by describing her as psychologically damaged, imprisoned by her own motherhood.12 Le Sueur, on the other hand, commended motherhood but denounced male dominance—in The Girl, she celebrates single motherhood as a venue for women to become strong and independent. Whether denouncing motherhood or advocating “manless motherhood,” these three radical women novelists challenged traditional views of women and constructed “a form of rebellion against [Steinbeck’s] Ma Joadism.”13
The remaining chapters of the book analyze works that supported the negative image of wage-earning women. Chapter Four addresses the contemporary view that “man is rational, [and] woman emotional” by examining texts that dealt with women’s romantic aspirations in the workplace.14 Many male writers of the time period often portrayed female workers as husband-seekers, in search of amusement and love. Some female writers did the same, but showed the folly of romance-seeking women; others reversed the stereotype through female characters who “[wished] not for a suitor but for a job and a meal.”15 Although many authors acknowledged marriage as a way to further female’s economic mobility, others rejected romance outright—Hurst’s Back Street asserts that romance is the downfall of the working woman, contrasting sharply with Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God which delineated love as a way for women to find inner peace. Yet, most authors questioned the wisdom of “the emotionally hungry female breadwinner,” contributing to the negative image of female workers as distractions.16 Chapter Five shifts the focus to women’s contributions to labor unions by focusing on literature about the Gastonia strike of 1929, where the town was torn apart when the Loray Textile Mill implemented wage reductions and fired unionist workers. Many female writers like Vorse, Lumpkin, Page, and Burke glorified the mill woman as a combination of maternity and feminine ability in waged work. They played upon the Ella May Wiggins legend—their female characters often paralleled the female strike leader’s independence, authority, and dramatic death (Wiggins was rumored to be murdered by mill gangsters against the strike). However, Hapke suggests that Gastonia did not empower working women as it was fiction portrayed; rather, the women of Gastonia “colluded in their self-erasure” because they followed male leaders’ orders “to advance the strike, not the status of women,” thus becoming pawns in “a thoroughly male enterprise.”17 For example, young mill girls were instructed to flirt with national guardsmen as a method to further the strike, a method that only contributed to the image of working women as promiscuous. In the end, although it showed the power of politically active women, Gastonia merely reinforced female stereotypes about motherhood and female sexuality.
The final portion of the book shifts its focus from working-class women to professional women. These professional women were fortunate to possess college degrees; however, the Great Depression reduced the availability of professional jobs for women, while the public “censured [the professional woman’s] interest in a career other than marriage” thus limiting female development.18 The educated “New Woman” of the 1920s was vilified as hindering male breadwinners; the only acceptable way for them to rise was through “social housekeeping,” as presented by the renowned Francis Perkins. The ambitious Perkins was forced to present herself to the public as a mild-mannered but “hardy and celibate spinster…who could devote herself wholeheartedly to a career”—her persona eliminated the threat of sexuality in the workplace and cast her as a surrogate mother for the nation during its difficulties, thus fitting into accepted stereotypes.19 Yet, even Perkins was often seen as an intruder in male politics and many novelists such as Sinclair Lewis satirized ambitious and independent professional women as promiscuous and unapologetic. However, Hapke concludes that “the truest achievement of the working woman, professional or not, was to remain one,” in spite of bad publicity and restrictive forces—her endurance vindicated her strength.20
Hapke believes the Great Depression, “through its fiction and its fictions”—or, the novels and the misconceptions of the time period—changed the public’s opinion of working women for the worse.21 Hapke’s book Daughters of the Great Depression: Women, Work, and Fiction in the American 1930s was published at a time when historians were rediscovering the female voice during the Great Depression. Due to the instability of foreign policy during the 1990s, Americans were beginning to take a look inside and focus more on examining the hidden aspects of their own history; thus did the subdued opinions of oppressed groups from the past, such as women, resurface. Along with other scholars of women’s history, Hapke sought to “redirect attention to the female of the 1930s” and seek to resurrect “‘lost women writers” such as Josephine Herbst, Agnes Smedley, and Leanne Zugsmith who were often excluded from publication due to their radical views.22 As a woman herself, Hapke undoubtedly identified with the women of the 1930s, especially since her own father lived during the Great Depression—she understood the difficulties of being a woman, as well as the frugality the Depression enforced. These traits combined to qualify her social commentary.
In a review on Hapke’s book, Melissa Walker praises Daughters of the Great Depression for effectively demonstrating how the debate about the propriety of women’s wage earning played out in contemporary fiction. Walker deems the book a “readable and convincing work [that] contains an impressive historical overview and a class analysis of a wide variety of Depression-era fiction.”23 She also claims that “the most important contribution of Hapke’s work is her careful comparison of the depictions of women in fiction with the reality of women’s lives”—through this book the reader is able to see the wide disparities between idealized and censured fictional heroines and their real-life counterparts.24 Walker seems greatly impressed by Hapke’s work, attesting to its value as a historical analysis as well as it’s application to current debates over women’s roles in the workplace. Caren Irr, in a separate review, likewise praised Hapke’s text. However, Irr does not seem as impressed with the book as Walker was. Although Irr acknowledges that Hapke “clearly identifies literary types and balances these with interesting biographical and statistical asides” and shows “lucid, responsible readings” of the works Hapke analyzes, Irr claims Hapke “might have done more to push [her] revisionist thesis further” by relating the struggles Depression-era women with today’s working women.25
Laura Hapke’s work does, as Walker and Irr say, present a well-informed and interesting analysis of Depression-era fiction. Her approach was unique in that it took pieces of well-known fiction from the Great Depression and “[illustrated] the dialectical relationship between immediate political goals and more enduring writerly representations.”26 However, to a person unfamiliar with the multitudes of authors and novels Hapke refers to, the references become confusing, for she intertwines and separates authors at different points in the novel. For example, she would Agnes Smedley’s name would be referenced in a chapter long after she was first mentioned—the reader could easily become confused if they did not recall the previous reference or were unfamiliar with Smedley. Other than that, though, Hapke’s work was an engaging read, providing interesting perceptions of how Depression-era authors expressed their opinions and how these opinions manipulated the public view.
The Great Depression was the greatest economic watershed in American history. Although recessions and economic dips had occurred before, none was quite so large, nor its impact so far-reaching. After the Great Crash of 1929, the world’s economy deteriorated, so great was America’s position. Yet, the Depression also changed people’s way of life and the public’s view on certain issues. People learned to practice frugality, accept government aid, and enjoy the simpler pleasures. Public opinion also experienced a “disturbingly regressive” view of women and minorities.27 The economic mobility and relative liberation women received from the 1920s was revoked—once again, women were limited to domestic spheres and criticized if they competed with men for work. In reality, women rarely competed with men for jobs, “nor did firing women ensure men access to jobs”—it only “contributed to the downfall of households supported by women.”28 These misconceptions were perpetuated in media and mirrored the era’s concern for the sagging morale of the male breadwinner. The sufferings of women were forgotten—instead, they became scapegoats as they too tried to find ways to survive, their struggles virtually erased from history. For this reason, scholar’s analyses like Laura Hapke’s is especially important—the resurrection of the lost voices of the past can help us, as Americans, to better understand our nation’s history and realize the incredible diversity we have.
Works like Hapke’s also chronicle and preserve the struggles of our nation in an attempt to prevent recurring mistakes. Our current economic crisis—perhaps it will remembered as the “Great Recession” in history—mirrors the Great Depression in many ways, and shows why we should examine our history more critically. Many of the mistakes made during the 1920s that led to the Great Depression were repeated shortly before our nation plunged into its current recession. Likewise, many of the old debates have been rekindled; although the role of working women is no longer questioned, the issue of gender equality in the workplace is still as applicable today as it was in the 1930s—the “glass ceiling” theory reveals the ongoing struggle of women in overcoming the age-old view that “a woman is nothing very important.”29 Thus, the effects of Depression-era fiction still influence American society today.
The real women of the Great Depression were courageous, hard working, and to some extent, stubborn, for they refused to allow men to define them and insisted upon earning a place for themselves in the world. Although “strictures on feminine conduct narrowed” drastically during this period of economic distress, working women braved on despite accusations of hindering the economy.30 Hapke succeeds in elucidating the differences between these real-life women and their fictional counterparts. By separating fact from fiction, we can gain a better understanding of the trial and tribulations suffered by the daughters of the Great Depression.
1: Hapke, Laura. Daughters of the Great Depression: Women, Work, and Fiction in the American 1930s. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1995. Print. xvi.
Alda Huang is a junior at Irvine High. She was born on September 11, 1993 at the UCLA Medical Center in Los Angeles. She has a deep interest in feminist literature and enjoys reading very much. In the future, she hopes to pursue a career in medicine and open up her own ophthalmology.
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