Women’s Rights in the 1930s in the United States

Changes in Women's Roles and Expectations

The Women of the Women's Policy Union of New York State heading to New Jersey on a rented Tugboat to encourage voting rights for women
The Women's Policy Union of New York State heading to New Jersey on a rented Tugboat to encourage voting rights in 1914.

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In the 1930s, women’s equality was not as flashy an issue as in some previous and subsequent decades. But the decade did see slow and steady progress, even as new challenges—especially economic and cultural—could be seen as reversing the advances made in the first three decades of the 20th century.

Context: Women in 1900–1929

Women in the first decades of the 20th century saw increased opportunity and public presence, including a strong role in union organizing; increasing availability of contraceptive information; winning voting rights; clothing styles and lifestyles that were more comfortable and less restrictive; and greater sexual freedom. During World War I, many women who had been stay-at-home mothers and wives entered the work force. African American women were part of the cultural flowering of the Harlem Renaissance that followed World War II in some urban black communities, and were also fighting for more rights and beginning a long fight against lynching. Women activists agitated for more than the vote, which was finally won in 1920, but also for workplace fairness, minimum wages, and the abolition of child labor.

1930s—The Great Depression

Telephone Operators at Work
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With the 1929 market crash and the onset of the Great Depression, the 1930s were quite different for women. With fewer jobs available, employers generally preferred to give them to men, in the name of men's traditional role as family breadwinners. Fewer women were able to find jobs. The culture pendulum swung away from more freedom for women to portraying the domestic role as the proper and fulfilling role for women.

At the same time as the economy lost jobs, some technologies like radio and telephones allowed for expanding job opportunities for women. Because women were paid considerably less than men, often justified by the aforementioned male breadwinner role, these industries hired mostly women for many of the new jobs. The growing film industry included many female stars, although many of the films seemed aimed at selling the idea of women’s place in the home.

The new phenomenon of the airplane drew some elite women to become pilots trying to set records. Amelia Earhart’s career spanned the late 1920s through 1937 when she and her navigator were lost over the Pacific. Ruth Nichols, Anne Morrow Lindbergh, and Beryl Markham are among the women who earned honors for their aviation skills.

The New Deal

When Franklin D. Roosevelt was elected president in 1932, he brought to the White House a different kind of first lady in Eleanor Roosevelt. She took a more active role in the role than previous first ladies because of her assertive, capable, and active personality—she had been active as a settlement house worker before her marriage—but also because she needed to provide extra help for her husband, because of the limiting effects of his polio. So Eleanor was a very visible part of the administration, and the circle of women around her became more important than they might have been with a different president and first lady.

Under President's Roosevelt's influence, a 1938 key women’s rights and labor rights decision by the Supreme Court, West Coast Hotel Co. v. Parrish, found that minimum wage legislation was constitutional.

Women in Government and the Workplace

Arrival of American Mission in Rotterdam on board SS Noordam for the Peace Congress at the Hague. Jane Adams is in the center. Bettmann/Getty Images 

Women’s work for women’s rights in the 1930s was less dramatic and widespread than in the earlier suffrage battles or the later so-called second-wave feminism of the 1960s and 1970s. Still, some very prominent women effected big changes through government organizations.

  • Florence Kelley, active in the first three decades of the century, was a mentor to many of the women who were activists in the 1930s. She died in 1932.
  • Frances Perkins became the first woman cabinet official, when she was appointed to be Secretary of Labor by Franklin D. Roosevelt in his first year in office. She served until 1945. Called "The Woman Behind the New Deal," she was a major force behind the creation of the "social safety net" that included unemployment insurance, minimum wage laws, and the Social Security system.
  • Molly Dewson worked with refugees during World War I and then went to work to gain minimum wage laws for women and children and to limit working hours for women and children to a 48 hour week. She was an advocate for women working in the Democratic Party and became an ambassador for the New Deal. 
  • Jane Addams continued her Hull House project in the thirties, which was serving the poor and immigrant population in Chicago. Other settlement houses, which were often led by women, also helped provide necessary social services in the Depression. 
  • Grace Abbott, who had been head of the Children’s Bureau in the 1920s, taught at the University of Chicago’s School of Social Service Administration in the 1930s. Her sister Edith Abbot was there as dean. She was a U.S. delegate to the International Labor Organization in 1935 and 1937.
  • Mary McLeod Bethune had served on presidential commissions under Coolidge and Hoover, but in Roosevelt’s administration, had a larger role. She often spoke alongside Eleanor Roosevelt, who became a friend, and she was part of FDR’s “kitchen cabinet,” advising him on matters involving African Americans. She helped establish the Federal Committee on Fair Employment Practice which worked to end exclusion and wage discrimination for African Americans in the defense industry. From 1936 to 1944 she headed the Division of Negro Affairs within the National Youth Administration. She also helped bring together several black women’s organizations into the National Council of Negro Women, which she served as president from 1935 to 1949.