The 1930s: Women’s Shifting Rights and Roles in United States

The social impact of the Great Depression on American women

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 eras. The decade did, however, bring slow and steady progress, even as new challenges—especially economic and cultural ones—emerged that actually reversed some earlier advances.

Context: Women's Roles in 1900–1929

Women in the first decades of the 20th century saw an increased opportunity and public presence, including a strong role in union organizing. During World War I, many women who'd been stay-at-home mothers and wives entered the workforce for the first time. Women activists agitated for more than the vote, which was finally won in 1920, but also for workplace fairness and safety, minimum wages, and the abolition of child labor.

African American women became central to the cultural flowering of the Harlem Renaissance that followed World War I. In many urban black communities, these same courageous women were also standing up for equal rights and beginning the long fight to end the horrific practice of lynching.

During the Roaring Twenties, information on contraceptives became increasingly widespread, allowing women the freedom to engage in sexual activity without the often inevitable consequences of pregnancy. Other factors that led to greater sexual freedom included more relaxed clothing styles and societal attitudes that were less restrictive.

1930s—The Great Depression

Telephone Operators at Work
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While the new phenomenon of the airplane drew some elite women, including Ruth Nichols, Anne Morrow Lindbergh, Beryl Markham, and Amelia Earhart (whose career spanned the late 1920s through 1937 when she and her navigator were lost over the Pacific) to become pilots, with the 1929 market crash and the onset of the Great Depression, for most women, the cultural pendulum swung backward. 

With fewer jobs available, employers generally preferred to award those they had to men who'd traditionally worn the mantle of the family breadwinner. As fewer and fewer women were able to find employment, the societal ideals that had embraced increasing female freedoms did an about-face. Domesticity, motherhood, and homemaking once again became regarded as the only truly proper and fulfilling roles for women.

But some women still needed to work, and work they did. While the economy was losing some jobs, in newer fields, such as the radio and telephone industries, job opportunities for women were actually expanding.

One of the main reasons women were hired for many of these new jobs that resulted from emerging technology was that they could be paid considerably less than men (and often still are). Again, the wage gap was justified by the stereotype of the male breadwinner needing earnings that would support not just himself, but a traditional family—whether he was married or not.

Another place where women were thriving in the workplace was the growing film industry whose ranks included many powerful female stars. Ironically, even as many female stars hauled in hefty salaries and outearned their male co-stars, the majority of 1930s film fare consisted of movies aimed at selling the idea that a woman’s place was in the home. Even those onscreen characters who were strong, charismatic career women usually gave it all up for the love, marriage, and the husband that were requisite for a traditional Hollywood happy ending—or were punished for not doing so.

The New Deal

When Franklin D. Roosevelt was elected president in 1932, working men and women were still reeling from the effects of the Great Depression. Under 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.

Along with his progressive policies, Roosevelt also brought a new breed of First Lady, in the person of Eleanor Roosevelt, to the White House. Thanks to an assertive, capable, and active personality paired with an impressive intellect, former settlement house worker Eleanor Roosevelt was more than just a helpmate to her husband.

While Eleanor Roosevelt did provide stalwart support with regard to FDR's physical limitations (he suffered lingering effects of his bout with polio), she was also a very visible and vocal part of her husband's administration. Eleanor Roosevelt and the remarkable circle of women with which she surrounded herself took on active and important public roles that likely would not have been possible had another candidate been in office.

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 

The issue of women’s rights was less dramatic and widespread in the 1930s than it had been at the height of earlier suffrage battles—or would be again during the subsequent "second-wave feminism" of the 1960s and 1970s. Still, some very prominent women affected big changes through government organizations at the time.

  • 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.
  • When she was appointed to be Secretary of Labor by Franklin D. Roosevelt in his first year in office, Frances Perkins became the first woman cabinet official. She served until 1945. Historically referenced as "the woman behind the New Deal," Perkins was a major force in 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 on to focus her efforts on labor reform. She championed minimum wage laws for women and children, as well as limiting working hours for women and children to a 48-hour week. Dewson 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 ’30s, serving the poor and immigrant population in Chicago. Other settlement houses, which were often led by women, also helped provide necessary social services during the Great 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, where her sister, Edith Abbot, served as dean. Abbott was a U.S. delegate to the International Labor Organization in 1935 and 1937.
  • Mary McLeod Bethune had served on Presidential commissions under Calvin Coolidge and Herbert Hoover but had a larger role in FDR's administration. Bethune 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 was involved with establishing 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. Bethune also helped bring together several black women’s organizations into the National Council of Negro Women, for which she served as president from 1935 to 1949.