Women had gradually gained workplace, reproductive and voting rights since the turn of the century. By the 1920’s contraception was more widespread, more women were working and attitudes towards traditional femininity were more open. However, these rights were mostly only available to middle-class, urban, white women (the demographic depicted in this source). In most families across America, men were still the sole breadwinners, and in poorer families, women worked in menial labour out of necessity.
When jobs became scarce during the Depression, women working in traditionally ‘masculine’ jobs were often let go to ‘make room’ for their male counterparts. This also puts more pressure on middle-class women to take care of the home than in the 1920s. Despite this, women’s employment actually went up, partly because jobs like domestic service, teaching and clerical work—traditionally ‘feminine’ roles—were less affected by the decline in production of goods and services. Other reasons for this increase were that a man’s sole wages weren’t enough to support a family during the Depression, so women who could find work in these roles took them where possible.
Some men also deserted their families with the intention of making one less mouth to feed, meaning women had to work. For African American women, the employment rate (around 1/3) did not change from the 1920s to 1930s, as due to racial discrimination they were already economically disadvantaged. FDR’s New Deal and expanding bureaucracy meant more women could be employed, especially as many government jobs were in administration, giving women the advantage over men. At the time there were various attitudes towards clerical work that meant it was reserved for women—it was unphysical and seemingly didn’t require much mental strength.
Many of the New Deal’s employment programs aimed at women (such as the Works Progress Administration (WPA), Civil Works Administration (CWA) and National Youth Administration), still encouraged them to work in ‘feminine’ industries like textiles, education, catering and administration. This poster was authorised by the NYA, its purpose to encourage women to take up these roles. It directly appeals to unemployed, young women and offers them free training and guaranteed ‘pay, employment, security and promotion’.
743,000 women were employed across all New Deal programs. Most of these programs however were only aimed at younger women, as married women were still often seen as ‘selfishly’ taking away work that younger women needed. It was the assumption that their husbands could provide for them, despite the economic hardship. According to the Secretary of Labor, Frances Perkins (the first woman to hold a cabinet-level position), “The woman ‘pin-money worker’ who competes with the necessity worker is a menace to society, a selfish, shortsighted creature, who ought to be ashamed of herself.”
Unfortunately, despite the large employment opportunities offered to women through the New Deal, women were still disadvantaged to men. Marriage bars existed in most states by 1940, preventing white, married women entering work in bureaucracy, administration, banking and teaching. Black women had fewer restrictions as they generally had a lower socio-economic standing, but this also meant work they could find was more physical, menial and lower pay. Several New Deal programs also restricted women from benefitting, such as the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC).
Overall, the New Deal was beneficial in gaining workplace rights as the sheer number of employed women rose significantly. However, it did not bring women out of traditional employment roles, and therefore did not alter (to the extent it could have if women were given the same opportunities as men) the perception of what work women were capable of.
Source: Girls – are you interested in a job?, Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C. 20540 USA, https://www.loc.gov/item/98517815/
During the start of the Depression when jobs became scarce, hostility from white people towards minorities increased as many felt ‘they’ were taking ‘their’ jobs. Mexican Americans were specifically targeted—Mexican people, even citizenship holders who had lived in the US for several generations, were deported ‘back’ home to Mexico.
This differed from the treatment of black, Asian and Native Americans during the Depression—it was an outright government attempt to ‘get rid’ of them. Much of the attitude the Hoover Government had towards Mexican Americans was one of racial superiority and nativism, so when there was a shortage of jobs, they were pushed out to make way for white Americans.
A common slogan of the time was “Mexicans, go home, we can’t take care of our own”, despite the fact that Mexican Americans were ‘their own’. Over one million citizens were deported, often to random parts of Mexico, places of which people had no connection to. Such an action meant the republican party lost a large bloc in the remaining Mexican American population, subsequently contributing to the election of FDR in 1932.
Those who remained not only had to deal with the Depression, but like other ethnic minorities and immigrants also had to endure increasing hostility and blame, especially as they were perceived ‘foreign’ and ‘un-American’ by whites. Like African Americans, many Mexican Americans worked in agriculture, meaning economically they were affected heavily by the Great Depression as well—disproportionate to white Americans.
When the government changed after FDR’s inauguration in 1933, deportations still continued, although weren’t acted so violently (in some cases, police would search for people with brown skin in California and forced them into trains in previous years) and in much fewer numbers. The various labour programs of the New Deal had specific programs to bring unemployed Mexican Americans into the workforce. This was necessary as they were already disadvantaged against the white majority.
These included the CCC, WPA hiring in rural areas in the Southwest, and NYA. Through the WPA there were also art and recreation projects, especially promoting Hispanic music and dance. The Farm Security Administration also set up temporary camps for migrant workers who did not meet residency requirements in California. Despite this, Mexican Americans received even less than African Americans in terms of employment and benefits from the New Deal.
This was partly because many didn’t hold citizenship due to recent migration, and the New Deal overlooked this, meaning many were left out altogether. Even the CCC and WPA programs were discriminatory towards Mexican American citizens. This source shows two men who did benefit from employment programs.
They were part of the NYA, which specifically aimed to educate, train and employ American youth. Their work is clearly hard and physical, but was paid nonetheless. However, the photograph looks staged as both are smiling and their posture isn’t ‘natural’ for the tasks they are doing. This indicates that it may have been promotional for the NYA, rather than a documentary photograph, considering it doesn’t show any of the harsher realities of labour, discrimination or and the amount of Mexican Americans left out of the program.
Source: Latino/Hispanic Americans and the New Deal, The Living New Deal, https://livingnewdeal.org/what-was-the-new-deal/new-deal-inclusion/hispanic-americans-and-the-new-deal/
Reidsville. Ga Oct 19th 1935
Hon. Franklin D. Roosevelt.
President of U. S.
Washington D. C.
Dear Mr. President
Would you please direct the people in charge of the releaf work in Georgia to issue the provisions + other supplies to our suffering colored people. I am sorry to worrie you with this Mr. President but hard as it is to believe the releaf officials here are using up most every thing that you send for them self + their friends. they give out the releaf supplies here on Wednesday of this week and give us black folks, each one, nothing but a few cans of pickle meet and to white folks they give blankets, bolts of cloth and things like that. I dont want to take to mutch of your time Mr president but will give you just one example of how the releaf is work down here the witto Nancy Hendrics own lands, stock holder in the Bank in this town and she is being supplied with Blankets cloth and gets a supply of cans goods regular this is only one case but I could tell you many.
Please help us mr President because we cant help our self and we know you is the president and a good Christian man we is praying for you. Yours truly cant sign my name Mr President they will beat me up and run me away from here and this is my home.
An older African American man explained “The Negro was born in depression. It didn’t mean too much to him. The Great American Depression … only became official when it hit the white man.”
This quote perfectly illustrates the level of exclusion the white population placed on African Americans. The New Deal did very little to change the widespread discrimination, segregation and violence African Americans faced previously. Discrimination had the biggest impact on employment opportunities, with African Americans having and unemployment rate 50% higher than the white population. They were, especially in the South, “last hired, first fired” when jobs became scarce during the Depression.
Many of the industries black Americans worked in were also heavily affected. It wasn’t that white people didn’t work in these industries too, rather white people also had the opportunity to work in other, more white-collar professions. Black families working in farming (which had its own ‘depression’ during the 1920s due to overproduction and underconsumption) rarely owned their own property. As rural landowners were already falling into debt throughout the 1920s, when the Depression came, they were already behind other Americans.
This meant land and assets had to be sold, and many became itinerant. Their African American employees were often the first to go. People working in manufacturing, mining and any industry in production were especially hard hit, which was where a big chunk of African Americans worked due to racism and lack of educational and employment opportunities. Violence and lynchings increased as there were fewer jobs available. This was a similar situation with Mexican Americans and women, these groups were often ‘blamed’ for job scarcity.
FDR did little to improve the livlihoods of African Americans. This for ‘political reasons’, which is a point of major criticism over his presidency, as he was perhaps the first in a long time who lacked the extreme racial prejudices and held major influence. He did not want to ‘risk’ cracking down on Jim Crow Laws and segregation, as it would mean loosing a large bloc of white Democrat voters in the South who supported the oppression of black Americans.
He also failed to improve the general wellbeing of African Americans and include them in the New Deal, which would have worked to somewhat alleviate the economic inequality between white and non-white Americans. This was all despite the recommendations and encouragement of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and leader Walter White.
His wife Eleanor was a member since his election in 1932, and their views on the level of improvement and responsibility FDR had for the lives of African Americans was a strong point of contention. However, over 100 African Americans were employed in government, including Mary McLeod Bethune, head of the Division of Negro Affairs of the NYA. Despite Roosevelt’s ‘inaction policy’, she managed to employ many black Americans in the NYA and create the ‘Black Cabinet’ to consult and advise with FDR.
The author of this source clearly sees though that FDR’s New Deal isn’t sufficiently providing for African Americans. They speak of the widespread injustice that ‘suffering colored people’ have to face due to racial prejudices and the entitlement the white ‘releaf officials’. They explain how they are taking provisions that are meant to aid black communities affected by poverty, demonstrating that FDR’s relief program from the New Deal was ineffective for African Americans.
For many groups, the effectiveness of the New Deal was undermined by racial prejudices held by the people who implemented them (like the relief officials), rather than those who drafted the legislation. There was still widespread segregation in New Deal employment programs such as the WPA and CCC. By 1935, 30% of black Americans were on these relief programs, which evidently provided barely enough for survival.
Source: “Please Help us Mr. President”: Black Americans Write to FDR, History Matters, http://historymatters.gmu.edu/d/137
“Many good tribal governments were replaced by less capable ones. Indian Service administrators conceived of the Indian Reorganization Act as for the good of the Indians. They failed to realize that the community life patterns of some Indian tribes were not compatible with its principles. Successful programming had to be done at the community level with Indian participation. Probably because of administrative difficulties some of the education features of the IRA were not practiced, such as a tribal review of Bureau budgets.
Promise and performance, plans and achievements, tended to be very different… But we should not stop until we have had a moment to evaluate some of the good things the Indian Reorganization Act accomplished. One of the good things that it accomplished was the physical conservation of Indian land, soil, water, and vegetation. The conservation of Indian resources left a salutary legacy for the present. There was an overall endeavor to help the Indians go to work.”
Since invasion of North America, Native Americans underwent horrific treatment by their white colonisers. Government policy on how to ‘deal’ with individuals and their tribes was based on disempowering, splitting, assimilating and destroying their cultures. This was informed by racial prejudices and disrespect to the fact that white and indigenous cultures differed—Native Americans had a stronger connection to the land on which they lived. The most significant policy at this time was the Dawes Act of 1887.
It ‘broke up tribal land’, a specific acreage was allotted to each family. This forced them to implement Western farming techniques, which conflicted with their general, symbiotic relationship with the land. The process to retain this small amount of land was arduous, which made it impossible for many families to achieve it. There was also barrage of assimilation policies that tore children away from their families and put them in far away boarding schools, sold their land to white ‘settlers’ and forced Native Americans to adopt white practices.
Because of this, by the start of the 1920s they had shorter life expectancies, and suffered from disease and malnutrition more than white Americans. Little changed in these policies that denied self-determination until the 1930s under FDR, except for legal citizenship status for Native Americans in 1924 (however this did little to change the desperate economic situation). John Collier was appointed the Commissioner of the Bureau of Indian Affairs, a white sociologist an activist for tribal rights.
He criticised the Dawes act and the lack of self-determination that previous policies allowed for, and sought to change things. He said that “We have failed to prepare him to enter into our civilization, and we have done our best to destroy his sense of belonging to his own”. Collier was the primary person to implement the Indian New Deal (IND), a group of policies that, in the spirit of FDR’s New Deal, aimed to improve the living conditions of Native Americans and bring them to a higher socio economic standing whilst also able to keep cultural practices. There was the Indian Arts and Crafts Board, which promoted art and implemented regulations to authenticate the works. There were also several acts that decriminalised expression of indigenous cultures.
Schools were also created on reservations so children wouldn’t have to be away from their families and land, these schools also taught a nation’s own language as well as English. Thousands were employed under a separate division of the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), which meant they could work within their own reservations. The Indian Reorganisation Act 1934 (IRA) was the most significant part of the IND as it abolished the Dawes Act that was the cause of many of the issues in the first place.
It also directed funds to different groups so they could manage finances and buy back their land. The Act also called for a referendum among Native American groups to set up Indian Councils for each reservation or group (this was intended to give groups more autonomy). Native Americans also had priority when applying for jobs within their reservations. This approach was vastly different to previous policies as it meant there was some self-determination and ability for Native Americans to take matters into their own hands.
However, the approach had a massive flaw in that when these acts and policies were being set up, they had little input from Native Americans. Even though Collier was able to recognise many of the issues they faced, there was a ‘one size fits all’ attitude, where the individuality and different circumstances of each tribe, group or reservation wasn’t considered. It also disregarded the governance and systems in place that groups had developed over-time to suit their needs.
“Many good tribal governments were replaced by less capable ones” says Floyd O’neil, the author of the source. Cahuilla (nation/people in Southern California) historian Rupert Costo wrote that “it was a program to colonialize the Indian tribes” by, in some cases, white people forcing constitutions onto the Indian Councils. The IND was implemented by whites for Native Americans, not with. A major aspect responsible for its criticism is that many of the initiatives didn’t even materialise.
When they did, they still had a heavy federal influence. This may have not been what Collier had intended, but his catastrophic mistake was that self-governance/Native American input wasn’t part of the implementation of the IND. In a country whose white population was already prejudiced and hostile towards Native Americans, the fact that it was delivered by whites (public servants, officials etc…) meant that the outcome was skewed towards white interests.
Source: Indian Self-Rule, Utah State University,
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