Gender Roles and Sexual Relations, Impact of the Great Depression on

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Among the many momentous effects of the massive unemployment and deprivation caused by the Great Depression, those on gender roles and sexual relations can easily be overlooked, but they are profoundly important.


In most societies, that of the United States prominent among them, men have traditionally defined their principal roles as being providers and protectors. The gender definition of a "real man" is one who has authority, who is in charge. The character Muley Graves speaks for this understanding of manhood when he proclaims in John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath (1939): "Jesus Christ, a man can't [do something], when he's tol' to!" Men were seen as the ones who rightfully made decisions. "Ma looked to Tom to speak, because he was a man," Steinbeck wrote. "She let him have the chance that was his right." That "right," however, was linked to his fulfillment of the roles assigned to men. For millions of American men who lost their jobs during the Great Depression, the loss of the ability to provide for their families posed a direct threat to their sense of manhood.

It was bad enough for a man's ego to be unable to provide; it was worse for him to become dependent on a woman. And this circumstance was more common during the 1930s than one might expect. Women's employment increased during the Depression, in part because the jobs from which they had been excluded, such as those in heavy industry, were most often in the areas of the economy hardest hit by the collapse, while some of the jobs that had been defined as "women's work," such as teaching, clerical work, and domestic service, were less severely affected by the Depression.

Many people saw the differential between female and male employment as a major cause of male unemployment. "Simply fire all the women, who shouldn't be working anyway, and hire the [unemployed] men," Norman Cousins wrote in 1939, summarizing this simplistic argument. "Presto! No unemployment. No relief rolls. No depression." Such arguments ignored a fundamental fact about the power of gender roles in the era: No matter how desperate they were for work, most men would not consider taking a job that was culturally defined as "women's work."

It is highly significant in terms of just how powerful was men's desire to avoid threats to their self-perceived masculinity that many white men during the Depression were willing to take jobs that had previously been defined as "Negro work," but not those that had been classified as "women's work." While women's employment actually increased during the Depression, African Americans were displaced by whites to an extraordinary degree. It has been estimated that black unemployment across the United States reached 50 percent in 1932. But take a job that was "woman's work"? Most men, it seemed, would sooner starve. The reason for this rigidity is not hard to discern. If one of the worst aspects for a man of being unable to provide was the effect of this circumstance on his sense of masculinity, taking on a woman's role would be seen as a remedy worse than the problem. To have no job was a serious blow to a man's masculinity; to have a woman's job was to abandon the argument that one was a "real man" at all.

A fictional depiction of a man attempting to go against this perception occurs in The Grapes of Wrath when Preacher Jim Casy offers to perform a kitchen task and Ma is taken aback. "It's women's work," she says. "'It's all work,' the preacher replied. 'They's too much of it to split it up to men's or women's work.'" More often during the Depression, though, the problem was that there was too little work to split it up into men's and women's work, but the line of division remained sharp nonetheless.


Men without work tended to lose their authority within the family. "The eyes of the whole family shifted back to Ma," Steinbeck wrote. "She was the power. She had taken control." Nor was such a power shift in families merely a fictional creation. In his 1940 book Citizens without Work, sociologist E. Wight Bakke found instances of men who lost their jobs and within a year or two the center of authority in the family had shifted to the wife.

Steinbeck uses the image of a stick as an appropriate metaphor for this transfer of authority from men to women. "Time was when a man said what we'd do," Pa Joad complains. "Seems like women is tellin' now." He threatens to get out his stick to put women in their place. "Times when they's food an' a place to set," Ma responds, "then maybe you can use your stick an' keep your skin whole. But you ain't a-doin' your job, either a thinkin' or aworkin'. If you was, why, you could use your stick, an' women folks'd sniffle their nose an' creep-mouse aroun'. But you jus' get you a stick now and you ain't lickin' no woman; you're a-fightin', cause I got a stick all laid out, too."

Men whose self-perceived masculinity was a casualty of unemployment yearned for a return to what they believed to be the natural order of gender. This vision was perhaps best captured in the words of the 1933 song, "Remember My Forgotten Man": "Ever since the world began, a woman's got to have a man."

During the Depression that male profession of faith in female dependence no longer seemed certain. We not only see increasing images of women who don't fit either of the categories in the traditional dichotomy, we see whores who are "virgins," such as Dallas in the 1939 John Ford film Stagecoach, and women with "sticks," such as Mae West in She Done Him Wrong and her other films and Scarlett O'Hara in Gone with the Wind. And even if women didn't have sticks, they still had the female powers that had for so long been the source of feelings of inferiority in many men, as Steinbeck so memorably indicated with the novel's ending: a helpless, starving man being breast-fed by the Joads' daughter Rose of Sharon. The female is plainly the provider and the male the dependent one in that scene.


"It's no wonder these young girls refuse to marry, refuse to rear children," Meridel LeSueur wrote in her 1932 article, "Women on Breadlines." She asserted that they were like the women in some parts of the world "who, when they have been conquered, refuse to breed."

Such an analysis seemed plausible and, with so many men unable to fulfill the role of provider, marriage rates did drop sharply early in the Depression, reaching a low of 7.9 marriages per 1000 population in 1932, down from 10.1 in 1929. Yet the rate of marriage rebounded in 1934 and remained at levels similar to those of the relatively prosperous 1920s for the remainder of the Depression. Birth rates, which had already been trending downward in the 1920s as women gained more independence, declined sharply under the impact of the Depression. The birth rate in the United States bottomed out at 126 per 10,000 23-year-old women in the United States in 1935 (compared with 181 in 1921 and 152 in 1928).

In her 1940 book The Unemployed Man and His Family, sociologist Mirra Komarovsky found that sexual activity virtually ceased in some families after the man lost his job. Another sociologist, Eli Ginsburg, reported that some women had "supposed it was [the husband's] right to have sexual relations" as long as he "was working and supporting her," but that changed when he was no longer earning the pleasure he derived from her acquiescence.

Even for those young people who postponed marriage, however, sexual desires were not easily switched off. Nor did the fact that married couples could not afford to have children mean that most of them would simply refrain from having sex. Accordingly, there was a boom in the number and business of birth-control clinics during the Depression and, following favorable court rulings in 1930 and 1936, physicians were allowed to provide birth control devices in most states. Being able to purchase birth control legally was of scant help, though, to people on relief who had no money. And it was in such destitute families that it often seemed more necessary to have sex because the men were so psychologically devastated and in need of having their self-respect boosted.

A man shorn of the sources of masculine identification usually found in the roles of provider and protector is left with one other means of asserting his masculinity—the most basic role of his sex. "You don't know what it's like when your husband's out of work," a woman in California's San Joaquin Valley told federal relief investigator Lorena Hickok in 1934. Of course they did not want to have additional mouths to feed, the woman explained, "but you don't have any money to buy anything at the drug store." Abstinence was not a realistic option, she maintained. "He's gloomy and unhappy all the time. Life is terrible. You must try all the time to keep him from going crazy. And many times—that's the only way," she said, alluding to sexual intercourse.


Men in search of their lost masculinity could turn to Hollywood for the prescription they sought to cure their ailment. Most notably, Walt Disney's 1938 animated feature, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, reflected the male fears and longings of the Depression years. The film portrays the "two kinds of women" view of the world with a vengeance. The Wicked Queen is a woman with power, like all too many women seemed, in the view of many men, to have in the 1930s. The heroine, on the other hand, is domestic, naïve, and finally completely helpless. Snow White must be restored to life by a man's kiss, reversing the reality of the Depression years for many men, who were in their own form of sleeping death, from which they could be brought back to life, however briefly, only by a woman's "kiss" (i.e., intercourse).

Thus Disney's fairy tale world of 1938 served as an architect's sketch for a reconstructed post-Depression (and, as it happened, postwar) world of gender relations.



Hapke, Laura. Daughters of the Great Depression: Women, Work, and Fiction in the American 1930s. 1995.

Kessler-Harris, Alice. Out to Work: A History of Wage-Earning Women in the United States. 1982.

Komarovsky, Mirra. The Unemployed Man and His Family. 1940.

McElvaine, Robert S. The Great Depression: America, 1929–1941. 1984, 1993.

McElvaine, Robert S. Eve's Seed: Biology, the Sexes, and the Course of History. 2001.

Melosh, Barbara. Engendering Culture: Manhood and Womanhood in New Deal Public Art and Theater. 1991.

Mettler, Suzanne. Dividing Citizens: Gender and Federalism in New Deal Public Policy. 1998.

Scharf, Lois. To Work and to Wed: Female Employment, Feminism, and the Great Depression. 1980.

Steinbeck, John. The Grapes of Wrath. 1939.

Woloch, Nancy. Women and the American Experience, 3rd edition. 2000.

Robert S. McElvaine

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Gender Roles and Sexual Relations, Impact of the Great Depression on

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