The Invisible Women of the Great Depression

During the Great Depression, women made up 25% of the work force, but their jobs were more unstable, temporary or seasonal then men, and the unemployment rate was much greater. There was also a decided bias and cultural view that "women did work" and in fact many who were employed full time often called themselves "homemakers." Neither men in the workforce, the unions, nor any branch of government were ready to accept the reality of working women, and this bias caused females intense hardship during the Great Depression.

The 1930's was particularly hard on single, divorced or widowed women, but it was harder still on women who weren't White. Women of color had to overcome both sexual and racial stereotyping. Black women in the North suffered an astounding 42.9% unemployment, while 23.2%. of White women were without work according to the 1937 census. In the South, both Black and White women were equally unemployed at 26%. In contrast, the unemployment rate for Black and White men in the North (38.9% / 18.1%) and South (18% / 16% respectively) were also lower than female counterparts.

The financial situation in Harlem was bleak even before the Great Depression. But afterward, the emerging Black working class in the North was decimated by wholesale layoffs of Black industrial workers. To be Black and a woman alone, made keeping a job or finding another one nearly impossible. The racial work hierarchy replaced Black women in waitressing or domestic work, with White women, now desperate for work, and willing to take steep wage cuts.

Survival Entrepreneurs
At the start of the Depression, while one study found that homeless women were most likely factory and service workers, domestics, garment workers, waitresses and beauticians; another suggested that the beauty industry was a major source of income for Black women. These women, later known as "survivalist entrepreneurs," became self-employed in response to a desperate need to find an independent means of livelihood. "

Replaced by White women in more traditional domestic work as cooks, maids, nurses, and laundresses, even skilled and educated Black women were so hopeless, '' that they actually offered their services at the so-called 'slave markets'-street corners where Negro women congregated to await White housewives who came daily to take their pick and bid wages down '' (Boyd, 2000 citing Drake and Cayton, 1945/1962: 246). Moreover, the home domestic service was very difficult, if not impossible, to coordinate with family responsibilities, as the domestic servant was usually on call '' around the clock '' and was subject to the '' arbitrary power of individual employers. ''


Inn Keepers and Hairdressers
Two occupations were sought out by Black women, in order to address both the need for income (or barter items) and their domestic responsibilities in northern cities during the Great Depression: (1) boarding house and lodging house keeping; and (2) hairdressing and beauty culture.

During the "Great Migration" of 1915-1930, thousands of Blacks from the South, mostly young, single men, streamed into Northern cities, looking for …