During the Great Depression, journalist Norman Cousins proposed a striking remedy for the unemployment crisis. Upon learning that the number of women who held jobs was nearly the same as the number of men who had lost jobs, he declared: “Fire the women, who shouldn’t be working anyway, and hire the men. Presto! No unemployment. No relief rolls. No depression.”
What sounds shocking today did not seem nearly as far-fetched in the 1930s. Male unemployment rates had skyrocketed, because men dominated employment in the sectors hardest hit by the Depression — heavy industry, railroads, mining — while women’s employment rates remained relatively stable. Many agreed with Cousins that the highest priority was to restore men to their roles as their families’ economic providers.
Today, many more women are in the workforce — 75% as opposed to 25% at the end of the 1930s — and families count on their salaries. Amid the coronavirus pandemic, women are also disproportionately shouldering burdens — from lost wages and additional unpaid care and household labor, to an uptick in domestic violence.
While few would suggest firing women to improve the economy, lawmakers still envision the ideal worker as a man. Such thinking has resulted in policies that exacerbate gender inequality and overlook the particular harms faced by women. As September nears and questions about school and child care loom, women’s problems will deepen if we continue to neglect them.
The economic solutions proposed in the 1930s reflected the belief that, at its core, the Depression represented a crisis in men’s ability to support their households. Back then, federal authorities even passed laws prohibiting more than one family member from working in the civil service to limit the number of married women holding jobs.
The New Deal, President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s response to the Depression, transformed the role of government in people’s lives by introducing policies such as Social Security, unemployment insurance, minimum wages, disability benefits, public housing and the right to unionize. The rights and social safety net created by these policies helped foster a long period of economic stability.
Yet the New Deal also shored up the inequalities in a workforce starkly segregated by race and sex. Roosevelt and his advisers focused on supporting white male breadwinners by prioritizing the kinds of jobs they tended to hold. Much of the legislation disproportionately benefited white men, excluding or offering minimal assistance to everyone else. The retirement benefits offered by the Social Security Act of 1935, for instance, covered only half of workers and 60% of those exempted were women. When it came time for the U.S. Senate to vote, Southern Democrats also would support the legislation only if the Old Age Insurance program excluded agricultural and domestic laborers. The result was that nearly two-thirds of all Black people in the labor force were denied coverage, and probably about 85% of Black women.
Similar battles played out over the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938, which set a federal minimum wage and a 40-hour workweek. Southern Democrats and anti-New Deal Republicans would support the bill only if it excluded farmworkers and domestics.
When New Dealers created jobs to put people back to work, the vast majority went to men. One of the largest public works projects, the Civilian Conservation Corps, enrolled more than 2.5 million men but had spots for only 8,500 women. The Works Progress Administration, or WPA, employed women to teach, staff libraries, preserve food, and make mattresses, clothes and blankets. But even the WPA gave most jobs to men, many on construction projects.
The only New Deal Program directly targeted at women was called Aid to Dependent Children, or ADC. Established in 1935 as part of the Social Security Act, ADC gave small cash payments to poor single parents to help them raise their children. ADC recognized that lone mothers needed economic support and offered them a federal safety net for the first time in history. But the payments were so meager that few families could achieve upward mobility. Because the ADC’s architects sought to support women’s roles as caregivers, not wage-earners, the program prevented single mothers from getting jobs to supplement their stipends, essentially condemning them to lifelong poverty.
Since the 1930s, while public policies have increasingly expected — and required — women to hold jobs outside the home, very little has been done to account for their disproportionate responsibility for child-rearing and household labor. The only piece of federal legislation focused on these issues was the 1993 Family and Medical Leave Act, which provides 12 weeks of unpaid leave to care for a new child, recover from a serious medical condition or provide care for a seriously ill family member, if you work at a company with at least 50 employees. Yet, because the leave is unpaid, nearly half of those who qualify cannot afford to take it. And around 40% of workers do not qualify for the leave because they work at smaller companies. The paucity of policy support for childbirth and care work are the result of a system that still envisions the ideal worker as a man.
While women have broken through some of the employment barriers they faced in the 1930s, they are still overrepresented in low-wage jobs and face persistent inequality in the workplace. A recent report found that women made up nearly two-thirds of the 22.2 million workers in the country’s 40 lowest-paying occupations, providing health care, education and retail services. More than two-thirds of mothers in these jobs are the sole or primary breadwinners for their families.
The pandemic has worsened this trend. Because of the persistence of sex segregation in the labor force, women are more likely to have work that exposes them to the coronavirus, and they are also more likely to have jobs that have been eliminated, especially in industries such as leisure and hospitality that employ more women than men. In May, the unemployment rate for women was two points higher than for men, with nonwhites hit particularly hard: 19% of Latinas were unemployed, 16% of Black women and 13% of white women. We also know that economic and social crises nearly always result in an increase in domestic violence.
The ongoing public health crisis has also exposed inequality in household labor, which is crucial to the functioning of our economy and our collective survival. In most families, women’s responsibilities now include more food preparation, cleaning and child care than ever before, with those who are economically vulnerable facing the greatest challenges.
If day care centers and schools cannot safely reopen, many women will be unable to reenter the labor force because they cannot leave their children unattended. An estimated 50 million people must consider child care obligations before returning to their jobs.
Few policymakers today would echo Norman Cousins’ call for women to be fired or excluded from the workforce. But if schools and child care centers are not open this fall, their policy response may amount to the same message. The New Deal’s failure to consider all people as deserving of rights and protections led to continued gender inequity that has constricted women’s abilities to thrive, both at home and on the job, for nearly a century.