Great Depression

Irene Poston grew up during the Great Depression but never considered her family to be poor because "everybody was in the same boat."(Harmon 1998) Her mother canvassed the neighborhood locating vacant lots and petitioned the city for the right to put gardens on them. She provided for her family by working the plots, harvesting and canning the food, and tending a cow and chickens. Many women took similar approaches to surviving. As the economy contracted, women returned to doing some of the work that they had been able to pay others for in the past. Gardening and canning cut back on the grocery bill. Washing clothes and linens at home saved on the laundry bill. While the assumption might be that women had time for these extra chores because there were not paying jobs available, the reality is more complicated.

Women's jobs were not the first casualty of the economy. The building industry was hit hard leaving many men out of work. Rather than attempt to take jobs that were considered women's work, men began to compete for fewer jobs. The extreme gender segregation of work made it hard for men to take jobs society assigned to women. The fact that women's jobs paid much less than men's also meant that employers could keep producing if they laid off the expensive men and kept on the relatively inexpensive women.

Looking closer at women's employment, however, shows that women did not all share the same experience. A single White woman would have had a different experience looking for work in the depression than Black and/or married women. Persistent attitudes about women's roles in society - weighted by racism - created economic situations that pulled some women into the work force, while pushing others out during times of scarcity. Improvements in technology and growth in certain industries amplified this affect – creating new opportunities for women, but also reducing jobs in other industries. Estimates in 1928 suggested that 7% fewer workers were needed due to labor-saving machinery and mass production. ("Those" 1928)

Shifts in Occupation

In 1910, 28.2% of the employed women across the country worked in nonmanual labor compared to 45.5% in 1940.(Hooks 1947, 5) Expansion of businesses opened up opportunities for women as clerks, secretaries, and other office workers. These positions were seen as acceptable for women because their role mirrored society's conception of the hierarchy of the home with men in charge and women assisting men to achieve their goals.

As the economy worsened, however, male and female workers in other industries faced job loss and even those still employed found themselves with lower paychecks due to reduced hours or lower wages. Mary Stewart Duerson, a teacher, took pay cuts during the depression, and one year the school she worked at closed early because it did not have the money to pay its teachers for the whole year.(Cushing 1981) This would have been 1932. With money running out for the fiscal year, Mayor Harrison suggested to the Board of Education that schools be kept open until June 1st or longer even though teacher salaries would stop in mid-May. The Board instead notified teachers that "the public schools of this city will close on May, 13, 1932, and... your services for the present school year will terminate at that time." ("Mayor" 1932)

Teachers without positions may have looked for other work, such as clerical positions. As clerical positions became scarce, saleswomen may have taken positions in manufacturing — essentially causing a ripple effect down the employment caste system so that workers at the bottom of the hierarchy, particularly Black women and elderly women, were forced out of employment. (Helmbold 1988, 138)

Tobacco and Alcohol Manufacturing

Growth in the tobacco and alcohol manufacturing industries lessened the impact of the depression on Louisville's workers. While eleven manufacturing firms went bankrupt in Louisville in 1930, the tobacco companies were producing at near capacity with approximately 3,000 workers.(Kleber 2001, 354) Over 2,000 of those workers were women which may partially explain how the industry could still be profitable during the depression. (Census 1933, VI, 589) Unskilled female laborers were among the lowest paid workers in the city.

With the repeal of Prohibition in 1933, the alcohol industry in Louisville took off. The repeal meant the expansion of distilleries and growth of jobs for men and women. By 1940 over 900 women were employed in Louisville's beverage production industry while the industry had supported only 11 female employees in 1930.(Census 1943)

Laundry Workers

Laundry work took a steep nosedive from 1920 to 1940. Women's employment as launderers fell from 13.3% of women employed in Louisville in 1920 to 2.8% in 1940.(Census 1920) (Census 1943) The laundry industry declined as washing machines became more prevalent in the home and the Great Depression changed the economics of doing laundry at home versus sending out to commercial laundries. Laundresses who worked at their own homes or in the homes of their employers already had competition with professional steam laundries. By 1854, Louisville had the Louisville Steam Laundry near Second and Main Streets.("Louisville Steam" 1854) Steam laundries offered convenience to those who could afford it, and jobs to women with little or no education.

The advent of the electric washing machine around 1908 created additional competition, but it did not make an immediate impact. (Scott 2020) Mass production of the machines began in 1920.(Cowan 1987) While upper class homes had the machines in the 1920s, it wasn't until the 1930s that washing machines became an attractive option for the middle class. With reduced incomes due to the depression, middle class households calculated that buying a washer would cost less in the long run than paying a laundry service.(Scott 2020) By 1941, 52% of families in the United States owned a washer.(Zmroczek 1992) Subsequently, the decrease in customers put many laundresses out of work.

According to a survey by the Women's Bureau of the U.S. Department of Labor, laundry work paid the worst wages in Louisville. The 1937 survey found that women in commercial laundries in Louisville earned 22.5 cents per hour compared to 37 cents per hour for those in manufacturing. The launderers wages fell below the minimum wages for women set in neighboring states. Illinois had set its minimum wage to 23 cents per hour for its southern area; and Ohio set its minimum to 27.5 cents per hour.(Women's Bureau 1938, 27)

Professional Occupations

The Great Depression wasn't a great time for women in the professions. Women made little forward progress. The number of Louisville women working as teachers, reporters/authors, dentists, lawyers, and doctors all fell. Gains were made in the occupations of social workers, nurses, and librarians — all highly feminized jobs.

Women made some gains, including having their first mechanical engineer; however, they were fairly rare in many of the occupations. By 1940, women made up only 3% of Louisville's doctors, 1.2% of dentists, and .9% of Louisville's lawyers.

A notable loss of positions occurred in the teaching profession. The number of women school teachers fell by 245 while men teachers increased by 97 from 1930 to 1940. (Census 1930)(Census 1940)


As a position as laundress required little education, paid little money, but entailed strenuous labor in damp conditions, laundry work landed firmly at the bottom of the job hierarchy and fell disproportionately to Black women. In 1920, Black women made up 93.3% of laundresses who did not work in commercial laundries and 36.8% of those who did. (Census 1920) So as the industry succumbed to the shift to home laundering during the depression, the losses were felt heaviest by Black women. By 1940, Black women comprised only 20.7% of the women employed as laundry operatives and laundresses.(Census 1940)

While the total numbers of women employed in 1930 and 1940 stayed relatively even, according to the two censuses, Black women were disproportionately affected. In 1930, 32.4% of women in Louisville over the age of 15 were gainfully employed (Census 1933, 604); while in 1940, 32.3% of women (14 and over) were employed.(Census 1940) When broken down by race, however, the numbers show that White women's employment dropped by only 1.2% while Black women's employment dropped 17.1% which would have had a dramatic impact on the quality of life in their households.

Employed Louisville Women by Race, 1930 and 1940
  1930 1940
  Population Employed % Employed Pop. Employed % Employed
Black women 19,688 10,683 54.3 20,502 7,623 37.2
White women 102,979 29,075 28.2 114,595 30,937 27.0

Note: 1930 census counted women 15 years and over; 1940 counted 14 years and over (Census 1933, Table 15);(Census 1940, Table 4)


A comparison of eight southern cities for 1940 showed Louisville having the highest percentage of unemployed and seeking work Black women: 16.73% of the labor force. (Boyd 2012, 651)

Marital Status

Perhaps the most discussed change in the workplace during the decade was the number of married women joining the workforce. Since the beginning of the century, the number of married women workers had been edging up. In 1900 married women accounted for only 16.9% of Louisville's female breadwinners.(Commerce 1907, 340) Over the next thirty years, more and more married women joined or stayed in the workforce so that by 1930 they made up 28% of Louisville's working women. (Census 1933, 604) By 1940, despite the economic depression and a backlash against married women workers, their numbers rose to 36%.(Commerce 1943, 135)

This was a nation-wide trend. A Gallup poll asked people if they approved of a woman earning money in industry or business if she had a husband capable of supporting her. A strong majority of respondents, 82%, said, "No." The comments of the minority, however, showed that this was not a universally held opinion. One indicated that if the woman had no children, she "might as well work as sit around the house" and another acknowledged, "Certain types of women are better adapted to business and are happier when working."("Working" 1937, 26)

Bowing under the pressure of majority opinion and crushing unemployment numbers, businesses and government agencies across the country created discriminatory hiring and firing practices affecting married women. During the depression, Congress passed the Economy Act of 1932. Section 213 of the act stated that "In any reduction of personnel in any branch or service of the United States Government" married people whose spouses also worked for the government must be dismissed before other employees. It also established that bias in hiring. While the language of the new law applied to both sexes, the reality was that three-quarters of the over 1,900 employees dismissed were women.(McGuire 2008)

Teachers, in particular, faced the vagaries of individual school boards. The National Education Association surveyed cities across the nation in regard to their policies. In 50.6% of the cities surveyed, women were required to quit their teaching positions upon marriage.(Scharf 1977, 113) An abundance of teachers exacerbated the issue. "State-supported institutions have ground out nothing but teachers until there is an oversupply of highly trained pedagogues wanting a job," claimed one letter to the editor of the Courier - Journal. (Teachers 1935) Teaching was still one of the few professional positions that well-educated women could hold and, as a professional position ,held less stigma for men than other "feminine" jobs. With the scarcity of jobs during the depression, the competition got even tougher as school boards began discriminating in favor of men and single women. In 1920, Louisville teachers consisted of 12% males and 88% females; by 1940 the number of male teachers more than doubled and they made up 18.1% of teachers. (Census 1943) (Census 1920)

In terms of marital status, school boards argued that if a woman had a spouse to provide for her that she should not take a job away from someone who needed it. In a letter to the editor of the Courier - Journal, one married woman rebutted this argument:

These selfish single women think a married woman has no right to work at all. A man no longer can make enough to keep expenses and live in decency. I say the married women are just doing their duty when they contribute to the family income. Who expects a family to step back and give all the jobs to people who do not have any one but themselves?(Gambill 1940)

Another counter-argument pointed to the quality of work done by experienced teachers and the detrimental effect of removing them in favor of mostly younger, less experienced ones. Another NEA survey asked whether prohibiting married women from being teachers was a sound policy. While 65% of school board members replied affirmatively, only 40% of school administrators agreed.(Scharf 1977, 126)

Race and Marital Status

According to the 1920 census, only 16.3% of married women in Louisville worked in gainful occupations, while 57.8% of single women were employed. (Census 1920, Table 48) Notably, only 7.9% of married White women were engaged in gainful occupations compared to 55.3% of Black married women.(Census 1920, Table 49) By the 1930 census, 61% of Louisville's single White women and 58.7% of single Black women were employed as well as 10.9% of married White women and 45.9% of married Black women.(Census 1930, Table 15) Ripples of the Great Depression pulled down employment all the way through the 1930s, but Black women were disproportionately hit. Between 1930 and 1940, White women's employment dropped less than one percent while Black women's employment dropped 10%.(Census 1930, Table 15) (Census 1940, Table 50)

By 1940, women constituted 28.7% of the workers seeking employment in Louisville. The personal services industry, including domestic servants and laundry workers, contributed a large number of unemployed women. Over 1,500 women were seeking work in the personal services with over 1,100 of the unemployed being non-white females.(Commerce 1943, 170)

Relief Programs

Local and federal programs provided some relief from the economic downturn. During the depression, Jennie C. Benedict organized an effort through the Community Chest to raise money to help improve community health and child welfare. From 1929 to 1939, it raised an average of $711,154 per year.(County 1954)

Federal programs to diminish the effects of the depression included the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), the Federal Emergency Relief Administration (FERA), the Public Works Administration (PWA), and the Works Progress Administration (WPA). The CCC provided jobs for men only. FERA, PWA and WPA included jobs for women. Women were put to work in nursery schools, and sewing, cooking, art, and library projects. As part of a WPA project Adele Brandeis helped to organize part of the Index of American Design and other art related projects.

The main thing [for the Index of American Design] was to try to find out something that would not last, something breakable and record it before it was gone. That was the criteria. Not just that it was beautiful, but that it was fragile and ephemeral... and it was unique to this part of the country... There were a great many young struggling artists who had been working in the Art Center School and had no idea of ever being able to make a living in depression days. It occurred to me that if they could possibly be taught how to do this interesting and meticulous work for the Index, that maybe it would somehow serve a purpose later on and at least pay them a little something and tide them over and keep them from being quite so discouraged...

I got the library to sponsor Mary Nay, and she did a mural in the Children's Department and the library sponsored Orville Carroll who did his first mural in the lobby... I had four murals done in public schools here by different people... Mary Nay, who at 18 or 19, did the children's mural in the public library here, has since won prizes all over this part of the country and is an instructor in the art department of the University of Louisville Fine Arts Institute.

I had one very talented girl named Cecil Coleman. The first job I got for her was to do illustrations. She knew Kentucky and could do very good black and white illustrations. I had her do a whole series of block prints on Kentucky birds to be used in the public schools...

If I lost [the artists] to something much better, and somewhere where they got a job, that was just what was intended all along.(Phillips 1965)

— Adele Brandeis

By 1935 the WPA had approved $1,620,292 for 141 work relief programs in Kentucky. Elizabeth Fullerton, the women's work director for Kentucky, proposed women's projects for each county in the state.("$1,120,395" 1935) Women designated as sole breadwinners for their families could apply to be on a priority list for the jobs. One project employed skilled laboratory technicians to process blood tests, conduct a malaria survey, and create vaccines. Other women worked in sewing centers in abandoned buildings making and repairing clothing or stitching quilts which would then be delivered to homeless people. ("Nearly" 1936) Another WPA project was aimed specifically at African American women between the ages of 20 and 35. The program trained the women in food preparation and serving, child care, and household management to prepare them for work as servants. During training, the participants received a stipend "slightly less than the standard wage."("Training" 1938)


Women in general lost fewer jobs than men during the Great Depression; however, Black women were disproportionately affected by the Great Depression. Holding the lowest status jobs, they were pushed out of the workplace as people in higher status jobs lost those positions and took jobs lower in the hierarchy.

The loss of jobs prompted society to question the role of married women in the workplace, particularly in professional roles where they competed with men.


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"Cigarette Manufacturing at Brown and Williamson Company, Louisville, Kentucky, 1930." CS 111146, Caufield & Shook Collection, Photographic Archives, University of Louisville, Louisville, Kentucky. 1927-02-01.
"Grand Quality Laundry Service, Louisville, Kentucky, 1934." CS 134378, Caufield & Shook Collection, Photographic Archives, University of Louisville, Louisville, Kentucky. 1934-09-19.