Seattle Municipal Archives Find of the Month: Working Wives during the Great Depression

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City Light stenographers

High unemployment during the Great Depression led to scrutiny of families with more than one wage earner, particularly if one of those employed was a woman. A 1930 letter to a local newspaper complained that the wife of a fireman of the writer’s acquaintance “works in a store and lets two children run wild. The husband gets good pay and has steady work. What can be done about this?” The newspaper’s Mr. Fixit suggested writing to the Fire Chief, George Mantor, to have him determine whether “the conditions justify action.”Two anonymous citizens did just that. One, who signed her letter “A Poor Working Girl,” complained of a fireman’s wife who had been working at a tea room for two years: “[T]hey have no children and have a good time besides, and keeps us girls who need work out.” She claimed such wives worked for selfish reasons like “swell clothes.” Another writer, signing as “Yours for Fair Play,”complained of a fireman who hadn’t missed a day’s pay in eight years, worked on his vacations as well, and had “no sickness or any trouble of any kind…to call for the wife’s working.” (She sold ties at the Bon Marche.) The letter continued, “I for one think it is high time that men living off the taxpayers should at least keep there [sic] wives from doing another tax payer out of a living.”

Chief Mantor was uncertain about how to reply to these complaints. In a letter to the Central Labor Council, he asked whether the unions had a policy on the issue or if it was considered a personal decision for each employee to make. Mantor stated, “[W]e have been hesitant to make any comment or take any action – even though we believe that it is not a matter of good policy for our personnel who are steadily employed to permit their wives to fill positions that should go to the unemployed.”

The Labor Council replied that they agreed this was a problem in principle; “however, there are extenuating circumstances that justifies some married women working… [D]uring the war, women were pressed into service, filling the places of men in many instances, and after the war was over they just remained undisturbed.” While the council had no fixed policy on the matter, the letter stated that it was “a big question that should have been given attention years ago, and for our negligence, we are all subject to criticism… [T]he time is not far distant when there will be a general awakening when something will be done.”