“The Great Depression of the 1930’s was a worldwide phenomenon composed an infinite number of separate but related events.” The Great Depression was a time of poverty and despair caused by many different events. Its hard to say what caused this worldwide depression because it’s all based on opinion as opposed to factual data. There are many contributing factors but not one specific event can be pin pointed for starting the depression. It is believed that some events contribute more than others-such as the Stock Market Crash of 1929.
The Stock Market Crash of 1929 was in the majorities opinion, a long and overdue crash that was bound to happen. Prices sky-rocketed so high that when they reached what was believed to be it’s all time high, most people sold their gaining stocks for a profit. So many people sold their stocks at a rapid rate that the corporations were unable to pay the shareholders. Speculation arouse months before the crash when Roger Babson made his speech at the annual National Business Conference which he said “….. Sooner or later a crash is coming which will take the leading stocks and cause a decline from 60 to 90 points in the Dow Jones Barometer.” This and many others speeches like this scared people into selling there stocks before the inevitable would happen. This was a leading causes that assisted the Great Depression become one of the bleakest and most studied events in the history of our country: yet not the only cause.
Another large contributing factor was Mother Nature, I say this because in Oklahoma the weather was so dry that the farmers were unable to harvest their crops: these farmers became known as Okies. The land was a barren wasteland of dust and dirt in which it got it’s name the Dust Bowl. In other areas, the extreme opposite took place: farmers overproduced and prices rapidly dropped because the demand decreased. The drastic result of this oversupply made it hard for farmers to make money due to the fact that they had so much that they were forced to sell it at substantial low priced just to remain competitive enough to make even the small profit they were making. The imbalances were however, self correcting in which if manufacturers made too much of something, it’s price would fall, profits would disappear, and the producers would cut back on output. In 1932 the American writer, Stuart Chase described cycles as “the spree and hangover of an undisciplined economy.”
Economists recognized the depression as a cycle in which there were four cycles; expansion; crisis(or panic); recession (or contraction); and recovery. The definitive description was made by Wesley Clair Mitchell of the University of California. A cycle Mitchell explained in Business Cycles(1913) was “the process of cumulative change by renewal of [Economic] activity develops into intense prosperity by which the prosperity engenders a crisis, by which crisis turns into depression and by which depression finally leads to…. a revival of activity.”
Banks played a significant role in the depression because they were in charge of all the money and interest rates. For example when banks had large reserves, they lowered interest rates. Cheaper loans encouraged manufactures to invest in new equipment and hire additional workers. The resulting expansion of production caused an upswing of the cycle. The increased borrowing eventually reduced the bank’s reserves, thus resulting in a drastic increase of interest rates. That discouraged investors and slowed the economy down. Another good explanation was the bad distribution of wealth for the cycles. During these challenging and difficult times the rich opted not to spend there money: they saved in banks, vaults, etc. This resulted in increased investments, more production, and eventually more goods piled up on shelves and warehouses. Prices fell, production was cut back and workers were discharged. As a result, the economy entered the depression phase of the cycle.
The crisis stage of the cycle was brought about by bank failures and by irrational selling of stocks ;thus causing business failures, a slowing in production, a rise in unemployment, and an overall optimistic view about the future.
Another helpful aide in the depression was the chief International creditor who was described as “unexperienced and less careful about it’s lendings because it was less dependent on this business than the chief pre-war tender, Great Britain.” He granted huge short term loans to politically unstable nations.
Lionel Robbins was a professor at the London School of Economics. He offered what was probably “the most influential contemporary explanation of the length of the downturn in the Great Depression(1934). The World War (World War I) had destroyed much property and stimulated nationalistic sentiments that resulted in restrictions on international trade; Robbins wrote” Robbins believed that the depression was dragging on because of structural weaknesses. An example of Robbins philosophy was that the monetary confusion and rampant inflation after the war had hampered.
Many policies that the government put out hurt and slowed the recovering economy. One act known as the American Hawley-Smooth of 1930 crushed the European industry which was already unstable from the depression. It stopped European trade and prevented European from earning the almighty dollar. This Act also destroyed any possibilities of regaining the money loaned to them during World War I.
The collapse of the German Banking system in 1931 had monumental affects on the entire world. It aided to turn, what would have been, a small economic problem into the Great Depression. President Hoover was outraged and blamed the Great Depression on the Europeans by saying, “the hurricane that swept our shores were of European origin.” He also said, “European statesmen did not even have the courage to meet the real issues and heavy spending on arms and frantic public works programs to meet unemployment led to unbalanced budget and inflation that tore their system assunder.”
The Germans also blamed the depression on the harsh terms imposed by the Versailles Treaty, especially the reparation they were forced to pay. They claimed the reparations brought down the economic vitality of their country to an all time low.
Not one single book I have read has blamed any one specific country for the start of this catastrophe. As a matter of fact, each book has said if the countries would have worked in unison rather than focusing solely on themselves we might not have ever heard of the Great Depression. Nobody knows what the result would have been if the countries worked together and resolved the problem before it festered as it did. No one ever envisioned the extensive duration of the depression. My only prayer is that we never see another time like this again.
The United States was and still is a great power in the world’s manufactured goods – twice as much as Great Britain and Germany combined. When American producers cut back on their purchases of raw materials and other supplies, the effect on other countries was devastating. The policies of the Federal Reserve Board in the early 1930’s put added pressure on European currencies. After Great Britain was again forced to leave the gold standard in 1931, many foreign banks withdrew deposits from America in the form of gold: they were afraid that the United States might go off the gold standard too. “When the Reserve Board raised the discount rate to discourage these withdrawals it inadvertently exacerbated the deflationary trend, thus deepening and prolonging the world depression.” The America delfation was probably the cause of much of the deflation that took place elsewhere and thus an important reason why the depression lasted so long.
High unemployment was the most alarming aspect of the Great Depression. “In every industrial nation, more people were out of work than in any period in the past. It has been estimated that in 1933 about thirty million workers were jobless, about two-thirds of these in three countries – the United States, Germany, and Great Britain. If anything, this estimate is low.” In New York City a survey was conducted by the Welfare Council and in New York alone 100,000 families were being treated for physical and mental effects of unemployment. The homeless rate increased dramatically. So much so that many people did not even have a roof over their heads. The majority of homeless people had nothing at all and the minority made shacks on vacant land: these shacks soon became known as “Hoovervilles”.
Women played a new role during this time. When a man lost his job and was having difficulty locating a new one, it was up to the women to work. This made a man “feel less than a man” because the women were supporting the family and at that point in time such an event was frowned upon. Worldwide, in 1929 about one-third of all workers were women. Everyone agreed that ending the depression would solve the unemployment problem or at least bring unemployment down to “manageable” levels. There was also, however, the more immediate problem of what to do about the people who were unemployed and needed assistance merely to survive. Whether efforts to aid the unemployed would help to end the depression or make it worse was a matter of risk-taking. Another way to solve the unemployment problem was to export people to other countries that had available jobs so that people could survive.
I do not think the Great Depression could have been avoided: we simply do not live in a perfect world. There is no way of telling when or if the next depression will occur. I feel if the governments worked together then the depression would not have been such a catastrophe as it ended up being. Did the nations not know that they influenced the course of the depression and in turn, the course of history. Another reason why the depression lasted so long was because politicians were so busy in pointing fingers at each other instead of resolving it.
Who knows how long the depression would have lasted if World War II never came to be. Because of World War II industries began making weapons and these industries hired the workers to meet the high demands. The United States would sell their weapons world wide and make a profit.
This turn in events concludes the era of the Great Depression with the last cycle: recovery.
It is an amazing and complex phenomena, that at seventeen years old I am able to pin-point (in what is my opinion), the leading cause of the duration of the Great Depression: uncooperative leaders unwilling to aid and assist so that harmonious coexistence would have prevailed.
Hopefully, at this point in our history we have learned from our past mistakes and will never see such a dreadful and dire time again!
1). Bernstein, Irving. A Caring Society, The New Deal, The Workers, And The Great Depression. Haugghton Mifflin Company. 1985
2). Garraty, John A. The Great Depression. Harrcourt Brace Jovanovich Publishers. 1986
3). Hoover, Herbert. The Memoirs Of Herbert Hoover 1920-1933. The Macmillan Company. 1953
4). Meltzer, Milton. Brother Can You Spare A Dime. Random House Inc. 1969
5). Patterson, Robert T. The Great Boom And Panic. Henry Regenery Company. 1965
6). Rothbard, Murray W. America’s Great Depression. D. Van Nostrand Company Inc. 1963
7). Smith, Gene The Shattered Dream. William Morrow and Company. 1970
8). Watleins, T.H. The Great Depression, America in the 30’s. Little Brown Company. 1993
Filed Under: Great Depression, History
In 1933 Eleanor Roosevelt’s It’s Up to the Women exhorted American women to help pull the country through its current economic crisis, the gravest it had ever faced: “The women know that life must go on and that the needs of life must be met and it is their courage and determination which, time and again, have pulled us through worse crises than the present one.” While women as a group could not end the Depression (mobilization for World War II deserves that credit), the country could never have survived the crisis without women’s contributions.
“We didn’t go hungry, but we lived lean.” That expression sums up the experiences of many American families during the 1930s: they avoided stark deprivation but still struggled to get by. The typical woman in the 1930s had a husband who was still employed, although he had probably taken a pay cut to keep his job; if the man lost his job, the family often had enough resources to survive without going on relief or losing all its possessions. Still, Eleanor Roosevelt noted, “Practically every woman, whether she is rich or poor, is facing today a reduction of income.” In 1935–1936 the median family income was $1160, which translated into $20–25 a week to cover all their expenses, including food, shelter, clothing, and perhaps an occasional treat like going to the movies. Women “made do” by substituting their own labor for something that previously had been bought with cash or by practicing petty economies like buying day-old bread or warming several dishes in the oven to save gas. Living so close to the edge, women prayed that no catastrophic accident or illness would swamp their tight budgets. “We had no choice,” remembered one housewife. “We just did what had to be done one day at a time.”
In many ways men and women experienced the Depression differently. Men were socialized to think of themselves as breadwinners; when they lost their jobs or saw their incomes reduced, they felt like failures because they couldn’t take care of their families. Women, on the other hand, saw their roles in the household enhanced as they juggled to make ends meet. Sociologists Robert and Helen Lynd noticed this trend in a study of Muncie, Indiana, published in 1937: “The men, cut adrift from their usual routine, lost much of their sense of time and dawdled helplessly and dully about the streets; while in the homes the women’s world remained largely intact and the round of cooking, housecleaning, and mending became if anything more absorbing.” To put it another way, no housewife lost her job in the Depression.
Those traditional gender roles assumed that all women were members of families with a male breadwinner at its head, but that description did not always match reality. Women who were widowed or divorced, or whose husbands had deserted them, struggled to keep their families afloat; single women had to fend for themselves. These women were truly on the margins, practically invisible. The iconic image of the Depression is “The Forgotten Man”: the newly poor, downwardly mobile, unemployed worker, often standing in a breadline or selling apples on a street corner. Women who found themselves in similar dire straits rarely turned up in public spaces like breadlines or street corners; instead they often tried to cope quietly on their own. “I’ve lived in cities for many months broke, without help, too timid to get in breadlines,” remembered the writer Meridel LeSueur. “I’ve known many women to live like this until they simply faint on the street from privations, without saying a word to anyone. A woman will shut herself up in a room until it is taken away from her, and eat a cracker a day and be as quiet as a mouse.”
Women who sought relief or paid employment risked public scorn or worse for supposedly taking jobs and money away from more deserving men. When Norman Cousins realized that the number of gainfully employed women in 1939 roughly equaled the national unemployment total, he offered this flippant remedy: “Simply fire the women, who shouldn’t be working anyway, and hire the men. Presto! No unemployment. No relief rolls. No depression.” Yet this attempt to make women scapegoats for the Depression rested on shaky grounds. Many women had no choice but to work, providing the sole source of support for themselves or their families. Plus, given the segmentation of the workforce by gender, it was not so simple—or even desired—for men to move into women’s jobs, as a sociologist realized: “Few of the people who opposed married women’s employment seem to realize that a coal miner or steel worker cannot very well fill the jobs of nursemaids, cleaning women, or the factory and clerical jobs now filled by women.” Since traditionally male fields like heavy industry and manufacturing were the hardest hit by the Depression, while clerical and sales fields populated by women were somewhat less affected, this division of labor gave women workers a slight edge. Unfortunately it came with a price: reinforcing traditional stereotypes of what constituted women’s work. Still, even the terrible economic crisis could not derail the overarching twentieth-century trend of women increasingly working for pay outside the home. According to census figures, the percentage of employed women fourteen and older actually rose during the Depression from 24.3 percent in 1930 to 25.4 percent in 1940, a gain of two million jobs. Even more dramatically, the number of married women working doubled during the decade.
When talking about women as a group, it is always important to ask “which women?” when generalizations are offered. Women experienced the Depression differently based on their age, marital status, geographical location, race and ethnicity, and a host of other factors. For example, the 1930s urban housewife had access to electricity and running water, while her rural equivalent usually struggled with the burdens of domesticity without such modern conveniences. (Only one in ten farm families in 1935 had electricity.) Farm families also struggled with declining agricultural prices, foreclosures, and in the Midwest, a terrible drought that contributed to the Dust Bowl migrations of that decade.
African Americans, long subject to discrimination and prejudice, often viewed the Depression differently from whites. Times had always been hard, and suddenly they just got a lot harder. The novelist and poet Maya Angelou, who grew up in Stamps, Arkansas, recalled, “The country had been in the throes of the Depression for two years before the Negroes in Stamps knew it. I think that everyone thought the Depression, like everything else, was for the white folks.” In 1930 nine out of ten African American women worked in agriculture or domestic service, both areas hard hit by the depression. Housewives who previously hired servants began to do their own housework; sometimes white women competed for jobs previously abandoned as too undesirable to black women. In the South and West, Mexican American women on the bottom rung of the economic ladder faced similar conditions, but with an added dimension: the threat of deportation back to Mexico because of fears about competition for jobs and relief. In the depths of the Depression, perhaps one-third of the Mexican American population returned to Mexico, straining family ties and causing extreme financial hardship.
Herbert Hoover’s initial response to the onset of the Depression in 1929 had been to turn to business, private charity, and state and local welfare councils to address the problem, but those resources quickly proved inadequate. When Franklin Roosevelt took office in 1933, his New Deal forged new ground in expanding the presence of the federal government in the economy and making concrete connections between federal programs and the lives of everyday citizens.
And yet women struggled to be treated as equal citizens when trying to qualify for these new federal programs. One-quarter of National Recovery Administration codes set lower minimum wages for women than men performing the same jobs, and New Deal agencies like the Civil Works Administration and Civilian Conservation Corps gave jobs almost exclusively to men. Not considered suitable for heavy construction jobs, women on relief were shunted into sewing rooms; black and Mexican American women faced racial discrimination as well. The Social Security Act and the Fair Labor Standards Acts did not initially cover major areas of women’s employment such as agricultural work or domestic service. Furthermore, social security benefits were structured around a traditional model of a male breadwinner and dependent female housewife, which disadvantaged women who didn’t fit that profile and implied that women deserved economic rights only in relation to men. The Wagner Act of 1935 fueled a dramatic growth in organized labor, and woman workers participated in major CIO strikes and union organizing drives, but few women held leadership positions.
The needs of women might have been forgotten entirely were it not for the efforts of an informal network of woman administrators who held important positions in the New Deal. Secretary of Labor Frances Perkins, the first woman in the Cabinet, oversaw many of the social welfare initiatives and Ellen Sullivan Woodward supervised women’s relief projects for the Works Progress Administration, while Molly Dewson promoted an issue-oriented reform agenda from her position at the Democratic National Committee. Their effectiveness was dramatically enhanced by access to Eleanor Roosevelt, who used her position as First Lady to advance the causes of women, blacks, and other marginalized groups. Besides serving as a symbol of public-spirited womanhood in a time of national crisis, Eleanor Roosevelt served as the conscience of the New Deal.
According to writer Caroline Bird, the Depression left “an invisible scar” on those who lived through it, including the nation’s women. Forced to take on even more important roles in their homes and families, women played often unrecognized roles in helping the country through the Great Depression. Hard times worked to reinforce traditional gender roles, not subvert them. Ironically, women’s Depression-era contributions and strong identification with home and family may have helped lay the foundation for the so-called feminine mystique of the 1950s.
From 1997 to 2005 Susan Ware served as editor of volume five of the biographical dictionary Notable American Women at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, Harvard University. Her research interests include twentieth-century American history and the history of American women, as well as biography. She has published books on women in the New Deal and the 1930s; biographies of Molly Dewson, Amelia Earhart, and Mary Margaret McBride; and a women’s history anthology.
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