Resource

Married Women and Work

A Wisconsin Senate resolution condemning married women in the government workplace.

Document Text

Summary

We condemn the dual employment of married persons in state service and feel that one of the positions held by these married couples should be made available to other citizens of the state of Wisconsin who are either unemployed or who have specialized for other employment than that they now have. The committee condemns the practice of employing both husband and wife in a married couple. If both people in a marriage are employed by the state, one of them should give up their job for someone in need.
The large number of husbands and wives both working for the state raises a serious economic question, as this committee feels that the unemployed should be given a chance to work at profitable employment. The committee believes this is a major problem, as there are many people who deserve a well-paying government job.
Considering at present in the United States there are 9,000,000 unemployed and we are told that there are normally 5,000,000 unemployed; consider further that there are 6,000,000 married women working in the United States and of these 4,000,000 have husbands adequately gainfully employed, we present the fact that should these 4,000,000 jobs be made available, it would bring employment to a normal trend. The committee has examined the math and concludes that if married women stopped working, the national unemployment rate would improve.
We believe that the state of Wisconsin should lead and set an example in a program of “Share the Job” by replacing married women whose husbands are gainfully employed with unemployed dependent men and women. The committee wants to start a “Share the Job” program that replaces married whose husbands are employed with others who need jobs. Wisconsin could set an example for other states with this program.
The large number of husbands and wives both working for the state raises a serious moral question, as this committee feels that the practice of birth control is encouraged and the selfishness that arises from the income of employment of husband and wife bids fair to break down civilization and a healthy atmosphere, disrupts the idea of making a home, and is the calling card for disintegration of family life. The high number of husbands and wives both working for the state is a moral problem. When both husband and wife work, the family breaks down. It also encourages the use of birth control.
Some of the members of this committee were shocked to witness on several mornings the mad haste with which the husbands would drive their wives to work before eight o’clock for fear of being late and the resultant loss of a job, and then drive away to let the wife walk home after the day’s work was finished, and there, no doubt, to do the work around the home when she was tired and had already done a day’s work. The committee feels that children, if any, of this type of couples will certainly be raised with an inhibitory handicap and that the husband had lost all sense of chivalry and is selfish in forcing this upon his wife. The committee finds this to be an appalling and disgusting practice. We therefore recommend the discharge from public service of the married women whose husbands are earning $1500 or whatever the legislature may set as a necessary salary to maintain a decent standard of living. Committee members believe that the children of such couples suffer. Wives who work must go home and take care of the family while the husband works late. It is wrong for the husband to put his wife in this position.
Therefore, the committee recommends married women whose husbands earn more than $1,500 annually should be laid off.

Wisconsin Legislature, Journal of Proceedings (Wisconsin: Democrat Printing Company, State Printer, 1935). Courtesy of the Wisconsin State Legislature.

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Background

Shortly after the stock market crash of 1929, public opinion turned against married women in the work force. A common assumption was that a married woman worked to make extra money to spend on herself while taking jobs and money away from well-deserving men. Even Secretary of Labor Frances Perkins supported this idea and furthered public distrust of working married women. A national poll in 1936 reported that 82 percent of Americans believed wives should not work if their husbands had jobs. By 1937, a similar poll reported over 50 percent of Americans believed married women should never work.

The assumption that women worked for “extra” money was wrong. The proportion of married women working increased during the Depression. Some married women worked because their husbands could not find work. Other married women worked because their husbands did not make enough to support the family. In addition, the number of people deserting their marriages increased in the 1930s. Many married women did not even have a man at home.

The government agreed with public opinion. Between 1932 and 1937, federal law prevented more than one family member from working for the federal government. Because men made more than women, husbands typically took government jobs over their wives. Many state and local governments had similar policies that blocked married women from all manner of work. The idea that men would replace women in the workforce was flawed. Jobs in the 1930s were still divided by gender. Men did not necessarily want the jobs typically held by women, but policy was slow to change until World War II made it a necessity.

For more information on married women and work during the Great Depression, watch the video below.

This video is from “Women Have Always Worked,” a free massive open online course produced in collaboration with Columbia University.

About the Document

In 1935, the Senate of the state of Wisconsin create a committee to investigate government nepotism. This is an excerpt from the committee’s report. The committee argued that married couples were a form of nepotism because the government gave two jobs to one family. The committee not only used the report to criticize all married women who worked, but also birth control and men’s lack of consideration toward their wives.

Vocabulary

  • calling card: A phrase used to describe a sign or piece of evidence of something.
  • chivalry: A system in which men are honorable and live up to a moral standard; often related to medieval knights and ladies.
  • condemn: Criticize.
  • disintegration: The process of falling apart.
  • handicap: A barrier.
  • insidious: Harmful and tricky.
  • nepotism: The practice of a government or person in power giving jobs to friends or relatives.

Discussion Questions

  • What is the overall argument in this document? What is the committee recommending and why?
  • What do you think about this argument? What are the strengths and weaknesses?
  • Revisit the third paragraph. The committee uses statistics to justify the removal of married women from government positions. What do you think of this conclusion? How is this math flawed?
  • The committee argues that families with two employed parents result in “the disintegration of family life.” What do they mean by that and what do you think of their argument?
  • The committee mentions birth control in the fifth paragraph. Why? What does this tell you about views on birth control at the time?
  • In the last paragraph, the committee argues that men married to employed women lack chivalry. What does this mean and why do they believe this to be true? What does this tell you about traditional views of marriage, gender norms, and a husband’s responsibility?
  • Why do you think the government was concerned about maintaining the traditional family?
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Themes

WORK, LABOR, AND ECONOMY; DOMESTICITY AND FAMILY

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