“Unattached” Women

A federal report on women receiving government assistance in Chicago.

Document Text


Prior to 1930, opportunities for employment among women in Chicago had been steadily increasing— from 1920 to 1930 the advance in number of gainfully-occupied women was more than one-fourth (26 percent)—and women’s independence was accepted without question. Since the beginning of the depression in the autumn of 1929, short-time work and unemployment . . . have been the lot of a very large number of women able and anxious to work. Industrial workers were the first to be affected, but as time went on women in business and the professions likewise fell victims of the depression. Before 1930 employment for women was increasing. Since the beginning of the depression, many women have lost their jobs. Industrial workers were the first to be let go, but unemployment has spread to other types of jobs.
Some of the unemployed women on relief in Chicago are members of family groups, wives, daughters, or sisters, but many fall in the category called variously the homeless, the unattached, women-one-person families, or nonfamily women. In addition to the group of women who have been employed, there are some homeless or unattached who never have been employed. They are widows or members of families who had been supported by other persons until the death or illness of such persons prevented their further help. In many cases these women lack training and experience to fit themselves into a job, were a job available, so they are among the large group of unemployed unattached women. Others in this category are those who formerly had independent incomes, who have lost their resources through collapse of the stock market, closed banks, and so forth, though before these reverses they considered themselves secure for life. Viewed from their present position, all these women, regardless of their previous economic condition, have two attributes in commons—they are unemployed and dependent. . . . Many unemployed women are unattached. This means that they are not married and have no family. Many of these unattached women are homeless.
Unattached women may be widows or single women. They often do not have the skills or ability to find a job.
Some unattached women used to work and are now unemployed. Some of them never worked.
Twelve thousand five hundred women-one-person families on relief in Chicago in November 1936 presented a picture far from satisfactory. The Chicago Relief Administration was eager for more information regarding these women than appeared on its records. . . . With such facts at hand the Relief Administration hoped to develop a program of treatment benefiting the women themselves as well as making more effective the administering of relief. . . .
As of November 1936, there were 12,500 unattached women in Chicago received public financial assistance. The Chicago Relief Administration conducted a study to learn more about these women.
The women were not young—three-fourths of them were at least 40 years of age. Four-fifths of the women were native-born, about equally divided between white and Negro. Two-fifths were widowed, close on two-fifths were separated or divorced, and just over one-fifth were single. Well over one-half of the women had lived in Illinois 20 years or longer, one-fourth of these all their lives. As would be expected, a much larger proportion of whites than Negroes had resided in the State for a long time. More than two-fifths of the foreign-born were not citizens. . . .
Three-fourths of unattached women are over the age of 40. Most are native-born. Over half of them have lived in Illinois for at least 20 years.
The need of health insurance is well illustrated by the extent of illness. . . . There is shown also the need of more adequate effort on the part of the community in attending to their immediate wants.

Many of the women report health problems and need health insurance.
Almost one in seven of the women were reported as having a mental illness. More than three-tenths had some disease of the body as a whole. . . .
One in seven of the women reported mental illness.
The majority of this group of nonfamily women . . . had been self-supporting and financially independent for most of their adult lives. Illness, accident, unemployment as the result of industrial conditions, or the advance of old age had changed their normal way of living. Slightly more than 10 percent of these women had never worked outside of their own homes; unemployment of the other women was due, in the main, to illness or difficult in finding work that they were physically able to do. While inexperience was the major factor in the unemployment of only a small proportion of women, lack of training or education qualifications was a contributing factor in the inability of many women to find work. . . .
Most of these women were financially independent for most of their lives. Their situation changed because of illness, accident, or loss of a job.
Ten percent of the women had never worked outside the home.
Most of the women are able to do work, but cannot find a job.
Low earnings allowed no margin for times of unemployment or illness on the part of the majority of these women. Loss of employment meant the almost immediate application for assistance, though in few cases was relief sought without a preliminary struggle to manage on savings, securities, insurance, or proceeds from the sale of furniture, clothing, or property. This period of adjustment further included efforts to find work, taking jobs with no cash wages, and acceptance of loans from relatives and friends.
Because pay for women is so low, it is difficult to survive without financial assistance after losing a job. Women with jobs do not make enough to have savings.
On the whole, the women were poorly dressed, and clothing allowances did not begin to take care of their needs, either for warm outdoor clothing or for presentable outfits that would enable them to compete with better dressed women in applying for work. . . .
The women in the study were poorly dressed and lacked proper clothing for weather extremes. Without nice clothes, it is hard to get a job.
About 75 percent of these women had the exclusive use of a room, in some cases of an apartment or cottage. Well over half lived in rooming houses or light-housekeeping rooms, and 39 percent in family homes as lodgers. A few had homes of their own. . . .
Most of the women lived in a rented room or apartment.
Only one-third of these women had taken unfurnished rooms; the others either had lost or had never had any furniture. In many cases, the supply of bedding in furnished rooms was inadequate, especially in cold weather.
Most of the women live in rooms with little or no furniture.
Most of the living quarters had central heat, though in the cheapest rooming house this was no guarantee of warmth, for some landlords heated their buildings very inadequately. Many of the women living in their own homes had coal stoves, and the lack of kindling wood and difficulty in making the coal supply last worked great hardship. The women’s living situations are poor. Many do not have enough heat in the winter.
Electricity was the most common form of artificial lighting; many women were forced to use part of their food allowance to pay electricity bills.
Many women must use part of their food allowance to pay for electricity.
The majority of women lived in places with complete bathrooms, though 14 percent lived where bathing facilities and running hot water were lacking. Cleanliness of bathrooms was difficult to achieve where large numbers used them.
Most of the women have private bathrooms, but some do not.
Cooking and eating in the single room originally designed for sleeping purposes was the most common arrangement; inadequate cooking equipment prevented many of these women from making the greatest use of their food allowances. . . .
Many women live in a single room without a real kitchen. Cooking in a home without a kitchen is difficult.
With $12 stipulated as the maximum allowed for rent, including heat, light, and gas for a single woman, it was necessary for many to use part of their food allowance for rents. While 40 percent of the women who were paying rent were living in homes costing $12 a month, 28 percent were paying less . . . and 33 percent were living where the rental exceeded $12.
The public assistance program gives women $12 each month for rent, heat, light, and gas. A third of the women live in a place that costs more than $12 a month. Those women often use food money to cover rent.

Harriet Byrne and Cecile Hillyer, United States Women’s Bureau, “Unattached Women on Relief in Chicago, 1937,” Women’s Bureau Bulletin, No. 158 U.S. Department of Labor.


The attention of the government and the American public was on the family during the Great Depression. New Deal policies supported men with the assumption that all women had a male provider at home. This focus meant women consistently slipped through society’s cracks. Women who were unmarried, without children, and did not live with relatives were often described as unattached.

Unattached women were an invisible and disgraced part of society living in dangerous urban environments. The stigma against unattached women was strong, as they represented a group living outside social expectations. Historians often point out that while there are many photographs of single men in line at soup kitchens and unemployment offices during the Great Depression, there are almost no equivalent images of single women. This suggests many single women struggled in secrecy, either because they wanted to avoid public humiliation or because they had nowhere to turn for help.

Unattached women came from a variety of backgrounds and races. While some fell harder than others, the economic crash hit everyone in some way. A few federal support programs focused on women, but most were committed to serving mothers, particularly those without a male breadwinner at home. Government sponsored financial support for unattached women was limited and did not do enough to dramatically change their lives.

About the Document

The federal government completed a study of the 12,000 unattached women who received financial government assistance in Chicago in the fall of 1936. The study resulted in a ninety-one-page report. This document includes excerpts from that report.

The study was completed by social scientists working at the United States Department of Labor’s Women’s Bureau. The primary researcher and the project assistant were both women. It was completed at the request of the Chicago Relief Administration, which hoped to learn more about this group of women and create a system to help them achieve economic independence.


  • allowance: A pre-determined amount of money provided by the government or other organization. Often given at regular intervals.
  • Chicago Relief Administration: A local organization that was responsible for distributing and tracking government assistance funds.
  • light-housekeeping rooms: A living situation in which a person completes basic housework in exchange for a room to sleep.
  • on relief / assistance: The report uses these terms to refer to financial supported provided by the government.