The 'Modern College Girl' Confronts the Great Depression
As the graduation season neared in the spring of 1932, journalist and Smith College alumna Eunice Fuller Barnard assessed the prospects for women exiting American colleges for an uncertain job market.
These weren’t just a few wealthy co eds; tens of thousands of women annually graduated from institutions of higher education at the time. And they were no longer confined to small, elite Eastern women’s schools. Barnard informed the New York Times and Scribner’s Magazine that some 500,000 “girls” now attended U.S. colleges and normal schools, which trained graduates to be teachers. About 80,000 of them would receive degrees in May commencements.
The aspirations of these young women were more expansive than for perhaps any previous generation. But they would soon collide in unfortunate ways with the era's relentless economic turmoil.
Early in the century, Americans imagined that the typical college girl was training for missionary work, polishing social skills for marriage, or aiming for an impoverished but independent career as a teacher or social worker. In the “dry” 1920s, the unchaperoned female party seeker made an exaggerated media splash.
Compared with earlier graduates, Great Depression-era college women were far more sober and competitive than most observers realized. Even at private women’s colleges like Bryn Mawr and Mount Holyoke, they came chiefly from middle-class families with average incomes of about $3,000 a year, a 1932 survey confirmed.
Mabel Barbee Lee, who helped found Bennington College in 1932, told the New York Times that the typical female student “values education as intellectual enrichment, but she is practical, even to the point of bluntness, and seldom has sentimental illusions either about herself or her contemporaries.” She regards “self-reliance and independent thinking as goals of attainment, rather than the accumulation of dry and unrelated information.”
She had also worked during college, at least part-time, and after graduation she wanted a job, not a wedding -- at least not for years, and perhaps not at all.
So it is no surprise that more than 80 percent of Wellesley students were registered in the college’s job-finding bureau. Among Texas Woman’s University students, 97 percent said they thought the modern girl should have an occupational career before marriage, and a rapidly increasing number of graduates continued in such fields after tying the knot.
Even during the Depression, women with some college education could be self-supporting. In the Boston area, those with just one year’s coursework earned salaries ranging from $75 to $100 a month, while those with bachelor’s degrees averaged $200 to $225, the New York Times reported.
Yet in addition to the challenge of finding a job, women -- especially married women -- faced dismissal from employers, who wanted to preserve work for men.
“The Depression’s now familiar axe seems in numerous school systems to be striking first at the head of the married woman,” Barnard reported.
North Dakota and South Dakota fired married women who were state employees, and 171 Ohio school boards required immediate resignations from women teachers when they got married. The city of Syracuse, New York, fired all married women in the city’s employ, no matter their training or their status as breadwinners for dependents.
The National Federation of Business and Professional Women’s Clubs denounced such practices, “protesting all discrimination on the basis of sex” -- sounding a theme that would echo through the decades ahead.
(Philip Scranton is a Board of Governors professor of the History of Industry and Technology at the University of Rutgers at Camden and the editor-in-chief of Enterprise and Society. He writes "This Week in the Great Depression" for the Echoes blog. The opinions expressed are his own.)
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