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Women of the Depression, by Julia Blackwelder.

March 28, 2012

WOMEN’S HISTORY MONTH

Women of the Depression: Caste and Culture in San Antonio, 1929-1939, by Julia Kirk Blackwelder. Texas A&M Press (1998), Paperback, 304 pages.

A carefully researched account of how Anglo, African American, and Mexican American women’s lives were affected by the Great Depression, they coped with sharply different options for themselves and their families.

During the Depression, San Antonio, Texas, was the poorest major city in the nation and the one with the lowest wages. It was a city divided by sharp ethnic lines and equally sharp differences in opportunity. Blackwelder uses statistical analysis to uncover the lives of women in the city, as well as some oral histories and other individual accounts to personalize her subjects. Statistics can be dull reading, but Blackwelder’s findings are dramatic. She reveals the differences in living conditions and various measures of life and death that marked the city’s rigidly segregated neighborhoods. While ethnic values and traditional practices affected women, the labor market’s sharp segregation by both gender and ethnicity was an even stronger determinate of their possibilities. Blackwelder shows that even during a period of severe economic hardship, men and women seldom competed for the same jobs. Women from different ethnic groups also were limited to ethnically defined employment Because of the impossibility of moving out one’s assigned category, Blackwelder uses the term caste rather than class to describe the situation.

Anglo women suffered job loss and reduced salaries for themselves and the men on whom they generally depended, but by and large they had the resources to “make do” in ways that minority women did not. Some even assisted others in need, but they had little understanding or exposure to the conditions ethnically different women faced. Anglo women’s education and language skills allowed them to move increasingly into clerical and sales jobs during the 1930s. They also had the best access to new Deal programs that gave some administrative and clerical experience and training. Although assumed to be “temporarily” in the work force, some were able to retain such positions into World War II and beyond.

Concentrated in eastern San Antonio, African-American women had the highest percentage of work force participation, and over 90% of those were employed in domestic service jobs in private homes or as washer women. Black girls tended to stay in school, but were seldom able to avoid domestic service. Because of long-term employment, many owned modest, but satisfactory homes with family members. Black churches had the stability to assist their congregations. Racism in the local application of New Deal funds limited their availability to African-Americans. Federal programs also assumed that black women would never move into manufacturing or clerical jobs. They limited assistance to them to “learning to be good domestics.” Yet over the decade, jobs for domestic servants were declining with no new possibilities opening.

Mexican American families lived on the west side of San Antonio where living conditions during the Depression were terrible—as revealed in far higher sickness and death rates. Traditionally, Hispanic women were restricted to domestic circles which, along with their inability to speak English, limited their money-earning options. Small manufacturing concerns within the Mexican community, however, relied on women doing handwork in their own homes or within small factories where they worked alongside relatives. Some of those employed were mere children. Mexican women did fine hand sewing, including embroidery and applique for long hours but earned less than a dollar a day. They also worked with family members picking the meat out of pecans, again for less than survival wages. Although mechanical pecan picking machines were available, owners found it more profitable to pay for the work to be done by women by hand. When federal laws requiring fair labor practices were passed late in the decade, most jobs hand sewing and pecan picking ended for Mexican women. Federal programs were somewhat useful, however, in improving women’s English skills and training them for some clerical work.

In one of her most interesting chapters, Blackwelder describes the highly visible involvement of Mexican American women in strikes in San Antonio during the 1930s. She gives us the outline of a story in need of further research and explanation. I would like to know more about the reasons why the Mexican women acted so publicly. Certainly national unions realized that the low pay scale for garment workers in San Antonio lowered wages for worker throughout the country. They devoted resources to recruiting them, but the women’s actions seem to contradict their culture’s restriction of their public roles. Blackwelder describe several of the women leaders. Rebecca Taylor was an educated Anglo who worked with the labor unions and Emma Tenyucha, a young dynamic Mexican American, was highly popular within her community. Tenyucha, however, publicly identified herself as a communist. The union removed her from her leadership position as employers demanded to allow negotiations to proceed. Employers made promises to women workers which they later broke. Little actually was gained.

I recommend Women of the Depression to other readers, especially those interested learning more about the lives of Mexican American women or of a Texas city with three segregated ethnic groups. The book opened my eyes and can open yours as well. You will never think of San Antonio only as a city of the Riverwalk and missions again.

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