Women’s Woes in Times of Trouble

A once wealthy widow deemed “neurotic” who flits about her rented living space in an almost frantic frenzy.  A college educated prostitute.  Mothers of many, battered and desperate, with husbands placed six feet under by car crashes or self-inflicted bullets to the brain.  A menagerie of characters whose stories, when viewed together, create a vivid picture of the diverse ways in which the women adapted to and sometimes shaped their new realities–bleak, yet often brushed with attitudes of curious optimism–during the Great Depression.

By providing a vehicle for female voices, particularly those of the uneducated, impoverished, or socially aberrant whose experiences have traditionally been stifled or misrepresented by the patriarchal narrative of the past, these life histories converge to illustrate that, despite being one of the nation’s most devastating crises, this era marks an important step in the progression towards gender equality.  Whether due to joblessness, abandonment, or death, it seems that many women interviewed by the Federal Writers’ Project in 1939 had found themselves increasingly, if not completely, responsible for supporting their families not only morally but financially, as well.  Faced with the malnourished frames of their numerous children, they began to look beyond the walls of the home or the borders of the farm towards positions in government agencies or factories, with varying levels of employment success.  This responsibility appears to have translated into a newfound sense of autonomy, as several interviewees relate having taken control of their lives by initiating divorces from violent spouses, controlling their bodies through engaging in sex work, or choosing not to marry.

This increased independence, while visible in critical retrospection, was likely invisible to these women who endured such severe psychological and physical hardships inflicted by forces outside of their control–weather, illness, and men–that their stories are sometimes difficult to read.  For example, in “Free Advice,” a fortuneteller describes how after being badly disfigured by her schoolyard sweetheart, she discovered the he had repeatedly raped their young daughter.  This horrifying event raised not only the hair on the back of my neck, but also some questions regarding how to encode these texts.  Domestic and interpersonal violence, being central to these women’s lives, cannot simply be ignored from the tags which I include.  So, how do I account for them?  Do I extrapolate from these accounts and call them by our modern, criminal terms such as rape, molestation, domestic violence, and pedophilia–phrases which never appear in the histories themselves and which the interviewees thus may not have considered the appropriate descriptors?

Finally, in addition to the aforementioned content issues, I have encountered more technical problems, including misspellings, dialect, and penciled in remarks.  While I believe that I will try to include the latter, I am uncertain as to how to handle the misspellings because it is impossible to tell whether they were intentional attempts at capturing dialect or accidental.  The only solution which I see to this predicament is to create a system: correcting the misspellings which occur outside of quotation marks and counting those within as dialect.

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1 Response to Women’s Woes in Times of Trouble

  1. Carla Aviles-Jimenez says:

    These life histories you chose relating to women seem very interesting as important windows into the lives of women during the Great Depression. A college educated prostitute in particular is a story I would definitely be interested in reading. I would never have thought that a period of history associated with loss and poverty could also be associated with gender equality, but your descriptions seem to suggest such a feat with what you state as a these women finding a “newfound sense of autonomy, as several interviewees relate having taken control of their lives by initiating divorces from violent spouses, controlling their bodies through engaging in sex work, or choosing not to marry.” These tales then take on a sense of female empowerment and are thus very important stories for us to document in this project. However, as you have stated, such intense stories do provoke questions in how we are to tag them. The grammatical errors, handwritten notes, and dialect prove difficult for many of these life histories, including your own, and so we must take care with how we are to deal with these technical issues. Moreover, the example that you cite in your post is a difficult one to deal with, particularly with the terms you list as possible tags that do not necessarily translate to the content of the text. I believe, however, that we may use these terms that you have listed simply because they are terms we understand today and would thus be helpful for future researchers. Despite the content being explicit and the difficulty they pose for metadata tags, these stories, I believe, are fundamentally important to the overall history of this time and the Federal Writer’s Project.

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