Founding Feminists: September 25, 1932

Founding Feminists is FMF’s daily herstory column.


A new weapon now being used against women in the workforce was denounced tonight by Civil Service Commissioner Jessie Dell at a meeting sponsored by the National Woman’s Party at its headquarters in Washington, D.C.

Section 213 of the Economy Act of 1932 was allegedly passed to try to spread Civil Service jobs around to as many families as possible during the current economic crisis. It declares that if cutbacks are needed, those who have spouses working for the Government must be dismissed first, and if new positions become available, priority must go to those who do not have Federally employed spouses.

Dell noted that the original bill called for dismissal of wives only, but at the last minute, due to “fear, on the part of legislators, of the political effect, if discrimination against women were otherwise so clearly and forcibly shown,” the text was changed to make it neutral in regard to gender. But the change was purely cosmetic. Since men tend to get promoted faster and higher, if cutbacks require a family to live on just one salary, it is invariably the lower-paid wife who will resign to protect the higher-paid husband’s job.

Commissioner Dell also wondered about the arbitrary nature of the restrictions. If keeping a family from hoarding too many Government jobs is the aim, then why not prohibit fathers and sons, or any two family members living in the same household from being simultaneously employed? She said that the real purpose of the law was “to strike at the employment of women generally” and that “this strange freak of legislation is merely a reaction against the employment of women on the part of men who, after all the remarkable work women have done, still cannot push aside their biased opinions and honestly consider the real good of the service.”

via the Library of Congress
Jessie Dell at her desk, via the Library of Congress

Prejudice against married women in the workforce is nothing new, of course. The most obvious examples are strict bans on women teachers marrying, which were widespread many decades before the current business depression hit, and are by no means extinct today. But hostility toward the employment of wives in general has skyrocketed with the unemployment rate, and this form of bigotry has now has been formally enshrined in Federal law.

The new law states : “In any reduction of personnel in any branch or service of the United States Government or the District of Columbia, married persons (living with husband or wife) employed in the class to be reduced, shall be dismissed before any other persons employed in such class are dismissed, if such husband and wife is also in the service of the United States or the District of Columbia. In the appointment of persons to the classified civil service, preference shall be given to persons other than married persons living with husband or wife, such husband or wife being in the service of the United States or the District of Columbia.”

Section 213 clearly violates the principle of Civil Service employment being based solely on merit, and is anti-marriage as well. Already there are reports of working couples choosing to cohabitate rather than marry, secret marriages, and even separations and divorces among those already married, so that both partners can evade dismissal.

Civil Service Commissioner Dell urged women to “get busy and set in operation forces which will hasten the repeal movement.” She said that the law could be repealed, but only if there was “enlightened sentiment and crystallized public disapproval.” The National Woman’s Party intends to be at the forefront of the battle, and to be as successful at taking this out of Federal law as it was in helping put “Votes for Women” into Federal law via the 19th Amendment 12 years ago.

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