September 25, 1932: Women Fight Back Against Cutback Legislation

Founding Feminists is the FMF’s daily herstory column.


A new weapon in what’s becoming a war on 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 Washington, D.C., headquarters.

Section 213 of the Economy Act of 1932 was allegedly passed in an effort 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 Government employed spouses.

Dell noted that the original bill called for the 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 are generally promoted higher and faster than women, virtually all husbands earn more than their wives, so if cutbacks require a family to live on just one salary, it’s invariably the lower-paid wife who will resign to protect the higher-paid husband’s job, not vice versa.

Dell also noted that if keeping a family from having too many Government jobs is the aim, why not prohibit fathers and sons from being simultaneously employed, or any two family members living in the same household? 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.”

Civil Service Commissioner Jessie Dell
Civil Service Commissioner Jessie Dell

Prejudice against married women in the workforce is nothing new, of course, and strict bans on women teachers marrying, which were widespread decades before the current Depression hit, are not totally extinct even today. Some private companies are also implementing such policies. In a typical example, last September 28th, the Norfolk and Western Railroad announced that after October 1st it would not employ married women, and that any single woman who was presently employed there would automatically be fired if she married. Hostility toward the employment of married women has skyrocketed with the unemployment rate, and has now been formally (if covertly) 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 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 living together instead of marrying and secret marriages, as well as 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 expects to succeed.

Support eh ERA banner