Women on the Breadlines Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

This selection from “Women on the Breadlines” is excerpted from a longer essay, originally published in the magazine the New Masses, in which Meridel Le Sueur considers the plight of poor women during the Great Depression, particularly single mothers and the unemployed. It is noteworthy that the year in which Le Sueur published this piece, 1932, was considered the worst year of the Depression. Millions of Americans were out of work, with the national unemployment rate reaching nearly 25 percent. While the financial troubles of the Depression affected men as well as women, Le Sueur focused her essay on the particular plight of American women, who faced unique challenges, such as shouldering the primary responsibility for child care and lacking access to opportunities and resources that were more readily available to men.

Summary Overview

This selection from “Women on the Breadlines” is excerpted from a longer essay, originally published in the magazine the New Masses, in which Meridel Le Sueur considers the plight of poor women during the Great Depression, particularly single mothers and the unemployed. It is noteworthy that the year in which Le Sueur published this piece, 1932, was considered the worst year of the Depression. Millions of Americans were out of work, with the national unemployment rate reaching nearly 25 percent. While the financial troubles of the Depression affected men as well as women, Le Sueur focused her essay on the particular plight of American women, who faced unique challenges, such as shouldering the primary responsibility for child care and lacking access to opportunities and resources that were more readily available to men.

Defining Moment

On October 29, 1929, on a day known as Black Tuesday, the United States stock market crashed, sending the nation into the worst economic depression in US history. The Great Depression, which lasted for nearly a decade into the late 1930s, was a national financial disaster. A series of banking panics in the early 1930s resulted in the insolvency and collapse of nearly one-third of all US banks, causing many Americans to lose their entire savings, as bank deposits were not yet federally insured. Unemployment soared, peaking at 25 percent in 1933, and families across the country faced uncertainty over how to provide for their children and their futures. Le Sueur was interested in reporting the real stories of individual Americans and how they were coping with the changes and troubles brought on by the economic collapse.

Her piece, “Women on the Breadlines,” takes a close look at the struggles of individual women in the midst of the Great Depression. Le Sueur seemed particularly concerned for those women who had been left to fend for themselves, either because they had been abandoned by their husbands and children or because they had chosen to eschew marriage and motherhood. What is most defining about “Women on the Breadlines,” and many of her other works, is that Le Sueur aimed to be a voice for the marginalized. All too often, historical accounts of the Great Depression are told by way of economic and financial statistics. While such data provide important insight into these events, much can be learned from reading the actual struggles of individuals whose stories were recorded by reporters, such as Le Sueur.

Author Biography

Meridel Le Sueur was born on February 22, 1900, to William and Marian Wharton in Murray, Iowa. In 1910, her parents separated, and she moved with her mother and two brothers to Oklahoma. Her mother supported herself and her three children by lecturing on education and women's issues for the Chautauqua circuit. After her mother married Arthur Le Sueur in 1917, Meridel Le Sueur adopted his surname. She contributed stories and reports to several popular publications, including the Daily Worker and the New Masses. Le Sueur's legacy to American history has been grounded in her gripping and compassionate writings, particularly on social issues, and she published fiction and nonfiction throughout her lifetime. Le Sueur died on November 14, 1996, in Hudson, Wisconsin.

Document Analysis

This except from Le Sueur's “Women on the Breadlines” opens with the author questioning the scarcity of the women along the breadlines. Le Sueur relates this to the lack of “flophouses” for women, which were available only to men. Flophouses were cheap forms of lodging for the poor and destitute. It is a provoking thought: if flophouses existed for men, surely there would be a counterpart for women. However, it is important to consider the status of women at this time. By 1932, American women had held the right to vote for less than fifteen years, and a woman's place was still widely considered to be within the family home. There remained a pervasive expectation at this time that women would be cared and provided for by their fathers or husbands, even as Le Sueur's account exposes the breakdown of the American family during the Great Depression.

Le Sueur recounts her impression of several women who are waiting in the employment bureau with her, many of whom had been abandoned by their husbands or their children in the wake of the economic collapse. Furthermore, Le Sueur describes the young, pretty girls who try “to pick up a man to take them to a ten-cent show” in order to distract themselves, if only for a short while, from the “deathly torture and fear of being jobless.” For many of these women, the young men who were interested in enjoying their company represented their only reprieve from the crushing poverty they faced, and Le Sueur remarks, “It's no wonder these young girls refuse to marry, refuse to rear children.” Le Sueur's account gives the impression that motherhood, which was once considered to be the ultimate achievement for American women, was increasingly being seen as an unreasonable burden by poor young women during the Depression.

Le Sueur also describes the deep embarrassment and shame that the majority of these women felt when seeking assistance. She explains that many women prefer to withdraw rather than seek aid. “A woman will shut herself up in a room until it is taken away from her, and eat a cracker a day and be as quiet as a mouse so there are no social statistics concerning her,” Le Sueur writes. Although there were charitable organizations established to dispense aid to the poor, Le Sueur explains that many women were reluctant to seek their assistance for fear of judgment. Contrasting the average impoverished woman in need of aid with the older women who managed these predominantly religious charities, Le Sueur explains, “the lone girl is under suspicion by the virgin women who dispense charity.”

Finally, Le Sueur's account speaks to the deep disappointment and disillusionment of many of these women. She describes one older woman in the employment office, Mrs. Grey, as the “living spokesman for the futility of labour.” Despite Mrs. Grey's efforts and sacrifices to raise and support her family, she has been abandoned by her husband and ignored by her impoverished children, leaving her bereft of the support and security that husbands and children were expected to provide to their wives and mothers at the time. Le Sueur describes Mrs. Grey as “a warning” to other women of the insecurity of family and the empty promise of hard work in the midst of the Great Depression.

Essential Themes

“Women on the Breadlines” was an endorsement for those individuals who had fallen by the wayside of society when they were most in need. Le Sueur depicted the great social and economic changes brought on by the Great Depression by describing the stories of individual women. The social turmoil of this time is particularly exemplified by the case study of Mrs. Grey, who had given birth to six children, buried three, and tired herself to the bone to be a mother to them. At the time of Le Sueur's writing, however, Mrs. Grey did not know of the whereabouts of her surviving children or her husband, and she was left impoverished and alone in late middle age. Most of the women described by Le Sueur had had their lives and expectations completely upended by the Great Depression, and they were forced to adapt their attitudes, their lifestyles, and even their morals to survive in the new social and economic environment. Those women who could not adapt, such as Mrs. Grey, were likened to “a person drowning, doomed.” Le Sueur presented a sympathetic portrayal of the poor, the unemployed, and the homeless in much of her writings and, with “Women on the Breadlines,” she attempted to elucidate the reasons behind the behavior and attitudes of women whose lives had changed completely in the Great Depression.

Bibliography and Additional Reading
  • Broner, E. M. “Meridel LeSueur, 1900–1996.” Nation (17 Feb. 1997): 33–35. Print.
  • Hedges, Elaine, ed. Ripening: Selected Work. 2nd ed. New York: Feminist, 1990. Print.
  • Pratt, Linda Ray. “Women Writers in the CP: The Case of Meridel LeSueur.” Women's Studies 14.3 (1988): 247–64. Print.
  • Raymond, Mary. “Reflections of Meridel Le Sueur.” Hurricane Alice 5.3 (1988): 4. Print.
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