Federal Writers' Project – Life Histories/2021/Fall/Section010/Mrs. Lila Flemming

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Overview[edit | edit source]

Example of a woman working in the Works Progress Administration

Biography[edit | edit source]

Mrs. Lila Flemming of Raleigh, N.C., was interviewed on March 21, 1939. Flemming, a white woman, worked as a clerical worker in the Works Progress Administration. Most of Flemming’s account of her life detailed her slow decline from being the daughter of a wealthy politician to living with her drunken husband in a tiny apartment near the point of starvation.

Early Life[edit | edit source]

Flemming described her childhood as extravagant and carefree, because she and her six siblings were allowed to act recklessly without fear of punishment from her parents. She lived in a twelve bedroom mansion, and her family was even rich enough to have a maid.

Family Life[edit | edit source]

Beginning at the age of fourteen, Flemming began nearly a decade of complex, often unsatisfactory relationships with different men. Elmer, her first husband and the man who she was married to longest, seemed to stay with Flemming solely for her father’s money. However, Flemming truly loved Elmer and bailed him out from jail for liquor charges on numerous occasions–both with her father’s money and her own scant savings, forcing Flemming to begin pawning her own valuable possessions.

Between bailing out Elmer and his own sons from jail on liquor possession charges, Flemming’s father began to lose money fast. Additionally, Mr. Hodges–whose name difference from his daughter was never explained–worked in the mule and horse business, which was quickly being replaced by the automobile in the early 1900’s. Arguments over finances finally led Flemming and Elmer to move out of her parents’ house, and they moved into a small two room apartment when Flemming was sixteen.

However, providing for themselves proved to be stressful for both Flemming and her husband. Elmer had a job at a nearby barber shop, but would drink nearly every day and occasionally beat Flemming–once the neighbors even had to stop his assault. Flemming did all of the housework and cooking, which Elmer heavily criticized. Over time, the domestic situation grew worse and worse, and eventually Flemming got sick, Elmer lost his job, and he began to stay away from the apartment for a week at a time. Finally, at the point of starvation after one such week, some Catholic Sisters visited Flemming and paid for her way back to her parents.

Unfortunately for Flemming, she soon realized she was pregnant with Elmer’s baby. However, Elmer didn’t want the baby, and he forced Flemming to get an abortion, a surgery which nearly killed her. Later in life, this surgery would prevent her from having her own children with her second husband.

Later Life[edit | edit source]

Between Elmer and the husband that Flemming seemed to end up with, she continually bounced back and forth between two men, one of which could support her financially, while she truly loved the other one. The length of time that these relationships lasted is unclear, but neither man ended up marrying Flemming due to the fact that they were either already married, or could not decide if they loved her enough to marry her.

As she looked back over her life, Flemming seemed surprisingly content, at least in the sense that she was hopeful for her future. She hoped that her new husband, for whom she seemed to hold no special affection, would soon earn enough money for her to live as she had when she was younger. Also, Flemming wanted to adopt two little girls someday. As she succinctly said near the end of the interview, “They say that after sun comes rain, after snow comes the thaw, and I add that after mistakes come peace and calm.”[1]

Social Context[edit | edit source]

Great Depression[edit | edit source]

The Great Depression, the worst economic crisis in American history, struck hard across all American socioeconomic classes. Even the wealthy were not insulated; “Families who had previously enjoyed economic security suddenly faced financial instability or, in some cases, ruin” (Konkel 2018).[2] People’s quality of life often dropped drastically, and citizens looked to the federal government for aid (Konkel 2018).[3] As a result, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt created the New Deal during the 1930’s. The New Deal was a series of programs and initiatives with the general goal to employ Americans during the record unemployment caused by the Depression. The Works Progress Administration was one such program, employing both men and women in projects ranging from constructing roads to nursing (Rotondi 2019).[4] However, factors like “...the strength of entrenched elites, the staunch commitment to traditional values and institutions, the political impotence of the have-nots, and President Roosevelt’s limited agenda for reform,” limited the New Deals’ overall effectiveness in the urban South (Biles 1990, 100).[5] Thus, the impact of the Great Depression was arguably felt hardest in the American South, since the New Deal had the least success in this region (Biles 1990, 100).[6]

Working Women[edit | edit source]

Throughout the mid to late 1930’s, American women began to enter the workforce in greater numbers than ever seen before (Rotondi 2019).[7] The economic desperation of the time period combined with more unmarried women contributed to this rise (Rotondi 2019).[8] However, not all jobs were created equal in the workforce. Grunow, Daniela, Heather Hofmeister, and Sandra Buchholzs’ analysis of the decline of the female homemaker in the United States concludes that “Women’s employment is one way American families (and women) insure themselves and their children against economic and marital insecurity” (106).[9] This trend, though dominated by white women, also included minorities to some extent. Race relations in the urban South specifically were in a state of flux, mostly because many protests against injustice and segregation originated in southern cities (Gershenhorn 2001, 276).[10] As a result, more minority women were able to join the American workforce for the first time.

  1. [Folder 538: Hicks and Massengill (interviewers): My Mistakes], in the Federal Writers' Project papers #3709, Southern Historical Collection, The Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
  2. Konkel, Lindsey. “Life for the Average Family during the Great Depression.” History.com. A&E Television Networks, April 19, 2018. https://www.history.com/news/life-for-the-average-family-during-the-great-depression.
  3. Konkel, Lindsey. “Life for the Average Family during the Great Depression.” History.com. A&E Television Networks, April 19, 2018. https://www.history.com/news/life-for-the-average-family-during-the-great-depression.
  4. Rotondi, Jessica Pearce. “Underpaid, but Employed: How the Great Depression Affected Working Women.” History.com. A&E Television Networks, March 11, 2019. https://www.history.com/news/working-women-great-depression. 
  5. Biles, Roger. “The Urban South in the Great Depression.” The Journal of Southern History 56, no. 1 (1990): 71–100. https://doi.org/10.2307/2210665.
  6. Biles, Roger. “The Urban South in the Great Depression.” The Journal of Southern History 56, no. 1 (1990): 71–100. https://doi.org/10.2307/2210665.
  7. Rotondi, Jessica Pearce. “Underpaid, but Employed: How the Great Depression Affected Working Women.” History.com. A&E Television Networks, March 11, 2019. https://www.history.com/news/working-women-great-depression. 
  8. Rotondi, Jessica Pearce. “Underpaid, but Employed: How the Great Depression Affected Working Women.” History.com. A&E Television Networks, March 11, 2019. https://www.history.com/news/working-women-great-depression. 
  9. Grunow, Daniela, Heather Hofmeister, and Sandra Buchholz. “Late 20th-Century Persistence and Decline of the Female Homemaker in Germany and the United States.” International Sociology 21, no. 1 (January 2006): 101–31. https://doi.org/10.1177/0268580906059294.
  10. Gershenhorn, Jerry. “Hocutt v. Wilson and Race Relations in Durham, North Carolina, during the 1930s.” The North Carolina Historical Review 78, no. 3 (2001): 275–308. http://www.jstor.org/stable/23522330.