Federal Writers' Project -- Life Histories/2020/Fall/105/Section 061/Ellen Blanchard

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Overview[edit | edit source]

Ellen Blanchard was a white women living in the early 1900s who faced the dreary life of the Great Depression on her own as she learned to fend for herself and her kids. She was married to Thomas Fenton and had 3 kids.

Biography[edit | edit source]

Early Life[edit | edit source]

Ellen Blanchard was born and raised in Montgomery, Alabama with her mother, father, sister, and brother. Her family was well off, having adequate income to provide a balanced lifestyle for herself and she had many opportunities given her status. As a young girl she completed high school but did not attend college so she could focus her time on learning how to housekeep so she could “be more certain of making success in marriage.” Ellen was highly popular and had many options for suitors, but her family had instilled into her the idea that she should find a husband with intelligence rather than fame and fortune. She felt she found that in Tommy Fenton, a young entrepreneur at the time. Shortly after being introduced the two were courted and married[1].

Adult Life and Career[edit | edit source]

While things went very well between the two preceding the marriage, Ellen and Tommy’s relationship quickly declined following their wedding and their move to Oklahoma City as Tommy was trying to make it as an inventor. Ellen was subject to starvation and a greed, and these traits were only heightened following the birth of her two children, Jamie and Frances. Tommy loved Jamie dearly but after Tommy’s company transferred to Atlanta, Georgia, Jamie fell ill and passed away. Even though Jamie had passed from disease, Ellen was blamed for his death and Mr. Fenton did not let her forget it. However, Ellen got pregnant again and Mr. Fenton eventually came around and loved the new baby Herbert. This love for his wife and the children would not last as Ellen and the kids were sent away for summers on end and then permanently by Mr. Fenton, most of the time without any financial support from him. Ellen had to learn to provide for her children, so she learned how to become a stenographer and worked that job for 7 years. Following that job, she was a housekeeper at the Ashley Hotel, while Frances was also old enough to take up a business job. Finally, the family of three were on their feet again when Mr. Fenton returned after making a fortune on his inventions. He wanted to take his wife and kids to California and start a new life. Ellen didn’t fall for his tricks, but her children did and with her children gone she felt no reason to live and tried to kill herself. Her attempt was futile as she tried to use chloroform and it only made her sick for a few days. Thankfully, she did not succeed as her children returned home shortly after leaving as they knew their mother was who they belonged with. Ellen quit the Ashley Hotel after 15 years and at the time of the interview her kids were taking care of her in her old years. Despite all of the strife Mr. Fenton had put Ellen through, she came out of it a strong and independent woman with two hard working kids [1]

Social Issues[edit | edit source]

Feminism in the 1930's[edit | edit source]

During a time of such disparity as the Great Depression, women found themselves having to contribute more than what was traditionally expected of them in terms of their roles as a wife and/or mother. With the extra strain on relationships, marriage rates saw a 22 percent decline in the years between 1929 and 1939, meaning more women were left single or with kids to take care of [2] However, while there was a need for more contribution in the household, women struggled to obtain the support to find and keep jobs. In fact, in 1933 the National Industrial Recovery Act (NIRA) made a point to make the minimum wage for women lower than men, and exclude agricultural and domestic jobs from pay raises which consequently affected minorities and women the most[3]. This is only one example of how the government made life more difficult for women as they tried to pave their own way in the work force. Jobs created in the Works Progress Administration restricted women to lesser jobs like sewing and nursing, restricting them from receiving advanced training for better paying jobs typically reserved for men[2]. While these women might be performing the same level of work as their male counterparts, they were making an average of $900 per annum while men were making $1800 per annum[4].

Raising a Family in the Great Depression[edit | edit source]

There are many factors to consider when analyzing family life during the Great Depression, but some heavy hitters would most definitely be the economic and marital strain created. To begin, owning a home to raise a family in was increasingly difficult in this time as there was limited income and a high cost of financing during this time[5]. Without the ability to purchase a home, families were left to stay in confined apartments, or raise a family in their parent's home, causing strain to familial relationships of all kinds. The limited income mentioned previously is directly correlated to the unchanging average family income of approximately $1524, but increasing family expenditures at about $1512 [6]. Essentially any money earned was put right into bills and necessary purchases in order to keep a family afloat, and with unemployment rates constantly increasing from 5.9 to 23.6 percent [6], it was difficult to maintain any sort of consistency or security. With all the financial stressors, it was difficult to upkeep relationships and further explains the drop in marriage rates from the years 1929 to 1939 [2].

References[edit | edit source]

  1. 1.0 1.1 Blanchard, E. "Mrs. Blanchard, Professional Mother." By A. Rogers. Federal Writer's Project. Last modified January 31, 1939. https://dc.lib.unc.edu/cdm/singl eitem/collection/03709/id/990/rec/1.
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 Rotondi, Jessica . 2019. “Underpaid, But Employed: How the Great Depression Affected Working Women.” History.Com. History. March 11, 2019. https://www.history.com/news/working-women-great-depression.
  3. Strom, Sharon. 1983. “Challenging ‘Woman’s Place’: Feminism, the Left, and Industrial Unionism in the 1930s.” Feminist Studies 9 (2). https://doi.org/10.2307/3177497.
  4. Alter, Charlotte . 2015. “Here’s the History of the Battle for Equal Pay for American Women.” Time.Com. TIME Magazine. April 15, 2015. https://time.com/3774661/equal-pay-history/.
  5. Jacobs, Eva, and Stephanie Shipp. 1990. “How Family Spending Changed in the U.S.” Monthly Labor Review, March. https://www.bls.gov/opub/mlr/1990/03/art3full.pdf.
  6. 6.0 6.1 Chao, Elaine. 2006. “100 Years of U.S. Consumer Spending.” U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics 991 (8). https://www.bls.gov/opub/100-years-of-u-s-consumer-spending.pdf.

Bibliography[edit | edit source]

Alter, Charlotte . 2015. “Here’s the History of the Battle for Equal Pay for American Women.” Time.Com. TIME Magazine. April 15, 2015. https://time.com/3774661/equal-pay-history/.

Chao, Elaine. 2006. “100 Years of U.S. Consumer Spending.” U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics 991 (8). https://www.bls.gov/opub/100-years-of-u-s-consumer-spending.pdf.

Jacobs, Eva, and Stephanie Shipp. 1990. “How Family Spending Changed in the U.S.” Monthly Labor Review, March. https://www.bls.gov/opub/mlr/1990/03/art3full.pdf.

Rotondi, Jessica . 2019. “Underpaid, But Employed: How the Great Depression Affected Working Women.” History.com. History. March 11, 2019. https://www.history.com/news/working-women-great-depression.

Strom, Sharon. 1983. “Challenging ‘Woman’s Place’: Feminism, the Left, and Industrial Unionism in the 1930s.” Feminist Studies 9 (2). https://doi.org/10.2307/3177497.