The 1930s were a difficult time for Americans. After the market crash in 1929, the Great Depression set in and continued throughout the decade. Americans and others throughout the world experienced skyrocketing unemployment, drastic reduction in trade, a significant fall in prices, taxes, and profits, and a widespread failure of businesses across industries. The day-to-day lives of Americans changed dramatically.
By all accounts, the women’s movement, which had gained so much momentum in the first three decades of the century, took a rather significant step backwards during this decade. In general, women who worked outside of the home were seen as ‘stealing’ those jobs from men who needed to support their families. Norman Cousins was quoted as saying:
“Simply fire the women, who shouldn’t be working anyway, and hire the men. Presto! No unemployment. No relief rolls. No depression.”
The employment situation became so dire that nepotism legislation was passed allowing only one spouse to hold a government position. This, in effect, kept wives out of this part of the workforce. In addition, 26 states passed laws prohibiting the employment of married women. Even working women supported this way of thinking, encouraging married women to stay home. One woman who worked for Metropolitan Life Insurance Company, while explaining that married women should not be working, stated:
“Marriage is a business which needs good hard work and much attention if it is to be a success…All girls are old fashioned even now, in their home-loving instincts, and they generally prove it after marriage.”
The first-hand accounts from this time describe a complex web of families trying desperately to make ends meet. Sometimes families could not do this on just one salary. Other accounts show men so distraught over their continued unemployment that their wives were forced to find work to feed the family. Because of the significant prejudice against women holding “men’s” jobs, these women were forced into lower-paying domestic careers such as teaching, nursing, sewing, and cleaning. The further harm done to women was in the fact that even in these “women’s” jobs, women were paid less than men for the same work. This was done to further discourage women from taking these jobs away from men.
As a result, the role of women as homemakers and mothers was emphasized in all aspects of life in the 1930s. Even so, there were prominent women in politics and society doing what they could to support women. First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt was the most prominent, advocating for benefits for women within the New Deal. She helped to create the women’s division within the Federal Emergency Relief Administration, and helped to nominate a woman to run it. She also held the White House Conference on the Emergency Needs of Women in 1933, bringing to light the needs of working women during the Depression.
Women, as in the previous decade, continued to control much of the wealth in the US. According to an article written in 1935, women were the beneficiaries of over 80% of all life insurance policies, controlled 65% of all bank accounts, and held 40% of all real estate. In addition, they paid over $5 trillion in taxes each year.
INSURANCE COMPANIES DURING THE GREAT DEPRESSION
The life insurance industry weathered the Great Depression better than most other industries, largely due to the requirement of holding more conservative investments and large reserves.
Requests for surrenders and loans were certainly much greater than in decades past, and there were companies that failed. Early in the decade, newspapers were filled with stories of consolidations, failures, scandals, and most unfortunately, some suicides of insurance executives. In addition, fraternals and secret societies died out due largely to men being unable to make their dues payments. Social Security took the place of these organizations.
A report from 1933 showed life insurance in force falling from $109 trillion in force in 1931 to $103 trillion in force in 1932, and from 68,000,000 lives insured in 1931 to 65,000,000 lives insured in 1932. In 1931 one US life insurance company paid over a million dollars more in suicide benefits than in 1926.
The second half of the decade saw the life insurance market begin to improve. The headline in the New York Times in January of 1936 stated “$2,500,000,000 GAIN IN LIFE INSURANCE, Rise, Largest Since 1930, Makes Total in Force $101,000,000,000, Says Ecker. SALES VOLUME UP 1.5%.” The headline in January of 1937 reads, “RECORD YEAR SEEN FOR LIFE INSURANCE, Lincoln says Public’s Faith in Stability of Institution Is Basis of Prediction.” And finally, the headline from January, 1939, “NEW RECORD SET BY LIFE INSURANCE, High Marks in the Average Amount Carried and in Total Coverage Attained in Year.”
Things were looking so good for the industry, William Frederick Biegelow, the Editor of Good Housekeeping, penned a letter in a 1939 edition in high praise of life insurance. He titled his letter “Looking Forward to Tomorrow,” and in it he gives lengthy descriptions of the current statistics around life insurance and then states:
“In other words, the people of this country believe in life insurance. They believe in it because, except in isolated instances, it has not failed them. It is the greatest cooperative enterprise the world has ever known….What is our interest in life insurance? Just the belief that it is one of the things that no man should overlook when he is planning his future…Just the hope that this form of protection, of peace of mind, will soon be the possession of every family in America.”
WOMEN IN INSURANCE IN THE 1930s
Given the economic environment and the societal shift toward women working in the home, it is not unexpected that we find little information on women working in the insurance business during this decade. Where we do read about them, the emphasis is very clearly on clerical work.
Despite the lack of information on women in insurance during this decade, there are references to Women’s Departments buried in the literature. In an article from 1932 on advertising, there is reference to a set of conferences sponsored by the women’s department of the Wisconsin National Bank of Milwaukee. Another article from 1937 announced a radio broadcast “sponsored by a group of insurance women,” that discussed “insurance security for women.” The host of the broadcast was quoted as saying:
“There is no need for any woman to face insecure old age or sickness which she cannot afford. I am profoundly impressed by the stability of insurance companies during the depression, when most other large business institutions were rocked to their very foundations and all too many crumpled and crashed.”
An insurance ad from 1932 reflects the perception of the lack of sophistication of women and finances. The Guardian Trust Company Ad reads:
“It hasn’t been easy for you to build your insurance estate…You’ve shouldered the burden gladly to assure your loved ones peace and comfort if anything should happen to you. Someone must take up the burden when you are gone. Will it be carried by the inexperienced, grief-bowed shoulders of your wife or by the broad, sturdy, experienced shoulders of this great bank?”
Another Trust Company issued a booklet in 1932 entitled “Can Women Learn to Manage Money?” The purpose of the brochure was to educate women on how to best manage their households and avoid the financial mistakes of their parents and overcome their own previous mistakes.
An article on positions in life insurance from 1931 seem to offer hope to women seeking employment:
“The college graduates of 1931 are going to find that the business depression, which we all hope is passing, has seriously interfered with the usual demand for those who are willing to start on a modest salary. Many, therefore, will be glad to learn about openings in the business for which the chief requirements are a good character and the willingness to work. The life insurance companies of America offer college graduates an opportunity to win their way to the front solely on their own ability.”
Unfortunately, later in the article the author refers to “college men” only, and discusses life insurance as necessary “in the greatest emergencies of life – in old age, or when a family has lost its husband and father…” thereby negating any importance women would have in the industry.
If it seems as though I have pieced this all together, I have. As I mentioned above, it was extremely difficult to find any primary sources that spoke of women in the insurance industry during this decade. It seems that the golden era of women’s suffrage in the 1920s was completely snuffed out by the Great Depression. By the end of the decade, the country was emerging from the Depression, but unfortunately, it seems the women’s movement took an enormous step backwards.
Next, we will look at the 1940s and insurance during World War II.
Anonymous (1932). “How Banks are Advertising.” Bankers’ Magazine, 124(3), 361.
Anonymous (1937). “Hails Insurance Security for Women Late in Life.” New York Times, May 18, 39.
Anonymous (1931). “‘Mother’ to 13,000 Will retire Jan 1.” New York Times, Dec. 17th, 14.
Bigelow, William Frederick (1939). “Looking Toward Tomorrow,” Good Housekeeping, 8 (5), 4.
Dublin, Louis I., Bunzel, Bessie (1933). “To Be or Not to Be, A Study of Suicide.” The Living Age, 345(4406), 276.
Hirschfeld, Gerhard (1935). “The Facts behind Economics.” America Magazine, June 8, 206.
Lindsay, L. Seton (1931). “Life Insurance.” The North American Review, 231(6), 562.
Moran, Mickey (1988). “1930s America – Feminist Void?” Loyola University of New Orleans Department of History Outstanding Paper for the 1988-1989 academic year.
Patch, B.W. (1933). “Life Insurance in the Depression.” Editorial Research Reports, Vol. 1.
Woolner, David B. (2009). “Feminomics: Breaking New Ground – Women and the New Deal.” Roosevelt Institute, 12/15, http://rooseveltinstitute.org/feminomics-breaking-new-ground-women-and-the-new-deal/. Accessed 6/24/2018.