Ask Aunt Ruthie FAQ on Social Issues


Ask Aunt Ruthie

Ask Aunt Ruthie FAQ Index

This page contains Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ) and answers regarding social issues in the 1930s time period. The questions are organized by sub-category as best as possible.

Question Index


Women's Rights

Migrant Workers






Questions and Answers


Q: What can you tell me about racism in the US in 1930?

A: I am Canadian not American so with reference to racism in the U.S. in 1930, I would suggest that you research your answer at the Library. However, generalizing from my experience, that was a tough country to live in especially if you were black. The Ku Klux Klan was in existence and performed some pretty hateful acts against the blacks and of course other minority groups. The southern states were perhaps the most volatile, and in some cases they still are.

More: Racism is a plague of almost any country. What we dont understand, we fear and what we fear we seem to hate. Mankind has not evolved very far in the last 2000 years.

Q: Can you compare discrimination in the 30s and now (1990s/2000).

A: I do not believe that minorities were out of work any more than the WASPS. The 30's threw many people out of work - my dad being one of them. We lived on City Relief which would help with food and clothing. I personally lived in a mixed neighbourhood comprising of blacks, Jews, Italians, Germans and Orientals. We were all in the same boat - no money but we played together and I do not remember any particular group being discriminated against. I am sure that there were those that felt discriminated against but as previously stated, these were rought years and most people were struggling for an existence.

I do not research my answers but base them on my personal experiences of the time. I offer no information on the 1990s as I am sure you have your own opinions on that.

Q: Can you describe class distinctions back in the 1930s?

A: For those who were in the Stock Market in 1929 and managed to survive the Crash, I would imagine that their life continued as usual.  However, for the most part there was a huge amount of unemployment and in the city where I came from there was what they called City Relief.  They helped the poorer families with supplies of food and clothing.

My brothers were issued pogey pants and boots every six months My dad never worked during the 30's but went looking every day.  Anyone who had money I guess stayed in with their own class but for the most part there were so many in the poor class.

We had good times as kids played in the street, used our imagination a lot for games had little or no money to spend - Yet believe it or not we were happy.  I am sure the parents worried a lot about making ends meet - but they met the challenge.  I do not recall any particular incidence of Class Distinction. I would guess that it existed as it does now and has through all of history.

Q: Can you talks about sports and blacks?

A: History records that blacks experienced a lot of discrimination in sports and in many other fields of life in the early years of the century.  A young black man (Jesse Owens) won the footrace in Germany in the mid 1930's and Adolf Hitler refused to give him the medal he deserved.

Blacks entered into the sport of major league baseball in 1947 and again they had a hard time because of their race.  They did however prove to be excellent sportsmen and over the years have come into their own as far as acceptance is concerned.

Sports have become a multi billion dollar business and the name of the game is to hire the best regardless of the color of their skin. The dedicated sportsmen learned to ignore the slurs and kept focused on the individual game.

Q: How were blacks and handicapped people treated?

A:The blacks were most certainly a suppressed race and worked mainly picking cotton or as migrant workers on farms.  As you have no doubt read, these were extremely lean years and whites were thrown into unemployment and traversed the land eking out a living as best they could.  The KKK was ever present in the thirties and I am sure the blacks suffered under their hands.

This was an era of the "survival of the fittest" and there was not a lot of money available for special treatment of the handicapped or people with mental illness.

  There were some facilities for the mentally challenged but the treatment was antiquated such as the use of shock treatment. The mentally handicapped were mostly institutionalized and it came to light years later that many were sterilized so they could not reproduce.

Q: Were blacks worse off than today?

A: I must state that blacks were most definitely treated much worse in 1930's than they are today.  In the 30's blacks were mistreated by the Ku Klux Klan  and murders committed which probably still remain unsolved.  The blacks were mainly servants to the whites and this was more prevalent in the southern states. They had to fight every inch of the way to obtain an education and to be able to vote in federal elections.  Their road has been long and hard.

Yet today you see a much freer attitude toward blacks.  They star in movies, have many shows on TV (Cosby for instance) They can vote and attend universities.  They do not have to sit at the back of the bus or be refused service in eateries. The situation has much improved in the last 70 years.  I am sure there are those who still hate, at least resent, the blacks and the struggle will always be there but they have come a long way and hopefully this will continue.

Q: Did rapes occur and how were they handled?

A: I cannot give you official legal advice regarding rape in the 30's.  The rape of a young girl would naturally be dealt with more severely than that of an older woman. The courts most definitely frowned on this and if proven, would come down very hard on the culprit.

Women were hard pressed to come forward and make accusations as it was definitely a man's world back then.  They usually felt too ashamed to press charges.  There was no DNA as there now is in 2000.  I would say if it did get to court and was a proven fact, a guy could face 10 years.  I have no research to back this up and rely strictly on memory of the times.

More thoughts: Back then if a woman was raped it was hushed up.  Those that were brave enough to charge the man fought a losing battle.  The guy would get friends to testify in court that they had "been" with her.  This was not in all cases but it did happen.  Sort of a "good old boys club."

Q: How were Hispanic americans treated?

A: Hispanics as well as African Americans were treated much the same.  In the 40's they started coming into their own and were buying homes.  It took white Americans some time to realize that they had a culture that included art and other good works.

Women's Rights

Q: What was the role of women in society back then, and what sorts of things did they do?

A: The women of the 30's were primarily housewives and mothers. There were some professional women but they were in the minority. Being busy raising their families, cooking, cleaning left women without too much voice in world happenings. However, women accepted this as their role so there was no big bid for equal rights.

The 40's presented a different woman. When the war broke out in 1939 many of our men were being shipped overseas and as the war lasted, and young men grew up they too, were sent to do the fight. We then had a shortage of manpower and women went out into the workfield in droves. They worked in many factories related to war materials, they drove buses and streetcars and overall they were not too badly paid. When the guys started returning from the war front jobs were not too plentiful so women retained their jobs (not war related) and they began to enjoy the idea of two incomes. I do not know what role women would play in society today if it had not been for the war. They may have eventually wanted their place in the sun. That is anybody's guess.

Q: Can you describe women's rights in the 1930s?

A: There is quite a distinction between today's woman and the woman of the 1930's.  There was always women around in the early part of the century that aspired for a better role for women in society. The major role of women in the 30's would be housewife and mother.  There was a lot of unemployment after the Crash of 1929 and jobs for men were very scarce so naturally they were first in line for employment. It was just the way things were at that time.  Men eaked out a living and women raised the children and looked after the creature comforts of all.

Women could vote but I cannot hazard even a guess as to how many exercised their rights.  When the war. broke out in 1939 - the role of women gradually changed, and as the men were shipped overseas to fight, women came out of the households to work in factories, drive buses and street cars . This was the inception of women having a strong presence in the work force as we know it today.

Q: What was the Women's Rights Movement?

A: Women's Right Movement was originated by a lady named Elizabeth Stanton. on July 13, 1848. She and four friends, were invited to a tea and she lamented how women had no status in life.

They had no vote, had to be completely subservant to men and could not further their education  They could not practice law or medicine. By speaking out at the tea she incensed her friends indignation at the plight of women and two days later, they had their first convention.  The struggle has been long and hard to bring us to today's liberated woman, and we owe Stanton and all others that joined the fight , for the freedoms we now enjoy.

Q: Did women work in the factories?

A: In the first place, it was mostly men that worked in factories. There was not a great deal of employment and men were given preference.  Women would wear cotton dresses and usually had their hair covered with a kerchief. Topic of conversation would probably address the bad times and how hard it was to make ends meet.  The usual cronic complaining about their kids and husbands.  Not too much different than today except that it was not quite so vicious. Single girls would talk about their crushes on certain boys or flirt with single male foremen on the line.  Hours were long and hard and pay would average $2 a day.  For the most part women had their lines and men had theirs. You were expected to work hard and no nonsense because you could very easily be replaced.

Women did not really go into the work force in big numbers until the outbreak of WW2 in 1939.  As guy were shipped overseas women took jobs in factories, driving buses or street cars.  In the 30's it would be mostly clothing factories where women would be employed.

Q: Was there a lot of spousal abuse back then?

A: Women of the 30's were pretty suppressed by their husbands and their major role was to cook, clean and raise the children. Not too many voiced their opinions on world affairs as this definitely was a man's world.  I am sure that there was physical abuse as well as mental and many kept this bit of news to themselves for the sake of the children.

Where would they go if they left the home?  There was very little work for the ladies and what would they do with the children?  These were lean times moneywise and I am sure that desperation led to some of the abuse.

If an unmarried girl got pregnant she most often was sent away to a distant aunt's place until after the birth and the baby would be put up for adoption.  Rarely if a lady was raped, did she press charges and it would go no where in the court.  I am not by any means suggesting that all women were good soles. Some abandoned their kids, drank and fooled around with men.

The 30's were to say the least, an ugly decade with no jobs around very little money, and a lack of identity for most.  On a comparative basis, we live in utopia with the freedom of choice and so much more opportunity.  Yet spousal abuse is still out there and likely always will be.

Migrant Workers

Q: What was the lifestyle for migrant workers in like?

A: Life was by no means easy for migrant farm workers. Work was very tough to come by in the 1930s and the men all over the country went on the move looking for work on the farms.

To add insult to injury, a drought occurred eroding the land and high winds literally blew once fertile land away. They might have been paid 25 cents an hour when there was work available.  As for their children - they had some schooling along the way depending where they located.  Eking out a living was more of a priority and I daresay education was minimal.


Q: Can you discuss bisexuality in the 1920s to 1940s?

A: I must confess that the terminology used today was nowhere in existence back in those days. at least not in general conversation as it is today.  Homosexual, lesbian, faggot, gay, bisexual are bandied about today at every level and people do not think too much about it.  I am sure that all the above existed back then but it was never openly discussed. Now we have the sexual revolution and talk freely about sexual persuasion.

To give you an honest answer to your question is virtually impossible from my point of view.  All I viewed in my childhood were moms and pops and kids.  But realistically  the human condition was probably the same then as now but I do not think that bisexuality was more prevalent then than now.

Q: What was dating like?

A: Dating in the 30's was a far cry from today.  Girls would wait for a boy to ask her out and she was treated with respect.  I am not suggesting that there were not loose gals around or boys to take advantage.  There was no sexual liberation and no one talked about it openly as is the norm of today.  Although it might sound a little hokey to you, it was kind of nice to be courted and treated like a lady. We have come a long way since then but I am not convinced that we have not lostsome- thing kind of innocent and special along the way.

Q: Can you talk about teenage pregnancy and violence?

A: I do not believe that statistics were kept with regard to teenage pregnancies. I assume you mean unwed moms.  There were young girls that got into trouble but families would keep this hushed up and sometimes girls were sent away to an aunt or friend until after the birth.  In some cases it was an act of love and not just having sex and the young man involved would marry the girl.  Birth control was not in practice and honestly speaking we were not very wise about sex.  It was sort of learn as you go.  I would hazard a guess that the rate is much greater today because of the open attitude about sex.  It is talked about, it is in practice and if a girl gets caught she can get financial help from the social pots.  With the availability of birth control methods we should have a lower birth rate amongst teen but I do not believe that is so.

Teenage violence and murder rates.  Boys would gang up There would be fights in the school yards, a few rumbles on the street.  But - there were no guns, knives, chains or what have you involved.  These were physical fights as boys have done for many a year.  Murder by teens was not very prevalent and when I think of what goes on today when kids rise up against parents, the system, use drugs, murder, rob, rape and steal, it boggles my mind.  Conversely there are great young men and girls out there that are hanging in and trying to make a difference. With the temptations of today as opposed to the 1930's it is a much tougher road for young people and though there was darn little money back then, I wish the kids of today could have the experience of the kids in the 30's.  They were not too sophisicated did not expect too much but they were kids and behaved accordingly.

Q: How did girls behave on dates?

A: Girls behaved themselves for the most part.  They had crushes on boys and such but were never forward in their behaviour. A young man would ask for a date with the girl of his choice and for the most part they were very well behaved on dates I am not saying that there was no "hanky panky" but this was the exception to the rule.  There was no explicit talk about sex as there is today.

As for pleasure in the 30's, it was limited because of poor finances.  You could go to a show, or maybe a dance.  A lot of people just loved going to Sunnyside in Toronto.  Dates were simple and just going for a walk was just great. I hope this is of some help to you.


Q: What were some slang terms of the 1930s?

A: Some slang terms from the early years:

Aw your mother wears army boots.
Tin Lizzy (Ford car)
Cheaters (glasses)
Flopper Stoppers (bras)

Honestly speaking there was not a lot of slang used (at least not that I heard).  We have created verbal jargon through the years and I am often surprised to see this "new language" in dictionaries.  Certain terminology has become acceptable.


Q: What were the main religions in the 30s?

A: We had the same churches, primarily Anglican, United, Presbyterian and Roman Catholic. The congregations in each were devout and attending was part of Sunday (at least in our household).

The churches were not as liberal as they are at present. There sometimes would be a little animosity between the different sects. The Roman Catholic service was usually done in Latin. I think that churches today try to encourage our young to come out and worship.


Q: Can you describe censorship and communism in the decade?

A: Censorship  would be performed by an official examining anything to be heard, read or looked at and suppress any thing found objectionable  based on moral, political or military grounds.

Communism on the other hand is a system whereby all property including industries is owned by the people but controlled by a totalitarian government on the peoples' behalf.

The common denominator here would be that choices would be made singly or by a group and imposed on the masses.

  There was a lot of things occurring in the 1930's that were totally wrong for people.  We had the KKK in the United States that commited terrible atrocities against the blacks primarily, but included Jews and anyone else that was not "pure" as they saw it.  This hate mongering had to be censored but it did not take away the rights of the persons involved and they retained their freedom of speach.

  Communism conversely would not tolerate anything against the State and if you lived peacefully under this rule, you were okay.  However to rebel would bring about jailing and possibly death.


Q: What were schools like?

A: Life and school life in the 1930's was no where near the life of today's children.  These were economically very poor years and there was a lot of unemployment. all this being the result of the Stock Market Crash of 29.

We went to school, did what we were told, studied the best we could.  If we were falling behind the teachers would stay after school with us and do remedial teaching. Most teachers had the respect of their pupils and their authority was not questioned by kids.  If kids were bad in school the teachers or principal dealt with it and guess what?  Your parents would follow through on punishment at home.

  Socially there was no available money around to indulge children.  Many families were quite poor and had to live on city relief (Supply of clothing and food vouchers to help out)  Summer time was spent playing in your neighbourhood We played on the street or in the school yard - baseball, hide and seek.  We had fun using our imaginations and we were not aware of being poor as everyone was in the same boat.

  There was no stress such as kids have today and though poor, we lived  fairly decent lives and most certainly went to church or Sunday school. 

Q: Can you compare schools back then with today?

A: In the 30's we started out in kindergarten. Now we have Jr. and Sr. kindergarten.  Through grades one to eight - our days began at 9:00 a.m. to 3:30 p.m We had to study hard and we most certainly respected our teachers.  They were BOSS and we did as we were told - or else.  We really never thought to do otherwise. We had two recesses a day and one or two gym periods. The rest of the time was spent academically.

I find that school today is well into training the children for the technical world we live in.  Kids have far more freedom in school and in society but I do believe they have far more stress to deal with, I believe this is due to the fast pace of the world - the excessive stress of achieving excellence in something to be competitive in the job market - and last but not least - kids want to grow up toofast. In the 30's there was no guns, drugs or knives and children murdering other children.

High school had two options.  4 year commercial course or a five year academic course which would allow one to continue in university.  Overall, my feeling is that truly GOOD students survive any system whether it be the 1930's or current times.

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Last updated: May 5, 2005


© Terry Cumming, 2000-2005