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  • "The Most Unjust Piece of Legislation":Section 213 of the Economy Act of 1932 and Feminism During the New Deal
  • John Thomas McGuire (bio)

In February 1936, a former federal government worker named Gussie E. Howell penned a letter to Grace Brewer, director of the Governmental Workers' Council (GWC) of the National Woman's Party (NWP). Howell, who lived in Texas, had apparently heard from colleagues about a questionnaire sent out by the NWP about the effects of Section 213 of the Economy Act of 1932 ("Section 213"). Howell said that while she had not seen the questionnaire, she wanted to describe the effect of Section 213 on her life.

As Howell related her experiences, she had worked for the United States Railway Mail Service until October 1933, when she suddenly found herself dismissed under Section 213, which required that if a husband or wife both worked for the federal government, and a personnel reduction took place, one of the spouses would lose his or her job. Howell's further description of her situation encompassed a contained but palpable bitterness. She described how she went to her congressional and local representatives to seek a remedy, only to receive "all kinds of nice promises . . . but no action." In addition, not only had she and her husband lost their house, but Howell could no longer provide for her seventy two year-old father, widowed sister, and her sister's two children. "I certainly [End Page 516] want to assist in any way possible to see that [Section 213] is repealed," she concluded, adding that the statute constituted the "most unjust piece of legislation."1 Another letter from a woman named Isabel Fitcher related how after more than six years of service at a federal arsenal, she received her termination in mid-1933 with only thirty-six hours notice. Enclosing a money order for an associate membership in the NWP, Fitcher hoped that Section 213 would face quick repeal.2

Historians have analyzed the passage and repeal of Section 213 in depth, particularly Lois Scharf. But even Scharf failed to look at the complexities of the effort to repeal Section 213, concluding that the law's repeal occurred because of a long struggle by a monolithic, ultimately successful feminist coalition. Instead of agreeing with this general historiographic consensus, I argue that despite Section 213's "peculiarly unjust and discriminatory nature," as one contemporary newspaper account put it, feminism during the New Deal did not form an effective coalition to repeal Section 213. The major reason for this failure lay in the existence of two competitive feminist visions during the 1930s. One vision, called social justice feminism, emphasized the passage of women's labor legislation as the first step to including all workers under state protection, regardless of gender, while the other, known as equal rights feminism, concluded that women's labor legislation only led to gender discrimination, and supported the passage of the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA). Significant social justice feminists such as Eleanor Roosevelt, Mary Williams (Molly) Dewson, and Frances Perkins occupied important positions within the New Deal, while equal rights feminists, mostly within the NWP, found themselves out of favor, particularly as social justice feminists opposed the ERA. Despite a temporary alliance with Mary Anderson of the U.S. Department of Labor's Women's Bureau, NWP leaders could only find a permanent ally in the weakened Women's Joint Congressional Committee (WJCC). While the NWP waged a long battle to repeal Section 213, moreover, Congress's action occurred for two other reasons: the failure of the repeal measure to mandate retroactive hiring of female employees previously dismissed under the statute, and the large Democratic majorities in Congress after the 1936 congressional elections, which dampened conservative opposition to repeal. Ironically, a fuller understanding of the struggle may tell us less about the reasons for the eventual passage of Section 213 repeal than about the concomitant decline of social justice feminism and the corresponding resurgence of the equal rights movement.3

The Great Depression and Section 213 of the Economy Act

In a national radio talk during Business Women's Week in March 1931, Mary Anderson, director of the U.S. Department...


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