Gender and Economic Decline: The Pennsylvania Anthracite Region, 1920-1970

Article excerpt

Each economic crisis in the United States adds to a now long-established social science research literature on unemployed and displaced workers. A recession in 1914-15, for example, generated the first comprehensive studies of employment patterns; their focus on the irregular employment of workers even in good times and the difficulties of job search led to calls for public employment services and the advent of personnel management departments in firms.(1) The Great Depression of the 1930s similarly saw publication of several classic studies of the unemployed worker; the research of this era placed emphasis on the loss of self-esteem experienced by men who were cut from the employment rolls and the subsequent impact on family life and dynamics.(2) With the extraordinary loss of manufacturing jobs from the mid-1970s to the current times, scores of studies have been conducted in communities faced by plant closings, and with new psychosocial survey instruments, attempts have been made to measure levels of anxiety, depression, and posttraumatic stress suffered by displaced workers and their families.(3)

No single portrait emerges from this periodically expanding literature. One group of studies presents a fairly catastrophic story: workers remain unemployed for long periods of time, ultimately securing jobs less well compensated and with fewer benefits and protections than their former positions, their personal lives marked by physical and mental health problems, alcoholism, drug abuse, marital discord, and family disorder. Other studies offer more complicated findings and understandings. The experience of job loss varies significantly among workers by age, skill, sex, race, location, time period, and other factors; few generalizations are forthcoming. More important, the ability of workers and their families successfully to cope is noteworthy; children and mothers secure employment outside the home and close ranks, families take work and boarders into the home to help make ends meet, extended kin, friends, and neighbors lend their assistance, and the unemployed share information about job opportunities and mobilize for greater community relief services. The more complicated portrait fits with recent studies in labor history that emphasize the ways in which working people utilize family, ethnic, and neighborhood bonds to survive and thrive in the face of constant economic uncertainty.(4)

Historians read recent social science research on displaced and unemployed workers with a certain envy. Armed with various questionnaires, survey researchers can gain precise information on the duration of unemployment and the character of new jobs, but also learn about and measure the loss of self-esteem, feelings of anger and resignation, and the nature of relations between husbands and wives and parents and children during times of economic crisis.

This paper reports on an effort to understand the more personal aspects of economic displacement through oral history using gender as a prism through which to view developments. Interviews do not generate the statistical profiles and analyses afforded in survey research, yet they remain a means of illuminating daily social interactions rarely revealed in the printed documents normally available to historians. A focus on gender, moreover, adds an important dimension to this approach. Studies of unemployed and displaced workers are gendered to a certain extent; they have tended to focus on male workers and male loss of employment and measure the impact of economic crisis on those who surround these primary breadwinners. Here, the spotlight will also be on unemployed male workers--specifically, on anthracite miners in northeastern Pennsylvania--but the analysis focuses on the distinct experiences of family members and changing relationships among them. How gender roles and relations function in a period of economic crisis is the major concern.

This look at gender and economic decline is part of a larger study of the economic collapse of Pennsylvania's anthracite region. …