Meridel Le Sueur: Women on the Breadlines

“Women on the Breadlines”—The New Masses By: Meridel Le Sueur

This short story explains the lives of women in the 1930’s. This short story is written by Meridel Le Sueur in January 1932. This fit the topic of this website because it is a story of women looking for jobs during The Great Depression and all the struggles they face.

I am sitting in the city free employment bureau. It’s the woman’s section. We have been sitting here now for four hours. We sit here every day, waiting for a job. There are no jobs. Most of us have had no breakfast. Some have had scant rations for over a year. Hunger makes a human being lapse into a state of lethargy, especially city hunger. Is there any place else in the world where a human being is supposed to go hungry amidst plenty without an outcry, without protest, where only the boldest steal or kill for bread, and the timid crawl the streets, hunger like the beak of a terrible bird at the vitals?

We sit looking at the floor. No one dares think of the coming winter. There are only a few more days of summer. Everyone is anxious to get work to lay up something for that long siege of bitter cold. Bur there is no work. Sitting in the room we all know it. That is why we don’t talk much. We look at the floor dreading to see that knowledge in each other’s eyes. There is a kind of humiliation in it. We look away from each other. We look at the floor. It’s too terrible to see this animal terror in each other’s eyes.

So we sit hour after hour, day after day, waiting for a job to come in. There are many women for a single job. A thin sharp woman sits inside the wire cage looking at a book. For four hours we have watched her looking at that book. She has a hard little eye. In the small bare room there are half a dozen women sitting on the benches waiting. Many come and go. Our faces are all familiar to each other, for we wait here everyday.

This is a domestic employment bureau. Most of the women who come here are middle-aged, some have families, some have raised their families and are now alone, some have men who are out of work. Hard times and the man leaves to hunt for work. He doesn’t find it. He drifts on. The woman probably doesn’t hear from him for a long time. She expects it. She isn’t surprised. She struggles alone to feed the many mouths. Sometimes she gets help from the charities. If she’s clever she can get herself a good living from the charities, if she’s naturally a lick-spittle, naturally a little docile and cunning. If she’s proud then she starves silently, leaving her children to find work, coming home after a day’s searching to wrestle with her house, her children.

Some such story is written on the faces of all these women. There are your girls too, fresh from the country. Some are made brazen too soon by the city. There is a great exodus of girls from the farms into the city now. Thousands of farms have been vacated completely in Minnesota. The girls are trying to get work. The prettier ones can get jobs in the stores when there are any, or waiting on table, but these jobs are only for the attractive and the adroit; the others, the real peasants, have a more difficult time….

A scrub woman whose hips are bent forward from stooping with hands gnarled like water soaked branches clicks her tongue in disgust. No one saves their money, she says, a little money and these foolish young things buy a hat, a dollar for breakfast, a bright scarf. And they do. If you’ve ever been without money, or food, something very strange happens when you get a bit of money, a kind of madness. You don’t care. You can’t remember nothing but that there is the money for which you have been suffering. Now here it is. A lust takes hold of you. You see food in the windows. In imagination you eat hugely; you taste a thousand meals. You look in windows. Colors are brighter; you buy something to dress up in. An excitement takes hold of you. You know it is suicide but you can’t help it. You must have food, dainty, splendid food and a bright hat so once again you feel blithe, rid of that ratty gnawing shame.

“I guess she’ll go on the street now,” a thin woman says faintly and no one takes the trouble to comment further. Like every commodity now the body is difficult to sell and the girls say you’re lucky if you get fifty cents….

Mrs. Gray, sitting across from me is a living spokesman for the futility of labor. She is a warning. Her hands are scarred with labor. Her body is a great puckered scar. She has given birth to six children, buried three, supported them all alive and dead, bearing them, burying them, feeding them. Bred in hunger they have been spare, susceptible to disease. For seven years she tried to save her boy’s arm from amputation, diseased from tuberculosis of the bone. It is almost suffocating to think of that long close horror of years of child bearing, child feeding, rearing, with the bare suffering of providing a meal and shelter.

Now she is fifty. Her children, economically insecure, are drifters. She never hears of them. She doesn’t know if they are alive. She doesn’t know if she is alive. Such subtleties of suffering are not for her. For her the brutality of hunger and cold, the bare bones of life. That is enough. These will occupy a life. Not until these are done away with can those subtle feelings that make a human being be indulged.

She is lucky to have five dollars ahead of her. That is her security. She has a tumor that she will die of. She is thin as a worn dime with her tumor sticking out of her side. She is brittle and bitter. Her face is not the face of a human being. She has bone more than it is possible for a human being to bear. She is reduced to the least possible denominator of human feelings. It’s terrible to see her little bloodshot eyes like a beaten hound’s, fearful in terror. We cannot meet her eyes. When she looks at any of us we look away. She is like a woman drowning and we turn away….

The young ones know though. I don’t want to marry. I don’t want any children. So they all say. No children. No marriage. They arm themselves alone, keep up alone. The man is helpless now. He cannot provide. If he propagates he cannot take care of his young. The means are not in his hands. So they live alone. Get what fun they can. The life risk is too horrible now. Defeat is too clearly written on it.

It is appalling to think that these women sitting so listless in the room may work as hard as it is possible for a human being to work, may labor night and day, like Mrs. Gray wash the street cars from midnight to dawn and offices only five hours or so, doing this their whole lives, and never earn one day of security, having always before them the pit of the future. The endless labor, the bending back, the water soaked hands, earning never more than a week’s wages, never having in their hands more life than that.

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