Sample History Essay on Summary and Importance of “Women on Breadline”

“Women in Breadlines” by Meridel Le Sueur is a story depicting the plight of women
during the great depression. The story, while captivating and told skillfully, is tragic in nature
and exposes the horrors through which women went through to feed their families. According to
the excerpt provided, it is clear that the first problem that women went through that begot an
array of other problems was the lack of employment. Most women were subordinated to men in
job opportunities and even more painfully, as the author puts it, to fellow prettier women. Apart
from the plight of joblessness, another profound point emerges from the excerpt which can be
summarized as the forced change in behavior and adaptation to unfamiliar roles among women.
As she writes, for women, the great depression was “like being a slave without the securities of a
slave” 1 this, deriving from the overall theme of the writing, was a depiction of how women were
forced to fit their nature to roles that were not, up to that point in time, traditionally theirs such as
standing in breadlines to feed the family.
Moreover, until the great depression, women were not used to job hunting. However, as
the effects of the depression worsened, they were forced to spend extended periods of time in
offices searching for jobs and in most cases, without results. In a scenario that perfectly
encapsulates the fruitlessness of women`s efforts to secure employment, Meridel Le Sueur
describes a scene where a woman named Ellen cries to the unemployment clerk mourning about
her eight month period of unemployment. Unfortunately, the clerk tells her that her attitude is not
fit for employment and, unable to continue in her state of poverty, turns to prostitution to provide
for herself. Apart from their own selves, “Women on Breadlines” depicts the period of the great

1 Le Sueur, Meridel. Women on the Breadlines. West End Pr, 1984.

depression as tormenting to women because of their own children. Most men had deserted their
women who were then forced to be the sole breadwinners for their children, a task that proved
stressful under the circumstances forced upon them by the depression. As a result most women,
afraid they will not be able to take care of families, coupled with the knowledge of the
unreliability of men, decided to stay single. In the story, to capture this problem, Meridel Le
Sueur writes of a woman known as Mrs. Gray who, having been left by her husband to raise her
children on her own sank to absolute rock bottom to the point where other women were not
comfortable looking her way due to the agony it brought them.
Finally, it can also be summarized from the story “Women on Breadlines” that
humiliation was a key part of the problems faced by women at the time. Meridel Le Sueur
portrays the reality that most women felt ashamed to publicly stand on the lines and take
handouts and bread. This public shaming resulted to some women preferring to stay home and
starve for days to lining up for bread. Again, as compared to men, women seemed, according to
Meridel Le Sueur, to suffer the pain of public shaming more because they were not used to being
seen publicly work or seeking help from social services.

Importance of the Document to the Past

“Women on Breadline” is of great significance to the past, especially the time in which it
was written, followed closely by a few years after the great depression. This is because, the story
is an all-round encapsulation of the plight and difficulties of the error not only to women but also
to the whole society at large. Its importance is further rooted in the exposure to the life lived by
all members of the society as a result of the plight of women as captured by multiple films 2 . For

2 Entin, Joseph. "Culture on the move: depression-era documentary and migrant California." criticism 56, no. 4
(2014): 841-847.

example, it reveals how children suffered as a result of their mothers crumbling under the
pressure of providing for them. This can be seen through Mrs. Gray who, having birthed fourteen
children, is forced to burry some and barely sustain the remaining due to the harsh conditions
that the children endured. Additionally, the story is important because it showed the generation at
the time the importance of a well-structured family. One of the main issues that arises from the
story is the disintegration of the family. Following the deepening of the deepening of the
miseries caused by the financial issues, most men left their women in order to free themselves
from the burden of taking care of their families. This led to large scale family breakdown which
led to subsequent ills that worsened the problems brought by the depression. For example, the
failure of men in their duties led to other vices such as prostitution to which women were forced
to turn to provide for their families. Moreover, the children suffered as a result of the breakdown
of the family as most of them were abandoned or had their needs neglected.
The story is also important to the past as it revealed the nature of the society that existed
during the great depression to the people during that time. The plight of the women in the story
namely Mrs. Gray, Mrs. Ellen and Mrs. Bernie, shows they type of government, citizens and
society that existed at the time. It revealed to the people in the past the incompetence of the
government that failed to control the factors that led to the great depression and when it
happened, failed to take care of its citizens adequately. The fact that the story tells of women
who go for as long as eight months without employment or any means of providing for their
children is indicative of the incompetence of the government in ensuring that its citizens
experience the minimum effects possible. Moreover, the story is important to the past because it
exposed to people at the time the ills of their society. Men leaving women to avoid
responsibilities, women turning to prostitution for fear of being shamed for standing in lines to

collect breads, employers discriminating women while hiring and a number of children dying of
hunger around people who could help showed the readers at the time exactly how morally
bankrupt the society in which they existed was. This large scale social turmoil and apathy is
epitomized by the story of Mrs. Gray who Meridel Le Sueur writes that she did not know of the
whereabouts of her remaining children clearly showing that no one cared about the children
enough to help them find their mother or, in the case of those who died, to help them with food
or shelter 3 .

Importance of the Story to Present Day

Even though the story was written close to a century ago, it is not only still relevant today
but also important. Its importance is largely tied to the lessons that it teaches to present day
society and most importantly, the government. In chapter one of the book “The Great Depression
” it is clearly noted by the author the great depression was a foreseeable period and that is the
necessary measures were taken to stop it, it would have been avoidable or had its impact
reduced 4 . Moreover, even after it happened, many analysts during the time viewed the
administration as one without a plan to counter the problem but instead waited for informal
sectors of the economy to correct the situation and bring relief. Therefore, the story is important
today because the chilling ills described in it should serve as a warning to the government of how
bad the situation can get for its citizens if it fails to regulate the economy and the stock market in
a manner that will enable the avoidance of another depression proportional to that endured by the
country in the 1920s.

3 Broner, E. M. "Meridel LeSeuer, 1900-1996." Nation 264, no. 6 (1997): 33-35.
4 Edmund, Stillman, The Great Depression. New York, New York: New Word City, 2015.

Secondly, the story is important to today`s society because it teaches it the consequences
of illegal trading and other inappropriate market manipulations that could lead to the market
crushing. Leading to the great depression, the society itself had participated in financial behavior
that caused the depression, credit cards enabled people to spend lavishly using money they did
not really earn or possess. This therefore is an important lesson to today`s society on expenditure
and reckless financial behavior that could lead to a damaging financial depression. Thirdly, the
story is important to both the government and the society today because it shows the devastating
effects of war, as it later became clear, the crash was also partly caused by World War I in
Europe which the United States participated in by helping ally forces. As noted in the documents
provided, president Hoover noted at the time that the war had done considerable damage to the
economy of the world due to heavy borrowing done by major countries to support the war. From
this admission, the importance of the story to the government and the society today is vivid. It
shows that if noting substantial can be done to avoid wars, then the consequences such as those
described by Meridel Le Sueur will be suffered.



Broner, E. M. "Meridel LeSeuer, 1900-1996." Nation 264, no. 6 (1997): 33-35.
Edmund, Stillman, The Great Depression. New York, New York: New Word City, 2015.
Entin, Joseph. "Culture on the move: depression-era documentary and migrant California."
criticism 56, no. 4 (2014): 841-847.
Le Sueur, Meridel. Women on the Breadlines. West End Pr, 1984.