Molly Lindsey is one of Breaking the Glass Ceiling’s regular contributors.
During the Great Depression in the 1930s, as the United States economy faced significant distress, the Farm Security Administration (FSA) photographed “Madonnas of the Field”. These so called “Madonnas” were women typically living and working on farmland, who suffered greatly as a result of the economic downturn. The portrayal of these women reinforced traditional gender roles, as well as displayed a need for relief for the poor during the time of the depression. The FSA used photography to reach middle-class and congressional audiences via the photographs. Between the years of 1935 and 1942, the agency produced over 250,000 photographs; a significant theme, which featured underprivileged women in fields or on farms, emerged from the shots. Photographs of women as victims, mothers, and caregivers were prioritized and preferred by the department, because these photos served as an effective means for appealing to the masses and receiving aid for the underprivileged rural communites. Was this depiction problematic, as it illustrated women in a simplistic, arguably sexist way? While these photographs were patriarchal in nature, labeling them as either “justified” or “inexcusable” are both oversimplifications. Images of poor farmwomen produced by the FSA often reduced women to a stereotype; however, these images not only resulted in substantial support for the rural American population, but also provided a platform for interrogating class politics and gender biases, even as they reinforced them.
Figure 1. Russell Lee. Weslaco, Texas. 1939. Source: Library of Congress.
Photographs taken by the FSA serve as highly influential representations of the Great Depression. Today, Americans commonly refer to these images as simply FSA Great Depression photographs. Rural communities made up just under half of the domestic population at the time (43.9%). The FSA’s work had the interest of the American public at-large in mind. The agency shared information about suffering rural peoples via photography. The FSA hoped to increase support for these less fortunate Americans from the rest of the population. They also sought to see more tangible effects, such as government price supports or subsidies for these troubled farmers and their families. The working and living conditions that were a miserable reality for many Americans were caught on film for the general public and are now invaluable historical documents. Majority of the photos are stark, unembellished images in black and white that were promoted in magazines, newspapers, exhibits, and in congressional settings.
FSA photographers were working directly for Roy Stryker, head of Information for the administration. Stryker considered the art of photo taking more than a simple form of propaganda; he saw photography as a complex social science. This being said, Stryker gave explicit directions on the type of photo he preferred for the Farm Relief files and maintained a notable level of control of the images that were released to the public. While photographs, not unlike other forms of art, have countless illusions and interpretations, Stryker was strategic in his awareness of how a specific image has meaning based on its context or based on the times.
Stryker had a passion for photography, and was well versed in the photographic work by Lewis Hine and Jacob Riis, both known for their interest and success in social reform endeavors. Stryker was particular and unwavering; he knew what he wanted and aimed to find talented photographers, not necessarily well-established ones, who could follow his directions, to represent and gain dignified sympathy for the rural poor in America.
Figure 3. Dorothea Lange. “Drought refugees from Oklahoma camping by the roadside. They hope to work in the cotton fields. The official at the border (California-Arizona) inspection service said that on this day, August 17, 1936, twenty-three car loads and truck loads of migrant families out of the drought counties of Oklahoma and Arkansas had passed through that station entering California up to 3 o’clock in the afternoon. 1936”. Source: Library of Congress.
Both Roy Stryker, and his processor at the FSA, Rexford Tugwell, believed that realistic depictions, although important, came second to attempts at evoking emotions. Although Stryker was overtly clear in what images he looked-for from a given region, he also granted his artists quite a bit of artistic liberties. The director of information found a unique balance between giving explicit project directions and an allowance of spontaneity and realism that made it easy for the American public to appreciate the situation of the rural poor at the time.
Figure 2. Dorothea Lange. Migrant Mother, Nipoma, California, 1936. Source: Library of Congress.
In 1936, photographer Dorothea Lange took the iconic photograph Migrant Mother at a pea pickers’ migrant camp in Nipomo Valley, California. The image was shown in San Francisco News, and not long after relief authorities sent necessities and food to the migrant camp. Is Migrant Mother simply an opportune piece of documentary that contributed to the FSA project during the time of New Deal humanitarian discourses? In context of the photographs in the FSA files, it seems Migrant Mother can be read as not only a fortunate coincidence, but as encoded with gender and political messages. The picture has a lengthy and miscellaneous afterlife, popularized and reproduced on post cards and in textbooks. It seems society is able to separate this photograph from its historical context absent a misconstruing of the theme. In other words, individuals are often unfamiliar with the origin of this photograph, yet share similar associations and reactions of those initial 1930s audiences. Might this suggest the persistence of patriarchal institutions, as well as the significance of maternal discourses to social and political practices?
Some scholars such as Alice Kessler-Harris argue the publicity efforts of the FSA were not intentionally sexist, but rather complimentary to women. With much change domestically, Americans were clinging to stability and old customs. In this time of economic turmoil, the concept of motherhood was praised, as it was perceived as a symbol of the most fundamental, traditional family institution. Motherhood was something everyone knew and understood. This may explain the consistent archetype reproduced and privileged amongst the FSA images of mother and child together; these images paralleled biblical representations of Mary and Jesus. While this could be perceived as sacred, moving, and quite beautiful to some, the argument for these photographs being good for women as a whole ignores the fact that this is both media manipulation and sexist in nature. The FSA favored the reproduction of specific types of photographs, such as the secularized Madonna and Child image, to paint women as docile, children-bearing persons and nothing more. Femininity was only acceptable, important, or good when it was biblical, or at least conservative or customary. This view of femininity proved extremely limiting for women and encouraged a regression away from women as agents of their own desire.
Scholars contend that use of images of poor women in the fields was strategic in terms of appealing to the masses, and ultimately should be perceived as a success. The poor were often seen as lazy and not hardworking. Americans, Republicans of the time particularly, stood largely in opposition of what they considered to be government handouts. During the 1930’s New Jersey Senator A. Harry Moore even went as far as to claim social security would “take all the romance out of life.” The FSA’s photogrpahs worked to undercut the individualistic, autonomous attitude that many Americans have; this was done largely through the maternal image. Historian Wendy Kozol argues that representations of these underprivileged women as relatable, sympathetic mother figures helped represent the poor as both conventional and relevant in this time of instability. The argument is that this type of exemplification aided the poor in receiving monetary support and empathy from the rest of the American people. Empirically, humans will look for a scapegoat during times of distress. This being said, the FSA was clever in shifting that accusation away from the poor, by placing traditional mother figures at the forefront of their picture of the less-fortunate. In an interview, Stryker justifies the actions, claiming that the agency was successful in drawing attention to the poor farmers, ultimately resulting in them receiving forms of aid.
Figure 4. Walker Evans. Farmwoman in conversation with relief investigator. West Virginia. 1935. Source: Library of Congress.
It is important to consider the intent the FSA had at the time, the level of sincerity in the project, and what/who it planned to represent. On a macro-level, Henry Wallace, the secretary of agriculture at the time, oversaw the FSA as part of his secretarial duties. Wallace published works on economic downturn and its effects on farmers, his department saw development of the food stamps, and Wallace was known for prioritizing communal action. He seriously considered
the needs and concerns of his constituents and was very active in his position, always welcoming the idea of government intervention. This determined and passionate spirited was consistent throughout pro-agriculture endeavors at the time. Before Stryker sent his photojournalists into their assigned regions, he mandated they research the areas. He loved to teach and spend individualized time with each of the photographers giving them facts and insightful information about the fields they were to document. Additionally, Stryker would outline a project using “shooting scripts.” The scripts included broad-spectrum notes discussing the types of pictures that were needed. These often included descriptions of home life, work life, conditions, daily tasks, and geography, as well as people. Only after all of this was completed and he made a final review of the given assignment would Stryker give a pep talk to his artist and send them on their way. Stryker and his committee were a committed, avid group with good intentions, not to mention they had a very tough crown to please.
It is fascinating when considering criticisms, artistic interpretations, and more measurable implications of photographs, what Susan Sontag, in her book On Photography, describes as a sort of violence inherent in photography. Sontag describes photography as a tool of power. It could be argued that the FSA’s photographs serve as an example of this, as they aim to make a change and share a message, to empower a movement. However, Sontag would expectedly contend that the FSA’s work is a demonstration of something more problematic within photography; she would likely label his photography as “an act of non-intervention”.
Sontag makes a chilling claim for picture-taking functioning as a placeholder for true action or decision-making, allowing the public to ignore actual issues. She goes on to say, “after repeated exposure to images it becomes less real”.  If there is truth to Sontag’s theory of the fragility of ethical contents in photography, then might the images taken for the farm workers relief be counter-productive? Sontag said “the quality of feeling, including moral outrage, that people can muster in response to photographs of the oppressed, the exploited, the starving, and the massacred also depends on the their familiarity with these images”, making a case against work like Dorothea Lange’s. I wonder if Sontag would call this “predatory” and violent, or simply criticize the use of photography for moral stimulation and positive social change.
Figure 3. Arthur Rothstein, FSA (Farm Security Administration) photographer. July 1938. Source: Library of Congress.
In July 1935, Stryker hired a former student of his, Arthur Rothstein; this was the nearly the same time he hired Lange. Two of Rothstein’s most famous pictures are “Dust Storm, Cimarron County [Oklahoma], 1936,” portraying a father and his sons heading desperately to shelter during a dust storm (Fig. 4), and “The Skull, 1936,” photographed in Pennington County in the South Dakota Badlands. “The Skull” (Fig. 5), a picture of a cow’s skull on scorched plots of land, indicated the desert would inevitably takeover what was once rich, livestock-filed land. Only weeks after the photographs were published, congress sent representatives to the region to investigate. This is one of many concrete examples of the tangible impacts these photographs had.
Figure 4. Arthur Rothstein. “Results of a dust storm.” Cimarron County, Oklahoma. 1936. Source: Library of Congress.
Figure 5. “The bleached skull of a steer on the dry sunbaked earth of the South Dakota Badlands” or “The Skull” 1936. Source: Library of Congress.
Photos such as these arguably do not compromise, reduce, or ignore potentials of individuals, but still result in concrete relief action. This lends the question: why? Why were depictions of migrant or rural women as mothers and caregivers so popularized, powerful, and preferred?
Figure 2. Esther Bubley. ‘Woman cleaning the interior of a Greyhound bus.’ Source: Library of Congress.
It is crucial to note, regardless of how predatory or one sided the images may seem, the FSA did not strictly hire one type of photographer. There are lesser-known photographers, with less popularized images hired by the FSA to work on the same project. Feminist author Jacqueline Ellis highlights the works of lesser-known photographers on the project, particularly works by Esther Bubley. Bubley, like Lange, was an American Documentarian working for the FSA on Farm Relief in the 1930s. However, Bubley attempted to portray the female experience as one that was individualized rather than a simply a symbol for the American people or of a passive object. Why were photographs that do not fall into the “Madonnas of the Field” theme perceived as less valuable, not as easy to popularize, or far less impactful? It could be argued that the FSA selected the more one-dimensional representations of women, but why?
To answer the “why”, let us revisit “Migrant Mother” (Fig. 2), the leading photograph among the hundreds of thousands of images being produced by RA/FSA photographers; what Roy Stryker labeled the symbol for the entire project. Stryker was recorded speaking on the image: “She has all the suffering of mankind in her but all of the perseverance too. A restraint and a strange courage. You can see anything you want to in her. She is immortal.” The manager at the Library of Congress states that the image remains one of the most requested items in the photography collection: “It’s the most striking image we have; it hits the heart.… an American icon.” The photograph practically demands an emotional response. It is not hard to see within the photograph the class victimization and paralyzing fear that was a reality for so many Americans. It is almost an invasion (I can almost hear Sontag laughing at the modifying “almost”) of the family in their most vulnerable state. The nameless mother grips tightly to her children, all of them in ragged clothing covered in dirt. The photograph communicates tension and fear as well as underlying power and dignity.
The popularization of “Madonnas of the Field” during the time of the Great Depression tells a story of gender roles in America in the 1930s. The images raised funds, awareness, and relief for the poor; it also raises a debate. The mothers, poor yet dignified, worn down yet still strong, have their own stories to tell. Was this project, this selection of patriarchal photos simply strategy or a shift away from good morals and a loss for American women? It is neither and both.
The FSA photographs and the stories and philosophies that are applicable to them, serve as a reminder that photography, but also art in general, is not neutral. There are countless ways to interpret any given image and a million stories to be told or details to be shared about any given photograph. The FSA’s work in the 1930’s was not simply good or bad. The FSA’s Great Depression relief efforts serve as both a success story and a sad reality. The agency substantially increased funding and support for the rural poor and changed the attitude of many Americans to one more sympathetic than before. While this happened, so did the reduction of many rural women’s identities, and the glossing over of many individuals stories.
Bubley. Esther, “Woman cleaning the interior of a Greyhound bus.” Library of Congress.
Evans, Walker, “Farmwoman in conversation with relief investigator.” West Virginia. 1935.
Library of Congress.
Lange, Dorothea, “Drought refugees from Oklahoma camping by the roadside. They hope to work in the cotton fields. The official at the border (California-Arizona) inspection service said that on this day, August 17, 1936, twenty-three car loads and truck loads of migrant families out of the drought counties of Oklahoma and Arkansas had passed through that station entering California up to 3 o’clock in the afternoon. 1936”. Library of Congress.
Lange, Dorothea, “Migrant Mother”, Nipoma, California, 1936. Library of Congress.
Lee, Russell, “Untitled” Library of Congress, 1939.
Rothstein, Arthur, “Results of a dust storm.” Cimarron County, Oklahoma, 1936. Library of Congress.
Rothstein, Arthur, “The bleached skull of a steer on the dry sunbaked earth of the South Dakota
Badlands” or “The Skull” 1936. Library of Congress.
Rothstein, Arthur, “Untitled” Library of Congress. 1938.
Stryker, Roy, interviewed by Richard Doud, Oral history interview with Roy Emerson Stryker,
Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, 1963-1965.
Gordon, Linda. Women’s Body. Women’s Right: A Social History of Birth Control in America (New York: Penguin Books, 1977), 9-10.
Hariman, Robert and Louis Lucaites, John. No Caption Needed: Iconic Photographs, Public
Culture, and Liberal Democracy (University of Chicago Press. 2007), 53-67
Kessler-Harris, Alice. Out to Work: A History of Wage-Earning Women in the United States
(New York: Oxford University Press, 1982), 254.
Kozol, Wendy. “Photography, Gender, and Farm Relief”, Genders 2 (1988), 11.
Perkins, Van L. Crisis in Agriculture: The Agricultural Adjustment Administration and the New
Deal, 1933. (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1969).
Sandeen, Eric J. “The Search for Meaning in Farm Security Administration Photographs.
American Quarterly 43, 4( 991), 688-93.
Segal, Elizabeth A. “Social Welfare Policy and Social Programs: a values perspective”
(Belmont, CA. 2013), 257.
Sontag, Susan. On Photography (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1977). 14.
Stein, Sally. Marion Post Wolcott: FSA Photographs (Carmel, Calif.: Friends of Photography, 1985).
United States Census Bureau. “Rural Population: 1900 to 1990” October 1995.
Witcover, Jules. Crapshoot: Rolling the Dice on the Vice Presidency, ed. Allen Drury, A (New York, 1992), 405-6.
 Wendy Kozol, “Photography, Gender, and Farm Relief”, Genders 2 (1988), 11.
 Ibid., 1.
 United States Census Bureau. “Rural Population: 1900 to 1990” October 1995.
 Sandeen, Eric J. “The Search for Meaning in Farm Security Administration Photographs.” (American Quarterly 43, no. 4,1991): 688-93.
 Sandeen, Eric J. “The Search for Meaning in Farm Security Administration Photographs.” (American Quarterly 43, no. 4 1991), 688-693.
 Ibid., 690.
 Robert Hariman and John Louis Lucaites, No Caption Needed: Iconic Photographs, Public Culture, and Liberal Democracy (University of Chicago Press. 2007), 53-67
 Alice Kessler-Harris, Out to Work: A History of Wage-Earning Women in the United States (New York: Oxford University Press, 1982), 254.
 Linda Gordon, Women’s Body. Women’s Right: A Social History of Birth Control in America (New York: Penguin Books, 1977), 9-10.
 Sally Stein, Marion Post Wolcott: FSA Photographs (Carmel, Calif.: Friends of Photography, 1985).
 Elizabeth A. Segal, Social Welfare Policy and Social Programs: a values perspective (Belmont, CA. 2013), 257.
 Kozol, Photography, 10.
 Roy Stryker, interviewed by Richard Doud, Oral history interview with Roy Emerson Stryker, (Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, 1963-1965).
 Jules Witcover, Crapshoot: Rolling the Dice on the Vice Presidency, ed. Allen Drury, A (New York, 1992), 405-6.
 Van L. Perkins, Crisis in Agriculture: The Agricultural Adjustment Administration and the New Deal, 1933. (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1969).
 Susan Sontag, On Photography (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1977). 14.
 Ibid., 11.
 Ibid. 19.
 Sandeen, “The Search for Meaning in Farm Security Administration Photographs”, 688-93.
 Hariman and Lucaites, No Caption Needed, 53-67