Shirley Temple Black - A Depression-Era Woman of Distinction by Normal Welty

Shirley Temple Black—A Depression-Era Woman of Distinction

A guest post by Norma Welty

Author of 

The Dirty Days
A Young Girl's Journey to and from the Oklahoma Dust Bowl

There are several distinguished American women whose biographies would provide a wealth of information about their significant contributions to our society. But I have chosen to proclaim Shirley Temple as my Depression-era woman of distinction—a noteworthy American child who became a solid role model for American women. Especially in the eyes of the many living women who are of the same generation as Ms. Temple Black.

Many girls, like myself, who grew up extremely poor in the Dust Bowl during the 1930s Great Depression revered Shirley Temple. We knew about her through listening to the girls from the more well-off families whose parents took them to see the young actress's movies. These more fortunate girls often brought pictures of Shirley Temple to school and talked profusely about her and her movies. 

From a poor girl's perspective, the young actress possessed a wholesome beauty and goodness in character that came from within, and she had an admirable talent and obvious athletic strength. As residents of the heat belt, we could appreciate Shirley Temple's endurance of hot, sweaty dance lessons and challenging rehearsals.

More importantly to girls from poor families, her success engendered in us a subconscious hope for better times—adequate clothing, healthy diet, dust-free air and enough water for crops and human consumption. And while laboring in the field we may have grumbled a bit, but we persevered just as we knew young Shirley would have done, had she been in our unfortunate circumstances.

Off screen, Shirley Temple has lived her adult life in ways that have confirmed our assessment of her in our youth. Her physical strength and mental perseverance sustained her during her recovery from breast cancer; and she was bravely one of the first prominent women to talk openly about breast cancer and its survival to the media. And, she steered herself toward several other noteworthy endeavors.

 Ms. Temple Black ran for Congress when the majority of voters weren't yet prepared to vote for a woman rather than a male opponent—and was defeated. But she hadn’t put all her eggs in one basket. Later, she was appointed to represent the United States in the United Nations, was the first woman appointed US Chief of Protocol and she later served as US Ambassador to Ghana and US Ambassador to Czechoslovakia. She did it all without fanfare, and to name but a few, she may have paved the way for Madeleine Albright, Condoleezza Rice and Hillary Rodham Clinton. 

Think about it. As a child, Shirley Temple persevered throughout a grueling movie-making schedule of singing, dancing and acting while winning the hearts of millions. She later served her country with dignified aplomb, received accolades such as the Actors Guild SAG Life Achievement Award and Kennedy Center Honors, and she published a well-received autobiography. Now a widow in her eighties, she is working on a second volume.

I’m also in my eighties and have written my first book, which includes in its story many references to Shirley Temple—one of my childhood heroes. To me she is much more than a former exceptionally talented child movie star or a commercialized icon of by-gone days. And I believe numerous older women, myself included, who grew up during The Great Depression still think of her as their childhood symbol of hope for better times.

From History and Women

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Anonymous said…
Norma's book sounds fascinating. I have been watching Ken Burn's new pbs series "Dust Bowl" which has made me realize how much I didn't know about the amazing resilience of those Americans who lived through those droughts, plunging wheat prices, loss of livestock, and dirt and dust storms while showed such resilience whether they survived or not. I believe that this is how history best is told - through the memories, the stories of those who lived it on the most basic levels, day to day.