Kerr, Florence

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Florence Stewart Kerr (June 30, 1890–July 29, 1974), women's relief work administrator, was born in Harriman, Tennessee, but was early moved to Marshalltown, Iowa. She graduated in 1913 from Grinnell College where both she and her classmate Harry Hopkins were students of George Herron, a teacher of Applied Christianity. She was teaching English at Grinnell in 1930 when she was named a member of Iowa's Unemployment Relief Council. At the creation of the Works Progress Administration (WPA) Hopkins had her appointed as one of five (later seven) regional directors of the WPA Women's and Professional Division with headquarters in Chicago from which she supervised relief work activities in thirteen midwestern states. The most extensive of the projects she supervised were sewing and library projects for women, but she also oversaw work by men and women employed by the white-collar Federal Art, Music, Theater, and Writers' Projects.

Kerr was viewed as the strongest of the regional supervisors and, as a longtime associate of Hopkins, she was named in December 1938 to replace Ellen S. Woodward as WPA assistant administrator for the Women's and Professional Projects (WPP). She assumed those duties early in 1939 at a time when executive reorganization reconstituted the WPA as the Work Projects Administration under the new Federal Security Agency. She faced difficulties stemming from successive budget cuts and the necessity to adapt toward defense preparedness almost all of the work projects within her division. For example, library programs were created for the armed forces and defense-impacted area, and sewing projects produced parachutes and sandbags. She managed to retain most of the communitycentered and institutional service aspects of the women's program that were showcased in 1940 in a nationwide "This Work Pays Your Community" promotion touted by First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt. Kerr especially defended before congressional committees nursery and daycare centers as vital for mothers engaged in defense work. Many of the women's projects remained until final liquidation of the WPA in 1943.

From 1944 until her resignation from government at the war's end, Kerr directed the war service program of the Federal Works Agency. She then became an executive with Northwest Airlines, based in Minneapolis. In the mid-1950s she resigned and returned to Washington where she died.



Florence Kerr interview (July 29, 1974), Columbia Oral History Collection, New York.

Obituary, Washington Post, July 10, 1975.

Record Group 69, National Archives, Washington, D.C.

Swain, Martha H. Ellen S. Woodward; New Deal Advocate for Women. 1995.

Martha H. Swain