Woodward, Ellen

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Ellen Woodward

born july 11, 1887 oxford, mississippi

died september 23, 1971
washington, d.c.


New Deal Advocate for Women">

"Woodward's grassroots approach to the administration of programs to promote economic security and social betterment brought significant change to the lives of many women."

from ellen s. woodward: new deal advocate for women

Ellen Woodward's energetic work on behalf of women and children spanned several decades, from 1925 to 1953. Many consider Woodward one of the most important women in the New Deal, second only to Secretary of Labor Frances Perkins (1882–1965; see entry). The New Deal was a collection of legislation passed during President Franklin D. Roosevelt 's (1882–1945; served 1933–45; see entry) administration. The legislation established programs that were designed to bring economic relief to those most affected by the Great Depression, the worst economic slump in U.S. history. One of Woodward's key goals during the Depression was to provide jobs for women who were heads of households. As the head of women's relief programs for several federal agencies, Woodward provided jobs for women in every state, often using state organizations largely staffed and operated by women. Woodward also pushed for equality for women in society, including pay equal to men's salaries for equal work. From the 1930s to the 1950s she was director of the women's divisions of the Federal Emergency Relief Administration (FERA), the Civil Works Administration (CWA), and the Works Progress Administration (WPA); a presidential appointee to the Social Security Board; and an administrator for the Office of Inter-Agency and International Relations of the Federal Security Agency.

Early influences of politics

Ellen Sullivan was born in Oxford, Mississippi, in July 1887. Her father, William Van Amberg Sullivan, was an attorney who was active in politics. Ellen's mother, Nancy Murray, died of tuberculosis in 1895 when Ellen was almost eight years old. The family had a distinguished past with several generations of political and military leaders, including a governor and several U.S. senators. Her father's involvement in politics through the 1890s introduced Ellen at a young age to public issues and political debate. Her father served in the U.S. House of Representatives from 1897 to 1898 and in the U.S. Senate from 1898 to 1901. During this time Ellen's interest in public affairs continued to grow. After her father's senate term expired, they stayed in Washington, D.C., where William reestablished a law practice. Ellen attended a private school in Washington, D.C., and then Sans Souci Female Academy in Greenville, South Carolina, from 1901 to 1902. When Ellen reached age fifteen, her education ended. Even though Ellen wanted to go on to college, she returned to Oxford. Her father believed that higher education was not proper for a young woman, a common perspective at that time. In 1906 Ellen married Albert Woodward, a practicing attorney in Oxford, Mississippi, and they had one son.

During her early years of marriage Woodward was active in various community organizations in Oxford, becoming president of the Methodist Women's Missionary Society and state leader in the Mississippi Federation of Women's Clubs. By the 1920s she had become a leader in community activities. Increasingly her involvement took her beyond local groups to broader circles concerned with child welfare, education, economic opportunities for women, and community development. In 1924 Woodward was appointed a trustee for a state hospital, her first public agency role.

Woodward's husband also had an active public life. After first serving as mayor, he successfully ran for a judge position and later a seat in the Mississippi House of Representatives.

Women in Work Relief

Ellen Woodward, who headed the women's divisions in the Federal Emergency Relief Administration (FERA), the Civil Works Administration (CWA), and the Works Progress Administration (WPA), had several major challenges to overcome in establishing work programs for women. Women had a difficult time qualifying for and receiving work relief under the WPA. First, many women did not have a work history. Therefore, they were not considered part of the labor force and did not qualify for relief. Secondly, many women had children at home and could not work full-time. Thirdly, the administrators of the relief agencies were primarily men, and they placed strict limitations on what jobs women could do. Lastly, Southern states, due to their generally more conservative views, were particularly hesitant about employing women in the WPA, especially black American women. Segregation policies (laws that required separation of whites and blacks in public places) meant that women's projects had to be duplicated in separate facilities, one for white women and one for black women (segregation rules were especially strict for indoor activities). This made the projects much more costly to run. In addition, many Southerners objected to employment programs that would take black American women out of domestic service jobs, where many worked for low wages as maids and cooks in white people's homes.

Woodward proposed two hundred and fifty job categories that she considered appropriate for women. However, WPA administrators rejected almost all of them. Little was left but sewing. As a result, 56 percent of the women in the WPA worked on sewing projects; nine thousand sewing centers were established around the country. Nevertheless, through determination and persistent effort Woodward was also able to create some training and employment programs in mattress making, bookbinding, domestic service, canning of relief foods, school lunch preparation, and child care. She also pushed for more professional jobs for women, including positions as stenographers and office workers. In 1938, the peak year for women's involvement in the WPA, six hundred thousand women were employed. Unfortunately, that number fell far short of the need, leaving more than three million women unemployed. Nevertheless, the relief programs of the FERA, CWA, and WPA were significant in that they provided many women an entrance into the workforce.

His sudden death by heart attack in 1925 led Ellen at thirty-eight years of age directly into politics; she took her husband's seat in a special election, becoming the second woman to serve in Mississippi's House. However, she refused to run for reelection. Instead, she took the position of director of the women's division of the Mississippi State Board of Development (MSBD) in 1926. The MSBD was an agency designed to promote educational and economic development in the state. By 1929 Woodward had become the executive director of the MSBD. She remained with the MSBD until 1933. During this period her club and civic work brought her substantial recognition.

Arrival of the Great Depression

When the Great Depression (1929–41) worsened in 1931 and 1932, President Herbert Hoover (1874–1964; served 1929–33; see entry) established a federal program making funds available to state relief programs. Woodward, having great familiarity with living conditions throughout Mississippi, became a member of the state's Board of Public Welfare to help direct the available funds within Mississippi. For Woodward this proved an important experience in dealing with the unemployed. In the 1932 presidential election, Woodward actively campaigned for Franklin Roosevelt. As a result, when Roosevelt was elected, the new administration appointed Woodward, who was already experienced in relief work, director of the Women's Division of the Federal Emergency Relief Administration (FERA) in 1933. The agency provided grant money to states to support their relief efforts. Shortly after Woodward began her job as director, Eleanor Roosevelt (1884–1962; see entry) held the White House Conference on the Emergency Needs of Women on November 20, 1933. At the conference Woodward and others generated ideas on how to meet the needs and abilities of women and created a network of organizations to support women's relief programs.

Late that same year, under the Civil Works Administration (CWA), Woodward provided temporary jobs for 375,000 unemployed women during the winter of 1933–34. However, that was a small number out of the four million workers employed by the CWA. By 1935 women made up 12 percent of FERA workers thanks largely to the efforts of Woodward. Woodward proved fairly effective in battling with male administrators, who continually resisted providing relief jobs to women because many of the projects involved heavy construction work.

In 1935 Woodward was appointed assistant administrator for a massive new agency, Works Progress Administration (WPA). Unlike the FERA, which primarily provided money to states for the states to administer, the WPA directly operated federal relief programs. Through the Women's and Professional Projects Division of the WPA, Woodward provided jobs for 450,000 unemployed women. Jobs included sewing, gardening, nursing, housekeeping, and museum and library research work, as well as positions in public health, emergency nursery schools, school lunchrooms, and canning centers. Woodward was also appointed administrator for Federal One, part of the WPA, which provided jobs in the arts (including music, art, theater, and writing) for some 750,000 people. Though Woodward was the administrator, many of the policy decisions were made by directors of the various units of Federal One. Federal One attracted the wrath of conservative congressional committees, who accused the program of spreading communist propaganda. In late 1938, with the WPA past its peak of activity and facing funding cutbacks, Woodward left to tackle new challenges.

Woodward was next appointed to the Social Security Board, replacing Molly Dewson (1874–1962; see entry), who had resigned. The board oversaw the main elements of Social Security, including old-age payments, unemployment compensation, and public assistance to the needy. The board provided Woodward another opportunity to promote greater economic security for American women. As a board member, Woodward represented the interests of housewives and working women. A key role of Woodward's was to educate wives and mothers about benefits available to them under Social Security. However, many women worked in positions not covered by Social Security, including those who were self-employed or working for nonprofit and educational organizations and those working in health care. Therefore, Woodward fought to broaden Social Security coverage from individual workers to entire families, including the wives of workers, and to extend coverage to a broader range of workers, such as domestic workers. Woodward also fought for and defended the hiring of women in Social Security offices.

Life after the New Deal

In the 1940s Woodward became more involved in international relief issues. From 1943 to 1946 Woodward was an adviser to U.S. delegations attending the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration (UNRRA). Woodward worked on getting relief to European victims of war. She also joined the Committee on Women's World Affairs, a coalition of women's activist groups. Her reputation as an effective administrator continued to grow, and in 1945 Woodward was listed in "Washington's Ten Most Influential Women" list. After the Social Security Board was abolished in 1946, Woodward was appointed director of the Federal Security Agency's Office of Inter-Agency and International Relations. She was able to continue lobbying for an international children's fund as she had done earlier through the United Nations organization. In 1947 the Women's College of the University of North Carolina awarded Woodward an honorary degree in recognition of her dedication to public welfare in Mississippi, social security in the nation, and domestic and international relief efforts.

In December 1953 Woodward retired at age sixty-six. She remained active for another decade in women's organizations, the Democratic Party, and various charities. After a long battle with heart disease, Woodward died in 1971 in Washington, D.C. In 1976 Woodward was named to the Mississippi Hall of Fame, and her portrait hangs in the Old Capitol building in Jackson, Mississippi.

For More Information


swain, martha h. ellen s. woodward: new deal advocate for women. jackson, ms: university press of mississippi, 1995.

ware, susan. beyond suffrage: women and the new deal. cambridge, ma: harvard university press, 1981.


swain, martha h. "'the forgotten woman': ellen s. woodward and women's relief in the new deal." prologue (winter 1983).

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