Women in Public Life 1933-1941

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Women in Public Life 1933-1941

Issue Summary
Contributing Forces
Notable People
Primary Sources
Suggested Research Topics
See Also


On January 6, 1930, 12 national women's organizations appeared before the Senate Judiciary Committee. Their goal was to testify against the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA), a constitutional amendment that would grant women and men equal protection under the law. It had been only 10 years since the women's suffrage movement, a broad coalition of professional, social, and labor organizations, had succeeded in pressuring Congress to pass the Nineteenth Amendment giving women the right to vote.

The intervening decade had spawned an ever widening divide between women's organizations. The National Woman's Party (NWP), headed by Alice Paul, was the sole group lobbying for the ERA. To them, the ERA was a simple concrete objective that would become the new rallying cry for the women's movement that had splintered after suffrage was achieved. Representatives from the League of Women Voters, one of the 12 organizations that testified against the ERA, claimed that only legislation that recognized the real physical and social differences between men and women would achieve "true equality" for women. From the NWP viewpoint, this type of protective legislation would limit how, when, and where women and children worked. It would greatly interfere with a woman's right to earn an honest living. Such restricted financial opportunities would result in continued economic dependence.

This potential loss of job opportunities was especially critical as the Great Depression was taking shape and increasing numbers of workers, including husbands, were losing jobs or seeing their incomes reduced. Noted sociologist Sophonisba Breckinridge went one step further. She viewed protective legislation sought by most of the women's groups of the 1930s as one illustration of women's disillusionment with the voting process. Rather than voting for reform, women were pressuring government agencies and educational institutions to legislate reform.

But were women really disillusioned with voting so quickly? Eleanor Roosevelt later observed that women used their suffrage much in the same way that men did. Rather than voting as a bloc, a threat that many suffrage opponents believed would threaten the focus of the government, they voted as individuals. Although they could be swayed by group dynamics, their votes were more typically affected by their individual experiences and background. And women were indeed voting, and affecting change albeit slowly. By 1930 both Texas and Wyoming had elected women governors at least once. The League of Women Voters reported that six women were elected to the House of Representatives in 1930 and that there were more than 145 serving in 39 state legislatures. Women were poised to take on even greater responsibilities.

When President Franklin D. Roosevelt (served 1933–1945) was sworn into office in 1933, his New Deal programs brought a wealth of new opportunities for women. The New Deal was a wide range of federal social and economic relief, recovery, and reform programs designed to address the severe economic hardships brought by the Great Depression. By the end of the year 1935 women had been appointed to prominent positions in the federal government, many of them jobs never before held by a woman. Certainly there were women playing active roles in government before Roosevelt's election. Grace Abbott had been Chief of the Department of Labor's Children's Bureau since 1921 and Mary Anderson had led its Women's Bureau since 1920. Mary Norton had been elected to Congress in 1924 and was still serving. What was new and different was the growing assumption that women belonged in politics.

Although women made few advances in established agencies such as the Department of Commerce or the War Department and still had to contend with discriminatory legislation, they were well positioned to take advantage of the growth in government agencies brought about by the New Deal. From Frances Perkins's contributions to the Department of Labor to Ellen Sullivan Woodward's organization of the Works Progress Administration's (WPA) Women's Division their efforts and achievements were remarkable and their imprint on New Deal legislation very real.


The Nineteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution gives women the vote and, as a result, a more active voice in American political issues.
June 30, 1932:
Section 213 of the Economy Act mandates that spouses cannot be employed by the federal government at the same time. Although the statute does not dictate that wives should lose their jobs, the individuals who resign or who are fired are overwhelmingly female.
November 20, 1933:
The Federal Emergency Relief Administration (FERA) sponsors the White House Conference on the Emergency Needs of Women.
April 30, 1934:
The White House Conference on Camps for Unemployed Women attracts 75 people and recommends resident schools and camps for the female jobless.
A broad coalition of women's organizations draft the Woman's Charter in an attempt to unify the women's movement.
May 1940:
The Women's Division of the Democratic National Committee (DNC) holds a three-day National Institute of Government drawing five thousand women to register, far exceeding the one hundred women initially expected.

Issue Summary

A few days before Franklin Roosevelt was sworn in as president, he called Frances Perkins, then Industrial Commissioner of the State of New York into his office and asked her to head up the Department of Labor. After a lengthy discussion during which Perkins outlined the conditions under which she would accept including his support for child labor laws, workmen's compensation, relief programs, and social security, she agreed to become the first woman to serve in the cabinet. Many thought his wife was behind the appointment. Eleanor denied contributing in any way to his decision. Others saw the influence of Molly Dewson, head of the Democratic National Campaign Committee's Women's Division. She also discounted her influence, saying that Roosevelt undoubtedly enjoyed breaking tradition. He would have appointed Perkins as secretary even if she had never taken the precaution to humorously claim that it was her price for the political work she did.

Six Million Rainbow Fliers

For Molly Dewson of the Women's Division, Perkin's appointment was payback. In early 1932 Dewson began her campaign on Roosevelt's behalf. Working with other top Democratic leaders including Sue Shelton White, Emily Newell Blair, Jo Coffin, Mary Chamberlain, and Lavinia Engle, Dewson's Women's Division devised a structure that exploited the strengths of an ever-growing network of local Democratic women. Each state would have a vice-chair and would be responsible for supplying county-wide contacts. These state and local correspondents would serve as the main vehicles for the distribution of campaign literature.

The literature of choice was the rainbow flier. A throwback to the state-by-state battle for suffrage, the rainbow flier was a single-sheet of campaign facts to be distributed door-to-door. The Women's Division delivered over six million during the 1932 campaign. Added to the rainbow fliers were incentives given to each state's vice-chair. They were invited to consult with Dewson and her staff in New York. Dewson also developed the Gas Money Plan which gave 10 dollars for gas to every vice-chair in a designated "fighting state." Her speakers' bureau used only the "best and most seasoned" women speakers, including Nellie Tayloe Ross of Wyoming, and representatives Ruth Bryan Owen and Mary Norton. It was an impressive grassroots effort that Roosevelt hoped would be the start of a long-term and highly effective women's organization.

The Women's Network

Even before Roosevelt's election was won in November 1932, Dewson was campaigning for Perkins as Secretary of Labor. She wrote Roosevelt in a note that Perkins's appointment would be all the "reward" she needed. After the election was over, she told her wide range of contacts—all of whom she encouraged to write Roosevelt in support of Perkins—that her appointment would prove that Roosevelt took women's contributions to politics and public life seriously and that he was willing to entrust women with unprecedented power and responsibility. Perkins was also not only the right woman for the job, she was the best individual available given her years of experience in New York and her well established relationship with Roosevelt.

For Dewson merely placing women in public office was not enough. They had to be the best available candidate. This was her brand of feminism. Perkins, who invited Dewson to attend her swearing-in, remained grateful to her friend for convincing her to accept the challenging appointment. In being offered the position she pronounced her pride in a sense representing all women in the nation.

Another appointment was Dewson herself, who, at the request of Eleanor Roosevelt, was named director of the newly created Women's Division of the Democratic National Committee (DNC). Her first task was to arrange a meeting with Eleanor and other top democratic women, including Nellie Tayloe Ross and Sue Shelton White, to compile a list of women they felt deserved appointments in Roosevelt's new administration. They kept the list to one hundred names and identified 15 women whom they felt were particularly deserving. Dewson went to work on Jim Farley, head of the DNC, believing it was essential for the success of the Democratic Party in the elections of 1934 and 1936. Progress was slow and frustrating. By May only seven women had been given jobs that Dewson considered routine appointments. By the fall of 1933 she was so annoyed by the lack of progress that she asked for a meeting with the president to speed up her requests.

Eventually some movement was made. Women active in the Democratic organization were rewarded first. Jo Coffin, head of the Labor Advisory Committee of the 1932 campaign, went to work for the Government Printing Office. Nellie Tayloe Ross became the first woman Director of the Mint. Another first for women was Ruth Bryan Owen, who was named minister to Denmark. Florence Allen, subject of another Dewson letter-writing campaign, held the highest position a woman ever had in the federal judiciary when she was named to the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

Dewson's goal was to recognize at least one woman Democratic worker in every state. She also sought to place professionally trained social workers, many of whom she knew from her own years in the field. These were the people best trained to deal with the problems of the Great Depression. Reviewing her efforts at the While House Conference on the Emergency Needs of Women in November of 1933, she recognized that the women she helped place in the government could also serve as an informal policy making group. While Dewson did not claim personal responsibility for placing all of the women active in the New Deal in their jobs, her perseverance and her relationship with the Roosevelts were certainly strong contributing factors to getting most of them jobs.

Women in the New Deal

The New Deal created new opportunities for women for some very practical reasons. The federal response to the Depression was to take on a wealth of new responsibilities. In the 1930s the government provided work relief, social security, and unemployment compensation for the first time. The agencies created to provide these services were best staffed by social workers. They were the professionals best trained to fulfill these new government responsibilities and women made up the majority of trained social workers. By 1939 the percentage of women government employees had risen to almost 19 percent, increasing nearly five percent since 1929.

Women's rate of federal employment was increasing twice as fast as men's, but it was doing so in very specific areas of the government, namely the new federal agencies. While they made up only 15 percent of executive departments, their numbers were much higher in the recently established New Deal agencies. Women made up almost 45 percent of the WPA, and Ellen Sullivan Woodward's appointment, as WPA administrator, was one of Dewson's proudest achievements. In general women were more able to overcome traditional social prejudices when filling positions in newer agencies. Even though Frances Perkins was a member of the cabinet, she was secretary of the youngest department in the cabinet.

The influx of women into prominent and mid-level positions in the government was for many a natural progression of talent fulfilling need. Dewson believed it was women's energy and idealism that would bring out the humanitarian side of government. Eleanor Roosevelt agreed with Dewson's assessment, commenting that the growing concern for "welfare of human beings" that was demonstrated by the federal government in the 1930s was due to women.

What was most evident was the stamp of the social worker on New Deal legislation. Frances Perkins and Clara Beyer facilitated passage of labor standards and legislation with the Fair Labor Standards Act. The act contained many of the same provisions they had fought for in the state of New York including minimum wages and maximum hours. Among Perkins's many successes in the federal government were the creation of the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) and the Social Security Act. They contained many of the programs that were for her, conditions necessary for her continued employment in Roosevelt's cabinet.

Nicknamed derisively in the press as "Ma" Perkins, many factory workers and laborers adopted the name and soon called her, affectionately, Ma Perkins of the Poor People's Department. Perkins worked to ban child labor and to protect the right of workers to organize and bargain collectively. She fought for workmen's compensation, old age and unemployment insurance, and improvements in industrial health and safety. Although Perkins opposed many measures that discriminated against women in the National Recovery Act, she eventually agreed to them. She was once described as a "half-loaf girl," as she believed any legislation that improved the working conditions in factories was better than no legislation.

Her tenure was not without controversy. She was impeached (accused of misconduct) in the U.S. Senate along with the Commissioner of the Immigration and Naturalization Service, and then contained with the Department of Labor because she refused to deport

Biography: Eleanor Roosevelt

1884–1962 Orphaned at a young age, Eleanor Roosevelt was raised by her mother's family in New York. In 1905 she married Franklin Roosevelt and they had six children together, one of whom died in infancy.

During World War I Eleanor became active in volunteer programs while her husband served as Assistant Secretary of the Navy. The couple's relationship changed significantly when Eleanor discovered Franklin's affair with Lucy Mercer, her friend and personal secretary. Although they remained married, the Roosevelts' relationship transitioned into a strong platonic partnership, focused on raising their children and advancing Franklin's burgeoning political career.

When Franklin Roosevelt was paralyzed by polio in 1921, Eleanor broadened her role in public life, partly to keep her husband's name in the public eye while he recovered. Her volunteerism expanded in the 1920s to include the Women's Division of the New York Democratic State Committee, the League of Women Voters, the Women's Trade Union League, and the National Consumers' League. These experiences gave her greater influence and knowledge to form her own ideas about social reform and the position of women.

Through her volunteer work Eleanor formed many personal and professional relationships that endured throughout her involvement with politics. It was at this time that Eleanor met Rose Schneiderman, then the president of the New York branch of the Women's Trade Union League, Molly Dewson of the National Consumers' League, and Nancy Cook and Marion Dickerman of the Democratic State Committee.

In 1928 Eleanor organized the women's Democratic national campaign for president, while her husband chose to run—successfully—for governor of New York. Eleanor was active in many programs, published articles, and became an accomplished public speaker.

When her husband ran for the U.S. presidency in 1932, Eleanor, with the help of Molly Dewson, organized Democratic women to help win the campaign. As First Lady, Roosevelt worked with Dewson to place many women in government posts. She also encouraged women journalists in Washington by holding press conferences for women only.

In 1936 Eleanor began to write a daily column, entitled "My Day," using it to publish her observations on her life in the White House and on her many trips. She also began a series of radio broadcasts to discuss policy issues and her views on human rights. Because of her extensive travel and use of the media, Eleanor soon acquired the nickname "Eleanor, everywhere."

While in the White House Eleanor used her position to advance a number of causes. She continued to champion the rights of women and often used her role as First Lady to improve their working conditions. She helped set up centers for unemployed women in New York City in 1932 and 1933, and offered to host conferences to bring attention to women's issues. As her public role expanded Eleanor became more vocal in her opposition to any form of discrimination and championed a variety of social causes.

Eleanor was a strong partner to the president and often presented issues to him. Gradually, however, she felt that the public no longer saw her as only a "mouth-piece" for the president and felt more at liberty to express her own views. She became more outspoken against racial discrimination and segregation, making clear statements through action when possible.

She continued her public works during World War II, working for the Office of Civilian Defense and touring England and the South Pacific. After her husband's death in 1945 she continued speaking and writing on behalf of causes she believed in. President Harry Truman appointed Eleanor as one of the five U.S. delegates to the United Nations (UN), where she was a representative to the UN Human Rights Commission and worked on the first international bill of rights.

Eleanor Roosevelt remained a major force in the Democratic Party throughout the 1950s, and in 1960 she again returned to the UN as President John Kennedy's appointed delegate to the Commission on the Status of Women. She remained an active champion of women's rights and civil rights until her death in 1962.

Harry Bridges, a union president under investigation. Although later exonerated of any wrongdoing, the impeachment was later seen by the public as the real reason the Immigration and Naturalization Service was moved to the Department of Justice and the Social Security Board established as an independent agency. Despite such setbacks Perkins was remarkably successful at developing solutions that would protect the rights of workers while trying to foster an economic recovery from the Great Depression.

Working to provide women with work relief from the Great Depression, Ellen Woodward oversaw the work of 450,000 women through the Women's and Professional Projects of the WPA. The WPA programs had women actively pursuing domestic projects, library work, public health programs, and research services. These were the programs that Molly Dewson and Eleanor Roosevelt described as the "human aspects of the New Deal."

More About… Photographing the Depression

Some of the most compelling images from the Depression were taken by two women photographers whose paths never crossed but whose pictures portrayed common themes of despair.

Dorothea Lange was working in San Francisco as a portrait photographer when the Depression began. One morning in 1931 she looked out the window to see an unemployed workman pausing to rest at her street corner. As she watched him decide which way to turn, she resolved to capture him on film. Soon she was photographing the unemployed waiting in bread lines, sleeping in the parks and in the streets, and loitering around the docks. These were what she called the historical moments of the Depression.

In 1934 she met Paul Schuster Taylor, an agricultural economist working for the state relief agency to study the flood of migrant workers into California. In 1935 he hired her to photograph his research subjects. Lange and Taylor married and traveled throughout the country on assignment for the New Deal's Farm Security Administration (FSA) studying and documenting the paths of migrant workers. Her photographs illustrated the transition in agriculture from its reliance on small family-owned farms to large agricultural corporations. Taylor later gave partial credit for the establishment of the FSA to Lange's compelling photographs of migrant workers.

In 1936 Lange took her most famous photograph of a migrant woman from Oklahoma. The "Migrant Mother," as the picture was later titled, was a widow in her thirties with seven children. She had sold the tires off her car for cash and was subsisting off what she and her children scrounged from the fields. The picture became the FSA symbol for the desperation and hopelessness caused by the Depression.

Across the country, Margaret Bourke-White lived in New York City, where she worked as a photojournalist for Fortune, the New York Times Magazine, Vanity Fair, and Life Magazine. Though she had an extensive and experienced career in photography, she later cited her work depicting Dust Bowl farmers as forming her true awareness of people. Sent out by Fortune to capture the great drought of 1934 on film, she spent a week touring from the Dakotas to Texas.

Shocked by the helpless people she encountered, Bourke-White was inspired to record in more depth the tragedy she saw being played out in America's agricultural center. When Southern novelist Erskine Caldwell approached her to collaborate on his project about southern sharecroppers, she eagerly accepted. In 1937 Caldwell and Bourke-White published You Have Seen Their Faces. Although criticized because the captions in the book were fictionalized quotes created by Caldwell and Bourke-White rather than being direct quotes, the book was for its creators a product that showed the effect of weather events and the Great Depression on everyday people.

Lorena Hickok, also known as "Hick," was one of the first women to work for the Associated Press. Used to reporting the hard news stories, she had covered everything from straight politics to murder trials when she was assigned to cover Eleanor Roosevelt on the campaign trail. The assignment was to profoundly change both her personal and professional life. Because her close relationship with Eleanor made it hard to maintain her professional standards of objectivity, Hickok left her groundbreaking post at AP and took a job working for Harry Hopkins of the New Deal's Federal Emergency Relief Administration (FERA).

Hopkins hired Hickok to be his chief investigator. She was to tour some of the worst afflicted areas of the country and to report frankly on conditions. Hopkins wanted the first-hand observations, her reactions rather than statistics or the view of social workers. Hickok's reports, beginning in the summer of 1933 and lasting until the end of 1936, were filled with stories of the people she met. She visited almost every part of the country and met nearly everyone involved with the relief programs from state and local officials, politicians, and civic leaders to the relief clients on New Deal's WPA projects.

Her reports allowed Hopkins to comprehend the human dimension of the problems facing the nation. They also gave Hopkins and FERA a dynamic and vital cross-section of American public opinion. Her reports demonstrated how significant a role was played by women administering programs under Hopkins' jurisdiction and pointed out the racial tensions caused by relief. She frequently was sent to investigate a community in crisis and was able to determine whether its root cause was a labor problem or natural disaster. Hopkins often passed her reports on to the president. Roosevelt wished they could be published as they provided such a detailed picture of the urgent problems facing the country. Hickok's greatest talent was her ability to quickly assess a community. The intelligence she provided to Hopkins allowed him to better coordinate between Washington and local relief administrators.

Mary McLeod Bethune became the first black American woman to head a federal agency when she was appointed Negro Affairs Director for the National Youth Administration (NYA) in 1936. The agency was particularly successful in meeting the educational and employment needs of America's youth. Bethune successfully distributed NYA funds tot black schools. She served as Roosevelt's Special Advisor on Minority Affairs from 1935 to 1944, in addition to serving as the Director of Negro Affairs of the National Youth Administration from 1936 to 1944.

She was the unofficial leader of Roosevelt's "Black Cabinet," a group of black American officials in federal agencies who advised Roosevelt informally. When Bethune opposed the exclusion of black American women from the Women's Interest Section of the War Department in 1941, Eleanor Roosevelt's influence eventually led to her participation in the advisory council. Because of Bethune, black American women became officers in the Women's Army Auxiliary Corps, established later that year.

Another prominent woman in the New Deal was Hallie Flanagan, who was appointed head of the Federal Theatre Project (FTP) in 1935. The FTP was part of the massive work relief program, the Works Progress Administration, which President Roosevelt launched as a key part of the Second New Deal. The FTP was controversial from the beginning as many argued against using public funds to employ actors and artists. Flanagan, however, through strong determination pushed the program forward employing over 12,000 actors, directors, stagehands, and others, and putting on productions in 105 theaters in 28 states. Finally, under intense pressure from Congress, the FTP ended in 1939.

The Reporter Plan

Nurturing grass-roots support for New Deal legislation was an essential component of Dewson's long-range plan to involve more women in the government at all levels. She achieved much of this through her Reporter Plan. The plan sought to educate women on the issues while also selling them on the benefits of New Deal. Although informing the female voting public was not a new concept—the League of Women Voters being one example of a group dedicated to educating women on political issues—Dewson's Reporter Plan took advantage of the existing network of Democratic women. It increased their numbers through a broad educational campaign carried out at the local level.

Each county Democratic organization would select a number of women reporters. These reporters would be responsible for monitoring the progress of a government agency. They would distribute their information to civic groups, clubs, and organizations throughout their communities. In effect they would form a grass-roots public information campaign. They would also be ready and educated on the issues when it came time to reelect Roosevelt. By the summer of 1934 five thousand women had signed up to be community reporters. By 1936 there were 15,000 reporters. By 1940 their number had doubled again. The Reporter Plan built on the belief that both women in official positions and women in the voting booths wanted the government to change society in new and positive ways. It capitalized on the prevailing wisdom in the 1930s that the support of women was crucial to the success of Roosevelt's New Deal.

In addition to the Reporter Plan the DNC's Women's Division sponsored regional conferences which combined politics, government, and education. Speakers from Frances Perkins to Ellen Woodward described women's relief programs and the role Social Security would play in providing a safety net for people at risk. For many women both in and outside of the administration, the changes put in place by the New Deal were the culmination of their careers spent pushing for social change. Perkins believed efforts by social workers led to successful legislation that helped address social inequalities. Such goals were key in the successes of the New Deal.

Dewson's work for the DNC's Women's Division reached its high point during the 1936 presidential campaign. Dewson wanted women on the platform committee, the group of Democrats who decided what promises would be made to the public during the campaign. Organizing a Women's Advisory Platform Committee in the spring of 1936, Dewson gathered 14 women she thought most appropriate. This group, headed by Congresswoman Caroline O'Day, identified the issues of greatest concern to women in public life including ratification of the Child Labor Amendment, consumers' rights, civil service, housing, education, and civil liberties.

When Dewson later suggested that alternates to the platform committee be of the opposite sex, her plan was accepted without comment. The women were given a very easy access to the platform committee since the mostly-male regular delegates frequently missed committee meetings. Unfortunately even though they were able to present and lobby for their suggestions and get many of their issues into the platform in general ways, the DNC did not endorse the Child Labor Amendment and was strangely silent on revising Section 213 of the Economy Act.

Spouses and Federal Employment

The "one black mark" against the Roosevelt record on women, which Dewson referred to as "that dumb clause," had actually been signed into law by President Herbert Hoover (served 1929–1933) in late 1932. Section 213 of the Economy Act stipulated that married persons could not be employed by the federal government at the same time. Although Hoover did not approve of the clause because he believed it was unfair to government employees, he signed the Economy Act believing that the next session of Congress, likely to be controlled by Democrats, would surely revise it. Instead of revising the bill, the Civil Service Commission added additional regulations barring spouses who lived apart from both being employed and requiring female government employees to take their husbands' names upon marriage. Although the original bill never stipulated that it should be the wives and not husbands to lose their jobs, the majority of the more than 1,600 government employees who resigned or were fired were women.

In May 1933 representatives from women's organizations asked for the dismissals of women to end and the bill be rescinded. Roosevelt responded by appealing to his attorney general to decide whether the Economy Act was temporary or permanent legislation. The attorney general ruled that it was permanent. Roosevelt claimed he was without the authority to modify Section 213. It was a politically convenient position to take as Section 213, while discriminatory, had a lot of public support from individuals who believed women working outside the home weakened the American family and took jobs away from men during the Depression when jobs were scarce.

The higher the unemployment figures the more criticism efforts to repeal the provision received. The only opposition to Section 213 from the White House came from Eleanor. It took five years to overturn Section 213, and in the end it was done by introducing the Cellar bill, which prohibited discrimination based on marital status. When the bill passed both House and Senate, Eleanor Roosevelt congratulated Congress in her daily column, remarking that determining when a man earns enough to support a family or whether a women should work outside the home should be left to the family to decide, not Congress or others.

Section 213 of the Economy Act was opposed by virtually every women's organization in the country. From mainstream to radical, these groups lobbied Congress and the public until the law was repealed. It was the only issue they agreed on during the 1930s. After suffrage was achieved in 1920, the coalition of women's groups broke down and splintered into a variety of different causes. By the 1930s many women's organizations were strongly opposed to each other and unable to agree on how to better the lives of women. Although the number of women in the labor force increased during the 1930s, most of the increases were seen in domestic service or seasonal employment. Women in professional employment actually lost ground during the 1930s because of the general public resentment of any woman holding down a job while a man was unemployed.

While there was generally widespread support for measures that provided mothers' pensions, banned child labor, and sought to eliminate restrictions against jury duty, little agreement could be reached on how best to achieve equal economic opportunity for women. Some of the most progressive legislation of the New Deal actually contained some of the most discriminatory measures. While the National Recovery Administration codes established minimum wages for both men and women—which benefited more women as they traditionally made less than men—the codes allowed for different, and in practice, lower wage levels for women workers. Even though many women's organizations filed protests, the lower wage provisions stayed in the codes. It was these types of laws that angered members of the National Women's Party and inspired their campaign for the Equal Rights Amendment.

Is Feminism Dead?

Alice Paul reorganized the National Women's Party (NWP), the successor to her militant suffrage organization the Congressional Union, in 1921. By 1923 they proposed the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA), for the first time simply asserting that men and woman should have equal rights throughout the United States. While the NWP promoted the ERA, other female activist promoted social reform legislation. The two movements clashed. The battle would carry forward through the 1920s and the 1930s.

In 1926 the NWP was one of the many women's groups participating in the Conference of Women in Industry called by Mary Anderson of the Women's Bureau. The NWP disrupted the conference with demands that the Bureau support the ERA. It urged the Bureau to consider the disadvantages, as well as the advantages of other so-called protective legislation that was being promoted at the time. Social reformers including Mary Anderson, Grace Abbott, and Frances Perkins believed such laws would protect women from economic exploitation. Laws restricting the number of hours a woman could work or from working at night or in their homes safeguarded women from companies that would take advantage of their subordinate status in American society. ERA supporters pointed to these very same laws as the reason women were not advancing economically. Social reformers countered that NWP members came from secure middle and upper class backgrounds and did not truly comprehend how disadvantaged lower-class women were.

Fundamentally divided on this issue, organizations such as the NWP, the General Federation of Women's Clubs, the League of Women Voters, the Consumers League, the American Association of University Women, and the Women's Bureau campaigned against the NWP and their proposed equal rights amendment. Although the NWP had prominent women as their spokespersons, including aviator Amelia Earhart and businesswoman Helena Rubenstein, both of whom had struggled to achieve success in nontraditional roles, they lacked organizational support. Only the Business and Professional Women's Federation had endorsed the ERA by the end of the 1930s. It was the only women's organization beside the NWP to do so. Such conflicts had authors, such as Genevieve Pankhust, asking in exasperation in 1935 if feminism were dead because women had unduly suffered during the Depression. Feminists had failed in being their sisters' keepers and had done little to help them deal with gender discrimination when looking for a job or for relief.

The Women's Charter

In an attempt to answer such critics, Mary Anderson and the Women's Bureau gathered representatives from women's organizations active in social reform in 1936 to develop the Women's Charter. Her goal was to produce a document that would bring their groups and the NWP together. Presented as an alternative to the ERA, the Women's Charter sought to safeguard protective legislation for women. Perkins encouraged Anderson to continue working even though the committee was an unofficial group. It soon floundered in its attempts to include other women's organizations and to put something on paper that was agreeable to multiple groups.

When Anderson proposed incorporating the traditional view that domestic work should be just as valued as professional occupations, she was praised by women who opposed women working outside the home and condemned by organizations that believed women should be trained to work and should expect to work. Discussions broke down again over whether to include specific guarantees of the right of married women to work. Still more criticism came from representatives who viewed the charter solely as a defensive strategy to counter the NWP's ERA rather than offering something uniquely valuable. As the NWP was not invited to participate and did not view the Charter until it was released to the press, this particular criticism not without merit. NWP representatives dismissed the Women's Charter saying women couldn't have protection and ask for equal pay and opportunity. They responded with their own amended version that advocated labor legislation that protected the job rather than the sex of the worker. The committee rejected the NWP revisions. Calling the movement a total failure Anderson abandoned her efforts.

Margaret Sanger and the Birth Control Movement

In 1936 the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that doctors could distribute information on birth control. Margaret Sanger called the legal decision a momentous victory that marked the end of one era and beginning of another. The victory ended over 20 years of activism. For social historians the decision was the natural result of not only Sanger's long struggle but also the changes in society's attitude towards birth control brought about by World War I and the Great Depression.

Margaret Sanger began her campaign to legalize the distribution of birth control information in 1914. Indicted by a federal grand jury in New York City for violating the Comstock Law of 1873 through her publication of the Woman Rebel, Sanger arranged for her pamphlet on contraceptive techniques—Family Limitation—to be distributed and fled the country. Although the original charges were dropped, in part due to the court's reluctance to prosecute Sanger whose daughter had recently died, Sanger was arrested again in 1916. She served a short jail term for opening the first birth control clinic in Brooklyn, New York.

Sanger believed that the quickest way to change the law was to challenge its authority. Publicizing her cause through lectures, pamphlets, and several journals, she continued her strategy of antagonizing authorities. The strategy put the government on the defensive and in the position of prosecuting a woman who had devoted her life to humanitarian causes. She was especially pleased anytime her efforts were censored and saw many advantages to being "gagged." While it silenced her, it made millions of others talk about her and more importantly talk about the birth control movement. She established a wide variety of organizations to campaign for birth control, including the American Birth Control League in 1921, which aimed to cultivate mainstream respectability for birth control; the Birth Control Clinical Research Bureau in 1923, which studied and provided gynecological and contraceptive services; and the National Committee on Federal Legislation for Birth Control in 1929, which lobbied for legislation granting doctors the right to disseminate contraceptives. In 1942 the Birth Control Federation of America became the Planned Parenthood Federation of America.

Sanger was criticized on all fronts. The Catholic Church opposed her work and many doctors remained hostile to her efforts. It took the American Medical Association until 1937 to decide to endorse birth control as a viable medical treatment. Her methods were criticized as too disruptive by even many of the organizations she helped found. She resigned as president of the American Birth Control League in 1928 because the group viewed her exclusively feminist focus as a liability. When in 1939 the American Birth Control League and the Birth Control Clinical Research Bureau were merged into the Birth Control Federation of America, they hesitated to include the term "birth control" because it was considered too aggressive.

The idea of birth control steadily gained public acceptance. By 1936 more than 70 percent of individuals polled believed the distribution of birth control information should be legalized. The right of married women to plan their family was seen by sociologists as the natural result of the economic pressures facing society and the transformation of the United States from a largely agricultural nation, where large families were assets, to a largely industrial nation where large families were liabilities. Margaret Sanger's birth control movement was evolving during the Great Depression from radical social protest to mainstream medical advice.

The Changing Nature of the New Deal

The 1940 National Institute of Government gathered more than five thousand women in Washington. They were to meet with the government administrators in charge of solving the economic and social problems of the country. Graduates of Dewson's Reporter Program, these democratic women were knowledgeable, insightful, and interested in New Deal programs. When Dewson, who came out of retirement to attend the meeting, introduced the speakers at the celebratory dinner held the last night she felt much pride. She could look at the audience and see the success of her Reporter Plan and look at the speakers' table where the long line of highly qualified women was a vivid demonstration to the vital role played by women in Roosevelt's administration. What was less evident at the dinner and indeed during the three-day institute was how long these changes would last.

As the 1930s drew to a close, women's progress in the government also slowed. Dewson realized the changes made were just a start that had not stood the test of time. There were very pragmatic reasons for the slowdown. The New Deal was changing in the late 1930s. Spending for many New Deal programs was being reduced or eliminated outright. As new government agencies were the places of greatest opportunity for women, decreased funding meant decreased opportunities. The women themselves were also a factor. By 1940 Molly Dewson had retired. Eleanor Roosevelt's focus was shifting to international concerns and to broader civil rights issues.

It was Dewson's tenacity and Eleanor Roosevelt's attention that had formed the basis of the women's network. Through their efforts and because of the talent of the individuals placed in the government, the number of women placed in the administration during the New Deal grew from 12 to 35 during the first year of the New Deal. By 1940 there were 55 women holding prominent government positions. Women's politics went into a holding pattern as the emphasis switched from the New Deal to the growing conflict in Europe. The role they played in politics and in public life had lost its spotlight and its novelty.

Contributing Forces

Florence Kelley and the National Consumers' League

The women's network of the 1930s had its start in the Progressive era. Many organizations and movements, founded in the late 1890s and early 1900s, served as the training grounds for social workers. Social work was a profession still in its infancy but became the profession of choice for many women active in the New Deal. Grace Abbott, Mary Anderson, Molly Dewson, and Frances Perkins were all drawn to settlement houses in Chicago and New York. Settlement houses provided charitable services to its surrounding community while spurring social reform. These houses were modeled after Hull House, a female community founded by Jane Addams in 1889 in a poor section of Chicago.

One of Hull House's most notable graduates was Progressive reformer Florence Kelley, who lived there while studying the conditions of Chicago sweatshops. In 1899 Kelley moved to New York, where she joined the newly formed National Consumers' League (NCL) as its secretary. She was the driving force behind the NCL motto "investigate, agitate, legislate," and the leading promoter of protective labor legislation for women and children. Early activities of the NCL included the White Label program which awarded special labels to manufacturers that obeyed state factory laws, did not require overtime, and did not employ children under the age of 16. The NCL also campaigned to limit the number of hours a woman could work to 10 and provided research support to legislators seeking to restrict the woman's workday.

Although she supported laws that protected women and children, she also viewed this legislation as the necessary starting point towards achieving a safe workplace for both men and women. She used the same strategy when she began campaigning for a minimum wage for women in 1909. By 1919 fourteen states had passed minimum wage laws for women. These laws would later serve as the model for minimum wages for both men and women in the New Deal's Fair Labor Standards Law of 1938.

The NCL was also successful in its campaign for the U.S. Children's Bureau, which was founded in 1912. Kelley was particularly proud of the Children's Bureau's support for the Sheppard-Towner Act. The act had provided federal grants to health care programs for women and children.

In the 1920s the NCL employed many future government administrators including Frances Perkins, Clara Beyer, Josephine Roche, and Ellen Woodward. Its New York office was where Molly Dewson met Eleanor Roosevelt. NCL ties were so strong and its impact so great that Perkins later felt that the Consumers' League had been appointed as Secretary of Labor, not her. She was merely the figurehead who happened along.

The Women's Trade Union League

Founded four years after the National Consumers' League in 1903, the Women's Trade Union League (WTUL) sought to organize women workers into existing male-dominated trade unions. The strength of the WTUL was in its diverse membership. It included working class women, trade unionists, and female supporters from the middle and upper classes. Devoted to addressing the needs of women workers, the league advocated legislation that would limit hours and establish minimum wages for women. Emily Newell Blair, Jo Coffin, Caroline O'Day, Josephine Roche, Eleanor Roosevelt, Rose Schneiderman, and Hilda Worthington Smith were involved with the WTUL.

In 1918 the U.S. Department of Labor created the Woman in Industry Service (WIIS) at the request of the WTUL to monitor women working in factories under U.S. defense contracts. The WIIS conducted nationwide studies to establish standard hours, wages, and conditions for women. At the end of the war President Woodrow Wilson (served 1913–1921) transitioned the WIIS into the Department of Labor's Women's Bureau and gave it the authority to enforce standards in factories working on government contracts.


The most compelling experience for many of the women active in the New Deal was the fight to achieve suffrage. Dewson often fondly referred to her time spent campaigning for suffrage in Massachusetts. For women such as Hilda Worthington Smith, who was struggling to establish her career, the experience was revolutionary and led to many other advances as well. Many of the women who later worked in Roosevelt's administration during the New Deal held leadership positions in the suffrage movement. The only difference of opinion among them was related to the tactics used by various groups.

Calls for women's suffrage had been increasing steadily during the Progressive period. By 1910, however, only four states had given women the vote. The movement was revitalized when the women leaders realized that focusing on achieving suffrage would be the easiest way to eventually achieve social reform and that the best way to achieve suffrage would be through an amendment to the constitution rather than a state-by-state battle. The suffrage amendment became the common goal of groups as diverse as the General Federation of Women's Clubs and the Socialist Party of the United States.

The largest organization by far was the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA) which had more than two million members by 1914. NAWSA was led by Carrie Chapman Catt. Alice Paul and Lucy Burns joined NAWSA's Congressional Committee and encouraged Catt to adopt more flamboyant techniques. This included a suffrage parade down Pennsylvania Avenue on March 3, 1913, that was better attended than President-elect Woodrow Wilson's inauguration held the same day. Frustrated by NAWSA's more moderate approach, Paul and Burns split off from NAWSA to form the Congressional Union in 1914.

The Congressional Union, and its successor the National Woman's Party, concentrated on punishing the party in power be it Republican or Democrat. If the Democrats were in control of Congress, then the Congressional Union campaigned for Republicans regardless of any specific candidate's stand on the issue. By picketing the White House and organizing street marches and open-air meetings, the party's more dynamic methods appealed to a wide variety of women including working-class women, trade unionists, and wealthy socialites, including Alva Belmont whose millions provided the group's financial support.

NAWSA's tactics combined campaigns for state legislation with increasing support for the federal amendment in states where suffrage had already been achieved. By 1918 the suffrage amendment was passed by the House of Representatives. The National Woman's Party laid down their picket signs at the White House. The victory was short-lived, as the Senate did not pass the amendment. It would take several more NAWSA state campaigns and continual picketing by NWP members before the amendment passed both houses. In August 1920 the thirty-sixth state ratified the amendment and suffrage was achieved.

Paul's Congressional Union, which had evolved into the Woman's Party in 1916 and the National Woman's Party in 1917, reorganized in the 1920s and began its new campaign for the Equal Rights Amendment. NAWSA shifted its focus to educating newly enfranchised women. In 1920 it renamed itself the League of Women Voters. The friendships formed during the suffrage movement set the foundation for pushing for greater roles of women in public life during the Great Depression.

Chivalry Between Women

During the decades preceding the Depression, the women who later worked in the New Deal established professional and personal relationships that would last the rest of their lives. Working for suffrage and for organizations promoting social change gave women the opportunity to develop a community dedicated to reforming local, and eventually national policy.

In 1929 Molly Dewson arranged a luncheon attended by 1,800 employees of the New York State Department of Labor. The guest of honor was Frances Perkins, a woman for whom Dewson had tremendous professional respect. During the lunch Perkins spoke of the growing cooperation that created the possibility of social justice. It was through the "wisdom of the women," that brought about social change. Later, when thanking Dewson for the luncheon and for the honor, Perkins wrote of the loyalty and fair mindedness growing among the nation's women. The strengths of their bonds formed through their volunteer and paid professional work were to sustain them through the 1930s and beyond.


The President

Franklin Roosevelt clearly respected women and was used to working with them. Dewson and Perkins both believed Roosevelt appreciated women's abilities more than other men of his generation did. He certainly had ample opportunity. As governor of New York he dealt with numerous women active in social reform and in politics. Working with women at the national level was a natural development of working with women at the state and local level. Through Eleanor, Franklin met numerous independent and intelligent women. Eleanor's business partners Nancy Cook and Marion Dickerman lived with them on the Hyde Park estate. He had known Frances Perkins since 1910 and was very familiar with her career long before he had ever thought of hiring her as Industrial Commissioner of New York or as Secretary of Labor.

Roosevelt also understood the importance of women to the Democratic Party, what Dewson referred to as other potential value. Women were a political force that was still waiting to be tapped. Critics have called Roosevelt a "ladies' man" partial to flattery and flirting. That even though he appointed women to positions never before held by women, they never made it to his inner circle. He was willing to give them the job and use the information they reported to him but their influence was limited. Women were never his primary advisors and he had his limits in how far he would go to court their vote.

More About… Working Women in Film

Women worked outside the home during the Great Depression, although rarely in the manner or with the morals portrayed in Hollywood films of the decade. While films about career women were very common in the 1930s and early 1940s, they seldom had anything good to say about the lives of their main characters. Barbara Stanwyck, Katherine Hepburn, Joan Crawford, and Bette Davis played writers, lawyers, doctors, artists, and nurses. Rosalind Russell alone played more than 20 different professional women. One of the more common roles in the Great Depression was the newspaper reporter with Bette Davis, Rosalind Russell, Jean Arthur, and Katherine Hepburn all taking on the job in film.

Typically career women fell into a few well-defined categories. The most consistent ending for a career woman in the Hollywood films of the 1930s and early 1940s is the happy renunciation of her job for the love of her man. In the 1932 film Forbidden, Barbara Stanwyck plays a librarian who's bored with her job and cashes out her bank account to take an ocean cruise where she naturally finds love. Bette Davis gives up the newspaper business in the 1935 Front Page for true love. Katherine Hepburn plays the Woman of the Year in the 1942 film loosely based on the life of journalist Dorothy Thompson. Marrying Spencer Tracey early in the film, she attempts to give up her career for full-time motherhood. While she is an abysmal failure in the kitchen and in the nursery, she is patted nicely on the head and consoled as the movie ends. Rosalind Russell walks away from a successful career as well in the 1941 Take a Letter Darling to follow her man At least in the movies women work until they find their husband, then they quit their not-so-satisfying job and go home happy contrary to real life with husbands losing jobs due to the Depression.

The ones who do not give up their job are rewarded according to how far they stray from society's chosen path. While Joan Crawford's character transitions from a bored socialite to a responsible family girl with a "man-sized job" until the stock market crashes and ruins her rich family in Dance Fools Dance, her character in Grand Hotel, a secretary who sleeps around on the side, has less moral integrity. Barbara Stanwyck plays a woman who sleeps her way to the top of a Wall Street firm in Baby Face. In the movies the woman who refuses to give up her career is eventually destroyed emotionally, or financially, or physically. According to Hollywood, clearly career women lacked morals and they get what they deserved.

The Nation

Roosevelt's predominantly high opinion of women was not necessarily held by the rest of the nation. American society during the Great Depression was often openly hostile to the almost 25 percent of women who worked outside their homes. While they continued to increase their numbers in the work force, progress during the Depression occurred despite severe economic dislocations and public opposition. Long hours and low wages were the norm, with the women's average yearly pay being $525, as compared to $1,027 for men. Married women who worked were particularly resented because the public believed their place was in the home, taking care of their children. Those women that did work were taking jobs away from men during a time of job shortages.

It was rarely viewed as an economic necessity for women to work. Most believed women worked strictly for "pin money," a little bit of extra spending cash. Because of these stereotypes, discriminating against a married woman's right to work was perfectly acceptable. Teachers were affected the most. A 1930–1931 National Education Association survey reported that 77 percent of 1,500 school systems would not hire married women. Sixty-three percent dismissed women teachers if they married. By 1939 restrictions against hiring women existed in 84 percent of insurance companies, 65 percent of banks, and 63 percent of public utilities. Section 213 of the Economy Act was merely the federal stamp of approval on well-entrenched state and local traditions.

International Perspectives

Similar restrictions on women in public life were present in other countries. While England had preceded the United States in appointing a woman to their cabinet—Margaret G. Bondfield was their Minister of Labor—the rise in fascism and totalitarian regimes spawned back-to-the-home movements in both Italy and Germany. The NWP journal deplored the situation in Germany. They called on women to resist being kept out of the workforce and being regarded simply in terms of their childbearing functions. During the 1930s the NWP lobbied the League of Nations to approve the Equal Rights Treaty.

Although the United States was not a member of the League of Nations, NWP members used their own memberships in international women's groups to bring the treaty, the international version of the ERA, before the League. In 1935 the Juridical Commission of the League of Nations debated the Equal Rights Treaty for several days. After much discussion, the treaty was booted back for further study. Member governments were to decide the political status of women while the International Labour Office (ILO) was to study and make recommendations on protective legislation. Mary Anderson and the Women's Bureau staunchly opposed the Equal Rights Treaty telling ILO representatives that the NWP did not have the best interests of working women in mind. It was a much harder argument to make in Europe where women were far more afraid of their loss of economic opportunities if the ERA should be adopted.

In 1937 NWP representatives recommended four amendments to the League covenant then under revision. Women on both sides of the debate agreed with demands for suffrage, independent citizenship for married women, and full voting rights to all League bodies. They once again split over the Equal Rights Treaty and its rejection of protective legislation. Once again no progress was made. Alice Paul's newly founded World Woman's Party continued to support the Equal Rights Treaty and was successful in affiliating itself with several European feminist associations. Unfortunately most of them disappeared in the growing worldwide conflict leading to World War II (1939–1945). Alice Paul returned home as well.


During the 1940s, as the focus shifted from Depression to war, President Roosevelt placed social programs on hold. He began to appoint women as tokens only, in small departments without real opportunity to impact policy. While no woman put in place during the New Deal was removed from office, they were not necessarily replaced with women when they retired or moved on from political life. President Harry Truman (served 1945–1953) thanked Frances Perkins on the occasion of her retirement for the extraordinary achievements of her tenure. He promptly named as her successor Lewis B. Schwellenback, a former colleague of his from the Senate.

In 1953 the Women's Division of the DNC was abolished and its functions absorbed into the main branch of the organization. Presented as an advancement, the integration was seen by many women as a setback. Although many women active in the New Deal had retired, they still watched and commented. After John F. Kennedy (served 1961–1963) was elected president, Dewson wrote Clara Beyer that his only weakness was not being aware of what the solid support of women could mean for him politically. Eleanor Roosevelt was also watching. When Kennedy's first 240 appointments included only nine women, she paid him a visit bearing her own list of women qualified to help lead his administration.

Kennedy responded by asking her to chair his Commission on the Status of Women. The commission revitalized the women's movement. While it did not endorse the ERA it did agree that women needed to be considered equal under the law. This renewed interest in the rights of women resulted in the founding of the National Organization for Women (NOW) in 1966 to provide a means for women to pressure the government. Four years later, Martha Griffiths, a Democrat from Michigan reintroduced the ERA into the House of Representatives. The House approved the ERA and in 1972 the Senate followed suit. Although almost half the states immediately approved the Amendment, the ratification movement was hampered by a well-financed anti-ERA coalition. Even though the ERA was supported by a widespread coalition of groups, it once again failed to be ratified.

Notable People

Grace Abbott (1878–1939). Grace Abbott was best known for her years spent at the Department of Labor's Children's Bureau. She became Chief of the Bureau in 1921 and remained its head until 1934 when she turned the Bureau over to Katherine Lenroot.

Abbott was born in Nebraska to a family active in politics and in social welfare. Her father was a politician, her mother campaigned against slavery and for women's suffrage, and her sister Edith, with whom she maintained a life-long personal and professional relationship, was a scholar of economics, history, and social welfare. Abbott left Nebraska for Chicago where she lived at Hull House with Jane Addams. There she pursued work advocating for the rights of immigrants and for the rights of working class women. She joined the Department of Labor's newly formed Children's Bureau in 1917 and worked two years for its founding chief Julia Lathrop whom she succeeded in 1921. As chief of the Children's Bureau, Abbott administered the Sheppard-Towner Act, the first legislation to provide federally matched grants to state for maternal and child health programs.

A life-long Republican, she and her sister campaigned heavily for the election of Herbert Hoover in 1928 whom they viewed as a tireless advocate for children's welfare. Their opinion of him soured when he supported efforts to transfer the health functions of the Children's Bureau over to the Department of Public Health and when he named William Doak as his Secretary of Labor even though Abbott was heavily favored. Unlike Abbott who spoke publicly of her concerns about the depth of the economic crisis during the early years of the Great Depression, Doak shared Hoover's optimistic conviction that federal involvement was dangerous.

Abbott believed strongly that without the support of organized labor and without legislation that guaranteed a certain level of pay and restricted the number of hours worked, women and children were easily exploited by industrial interests. She was actively involved during the 1920s and 1930s with National Consumers' League and the Women's Trade Union League. Abbott wrote numerous articles and books on immigration and child welfare. She also served as president of the National Conference of Social Work.

Even though Abbott left the Children's Bureau in 1934 for an academic position at the University of Chicago School of Social Service Administration, she maintained her relationship with the organization as a dollar-a-year consultant. She contributed heavily during the New Deal to the provisions for mothers and children in the Social Security Act of 1935. Abbott suggested a broad and comprehensive children's program that included maternal and child health programs, child welfare services, neglected and delinquent child services, and aid to dependent children. She died in 1939 from tuberculosis.

Mary Anderson (1872–1964). Mary Anderson served as Chief of the Department of Labor's Women's Bureau from 1920 to 1944. A teenage immigrant, Anderson worked in the garment and shoe industries in Chicago. She became involved with the Women's Trade Union League (WTUL) in 1905 and maintained a lifelong affiliation and interest in their activities. She served as assistant director of the World War I (1914–1918) Women in Industry Service and was eventually named director of the Women's Bureau when Congress approved the bureau as a permanent addition to the Department of Labor.

Particularly concerned with educating women on their rights as workers, she organized a series of summer schools for women workers held at Bryn Mawr College. Although Anderson was a registered Republican, she often voted for Democratic candidates and considered the interests of women to be above partisan politics. She fervently believed in protective labor legislation that set hours and wages for women and actively campaigned against the Equal Rights Amendment proposed by Alice Paul and the National Women's Party and the League of Nation's Equal Rights Treaty. In 1936 she proposed the Woman's Charter, a treaty which attempted to unite women's social reform groups. Anderson later called the Charter, which promoted protective legislation for women a total failure.

Mary McLeod Bethune (1875–1955). Bethune was the daughter of former slaves who emphasized the importance of education. Bethune began her career as an educator. After teaching in several schools throughout the South, she married in 1898 and had one son. In 1899 Bethune moved to Florida where five years later she founded a school for black American girls. Starting with only five students she nurtured the school for over 20 years until 1925, when she merged the school with the Cookman Institute to form the co-educational Bethune Cookman College. She was also active in the Florida Federation of Colored Women's Clubs from 1917 to 1925 and served as president of the Southeastern Federation of Colored Women's Clubs from 1920 to 1925.

Although Bethune campaigned for suffrage with the Equal Suffrage League, an offshoot of the National Association of Colored Women, and encouraged black American women to vote after suffrage was achieved, she always put the fight against racial discrimination before the fight for gender equality. She did, however, have a lifelong intense belief in the talents and abilities of women.

Bethune continued her public service career serving on the National Urban League's Executive Board. She founded the National Council Negro Women and served as president of the National Association of Colored Women's Clubs and as vice-president of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). In 1932 Ida Tarbell named Bethune as one of the 50 greatest American women.

Her work in Washington started during President Calvin Coolidge's (served 1923–1929) presidency when she was invited to attend his Child Welfare Conference in 1928. President Herbert Hoover extended a similar invitation to his Conference on Child Health in 1930. Bethune developed close ties with both Eleanor and Franklin Roosevelt. She had known Eleanor since the early 1920s. As part of the Roosevelt administration Bethune was the Negro Affairs Director for the National Youth Administration (NYA) and was leader of a group of black American officials in federal agencies, known as the "Black Cabinet," who informally advised the president. Bethune died in 1955.

Clara Mortenson Beyer (1892–1990). Clara Beyer served in a number of positions in Roosevelt's administration rising to be Associate Director of the Division of Labor Standards within the Department of Labor from 1934 to 1957. Her career began in education. After she received a graduate degree from the University of California, she taught labor economics at Bryn Mawr. She moved on to government work holding positions with the War Labor Policies Board during World War I and the District of Columbia Minimum Wage Board.

In 1920 she married Otto Beyer, and in the following five years she gave birth to three sons. While her children were young, she worked part-time at the National Consumers League and was also active in the League of Women Voters. Molly Dewson, who worked with Clara Beyer at the Consumers League, kept after Clara to return to work full-time. She finally joined the Children's Bureau in 1928. Beyer, who believed women should return to work after their children were in school, later became director of the Children Bureau's Industrial Department. When the Department of Labor decided to establish a Division of Labor Standards in 1934, Beyer organized the department and was eventually named its associate director.

Emily Newell Blair (1877–1951). Even though Emily Blair called herself a "discouraged feminist" in 1931, she served the Roosevelt administration in the National Recovery Administration (NRA), a New Deal program aimed at recovery of industry and labor from the Great Depression. Born in Missouri, Blair attended college in Maryland and in Missouri without completing a degree. She married in 1900 and had two children. Her early career was spent campaigning for suffrage and writing numerous stories and articles. She founded and edited the Missouri Woman from 1914 to 1916 and was associate editor of Good Housekeeping from 1925 to 1933. Her writing credits also include a feminist novel published in 1931 that discussed the difficulties of combining career with marriage.

After World War I Blair helped organize the League of Women Voters and the Women's National Democratic Club. She spearheaded efforts to establish more than two thousand women's clubs and helped organized the "Schools of Democracy" which instructed women on party issues. By 1928 she was one of the most recognized Democratic women in the country and served as vice-chair of the DNC. Blair was very active in Roosevelt's 1932 campaign. She joined the Consumers' Advisory Board of the National Recovery Administration (NRA) in 1933 and chaired the board briefly in 1935 until it was declared unconstitutional. Blair's husband also served in the government as assistant attorney general. Blair's last public position was with the women's interest section of the War Department's bureau of public relations, which she ran until 1944. As was typical of many other Democratic women working in Roosevelt's administration, Blair believed that women's interests in politics were on par with men's. She disdained the title of feminist but believed that women would only achieve success if they supported each other until they achieved power.

Mary (Molly) Dewson (1874–1962). Although Dewson was widely acknowledged as the driving political force behind securing so many women prominent positions in the New Deal, she held relatively few political positions herself. The head of the Women's Division of the Democratic National Committee from 1932 to 1937, Dewson entered politics for the first time at the age of 54 during Al Smith's 1928 presidential bid at the request of Eleanor Roosevelt who was coordinating the women's campaign.

Molly Dewson was born in Massachusetts. She graduated from Wellesley College in 1897 and began a career in social work. She was Superintendent of the Parole Department of the Massachusetts State Industrial School for Girls until 1912. It was during her tenure at the parole board that she met her partner of 52 years Polly Porter. In addition to helping draft Massachusetts' model minimum wage law, Dewson was also very active campaigning for women's suffrage with the National American Women's Suffrage Association.

As was typical of most of her career, she enjoyed the early stages of a project or a cause and would dedicate herself fully to it. Once the solution was figured out or the goal within sight, she moved on, usually giving herself a period to rest and reflect on what to do next. This was certainly the case with the national campaign for suffrage, which she left along with the dairy farm she and Porter had established, to travel together to France during World War I. There they worked for the Red Cross. After her return to the United States, Grace Abbott offered her a job at the Children's Bureau. Dewson chose to remain in New York and went to work for Florence Kelley at the National Consumers' League. Dewson also served as executive secretary of the Women's City Club of New York, a women's reform group. It was through these groups that she met and worked closely with Eleanor Roosevelt for the first time.

She served as floor manager for women at the 1932 National Democratic Convention and from 1932 to 1934 she was head of the women's division of the Democratic Party. She continued as Chairman of the Advisory Committee to the Women's Division and as Vice-Chairman of the Democratic National Committee. During these years she lobbied Franklin Roosevelt to place women in prominent political positions. Her most notable successes were Frances Perkins as Secretary of Labor, Ruth Owen as ambassador to Denmark, and Florence Allen to the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. Dewson believed her efforts were crucial not only for women's advancement in politics but also to show that women could handle the responsibilities. She toed a cautious line though, making sure never to appear too strident. She claimed not to be a feminist but a supporter of the Democratic Party and trying to increase its connection to women.

During Roosevelt's 1936 presidential campaign, Dewson's Women's Division organized 80,000 women to get out the vote for him. The success of the Women's Division in the 1936 campaign was to be her last work for the Roosevelts. She told Eleanor that six years was enough. She worked briefly on the Social Security Board in 1937 at Roosevelt's request but retired after only nine months because of poor health. She spent the rest of her years in Maine at the home she shared with Porter.

In 1954 Eleanor Roosevelt and Lorena Hickok dedicated their book about women in politics, Ladies of Courage, to Dewson.

Jane Margueretta Hoey (1892–1968). Jane Hoey served as Director of the Bureau of Public Assistance from 1936 to 1953. After earning a graduate degree, Jane Hoey began her career in social work. Hired by Harry Hopkins, she worked in New York on the Board of Child Welfare from 1916 until 1917. She later spent 10 years as the Assistant Director of the Health Division of the Welfare Council of New York.

In 1936, after many attempts by Roosevelt and Hopkins to place her in a federal post, she finally accepted the job of organizing the Social Security Administration's Bureau of Public Assistance. It was a job that she felt would best utilize her talents as a social worker. She worked at the Bureau until 1953. From 1953 until 1957 she served as Director of Social Research for the National Tuberculosis Association.

Katharine Fredrica Lenroot (1891–1982). Katherine Lenroot succeeded Grace Abbott as Chief of the Children's Bureau in 1934. She held that position until 1949. She graduated from the University of Wisconsin in 1912 and her first professional job was with Wisconsin's Industrial Commission. She joined the Children's Bureau in 1914 as a special investigator. She also served as president of the National Conference of Social Work. She worked full-time for two years on the Social Security Act of 1935 and co-authored its section on aid to dependent children. She also suggested a legal strategy for enforcing child labor regulations. It was later backed by Frances Perkins and incorporated into the New Deal's 1938 Fair Labor Standards Act.

Alice Stokes Paul (1885–1977). Alice Paul, ERA supporter and founder of the National Woman's Party, earned her PhD in Sociology from the University of Pennsylvania. She also received law degrees from Washington College of Law and from American University. Paul was heavily influenced by British suffragist Emmaline Pankhurst who advocated violence, riots, arson, and hunger strikes in order to achieve women's suffrage in England. In 1913 Paul split off from the more mainstream National American Women Suffrage Association to form the Congressional Union. The Union used picketing, hunger strikes, and parades to protest the lack of women's suffrage.

Once the Nineteenth Amendment was passed, Paul disbanded the Congressional Union and formed the National Woman's Party (NWP). In 1923 the NWP drafted the first version of the Equal Rights Amendment. Although publicly retired from the NWP, Paul served as a behind-the-scenes presence throughout the 1920s and 1930s as the NWP fought for adoption of the ERA. The NWP's goal was to achieve complete legal equality for women through the ERA in the United States and the Equal Rights Treaty and the Equal Nationality Treaty internationally. Paul and her party found themselves perpetually in conflict with social reformers such as Mary Anderson, Grace Abbott, and Frances Perkins because they believed that protective legislation restricted economic opportunities for women.

Paul spent most of the 1930s campaigning in Europe and in 1938 formed the World Woman's Party, which according to Paul would help defend the women of the world against unjust treaties. With the approach of World War II, the organization floundered. Paul returned to the United States in 1941.

Frances Perkins (1880–1965). Secretary of Labor from 1933 to 1945, Frances Perkins was the first woman to be appointed to a cabinet-level position. Perkins was raised in Massachusetts and graduated from Mount Holyoke College in 1902. She began her career as a social worker and spent time at both Hull House and the Chicago Commons. She moved to New York in 1910 to work on a study of Hell's Kitchen, a part of the city wrought with high unemployment and crime. There she completed her Master's degree in sociology and economics at Columbia.

Perkins began a long career advocating for labor legislation when she went to work for the National Consumers' League as a lobbyist for minimum wage legislation for women. She worked with Florence Kelley for the first time at the NCL and looked to her often for professional advice and mentoring. Perkins also served on the commission investigating the Triangle Fire, a factory fire in 1911 that killed 146 garment workers, most of them women who couldn't escape because the doors were locked. The experience profoundly impacted Perkins belief in the need for legislation that would protect working class women from dangerous working conditions.

Governor Al Smith of New York appointed Perkins to the State Industrial Commission in 1918 and later in 1926 appointed her chairman. When Franklin Roosevelt became governor in 1928, he promoted her to Industrial Commissioner of the State of New York, the head of the state department of labor. Perkins was the first woman to run the largest state department of labor in the country.

When Roosevelt was elected president, he named Frances Perkins as the new Secretary of Labor, another first for Perkins, as no other woman had ever been appointed to the cabinet. With the exception of Secretary of Interior Harold Ickes, she was the Roosevelt's longest serving cabinet member retiring from the Department of Labor only after his death. She continued to work for the federal government on the Civil Service Commission until 1953. After her retirement from the government, she became a highly successful lecturer.

Josephine Roche (1886–1976). Josephine Roche held a variety of positions in Roosevelt's administration. She graduated from Vassar in 1908 and received a graduate degree from Columbia in 1910 where she met and became friends with Frances Perkins. She had a diverse career including director of a juvenile court's girls' department and editorial director of the of the Children's Bureau. In 1927 she returned to her home state of Colorado to run her father's coal mines. Her progressive approach to labor relations brought her to national attention. Roosevelt appointed her to be the first woman Assistant Secretary of the Treasury in 1934.

At the Treasury Roche was in charge of health service and welfare work and was responsible for the United States Public Health Service. In 1935 she became Chairman of the Executive Committee of the National Youth Administration. Although she resigned her Treasury position in 1937, she continued to chair the Interdepartmental Health Committee. Roche also became president of the National Consumers' League from 1938 to 1944. She ended her career at the United Mine Workers Union Welfare and Retirement Fund where she served as director from 1947 to 1971.

Nellie Tayloe Ross (1876–1977). Nellie Tayloe Ross served as the first woman Director of the Mint. She was also the first woman to be elected governor in the United States. Born in Missouri she was educated in Nebraska and married William Bradford Ross in 1902. For more than 20 years, Ross was a full-time wife and mother raising four sons, two of whom died. Her husband died before completing his second year as governor of Wyoming. Ross decided to run as the democratic candidate for governor in the special election to replace her husband. She told the voting public that she would be governed by her husband's goals and principles.

Elected governor in 1924, Ross felt the need to demonstrate the abilities of women to hold executive officer. In a speech to the National Women's Democratic Club dinner in 1925, Ross declared that women "must speak a new language in politics." In 1926 Ross was renominated as the democratic candidate for governor but lost the election. She lectured about her experiences as governor and became a vice-chair of the Democratic National Committee in 1928. A brief campaign to name her Al Smith's vice presidential candidate was defeated.

From 1929 to 1932 she was in charge of the national Democratic Party's women's activities. She campaigned for Franklin Roosevelt, and after Roosevelt's election he appointed her as director of the U.S. Mint. As director of the Mint, Ross administered eight institutions through the Great Depression and World War II into the postwar period. She retired from the Mint in 1952.

Rose Schneiderman (1882–1972). When Rose Schneiderman became the only woman member of the Labor Advisory Board of the National Recovery Administration (NRA), she was hailed in the national press as the leader of nine million American working women. A lifelong labor activist, Schneiderman emigrated from Russian Poland in 1890. Her education stopped in the eighth grade when she began work at the age of 13 as a cap-maker.

By 1905 she had taught herself the theory of trade unionism and joined the Women's Trade Union League. By 1910 she was a full-time organizer for its New York branch. She campaigned with the National American Woman Suffrage Association and in 1919 she traveled with Mary Anderson to represent women workers at the Paris Peace Conference. During the 1920s Schneideman served as president of both the New York and National Women's Trade Union Leagues. During these years she became a close friend of Eleanor Roosevelt's.

Schneiderman worked closely with Mary Anderson on the Bryn Mawr Summer School for Industrial Workers. After her job on the National Recovery Administration was finished, she returned to New York where she continued her WTUL work and served as New York Secretary of Labor from 1937 to 1943. She remained WTUL president until the National and New York Leagues disbanded in 1950 and 1955.

Sue Shelton White (1887–1943). Sue Shelton White is often portrayed as the bridge between mainstream and more radical suffrage groups. Born in Tennessee, she was very active in the Tennessee's suffrage fight setting up local suffrage groups from 1913 to 1920. In 1919 she was imprisoned for burning President Wilson in effigy. She worked as a teacher and a court reporter before receiving her law degree in Washington in 1923. In 1930 she went to work for the Women's Division of the Democratic National Committee. She held a variety of positions during the 1930s including jobs with the Consumers' Division of the National Recovery Administration and the Social Security Board. By 1938 she was special assistant to the board's general counsel.

Ellen Sullivan Woodward (1887–1971). Woodward served as the administrator from 1933 to 1938 of the Works Progress Administration (WPA) and as a member of the Social Security Board from 1938 to 1946. Raised in Mississippi as the daughter of a politician and lawyer, Woodward graduated from college in 1905. She married at the age of 19 and had one son born in 1909. After being widowed in 1925, she pursued a career in state politics and social work culminating in her 1932 appointment to the Mississippi State Board of Public Welfare where her expertise in relief administration brought her to national attention.

Molly Dewson recommended Woodward to Harry Hopkins. Hopkins brought her to Washington in 1933 to set up the women's divisions of the Civil Works Administration and the Federal Emergency Relief Administration. In 1936 Woodward headed the Women's and Professional Projects division for the WPA. Dewson again recommended her to take over Dewson's position on the Social Security Board. Woodward later left the Social Security Board to work at the United Nations. She joined the Federal Security Agency in 1946 where she was director until her retirement in 1954.

Primary Sources

Women and the WPA

Working to provide women with work relief from the Great Depression, Ellen Woodward oversaw the work of 450,000 women through the Women's and Professional Projects of the WPA. The WPA programs had women actively pursuing domestic projects, library work, public health programs, and research services. Woodward delivered an overview of these programs to the Deomcratic Women's Regional Conference for Southeastern States on March 19, 1936 (from the WPA Papers, National Archives):

There are two major functions of the Women's Division. The first is to develop and carry on in the various States work projects for eligible women on relief rolls—projects which are useful to the community and to the individual as well.

If a woman has a profession or trade, we endeavor to place her on a project in her own field. If she is untrained but must make her own living, we try to give her training which will prepare her for some useful work. The second function of the Women's Division is to see that employable women on relief rolls who are eligible for work receive equal consideration with men in this program.

I wonder whether the women in this country, and men too, realize just what the creation of the Women's Division in such a program signifies. It means the Administration is determined that women shall receive their fair share of work and that it has made special provision for the enforcement of that policy. When the President said that no able-bodied citizens were to be allowed to deteriorate on relief but must be given jobs, he meant women as well as men. Harry L. Hopkins, our Federal Administrator, has repeatedly stated that "needy women shall receive equal consideration with needy men." As evidence that this policy is being carried cut, there was a study made about six or eight months ago, and it was found that at that time 53 percent of all the men who were eligible for work were working, and that 53 percent of all the women eligible for work were also working. At this particular time in the new program, approximately 65 percent of the employable women are now at work, and new projects are rapidly being put into operation to take care of the additional number who are eligible.

To fully appreciate the progress we are making, let's go back for a moment to the fall of 1933, when the Work Program for women started. There was no precedent to follow, for no program of the kind had ever been carried out in any country on a national basis.

We have come a long way since then and are no longer novices at this business of putting women to work. Under the past program we were able to give employment to some 350,000 women. Under the present program the number is more than 100,000. The knowledge we gained from the last two years' experience has been of immeasurable value to us in planning for the present Work Program. We know who these people are now, where they live and in general what they can … be trained to do. We have learned that they represent some 250 different occupational classifications. We have learned to design projects which not only give women employment, but which increase their skill and keep them employable—so they will be ready to take advantage of the first opportunities for jobs in private industry.

Memories of Frances Perkins

Frances Perkins authored a book titled The Roosevelt I Knew in 1946, the year after Franklin Roosevelt's death. The volume presents an excellent first hand account of the first women to hold a cabinet position in U.S. history. The following excerpts, taken from the chapter describing the development of the Social Security Act, highlights the great deal of trust the president placed in Perkins (pp. 278–299).

Before his Inauguration in 1933 Roosevelt had agreed that we should explore at once methods for setting up unemployment and old-age insurance in the United States.…

The President urged me to discuss the matter in as many groups as possible…

Hearings were held before Congress. Effective people were invited to testify. I myself made over a hundred speeches in different parts of the country that year, always stressing social insurance as one of the methods for assisting the unemployed in times of depression and in preventing depressions…

It was evident to us that any system of social insurance would not relieve the accumulated poverty. Nor would it relieve the sufferings of the presently old and needy. Nevertheless, it was also evident that this was the time, above all times, to be foresighted about future problems of unemployment and unprotected old age…

I asked him if he thought it best for me to be chairman, since the public knew I favored the general idea. Perhaps it would be better, from the point of view of Congress and the public, if the Attorney General were chairman. He was quick in his response. "No, no. You care about this thing. You believe in it. Therefore I know you will put your back to it more than anyone else, and you will drive it through. You will see that something comes out, and we must not delay. I am convinced. We must have a program by next winter and it must be in operation before many more months have passed…"

Finally, one day during Christmas week, 1934, I issued an ultimatum that the Committee would meet at eight o'clock at my house… and that we would sit all night, if necessary, until we had decided the thorny question once and for all. We sat until two in the morning, and at the end we agreed…to a recommend a federal-state system…

When the law was signed by the President, we made a little ceremony in his office…As he was signing the copies of the bills with pens that would be given to its sponsors, the President looked up at me. "Frances, where is your pen?" he asked.

"I haven't got one," I replied.

"All right," he said to McIntyre, his secretary, "give me a first class pen for Frances." And he insisted on holding me responsible and thanking me personally in very appreciative terms.

Suggested Research Topics

  • Trace the educational and career paths of Molly Dewson, Frances Perkins, and Eleanor Roosevelt. What conclusions can be drawn by their similarities and their differences?
  • The following questions were asked to the public by the American Institute of Public Opinion in 1938 and 1939. The results were published in the Public Opinion Quarterly (volume 3, number 4, pp. 594–596) in an article entitled "Surveys, 1938–1939." How would you answer them?: (1) Do you approve or disapprove of the way Mrs. Roosevelt has conducted herself as "First Lady"? (2) Do you think the president's wife should engage in any business activity that interests her if she doesn't do it for profit? (3) The Daughters of the American Revolution organization would not let a well-known black American singer give a concert in one of their halls. As a protest against this, Mrs. Franklin D. Roosevelt resigned from the organization. Do you approve of her action?



Becker, Susan D. The Origins of the Equal Rights Amendment: American Feminism Between the Wars. Westport: Greenwood Press, 1981.

Black, Allida M., ed. Courage in a Dangerous World: The Political Writings of Eleanor Roosevelt. New York: Columbia University Press, 1999.

Costin, Lela B. Two Sisters for Social Justice: A Biography of Grace and Edith Abbott. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1983.

Evans, Sara M. Born for Liberty: A History of Women in America. New York: Free Press, 1989.

Lott, John R. and Lawrence W. Kenney. "Did Women's Suffrage Change the Size and Scope of Government?" Journal of Political Economy, 107 (6) [1999]: 1163–1198.

Lowitt, Richard and Maurine Beasley, eds. One Third of a Nation: Lorena Hickok Reports on the Great Depression. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2000.

Mcluskey, Audrey Thomas and Elaine M. Smith, eds. Mary McLeod Bethune: Building a Better World, Essays and Selected Documents. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1999.

Mohr, Lillian Holmen. Frances Perkins: That Woman in FDR's Cabinet. North River Press, 1979.

Orleck, Annelise. Common Sense and a Little Fire: Women and Working-Class Politics in the United States, 1900–1965. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1995.

Roosevelt, Eleanor. The Autobiography of Eleanor Roosevelt. New York: Harper and Borthers Publishers, 1958.

Scharf, Lois. To Work and to Wed: Female Employment, Feminism, and the Great Depression. Westport: Greenwood Press, 1980.

Sochen, June. "Mildred Pierce and Women in Film." American Quarterly, 30 (1) [1978]: 3–20.

Ware, Susan. Beyond Suffrage: Women in the New Deal. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1981.

——. Partner and I: Molly Dewson, Feminism, and New Deal Politics. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1987.

Woodward, Ellen. "Address before the Democratic Women's Regional Conference for Southeastern States." WPA Papers, National Archives, Record Group 69, Series 737, Box 8. [cited March 6, 2002] available from the World Wide Web at http://newdeal.feri.org/texts/501.htm.

Young, J. William T. and Oscar Handlin, ed. Eleanor Roosevelt: A Personal and Public Life 2nd Edition. New York: Longman, 1999.

Further Reading

Conway, Jill Ker, ed. Written by Herself: Autobiographies of American Women: An Anthology. New York: Vintage Books, 1992.

Franklin D. Roosevelt Library and Digital Archives Web Site, available from the World Wide Web at http://www.fdrlibrary.marist.edu/index.html

Internet Women's History Sourcebook, available from the World Wide Web at http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/women/womensbook.html

National Women's History Project, available from the World Wide Web at http://www.nwhp.org/index.html

Suffragists Oral History Project Web Site, available from the World Wide Web at http://bancroft.berkeley.edu/ROHO/ohonline/suffragists.html

Ware, Susan. Holding Their Own: American Women in the 1930s. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1982.

Young, J. William T. and Oscar Handlin, eds. Eleanor Roosevelt: A Personal and Public Life 2nd Edition. New York: Longman, 1999.

See Also

Democratic Coalition ; Everyday Life ; Hollywood ; Photography ; Social Security

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Women in Public Life 1933-1941

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Women in Public Life 1933-1941