Woodward, Ellen Sullivan (1887–1971)

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Woodward, Ellen Sullivan (1887–1971)

American government official . Born on July 11, 1887, in Oxford, Mississippi; died of arteriosclerosis on September 23, 1971, in Washington, D.C.; daughter of William Van Amberg Sullivan (a state congressional representative and U.S. senator) and Belle (Murray) Sullivan; educated at Sans Souci and Washington (D.C.) College; married Albert Young Woodward (a judge and state legislator), in 1906; child: Albert Young, Jr.

Ellen Sullivan Woodward was born in 1887 into a prominent Southern family. Her father William Van Amberg Sullivan, the first law graduate of Vanderbilt University, served as both a Mississippi congressional representative and as a U.S. senator. Her mother Belle Murray Sullivan died when Ellen was seven, a circumstance which led to a particularly close relationship between William Sullivan and his children. Ellen spent many hours with her father as he argued court cases.

Her informal education in government was traded for a more formal education at Oxford High School. In 1906, one year after graduating from Sans Souci College in South Carolina, Ellen married Albert Young Woodward, a man with a background similar to her father's. Albert was an attorney, state district judge, and member of the state legislature. Their only child, Albert, Jr., was born in 1909.

The couple resided in Louisville, Mississippi, where Woodward became deeply involved in the community and organized her husband's legislative campaign. When Albert, Sr., died unexpectedly in 1925, Ellen Woodward took his place in the next election, winning a decisive victory and thus becoming the second woman to serve in the Mississippi House of Representatives. As a widow and single mother, however, she did not seek reelection. Instead, Woodward took a position as the director of civic development for the Mississippi State Board of Development in 1926. She served as executive director from 1929 to 1933. During this time, she remained involved with community organizations, serving as trustee of various charities and as an executive with the Mississippi State Board of Public Welfare.

Woodward also served as a delegate to the 1928 Democratic National Convention and as a campaign worker for Franklin Delano Roosevelt's 1932 presidential bid. Her dedication to public service was recognized when Harry L. Hopkins, director of the Works Progress Administration (WPA), appointed her to direct women's work programs. Woodward focused on women's traditional work roles and introduced programs to provide household training, establish sewing rooms, and develop rural libraries. She also believed in equal pay for equal work and advocated the inclusion of work training in all emergency aid programs. Most of the state directors in liaison with her program were women.

In July 1936, Woodward became director of WPA projects for writers, musicians, actors and artists. This position made her the second-highest ranked woman in the federal government, second only to Frances Perkins . She also began a lifelong friendship and professional relationship with Eleanor Roosevelt . After Hopkins' resignation, Woodward was appointed to the Social Security board, a position she held until the board was abolished in 1946. In this federal position, Woodward vigorously managed a politically sensitive agency while still supporting the needs of artists and writers. In 1938 she defended, though unsuccessfully, her cultural projects before a congressional investigating committee.

Upon her resignation from this position, Harry Truman appointed Woodward director of the Office of Inter-Agency and International Relations of the Federal Security Administration. She organized the expansion of social security benefits to women and children and was encouraged by jobs available to women during World War II, a situation which allowed her to extend unemployment insurance as well. After her retirement in January 1954, Woodward remained active in a number of women's organizations, including the National Federation of Business and Professional Women's Clubs. She died of arteriosclerosis at home in Washington, D.C., in 1971.


Sicherman, Barbara, and Carol Hurd Green, eds. Notable American Women: The Modern Period. Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University, 1980.

Mary McNulty , freelance writer, St. Charles, Illinois

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Woodward, Ellen Sullivan (1887–1971)

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