Ellen S Woodward: New Deal Advocate for Women

Article excerpt

MARTHA H. SWAIN. Ellen S. Woodward: New Deal Advocate for Women. Jackson, MS: University Press of Mississippi, 1995. 275 pages. $40.00.

Programs to relieve poverty in America have often contained the provision that recipients be compelled to perform some work. This "work-relief' requirement which harkens back to the English New Poor Law (1834) was incorporated into New-Deal relief for millions of unemployed men.

Thus, the New Deal, in some ways a radical departure in social provision, also enshrined the principle of work-relief, making it the condition for relief for millions of the unemployed. But could women be recipients and should they be made to work? Poor and unemployed women, often single or widowed, faced New-Deal government administrators who still had to be convinced that women were breadwinners with families to support.

The relief that women received and the work-programs devised for them have been much criticized by historians. Julia Blackwelder in Women of the Depression called them "inconsistently administered and always inadequate to meet women's needs," noting that local control often meant racial segregation and that women workers employed in federal sewing rooms, bookbinderies, and domestic training programs were paid less than the men employed on the better-known WPA construction projects (128).

Martha Swain's new biography of Ellen Woodward focuses on the littleknown administrator of one of these programs, the Women's Division of the Works Progress Administration, which at its height in February 1936 provided work for over 400,000 women.

Why would a female administrator like Woodward be responsible for such second-rate programs for poor women, programs that reflected the mistaken notion that women were not really breadwinners at all and therefore could not be considered unemployed? A spate of recent studies on New-Deal women in government has produced different answers.

While it is well known that the New Deal marked a high point of women's influence in Washington, with such prominent women as Grace Abbott, Frances Perkins, and Molly Dewson involved in policy-making, historians such as Linda Gordon who write on policies affecting poor and minority women (and whose book on the history of entitlements, Pitied But Not Entitled was reviewed by this author in the Summer 1995 issue of National Forum) are quite critical of the effect of New-Deal policies on poor women.

Martha Swain, in what will surely be the standard account of its subject, argues that these programs were the best that could be done for poor women. She attempts to rescue the reputation of their administrator, Ellen S. Woodward. …