Feminomics: Breaking New Ground - Women and the New Deal

From an economic standpoint, will 2010 be the year of the woman? As part of the Roosevelt Institute's ongoing 'Feminomics' series, running on the New Deal 2.0 blog, I was asked to reflect on women's changing roles in the economy. Here's my take on how the New Deal advanced the cause of women's equality.

Earlier this year, the National Organization for Women reported that it was pleased with the way Congress and the Obama administration had approached the need to ensure that women workers benefited from the federal stimulus program. NOW played an important behind-the-scenes role in making sure that the federal dollars not only went to "shovel ready" infrastructure projects (like roads, bridges and other construction work), but also to our nation's "human infrastructure," especially those occupations -- such as nursing, teaching, and social work -- that are frequently held by women.

Looking back more than 70 years, we can see that the precedent for making sure that working women benefit from such federal programs as unemployment insurance came from the New Deal. In fact, the New Deal laid the groundwork for many of the later gains made by women, but as was the case in the 1960s, 70s and 80s, the task of securing those rights was not easy and did come without a struggle.

The principal advocate for women's economic and social rights within the context of the New Deal was Eleanor Roosevelt. From the thousands of letters that poured across her desk from ordinary Americans, ER knew that women too were suffering as a consequence of Great Depression. This was especially true of working women. It is estimated that more than 2 million women were unemployed at the start of 1933, many of whom represented the sole support for their families. Thanks to the traditional view of a "worker" as a white male breadwinner, however, these women went largely unrecognized, not only by government officials, but also by the public at large.

ER was determined to change this and from the start of the Roosevelt Administration, she began to lobby those in charge of the federal employment relief programs to make sure that opportunities for work were made available to women. As a consequence of her efforts, FDR's relief czar, Harry Hopkins, not only agreed to create a special woman's division within the Federal Emergency Relief Administration (the first major New Deal relief program and the precursor to the later CWA and WPA), but also to appoint a woman to head it. Hopkins asked Ellen Woodward to do so. Under her direction, the whole approach to the problem of unemployed women was completely revamped. Woodward refused to tolerate that ad hoc part-time approach that had heretofore been used by both state and federal officials within the FERA structure to deal with the needs of unemployed women. With Hopkins' backing, each state was now required to appoint a qualified woman to devote herself full-time to the woman's program.

Not content with this move alone, ER also hosted a special "White House Conference on the Emergency Needs of Women" in November 1933 to draw further attention to the plight of working women in the midst of the Depression. Still, progress was slow. Only seven per cent of the jobs created by the FERA-backed Civilian Works Administration went to women, for example, and roughly 25% of the National Recovery Administration's wage codes set minimum wages for women at a rate lower than men for the same work.

Fortunately, the employment benefits extended to women improved dramatically with the establishment of the Works Projects Administration in 1935. Also headed by Hopkins, with Ellen Woodward once again leading the women's division, the WPA employed 460,000 women at its peak in 1936.

As was the case with male workers, women also benefited from the major reforms of the New Deal, such as the Fair Labor Relations Act (which guaranteed workers rights to organize and led to more than 800,000 women joining unions by the end of the 1930s) and the Fair Labor Standards Act, which set maximum hour and minimum wages, although some major categories of women's employment, such as domestic workers and retail clerks, were left outside the reach of the law.

These gains, though somewhat modest within the overall scope of the New Deal relief, nevertheless established the precedent that the plight of working women must be taken into consideration in any state or national effort to provide relief to the unemployed. Equally important, the opportunities provided by the New Deal for professional women such as Ellen Woodward to work in the upper echelons of the federal government was also unprecedented. Indeed, the New Deal's record in placing women in positions of responsibility within government -- which includes, among others, Frances Perkins, Secretary of Labor, the first female cabinet minister in American history; Josephine Roche, Assistant Secretary of the Treasury; Hilda Smith, the Director of Workers Education within the WPA; Clara Beyer, Associate Director of the Division of Labor Standards; and Mary McLeod Bethune as head of the Division of Negro Affairs in the National Youth Administration -- would not be matched again until the 1960s.

Thanks to the efforts of Eleanor Roosevelt and others, then, the New Deal-though not perfect -- broke new ground for women in America.

This post originally appeared on New Deal 2.0.