The differences between women’s and men’s participation in the New Deal can be addressed in two main ways. Women were among the primary architects of the New Deal. For the first time in American history, a woman held a cabinet position. Unprecedented numbers of women were appointed to high-level positions within President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s administration. Several of these posts were as heads of new agencies and programs created within the New Deal. Eleanor Roosevelt, the First Lady, was extremely influential in promoting female participation.
In examining how women across the social and economic spectrum benefited from the programs, the impact on women is more uneven. Most programs allowed both male and female participants, and women were hired sometimes for jobs previously held by almost exclusively by men, such as in construction. Traditional gender roles still predominated; in positions related to domestic, family, and children’s issues, women held the vast majority of jobs.
Frances Perkins, often called the “architect of the New Deal,” became the first woman to hold a national cabinet position when President Roosevelt appointed her to be the Secretary of Labor. Within the Works Project Administration (WPA), there was a Women’s and Professional Projects division; its chief was Ellen Woodward. Within New Deal programs for the arts, women had high-level posts. For example, Hallie Flanagan was in charge of the Federal Theatre Project. For African American women, the New Deal opened doors. Mary McLeod Bethune headed the Office of Minority Affairs within the National Youth Administration.
The WPA, an employment program, often hired women for jobs as carpenters. In most programs, the percentage of women in fields such as literature and science increased considerably. The Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) was one program limited to men. Eleanor Roosevelt introduced parallel She-She-She camps where women could engage in rural work.
Convening a large number of women from federal agencies and other institutions, Eleanor Roosevelt hosted a 1933 meeting at the White House to generate additional women-oriented programs. In the National Youth Administration, women held the majority of positions, and adolescents also benefitted from work programs for students. Within the WPA, women were the majority of employees in sewing projects. As wives and mothers, women also benefitted from receiving objects made in those programs. Women directly benefitted from food assistance programs as well.
The numerous books and articles on this topic include:
Henry B. Sirgo. “Women, Blacks, and the New Deal. Women & Politics 14 (3): 57–76.
Susan Ware. Beyond Suffrage: Women in the New Deal. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1981.
“Women and the New Deal: Gaining Ground in Politics and Public Life.” https://fdr4freedoms.org/wp-content/themes/fdf4fdr/DownloadablePDFs/II_HopeRecoveryReform/15_WomenandtheNewDeal.pdf