Life Story: Ellen Sullivan Woodward (1887–1971)

New Deal Administrator and Advocate for Women’s Social Services

The story of Southern widow who transformed her need to work into a high-ranking government career.

Portrait of Ellen Woodward

Portrait of Ellen Woodward, 1930. Library of Congress Prints & Photographs Division, Washington, D.C.

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Suggested Activities

  • Ellen’s work shaped the lives of hundreds of thousands of Americans, many of them women. Connect her life story to the artwork of Augusta Savage, and the life story of Zora Neale Hurston to learn more about how the WPA shaped the lives of women directly.
  • Ellen had a close working relationship with First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt. Ask students to read Ellen’s life story alongside Eleanor Roosevelt’s life story to learn more about women and the New Deal.
  • Ellen was not the only Southern woman to play a significant role in the New Deal. Read her life story along with the life story of Mary McLeod Bethune. How did each woman find herself in a high-ranking government job under the Roosevelt administration? How were their experiences defined by gender and race? Where did their beliefs intersect?
  • Ellen had a brief career as an elected government representative. Learn more about the lives of female legislators by reading Jeannette Rankin’s life story.
  • Ellen was a strong advocate for providing women access to government-funded jobs and services. Learn more about the particular challenges women faced by studying photographs of sharecroppers and the government study of unemployed women on public assistance.



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