Ellen Sullivan was born in Oxford, Mississippi, in 1887. Ellen’s father was a lawyer who served as a congressman from 1897 to 1901, so she was exposed to politics and government at a young age. From the age of 10 to 14, Ellen lived and attended school in Washington, D.C., After her father left office, she completed her studies at an all-girls boarding school in Greenville, South Carolina.
Ellen returned home to Mississippi after graduating high school at age 15. Four years later she married Albert Young Woodward, a lawyer from Louisville, Mississippi. In 1909, Ellen gave birth to their son Albert, Jr.
Ellen embraced the life of a middle-class housewife. She actively volunteered in her church and the Mississippi Federation of Women’s Clubs. When Albert decided to run for public office, Ellen supported his work and managed his campaign. Eventually, Albert was elected to the Mississippi House of Representatives for the state of Mississippi.
Tragically, Albert died of a sudden heart attack in 1925. The state held a special election to fill Albert’s vacant seat in the House. Ellen won the election and took over her husband’s work. She was the second woman to serve the Mississippi House of Representatives.
As a state representative, Ellen sat on several committees related to women’s issues. She created policies relating to libraries, education, and charities. When her term ended in 1927, she did not seek reelection. However, as a widowed single mother, Ellen needed to secure an income.
After leaving the House, Ellen took a job with the Mississippi State Board of Development. The board focused on improving the economic growth of the state. Over time, Ellen took on more and more responsibility with the board. She started as the head of the women’s program, then she took over the Civil Welfare and Community Development division. Eventually, she was named executive director in 1929.
While Ellen ran this important government agency, she continued her political involvement. In 1928, she attended the Democratic National Convention as a delegate. In the early 1930s, Molly Dewson, the director of the Women’s Division of the Democratic Party, recruited Ellen to campaign for the party’s presidential candidate, Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
Ellen eagerly took on the task of rallying women voters in Mississippi behind Roosevelt. She was so successful that many members of FDR’s team noticed her. When the time came to make appointments in the Roosevelt administration, Ellen was high on the list. In 1933, Ellen accepted the appointment of director of the Women’s Division of the Federal Emergency Relief Association (FERA). She was the second highest-ranking woman in the administration. (The highest was Frances Perkins, the secretary of labor.)
Ellen was an important voice in the new administration. While most high-level administrators had previous connections to the Roosevelts, Ellen was a relative newcomer. She only knew a few people in Washington before starting her new job. Many believed that her status as a political outsider made her a more effective advocate. She was perceived as a Southern gentlewoman promoting compassion, not an urban radical encouraging dangerous ideas. Not every American supported the New Deal. Even fewer people liked the idea of providing support for women. Ellen’s Southern manners and calm demeanor charmed many skeptics of the president’s big government vision.
In 1935, Ellen was promoted to the head of the Women’s and Professional Projects (WPP) Division of the Works Progress Administration (WPA). Her division helped employ 450,000 women across the nation. WPA opportunities for women included sewing, gardening, canning, library and museum work, research, nursing, and other roles. Often, women employed through the WPA were paid equally to their male counterparts.
Ellen fought hard for women within FERA and the WPA. Many government officials—and members of the general public—did not support government-funded jobs or services for women. They believed that women should stay at home and not steal jobs away from deserving men. Ellen understood that this was not a realistic view of the world. She herself was a widow and single mother who had no male breadwinner at home. She knew many other women were in similar or worse situations.
Ellen also believed that women should manage the work of helping other women. Under her leadership, all forty-eight state WPP directors and all seven regional WPP supervisors were women. Ellen was a strong advocate for bringing more women to the policy-making table.
. . . every time a woman is removed from the humiliation of a breadline, and given work to do, a home somewhere becomes more secure.
Ellen and First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt established a close professional relationship. Part of Ellen’s job was to help the first lady find solutions to individuals’ problems. The first lady’s office forwarded an average of 400 constituent letters per month to Ellen’s office. Ellen was also a regular participant in Eleanor’s press conferences. Even when she was not on the official agenda, Ellen was on hand to answer questions from the press about women’s issues and the WPA’s services for women.
Ellen eventually took over other aspects of the WPA, including Federal Project Number One. This project included the employment of all WPA artists, musicians, actors, and writers. Many women, including Augusta Savage and Zora Neale Hurston, found employment through Federal Project Number One. At the height of her WPA work, Ellen oversaw divisions that employed 750,000 Americans.
In 1938, the Federal Writers’ and Theater Project faced public criticism. Members of Congress accused WPA-sponsored artists of promoting anti-American and communist ideals in their work. Ellen spoke out against these accusations. She defended the artists working under the WPA and fought to provide employment for artists in need. But public criticism of the program was so great that Ellen eventually stepped down from the WPA.
President Roosevelt valued Ellen’s work and appointed her to the Social Security Board almost immediately. She believed more Americans deserved to benefit from this important resource. Ellen successfully advocated for social security access for women and their children. She served on the board when the 1939 amendments extended benefits to the spouses and children of retired workers and the survivors of deceased workers. She was less successful in achieving an extension of Social Security to domestic workers, farmers, and others who were left out of the original policy.
Ellen continued to sit on the board through World War II. From 1943 to 1946, she was an advisor the U.S. delegations to the United Nations. When the Social Security Board was abolished in 1946, she became director of the Office of Inter-Agency and International Relations of the Federal Security Agency. She held this role until her retirement in December 1953.
Ellen stayed active after retirement. She volunteered with women’s clubs, organized with the Democratic Party, and supported charitable organizations. She died in Washington, D.C., on September 23, 1971. She is remembered as one of the most influential women in the New Deal.
civil rights: The rights of a citizen.
communism: A political system in which all goods and items of value are collectively owned and distributed to citizens equally.
constituent: A person represented by a politician. During the New Deal, the first lady took on many public efforts and considered all Americans her constituents.
delegate: A person sent to a meeting or place to represent a larger group or perspective.
Democratic National Convention: A national meeting for members of the Democratic Party.
Federal Emergency Relief Administration (FERA): One of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s first efforts to rescue the American economy. FERA provided grants to states to support relief programs on the state and local level.
Federal Security Agency: A government agency that oversaw good and drug safety, as well as education and public health programs.
Federal Writers’ and Theater Project: A federal government project under the New Deal that created jobs for writers and performing arts professionals.
New Deal: President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s national program for stimulating the American economy during the Great Depression. Included employment, housing, and social service support systems.
Social Security: A system in which workers make small payments to the government which are then re-disbursed to them after retirement. Signed into law by President Roosevelt in 1935.
Women’s Clubs: Organizations that brought together women interested in voluntary charitable work and social reform.
Works Progress Administration (WPA): A program under the New Deal that employed approximately 8.5 million men and women in a variety of jobs.
How did Ellen’s early life, from childhood through her husband’s death, prepare her for a life in politics and government work?
Why do you think Ellen cared so deeply about representing women on behalf of the federal government?
Some historians believe that Ellen’s position as a Southerner and a relative outsider in D.C. politics helped make her an effective leader. Why do they think this was true? What do you make of this assessment?
What political controversy encouraged Ellen to step down from the WPA? Why do you think she made this decision?
Ellen was the second-highest ranking woman in the federal government. Many of the employees who reported to her were women. Why is this significant? What does it tell you about the FDR administration and opportunities for women?
New Deal support for women was controversial. Why was this case? How and why did Ellen fight against these beliefs?
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.