Thanks to the efforts of First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, the New Deal included economic relief for women in the form of work opportunities, unemployment compensation and the ability to form unions. Prior to the First Lady's involvement, post-Great Depression economic relief measures focused only on men as breadwinners. Historians say the New Deal laid the foundation for many equal rights victories women experienced in years to follow.
Eleanor Roosevelt received thousands of letters from American women who told her of their difficulties in finding work to feed and shelter themselves and their families. Estimates indicate there were 2 million unemployed women in the United States at the beginning of 1933.
Mrs. Roosevelt convinced President Franklin D. Roosevelt to instruct Great Depression relief director Harry Hopkins to form a women's division within the Federal Emergency Relief Administration, the original government arm of the New Deal, and to appoint a woman to manage it. Hopkins called upon Ellen Woodward to fill this role.
Woodward required every state to hire a woman to oversee its respective relief program. In 1935, at the peak of the New Deal's Works Project Administration era, the program employed 460,000 women nationwide.
The New Deal's sweeping labor laws also made it easier for workers, including women, to form unions in order to demand safe working conditions and living wages.