This New Deal Summer Camp Program Aimed to Help Unemployed Women
During the Great Depression, thousands of the unemployed picked up saws and axes and went into the woods to serve in the Civilian Conservation Corps, a New Deal program that employed approximately 3 million men. But the men of the CCC were not the only ones to venture into the great outdoors at the time of the New Deal. Between 1934 and 1937, thousands of women attended the “She-She-She camps,” a group of short-term camps designed to support unemployed women.
The program was designed by First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, who wanted an option for the 2 million women who had lost their jobs after the stock market crash of 1929. Like their male counterparts, they were looking for work, but the stigma against women who were working and the women who took government help made looking for a job even more difficult. Many women have been forced to seek diminishing private charity or have turned to their families. Others have become increasingly desperate, living on the streets.
Their fate deeply concerned Roosevelt, who wondered if they could be served by the CCC. The program, which sent men to camps across the country and put them to work for forestry and conservation work, was considered a resounding success. But Roosevelt encountered resistance from her husband’s cabinet, which questioned whether to send women to the woods to work.
READ MORE: 6 projects realized by the CCC Corps: Photos
An alternative to the CCC
Roosevelt turned to Hilda Smith, an educator trained as a suffragist, social worker and university dean. For years, Smith taught at a free school that brought workers to Bryn Mawr College, and was hired by the Works Progress Administration in 1933. She found an alternative to CCC camps that met many cabinet scruples. .
Instead of focusing on employment, the FERA camps would focus on education and domestic work. The camps Smith envisioned gave women the opportunity to safely socialize and rest and train them in things like housekeeping and office skills. Instead of putting women to work, they would tackle the social isolation that plagued so many during the Great Depression.
Although Roosevelt immediately put pressure on the CCC to carry out Smith’s plan, it encountered significant resistance. It took a lobbying effort that included most of the influential New Deal women to finally get approval for an administration-funded experimental camp set up in New York. Smith received the green light to start a camp in the Bear Mountain era in New York, and the TERA camp (named for the Temporary Emergency Relief Administration in New York) opened in June 1933.
READ MORE: Did New Deal Programs Help End the Great Depression?
Camps focus more on training than work
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Eleanor Roosevelt speaks at Camp TERA at Bear Mountain, New York, August 1933.
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Instead of focusing on employment, the FERA camps have focused on education with a domestic side. This New Jersey camp included a swimming pool, photographed in July 1934.
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Camp residents took courses on professional subjects such as typing and archiving, as well as on subjects such as English and current affairs. A FERA camp in Atlanta, Georgia, photographed in July 1934.
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Women using typewriters at a FERA camp in Arcola, Pennsylvania, July 1934. Most participants reported gaining weight, acquiring new skills and their surveys showed an increase in self-esteem. oneself. But New Deal leaders have only given the camps a trickle and have become less and less favorable over time.
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At their peak, there were 28 FERA camps in 26 states, and approximately 8,500 women participated during the duration of the program. But support for the camps dried up in 1937.
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Instead of paying women to work, the camp housed them for a period of four weeks and provided education, professional advice, companionship and encouragement. The camp was “a fully equipped camp, in an ideal location, where young women who cannot afford a well-deserved rest can find health and happiness during an outdoor vacation,” said Norma Carrier. , director of camp staff. New York Times. Camp residents were self-sufficient and took courses on professional subjects such as typing and filing, liberal arts subjects such as English and current affairs. They spent their free time hiking, playing baseball, swimming, and socializing.
The camps were an immediate success. Most participants reported gaining weight, acquiring new skills, and their surveys showed improvement in self-esteem. “It is not only that I am eating enough for the first time in three years, but I am starting to see myself as a real person,” wrote one participant.
Although the camps had brought real benefits to women, many members of the general public laughed at the program. They called the program “She-She-She” in a copy of the initials of the CAC. “She-She-She … was not her name, but the men imitated it and called it that, because the women were not really people,” recalls union activist Maida Smith Kemp. But despite the mockery, the program spread beyond Camp Tera, which was eventually renamed Camp Jane Addams.
WATCH: Eleanor Roosevelt: A restless mind on HISTORY Vault
Camps were popular, but criticized
The camps received a flood of letters and applications from women, but were subject to criticism and controversy from the start. Critics who heard that some of the women in the camps were members of the labor movement said the program was a communist front. Others noted that some of the women in the camps had rebelled against his restrictions and had done things like sneaking up to meet men.
Meanwhile, New Deal leaders have only given the camps a trickle and have become less and less favorable over time. Bureaucracy, lack of transportation funds and confusion on the part of potential campers have made registration slow to resume, and critics have argued that the government is spending too much on the program and should instead spend the dollars on men .
Despite reports that the camps offered “a new sense of social responsibility” to participants, they were short lived. At their peak, there were 28 camps in 26 states and approximately 8,500 women participated during the program. But support for the camps dried up in 1937.
“Ultimately,” writes historian Joyce L. Kornbluh, “the camps itself were considered social aberration…. The camps questioned the status quo by suggesting that women could go beyond their roles at home to play longer, or different roles in the workplace, the job market and in public life. ”