Arts and Leisure

The She-She-She Camps of the Great Depression

The Civilian Conservation Corps gave millions of young men a job and their families a lifeline with money they sent home every month. The much-admired and much-studied CCC also had a much-derided and little-studied little sister: the She-She-She camps.

At the beginning of the Great Depression, women made up 25 percent of the U.S. workforce. But attitudes prevented jobless women from getting anywhere near the government help that men got. Many took to the road, their stories the same: no work, the family on relief and no prospect of marriage.

civilian-conservation-corps-statue

Civilian Conservation Corps statue in Augusta, Maine.

First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt knew of their plight. Many had written to her, begging for help. So when her husband launched the Civilian Conservation Corps within a month of becoming president, she had a question. “What about the women?”

The answer to the CCC camps were smaller camps for women largely focused on “education” and “socialization.” While the men built roads and planted trees, the women put on plays. They also learned about antiquing, repaired toys and practiced conversational French. Critics called them She-She-She camps.

But at least they got fed.

Why She-She-She Camps

President Roosevelt won support for his New Deal programs by making poverty and hardship visible to the American people. He sent  Farm Services Administration photographers out to take pictures of Dust Bowl families, breadlines and squatters’ camps. But the poor, jobless, city woman was invisible.

Elaine S. Abelson looked for images of poor, jobless, city women. She found one image of a woman selling apples in 1930, but not a single woman in photographs of breadlines and shantytowns.

A bead line in California

Meridel LeSueur tried to tell their story in Women on the Bread Lines. “I am sitting in the city free employment bureau,” she wrote. “It’s the woman’s section.  We have been sitting here now for four hours.  We sit here every day, waiting for a job.  There are no jobs.  Most of us have had no breakfast.  Some have had scant rations for over a year.”

“A woman will shut herself up in a room until it is taken away from her, and eat a cracker a day and be as quiet as a mouse so there are no social statistics concerning her,” wrote LeSueur.

Young women who lost their jobs often moved in together, sometimes seven to a one-room apartment, according to Agnes V. O’Shea of the New York City Central Registration Bureau for Women.

They then slept in relays, “pooling their clothes to assemble one outfit presentable enough to pass muster with a prospective employer,” wrote O’Shea. They would delay applying for relief as long as possible. Even when homeless, women would eat a cracker and ride the subway all night. Sometimes they came to the registration bureau so physically and mentally exhausted they’d be sent to a hospital, O’Shea wrote.

The First She-She-She Camp

During his first 100 days in office, President Roosevelt frantically set up an alphabet soup of agencies to try to put America back on its feet.  He signed the bill creating the CCCC on April 1, 1933. Then in May he created the Federal Emergency Relief Administration, or FERA.  It would later morph into the Works Progress Administration, or WPA.

Eleanor Roosevelt prodded her husband for money to “provide healthful employment and useful instruction amid wholesome surroundings for needy young women.” FDR then  forwarded her idea to Harry Hopkins, architect of many New Deal programs.

On June 10, 1933 the first She-She-She camp opened at a retreat for New York Life Insurance Company’s employees at Bear Mountain in the Catskills. Labor Secretary Frances Perkins came to the opening of Camp TERA, named for New York’s Temporary Emergency Relief Administration.

Eleanor Roosevelt speaking to the She She She campers at Camp TERA

A month later, Eleanor Roosevelt visited Camp TERA. She expected to see 200 young women. She saw 20. By November, Hopkins had done little for the camps or for women. And so the First Lady organized a White House Conference on Women to pressure her husband’s administration for New Deal programs to help women.

“As a group women have been neglected in comparison with others,” the First Lady said. “And throughout this Depression have had the hardest time of all.”

Hopkins admitted the government hadn’t done what it should for unemployed women – “and feels pretty humble about it,” he said.

So Hopkins asked his new education specialist, Hilda Smith, to do something.

Hilda Worthington Smith

Smith knew what destitute working women were up against, having run the Bryn Mawr Summer School for Women Workers in Industry.

Hilda Worthington Smith

“People were hungry all over the country,” she said. “I know, I went to see some of our students in New York, and they showed what they had for supper. They opened the oven, and they were cooking a little puppy they had picked up on the street.”

With help from the First Lady and her network, Smith promoted the idea of the She-She-She camps. She spoke to a group of FERA field representatives in February 1934, trying to get them to support her project. They warned her of “serious discipline problems if women were brought together to live.” In April, a survey of FERA administrators showed half had no interest in the She-She-She camps and didn’t see a need for them.

And yet there were 45,000 homeless and destitute women and girls in the US in 1933, according to an estimate by sociologist Nels Anderson.

Bad Attitudes

Attitudes about women in the workforce tied Smith’s hands. Women weren’t viewed as permanent workers. People objected to job programs for women because, they believed, they came at the expense of jobs for men – the real breadwinners.

The American Federation of Labor’s executive council, for example, said married women whose husbands have permanent jobs should be discriminated against.

Smith had proposed the She-She-She campers do public works and reforestation alongside the CCC. CCC administrators didn’t like that idea one little bit. They made sure from the start that women didn’t get the same training and job opportunities as the men.

“The creation of jobs appeared to be the solution for the male population alone,” wrote Abelson.

But Smith had the First Lady and her considerable network on her side. Because of the publicity generated by Eleanor Roosevelt’s visits to Camp TERA, wealthy benefactors and local YWCAs offered summer estates, employee retreats, unused campgrounds.  Hopkins in the end pledged financial support – limited financial support — for the She She She camps.

The First She-She-She Camps

By the summer of 1934, 28 She-She-She camps were up and running in 26 states and the District of Columbia in abandoned school buildings, summer hotels, country clubs and estates. Girls got $25 a month in salary and $15 from that salary went to the program for room and board.

One of Hilda Smith’s staffers went to visit them. “To see a group of girls assemble on the first night was to receive an immediate and tragic impression of the results of unemployment,” she wrote. “Thin, emaciated girls . . . they were overcome by the sight of a simple supper. Many showed symptoms of long fatigue, exhausted nerves and mental strain.”

The She-She-She camp in Pittsfield, N.H.

Pittsfield, N.H., had the first in New England at Winsunvale Orchards, the estate of Gov. John Winant. Shortly after buying the property in 1930,  Constance Winant had announced plans to use it as a YWCA camp.

Winsunvale Orchards had 115 acres, a pond, tennis courts, a bowling alley, recreation hall, flower gardens and a 12-room house with 14 guest rooms. Fifty-four enrollees stayed for four weeks. They came from families receiving some form of relief, between 18 and 25 and in normal physical and mental health.

One photo of the Winsunvale Orchards camps shows the women putting on a play about Robin Hood.

Despite the lack of work opportunities, the She-She-She camp attendees at least got three square meals a day.

“It’s not only that I am getting enough to eat for the first time in three years, but I am beginning to think of myself as a real person again,” one attendee wrote.

Women’s Work

Though the PR for the She-She-She camps claimed the attendees were carefully selected — “outstanding girls with initiative” — the reality was much different. Most county relief agents sent hungry women who needed a roof over their heads.

It was up to the individual states to decide what to do with the She She She camps. As a result, they were a mish-mash of programs. The federal government’s attempts to explain them to the public resulted in confusing boilerplate. They were called “an adventure in human cooperation.” Attendees would “learn to exercise a wholesome influence on their community.” The camps would “stimulate their qualities of cooperation and leadership.” Or they would provide “hobbies and interests.”

Beneath the gobbledygook lay a consistent theme: Stereotypes about women’s work, whether in the home or in the workplace.

She-She-She campers in Manchester, Maine,

Domestic Employment

In some camps they had lessons in “domestic employment.” In others they produced Braille materials, hospital dressings and sewed and repaired toys. They also did the cooking in the camps, and helped maintain them.

The president of the Temple University Women’s Club loaned her summer home in Manchester, Maine, to FERA for the camp that opened July 14, 1934. The camp had 99 enrollees, who spent 12 weeks taking courses in shorthand, typing bookkeeping, business English, home economic and handicrafts.

However, the She-She-She camps disappointed some young women because they didn’t lead to jobs.  “I attended with the idea that the school, being a government school, would mean a lot in securing a job,” said one. “The school was a good idea but you can’t get a job after you return home.”

Campers in Manchester, Maine, got vocational training in clerical work, but not many actually got jobs.

Hilda Smith estimated later that only one-fifth of the enrollees in 1934 and 1935 found paid work on their return home, many in New Deal relief projects

1935

In 1935, the She-She-She camps were transferred to National Youth Administration (NYA), under the direction of Smith and Dorothea de Schweinitz. It didn’t help. Smith and de Schweinitz hoped for 150 camps and schools for 15,000 young women, but they only reached a third of that goal. In comparison, the CCC had 2,600 camps for 500,000 young men at its peak in 1935.

The program for women had run into trouble.

The She-She-She camps were hobbled by criticisms that they harbored communists and loose women, as well as prejudice against providing relief, jobs and education for women.

Betsy Williams

The Betsy Williams camp in Chepachet, R.I., was supposed to open in 1936, but the $23,000 slated for its operation didn’t arrive until 1937. Sixty-five unemployed young women from the relief rolls in Massachusetts and Rhode Island spent three months at the camp.

Some were waitresses, some stenographers and many were college graduates, according to the Jan. 4, 1937 New York Times. Despite their backgrounds, they were trained in household arts. “They will carry on such work as making hospital supplies, transcribing books into Braille, making and repairing toys and working in the tree nurseries of the Forestry Service,” the newspaper reported.

 

Women’s work

Once a week they could attend dances in the recreation hall with escorts from the CCC camp six miles away.

Charm in North Haverhill

The She-She-She camp that opened in North Haverhill, N.H., in 1937 undoubtedly provided fodder for critics. The New York Times on March 14, 1937, described the activities at Camp Chipewas. It had a Little Theatre group, a glee club, a French conversation group, a poetry group, a nature group, a hostess group and an antique group. All were aimed at “filling leisure time.”

Under the direction of Mrs. Frances P. Oakes of Landaff, N.H., social science teacher at the camp, the French speakers sat at their own table during meals and only spoke French, reported the newspaper. The camp also offered a “Charm by Choice” course that “will interest those who are concentrating their attention on making the most of their appearance and who are seeking to cultivate habits of speaking and acting which will make them attractive.”

By October 1, 1937, the She-She-She camps were dead.

In 1935 an anonymous woman wrote that her month in a She-She-She camp gave her a new outlook on life.

It seemed like someone did have an interest in whether we lived or starved and was trying to help. I know I had reached my ‘rope’s end’ trying to keep three children and an old mother.

End Notes

With thanks to The Homeless Transient in the Great Depression New York State, 1929-1941 by Joan M. Crouse.

New Deal Resident Camps for Unemployed Women, PennPraxis, University of PennsylvaniaJanuary 22, 2021.

Jane Kahramanidis, The She-She-She Camps of the Great Depression, History Magazine, February/March 2008.

Kornbluh, Joyce L. “The She-She-She Camps: An Experiment in Living and Learning, 1934-1937.” In Sisterhood and Solidarity, edited by Joyce L. Kornbluh and Mary Frederickson, 253–83. Temple University Press, 1984. JSTOR.

Kornbluh, Joyce L., and Lyn Goldfarb. “Labor Education and Women Workers: An Historical Perspective.” In Labor Education for Women Workers, edited by Barbara Mayer Wertheimer, 15–31. Temple University Press, 1981. JSTOR.

“Women Who Have No Men to Work for Them”: Gender and Homelessness in the Great Depression, 1930-1934, by Elaine S. Abelson.

Images: Hilda Worthington Smith By Source (WP:NFCC#4), Fair use, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=44139977. Bread line: “The White Angel Bread Line” By Dorothea Lange, San Francisco, California, 1933; Records of the Social Security Administration; Record Group 47; National Archives.

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