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The Encyclopedia of Oklahoma History and Culture


In 1932 during the Great Depression approximately one-fourth of America's work force was unemployed. As part of Pres. Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal program the Federal Emergency Relief Act, passed on May 12, 1933, created the Federal Emergency Relief Administration (FERA). Through federal funding to the states FERA helped employ Americans who were on relief rolls. In October 1933 Federal Relief Administrator Harry Hopkins appointed Ellen Sullivan Woodward as national director of the women's division for the FERA. The purpose of the women's division was to provide destitute girls and women with job opportunities. Across the United States women were assigned to sewing, canning, gardening, and clerical projects and were paid through federal money appropriated to the states. In Holding Their Own: American Women in the 1930s, historian Susan Ware claims that women fared better under FERA than the previous Civil Works Administration, which had offered mainly heavy construction jobs that were unsuitable for women. Ware states that women composed 12 percent of the workers employed through FERA.

Each state was directed to appoint a director of a women's division. In Oklahoma Nina Gould served as director of the women's work division. She was assisted by eight district supervisors and seventy-seven county supervisors. During 1934 approximately 430 sewing rooms operated in Oklahoma. Communities such as Ardmore, Cordell, Cromwell, and Stonewall furnished buildings, water, and gas to establish the sewing rooms. Some local Red Cross units provided material. In 1934 Oklahoma women made eighty thousand garments and one hundred thousand articles such as bedding and towels, for which they received $409,500 in wages. Those items were distributed to hospitals and orphanages and to the needy within local communities. The Federal Surplus Relief Corps furnished cotton and ticking to make mattresses. Between August and November 1934 women in nine Oklahoma cities worked in factories that produced more than seven thousand mattresses. Women also prepared and served school lunches and repaired library books.

Under the auspices of FERA Oklahoma's first meat-canning plant opened in Tulsa on August 14, 1934. Other plants were established in Oklahoma City, Enid, Miami, Muskogee, Okmulgee, and McAlester. Canning was an activity shared by men and women, with women representing 25.6 percent of the work force in Oklahoma. By December 31, 1934, the seven canning plants processed more than eight million cans of ground beef. The plants also produced chili and suet. Special programs were developed to assist the state's American Indians. In Delaware County a basket-weaving project was approved. By marketing and selling their baskets, Indians were removed from relief rolls.

Between April 1 and December 31, 1934, Oklahoma's relief payrolls totaled $8.7 million. This FERA funding provided much needed work relief to Oklahoma women and men who produced clothing and food for the indigent. FERA existed from May 12, 1933 to December 31, 1935, at which time the Works Progress Administration was established.

Linda D. Wilson


Doris Carothers, Chronology of the Federal Emergency Relief Administration, May 12, 1933 to December 31, 1935 (Washington, D.C.: GPO, 1937).

Emergency Relief Administration Program in Oklahoma, April 1 to December 31, 1934 (Oklahoma City, Okla.: N.p., 1935).

Work Relief Sewing Rooms (Washington, D.C.: GPO, 1934).

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The following (as per The Chicago Manual of Style, 17th edition) is the preferred citation for articles:
Linda D. Wilson, “Women's Emergency Relief,” The Encyclopedia of Oklahoma History and Culture, https://www.okhistory.org/publications/enc/entry.php?entry=WO007.

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