This New Deal Summer Camp Program Aimed to Help Unemployed Women - HISTORY

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During the Great Depression, thousands of unemployed men picked up saws and axes and headed to the woods to serve in the Civilian Conservation Corps, a New Deal program that employed about 3 million men. But men in the CCC weren’t the only ones to take to the great outdoors on the New Deal’s dime. Between 1934 and 1937, thousands of women attended “She-She-She camps,” a short-lived group of camps designed to support women without jobs.

The program was the brainchild of First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, who wanted an option for the 2 million women who had lost work after the stock market crash of 1929. Like their male counterparts, they looked for work, but stigma against women who worked and women who took government aid made finding a job even more difficult.  Many women were forced to seek dwindling private charity or turned to their families. Others became increasingly desperate, living on the streets.

Their plight deeply concerned Roosevelt, who wondered if they might be served by the CCC. The program, which sent men to camps around the country and put them to work doing forestry and conservation jobs, was considered a rousing success. But Roosevelt encountered resistance from her husband’s cabinet, which questioned the propriety of sending women to the woods to work.

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An Alternative to the CCC

First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt visiting Camp Tera at Bear Mountain, New York for unemployed women, which was opened at the suggestion of Secretary of Labor Frances Perkins and herself, in 1933. 

First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt visiting Camp Tera at Bear Mountain, New York for unemployed women, which was opened at the suggestion of Secretary of Labor Frances Perkins and herself, in 1933. 

Roosevelt turned to Hilda Smith, an educator with a background as a suffragist, social worker and college dean. For years, Smith had taught a free school that brought women workers to Bryn Mawr College, and she was hired by the Works Progress Administration in 1933. She came up with an alternative to the CCC camps that addressed many of the cabinet’s qualms.

Instead of focusing on jobs, the FERA camps would emphasize education and domesticity. The camps Smith envisioned gave women the chance to safely socialize and rest and trained them in things like housekeeping and clerical skills. Instead of putting women to work, they would tackle the social isolation that afflicted so many people during the Great Depression.

Though Roosevelt immediately lobbied for the CCC to put Smith’s plan to work, she met significant resistance. It took a lobbying effort that included most of the New Deal’s influential women to finally get approval for an experimental camp funded by the administration and put into action in New York. Smith was given the green light to begin a camp in New York’s Bear Mountain era, and Camp TERA (named after New York’s Temporary Emergency Relief Administration) opened in June 1933.

READ MORE: Did New Deal Programs Help End the Great Depression?

Camps Geared More Toward Training Than Work

Instead of paying women to work, the camp hosted them for a four-week period and provided education, vocational counseling, company and encouragement. The camp was “a fully equipped camp, in an ideal spot, where young women who have not the means to pay for a much needed rest may find health and happiness in an outdoor vacation,” explained camp director of personnel Norma Carrier to the New York Times. Camp residents were self-governed and took classes in vocational topics like typing and filing, liberal arts subjects like English and current events. They spent their downtime hiking, playing baseball, swimming and socializing.

The camps were an immediate success. Most attendees reported gaining weight, learning new skills and their surveys attested to boosts in self esteem. “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.

Though the camps had real benefits for women, many members of the general public mocked the program. They called the program the “She-She-She” in a sendup of the CCC’s initials. “She-She-She…was not its name, but the men mimicked it and called it that, because women were not really people,” recalled labor activist Maida Smith Kemp. But despite the mockery, the program spread beyond Camp Tera, which was eventually renamed Camp Jane Addams.

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Camps Were Popular, But Criticized

Eleanor Roosevelt pictured at the camp in Bear Mountain, July 1933.

Eleanor Roosevelt pictured at the camp in Bear Mountain, July 1933.

The camps received a flood of letters and applications from women, but were plagued by criticism and controversy from the start. Critics who had heard that some of the women in camps were members of the labor movement claimed the program was a Communist front. Others pointed out that some of the women in the camps had rebelled against its strictures and done things like sneak out to meet men.

Meanwhile, New Deal leaders gave only a trickle of funds to the camps and became less and less supportive as time wore on. Bureaucracy, a lack of transportation funds and confusion on the part of potential campers meant that enrollment was slow to pick up, and critics felt that the government was overspending on the program and should instead devote the dollars to men.

Despite reports that the camps offered “a new feeling of social responsibility” to attendees, they were short-lived. At their peak, there were 28 camps in 26 states, and about 8,500 women attended them over the life of the program. But support for the camps dried up by 1937.

“Ultimately,” writes historian Joyce L. Kornbluh, “the she-she-she camps were seen as a social aberration….The camps challenged the status quo by suggesting that women might go beyond their roles in the home to play extended, or different, roles in the workplace, in the labor force, and in public life.” 

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