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The New Deal Program that Sent Women to Summer Camp

About 8,500 women attended the camps inspired by the CCC and organized by Eleanor Roosevelt—but the "She-She-She" program was mocked and eventually abandoned.

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.

An Alternative to the CCC

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.