Ellen Sullivan Woodward, a Mississippi public official, New Deal relief work administrator, and Social Security Board member, was born on 11 July 1887 in Oxford. Her parents were William Van Amberg Sullivan, an Oxford attorney and later a US congressman and senator, and Belle Murray Sullivan. Ellen Sullivan received her education in Oxford and Washington, D.C., and for one year at Sans Souci, a South Carolina academy.
In 1906 Sullivan married Albert Y. Woodward, an attorney from Louisville, Mississippi. Their only child, a son, was born in 1909. Under the leadership of Woodward and her sister, Belle Sullivan Fair, the town’s Fortnightly Club undertook a number of civic improvements that brought such acclaim to Woodward that she was elected to complete his term in the Mississippi House of Representatives after his death in 1925, becoming the second woman to serve in that body. She then joined the Mississippi State Board of Development as director of women’s work. She advanced to the office of executive secretary, where her knowledge of social welfare services came to the attention of associates of Harry Hopkins. In August 1933, when Hopkins became the czar of New Deal emergency relief, he named her an assistant administrator and director of the Women’s Division of the Federal Emergency Relief Administration. She retained the position when the Works Progress Administration was created in 1935, and the following year she became director of the Division of Women’s and Professional Projects, which included the “Four Arts” projects for writers, actors, artists, and musicians.
With the backing of First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, Woodward developed work programs for women, employing almost five hundred thousand people at the division’s peak in February 1936. She was especially careful to see that Mississippi women in need of work relief had the ear of sympathetic supervisors. Woodward’s longtime associate in Mississippi public affairs and club work, Blanche Montgomery Ralston, supervised the activities of the Division of Women’s and Professional Projects in the southeastern states. More than half the women worked on projects that produced goods, especially food and clothing, or provided community services, such as libraries, recreation activities, school lunchrooms, and health care, never before available in many communities.
Congressional dissatisfaction with the Works Progress Administration and particularly the white-collar Federal Writers’ and Theatre Projects led to the resignations of both Hopkins and Woodward late in 1938. Pres. Franklin D. Roosevelt then named Woodward to serve as one of three members of the Social Security Board; at its demise in 1946 she became a division director within the new Federal Security Agency, where her concerns for social welfare expanded to the international level. Between 1943 and 1947 she was a member of the US delegation to a series of conferences of the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration. She remained with the Federal Security Agency until December 1953, when her retirement brought to an end nearly two decades of government service in Washington. She died there on 23 September 1971.
- Martha H. Swain, Ellen S. Woodward: New Deal Advocate for Women (1995)
- Martha H. Swain, Prologue (Winter 1983)
- Susan Ware, Beyond Suffrage: Women in the New Deal (1981)
- Ellen Sullivan Woodward Papers, Mississippi Department of Archives and History