A pack horse librarian reads out-loud to a man in the Kentucky mountains; 12 January 1938
When the Works Progress Administration (WPA) was established in 1935, it had the responsibility for creating employment through developing infrastructure across the country. The building projects were concentrated in trades that were largely limited to men at the time, but in 1930, 22% of the workforce was female. Although WPA rules decreed that both husband and wife could not be receiving work through the WPA (this was not pure misogyny but an effort to reach a greater number of breadwinners overall), women needed work too. With many women claiming the head of household mantle, the Division of Women’s and Professional Projects scrambled to find work “appropriate” for women.
For most people, the name WPA brings to mind images of men laboring on highway projects and building parks and schools, but during the Depression, women, too, were heads of households and in need of employment. Work programs for women were first established in 1933 through the Women’s Division of the Federal Emergency Relief Administration (FERA), and later came under the Works Progress Administration (WPA). Some women were placed in clerical jobs or worked as librarians, others went to work canning, gardening, and sewing. Nationally, some 7 percent of WPA workers were women engaged in sewing projects. Sewing rooms could be found in rural areas and large cities alike. (“We Patch Anything”: WPA Sewing Rooms in Fort Worth, Texas)