Hilda Worthington Smith (1888-1984)

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Hilda Worthington Smith (known as “Jane” to those close to her) was a women’s and workers’ education advocate. During the New Deal she served as an education specialist in both the Federal Emergency Relief Administration (FERA) and the Works Progress Administration (WPA). While at FERA, one of Smith’s responsibilities was to set up resident camps for unemployed women. The camps were inspired, in part, by the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) experience and were sometimes called “She-She-She Camps.”

Hilda was born in New York City, June 19, 1888, to John Jewell and Mary Helen Smith. She had a younger sister, Helen (b. 1890) and brother, Jewell (b. 1892). In 1906, Hilda graduated from Veltin School for Girls in Manhattan and in 1910 she earned a degree from Bryn Mawr College in Pennsylvania. She stayed on at Bryn Mawr and received a Master of Arts in Philosophy in 1911 [1].

Mary Helen Smith wanted her daughter to adhere to a traditional woman’s life—staying at home with her mother until she married—but Hilda wanted to pursue a career, joining “a small but growing number of educated middle-class women who were taking advantage of new opportunities for professional work outside the home” [2]. Unfortunately, Hilda struggled with direction: “I did not know what I wanted to do… I was twenty-eight, I remembered, and still drifting, undecided” [3]. For a while, Smith worked variously as social worker, dormitory warden, bible study teacher and in several volunteer positions, while continuing to take college courses [4].

Smith maintained a close relationship with both Bryn Mawr College and town, and it paid off.  In 1916, she was hired to run the Bryn Mawr Community Center. She then served as dean of Bryn Mawr College from 1919-1921 [5]. But Smith found her true calling when she was chosen, in 1921, to direct the new Bryn Mawr Summer School for Women Workers In Industry. The school’s mission was ambitious, even revolutionary. Its prospectus explained that it was “to offer young women of character and ability a fuller education and an opportunity to study liberal subjects in order that they might widen their influence in the industrial world, help in the coming social reconstruction and increase the happiness and usefulness of their own lives” [6].

Smith directed the Summer School for 13 years before bringing her passion for workers’ education to FERA, one of the earliest New Deal programs, in 1934.  Smith facilitated the hiring of unemployed teachers to conduct worker education classes, which she defined as “offering to industrial, office, store, domestic, and agricultural workers an opportunity to train themselves in clear thinking through the study of those questions [e.g., economics and other social studies] closely related to their daily lives as workers and as citizens” [7].  Smith felt that workers’ education would help create an “informed and intelligent citizenship” better equipped to participate in democracy [8].  By August 1934, she had “500 jobless teachers… assembled at 16 universities” to carry out her popular program [9]. It later became one of the WPA’s major education initiatives [10].

Hilda Smith has also been given primary credit for the establishment of resident camps for unemployed women – created under FERA and continued by the WPA and the National Youth Administration (NYA) [11]. In the summer of 1934, twenty-eight states and Washington, DC had camps offering jobless women a place to improve their health and vocational skills, as well as their understanding of “social responsibility” [12].

Hilda Worthington Smith died on March 3, 1984, after a rich civic life [13]. She is not well-known today, but she is an important figure in both New Deal and women’s history.

SOURCES

(1) “Papers of Hilda Worthington Smith,” Harvard Library (accessed August 19, 2021).  (2) Susan Ware, Beyond Suffrage: Women in the New Deal, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1981, p. 24.  (3) Ibid.  (4) See note 1, and also note 2, p. 37.  (5) See note 1.  (6) “Smith, Hilda Worthington, 1888-1984,” Social Networks and Archival Context (accessed August 19, 2021).  Also see, “The Summer School for Women Workers: Diversity, Class and Education,” The Albert M. Greenfield Digital Center for the History of Women’s Education, Bryn Mawr College (accessed August 19, 2021).  (7) Hilda Worthington Smith, “Workers’ Education as Determining Social Control,” The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, vol. 182, 1935, p. 83.  (8) Ibid., p. 82.  (9) “Jobless Teachers Are Trained On Hill To Spread Learning Among Uneducated Workers,” The Ithaca Journal (Ithaca, New York), August 7, 1934, p. 6.  (10) Federal Works Agency, Final Report on the WPA Program, 1935-43, Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1947, p. 61.  (11) See note 2, pp. 111.  (12)  Ibid., p. 111-114; and also “Mrs. Roosevelt Finds ‘CCC’ For Idle Women Is A Good Thing,” Chicago Tribune, October 23, 1934, p. 5.  (13) “Hilda W. Smith, 95; aided working women,” The Philadelphia Inquirer, March 7, 1984, p. 48.

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