Friday, February 04, 2011

Frances Perkins - a Heroine

Do you know who Frances Perkins is? Don't feel bad if you don't - most people don't. Yet she has probably had more of an effect on the everyday lives of every American than any other woman - and most men.

The only thing I knew about her was that she was the first woman Cabinet Secretary - Department of Labor under FDR. The reason I know that much is because I remember when she died in 1965. I remember thinking how impressive it was that a woman had that position - I knew of no woman Secretaries at that point. Actually, in 1953, twenty years after Perkins was appointed, Oveta Culp Hobby was appointed Secretary of Health, Education, & Welfare by President Eisenhower - but I guess I was too young to remember her. I certainly never learned about either woman in school. It would take another 20 years for the next woman. In 1973, Anne Armstrong was appointed Counselor to the President (considered a Cabinet level position at the time) by Richard Nixon. I was well aware of her and all the subsequent female Cabinet members in every administration. (See Equal Representation in Government for a list.)

Last year, I came across a book about Perkins: The Woman Behind the New Deal: The Life and Legacy of Frances Perkins written by Kirsten Downey, a Pulitzer winning journalist who spent eights years researching this book. Intrigued by how a woman pulled this off, I read it immediately. WOW! This woman was amazing! I could not believe how much she accomplished.

Perkins was trained as a social worker. In her first job out of graduate school, she witnessed the infamous Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, and her life was never the same. At that point, she dedicated her life to worker safety issues. She began by working for nonprofit organizations, but in 1918 she was appointed by New York Governor Al Smith as the first female member of the State Industrial Commission, becoming Chair in 1926. When FDR became Governor, he appointed her as the State Industrial Commissioner. She was in the perfect position to see the Depression develop and predicted it ahead of time. She gave great thought to how to help workers. Therefore, she implemented policies never before considered, such as collecting employment data; employment offices to help workers find jobs; unemployment insurance; minimum wage; the 40 hour work week; elimination of child labor; and fire and safety standards, including no smoking, fire drills, sprinklers, fire escapes, building exits, occupancy limitations, washing and restroom facilities, clean water, and most importantly, with serious enforcement including factory investigations and penalties. Can you believe none of this existed before?

By this time, Perkins was considered the nation's top expert in employment. It's no wonder FDR took her with him to Washington when he became President in 1932. The truth was that he really had no agenda - but Perkins did, and she made his acceptance of it her condition for taking the job. He appointed her Secretary of Labor, a position she held for 12 years, longer than any other. I love this quote from the author - for one thing, it sounds so much like today.

"Housing prices had been pumped up by crazy new kinds of loans, and foreclosures of homes and farms were surging as borrowers faltered under the payments. Companies had enjoyed record profits and ploughed the money into machinery designed to boost productivity, cutting their workforces. The unemployment rate skyrocketed. Companies slashed the wages of the remaining workers, and asked them to work longer and longer hours. And then Wall Street imploded as the stock market crashed. This was the scenario Franklin Delano Roosevelt faced as he entered the presidency in 1933. An era of rampant speculation had come to an end. A women stepped in to put things right."
She was phenomenally successful in implementing the agenda she laid out for FDR. She started with a Labor Department that was a total disaster of real corruption and mismanagement and turned it into a model government agency - including a process of streamlining government purchasing that saved enormous amounts and was then used throughout the federal government. She knew that the key to relieving the Depression was to get money into the economy, and she did that through her Department. She took all the policies she had established in New York and made them part of the federal law - thus extending these protections to all Americans. But perhaps her most famous legacy was the passage and implementation of the Social Security Act. Please notice that all of her accomplishments are still in place today. She completed her entire agenda with one exception: national health insurance. If only FDR had lived a little longer, we wouldn't have to be still fighting that battle 70 years later.

What is so amazing about Perkins is not only WHAT she achieved but HOW she achieved them. First of all, she suffered such incredible sex discrimination that we can't even imagine. I shivered as I read about all the horrible things that were said and done to her. The Congress even tried to impeach her! She just ignored them and kept plodding away with her goals. She was the most persistent and patient advocate and never let an obstacle stop her. She had the most astonishing creativity in figuring out how to overcome adversity. Finally, the way she dealt with people showed her intuitive sense of just how to appeal to or overcome those with the power to achieve her goals. You know why we've never heard of her? We thought FDR did all this. She didn't care at all about receiving credit - and no men voluntarily gave it to her - she just wanted to get the job done. And this was a Washington bureaucrat! If only we had her now.

There is no way I can come up with enough superlatives to describe this woman to whom all Americans owed so much - and I've only scratched the surface of what she accomplished and howYou'll just have to read the book!

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