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Allan Powell: Frances Perkins - America's Iron Lady

August 17, 2012|By ALLAN POWELL

Honesty requires the admission of neglect for the deserved recognition of many progressive women who have contributed so much to our nation. I was inspired to read the life of Frances Perkins as a result of getting so many thrilling bits and pieces from my wife, Joanie, as she read about her life as the first cabinet-level woman appointee of President Franklin D. Roosevelt.

In “The Woman Behind The New Deal,” author Kirstin Downey has given a very readable account of Perkins’ most creative life and legacy as Secretary of Labor. Frances was born in a staid New England Republican home. At a very early age, she gave evidence of personal independence by announcing that she was a Democrat. Upon entering Mount Holyoke College, she became a major in chemistry and physics. But, inspired by economic history and visits to factories, Frances was appalled at the working conditions of laborers.

After graduation in 1902, Frances went to New York City to find a job in social work. Failing in her search, she moved to Chicago. While hired to teach science, she was more interested in social work by helping the marginalized to solve their problems. In 1909, Frances moved back to New York and earned her master’s degree in political science from Columbia University. Again, she was attracted to reform movements such as women’s right to vote, better working conditions for laborers, shorter work hours for women, child labor laws and workplace fire hazards. Her visits to factories made her a strong believer in unions. She was witness to young girls working in sweat shops, who, when on strike, were dragged off to jail by Pinkerton guards.

Frances was 35 years old when her reputation as a dedicated social worker caught the attention of Gov. Theodore Roosevelt, who appointed her to be executive director of the Committee on Safety for the State of New York. Her first success was to get a 64-hour work week law passed. However, she was not as fortunate in her marriage. After a span of only two years, tragedy struck. Her husband displayed serious signs of manic-depression that required almost continuous institutionalization until his death. Frances became the caretaker of her husband and their young daughter.

When Al Smith became governor of New York, Frances was picked to lead the Industrial Commission — the watchdog of the working conditions of laborers. She was again appointed to this post by Franklin D. Roosevelt when he became governor. Since unemployment was a chronic problem, Frances made a trip to Great Britain to learn how that country dealt with unemployment and other issues. It was then that she became knowledgeable about the ideas of the economist John M. Keynes, who was to have such a profound effect on New Deal planners.

With Roosevelt’s presidential victory in 1932, there was little doubt about who would be appointed to the position of Secretary of Labor. On Feb. 22, 1933, Frances was invited to President-elect Roosevelt’s office on 65th Street. She said she would accept the offer on condition that he would support the programs presented on a piece of paper she held up for him to see. She then listed the following items: “a forty hour workweek, a minimum wage, workers’ compensation, unemployment compensation, a federal law banning child labor, direct federal aid for unemployment relief, Social Security, a revitalized public employment service and health insurance.” To her surprise, the president-elect gave his approval. This was a large portion of the New Deal agenda.

There is a sadness in the realization that such noble idealism is held in such low esteem by those with a huge incapacity for empathy for those who, for whatever reason, find themselves in unfortunate circumstances. Carrying the banner of “rugged individualism,” “libertarian,” “free market” and “minimal government,” these radical Republicans are at work trying to nullify the progressive reforms so dearly acquired. All the while, they refuse to accept the fact that their ideology was the real force behind these recurring crises. Frances Perkins left a legacy out of reach for the tea party. This kind, caring, gentle lady with an iron will to do good is a credit to America’s record of decency and concern for others.

Post Script: Russ Weaver is quite correct in his observations (Aug. 7) about the causes of the financial crisis going beyond the repeal of the Glass-Steagall Act. Several of these contributing factors are now being corrected by the Dodd-Frank legislation. His comments are appreciated.

Allan Powell is a professor emeritus of philosophy at Hagerstown Community College.

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