Accomplished though she was, it wasn’t his wife Eleanor.
Frances Perkins was the first woman ever to hold a Cabinet position in a U.S. President’s administration. The biography The Woman Behind the New Deal: The Life and Legacy of Frances Perkins by Kirstin Downey was published back in 20010, but it’s gotten some new attention because of New Deal comparisons to the Biden Administration’s ambitious infrastructure bill, as well as the recently passed Covid-relief legislation.
FDR took office in the throes of the Great Depression. About one-third of American workers were unemployed, hundreds of thousands were homeless, wages were falling, and social safety nets were few. Into this maelstrom walked the new Secretary of Labor, Frances Perkins, 52. She’d already earned a name for herself working for two New York governors, Al Smith and FDR, on the all-important Industrial Commission, which dealt with labor issues. Roosevelt made her head of the whole department. When then-President Hoover told the country the Depression was almost over (when it had just begun), an outraged Frances told the press he was misleading the public and explained the facts. Hoover lost to Roosevelt in the next election.
After reading this book, it’s hard to believe Frances Perkins isn’t a household name. We remember Louisa May Alcott for her novel Little Women; Amelia Earhart for her solo flight across the Atlantic; Susan B. Anthony for championing a woman’s right to vote; Rosa Parks for refusing to give up her seat on the bus; Sandra Day O’Connor for being the first female Supreme Court Justice; and others. How many of us remember Frances Perkins?
Thanks to the New Deal, millions of Americans went back to work because of programs like the Works Progress Administration and the Tennessee Valley Authority. As Labor Secretary, Frances Perkins was the driving force, and she left a legacy that continues to this day: social security, unemployment insurance, establishment of a minimum wage, child labor laws, workplace hazard protections, and more. Fighting for this legislation was her condition for accepting the Cabinet position. President Roosevelt told her what she wanted had never been done before in the U.S., but he said that he’d back her.
“She was proposing a fundamental and radical restructuring of American Society, with enactment of historic social welfare and labor laws. To succeed, she would have to overcome opposition from the courts, business, labor unions, conservatives.”—from the biography The Woman Behind the New Deal by Kirstin Downey
The Making of a Trailblazer
In 1911, Frances was at the home of a wealthy friend in New York City when a fire broke out across the square. She ran outside and became a witness to the tragedy of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire. Flames shooting from a 10-story building; women jumping to their deaths; workers hanging from window ledges, with firemen unable to reach them with their ladders. In total, 165 people died, a majority of them Jewish and Italian immigrant women working for poverty wages. The double tragedy was that two years earlier, 20,000 women working at Triangle and other clothing manufacturers marched in the streets, pleading with government to intervene with employers about their low wages and dangerous working conditions. Some employers made small concessions but Triangle refused.
At the time, Frances had just arrived in NYC to complete a graduate degree in Political Science at Columbia. After college (unusual for women at the time), she’d taught science at a few women’s colleges but had been drawn to social work and the Settlement Houses formed to help poor immigrants and their children. She’d worked in settlement houses in Chicago and in Philadelphia, where she also ran a program that investigated immigrant women pushed into sexual slavery. The Triangle Fire further galvanized Frances. When the Committee on Public Safety was formed after the fire, former President Teddy Roosevelt said the best person to run it would be Frances Perkins. She accepted the position. She was only thirty-one.
Many of the women philanthropists Frances met and befriended in the course of her work were from wealthy families or married to rich men. Not Frances. She was born to middle class parents and barely made a living wage during her social work years. When she married Paul Wilson in her early 30s, her living situation should have grown easier. She and Paul were in love and had similar interests. He became a top aid to the mayor of New York City; she gave birth to a beautiful daughter, and she spearheaded a new group, the Maternity Center Association, which provided free medical care to poor mothers and their newborns. (NYC was one of the most dangerous cities in the world in which to give birth, particularly for immigrants.) It was tremendously successful. But on the homefront, a few years after marrying, Paul showed signs of mental illness, spent recklessly, and never worked again. He was in and out of hospitals. As a young woman, daughter Susanna developed the same bi-polar condition. Frances continued to support both of them for the rest of her life, even though she never accumulated any real wealth.
The book is a fascinating read, filled with many unforgettable details about Frances’s friends, colleagues, and detractors; the country’s entry into WWII; how Frances helped breathe new life into the country’s struggling labor unions; how she trained herself to function in a man’s world. In the end, the New Deal was a success because Frances wouldn’t take no for an answer. She might have to compromise, but she wouldn’t accept defeat. She won Roosevelt’s trust because she always selflessly told him the truth and her one main objective was to help Americans in need.
A Backseat in History
FDR was President for a dozen years. It isn’t surprising that a President gets most of the credit for his administration’s major achievements. Still, the New Deal was transformational to the country, and Frances was the one pushing all the big ideas. Part of the reason she’s not a better-known name is explained by the author in her forward to the book. Frances died in 1965 at age eighty-five. Hundreds of thousands of papers related to her work were archived in a dozen different institutions and had to be tracked down. Troves of letters sent to friends had to be unearthed.
A Great Depression in the 1930s. A Great Post-Pandemic (fingers crossed) Crisis/Opportunity in the 2020s. Big Government vs. Small Government is what the two parties debate. Sometimes Big is necessary, the New Deal argues. Not too long ago, a well-known historian said something like this: It’s not a question of whether big government or small government is better. What’s most important is that any governance be good governance. (And get the best people for the job!)