Frances Perkins Center Acquires Perkins’ Homestead

Frances Perkins, 1935

Frances Perkins, 1935
Perkins served as Secretary of Labor from 1933-1945
Photo Credit: Courtesy, Frances Perkins Center

Some 95 million Americans collect Social Security and unemployment insurance benefits, yet few today know about Frances Perkins, the woman responsible for the social safety net so many depend on.

Perkins (1880-1965) was the first woman ever appointed to a presidential cabinet. She served as FDR’s Secretary of Labor from his first term in 1933 until his death in 1945.  “I came to Washington to work for God, FDR and the millions of forgotten, plain, common workingmen,” she said.

A savvy and trusted advisor to Roosevelt, Perkins accepted the job as U.S. Labor Secretary on the condition that he let her pursue what she called “practical possibilities.” Those possibilities encompassed a broad portfolio of policy initiatives, including landmark legislation that enacted unemployment insurance and Social Security, widely viewed as the most effective anti-poverty program in U.S. history.

Inspecting the construction of the Golden Gate Bridge

Inspecting the construction of the Golden Gate Bridge
San Francisco, 1935
Photo Credit: Courtesy, Frances Perkins Center

Author Adam Cohen extolled Perkins in the introduction he wrote to her biography of FDR, “The Roosevelt I Knew”:  “If American history textbooks accurately reflected the past, Frances Perkins would be recognized as one of the nation’s greatest heroes—as iconic as Benjamin Franklin or Thomas Paine. Like Franklin, Perkins was a brilliant self-creation: There had not been anyone like her before and there has not been anyone like her since.”

To shine a light on Perkins’ underknown legacy, the Frances Perkins Center, established in 2009, has acquired the place Perkins considered her true home—a 57-acre farm that was settled by her ancestors on the Damariscotta River in Newcastle, Maine. Perkins spent her childhood summers at the 1837 “Brick House” surrounded by fields, forests and miles of stone walls and returned throughout her life. She is buried in the local cemetery.

Signing the Social Security Act, 1935

Signing the Social Security Act, 1935
Perkins considered Social Security her greatest achievement.

Designated the Frances Perkins Homestead National Historic Landmark in 2014, the property will serve as the Center’s headquarters and as a living memorial to its namesake when it opens in 2021. Exhibits, public programs and community use will follow.

A $500,000 matching grant to the Center from the National Park Service’s Save America’s Treasures program, awarded in August, is a major step toward realizing the Center’s long-held vision and $5.5 million capital campaign goal.

Perkins greets FDR

Perkins greets FDR
FDR’s return from the Teheran Conference, December 17, 1943
Photo Credit: Courtesy, Frances Perkins Collection, Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Columbia University

Perkins relied on facts and well-crafted legislation rather than “fiery rhetoric” to address social ills, on the advice of her mentor, Florence Kelley, the legendary progressive for whom Perkins worked.  Perkins’ outrage at witnessing the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in New York City in 1911, which killed 146 young workers for lack of safety codes, led her to Albany as a factory investigator and a series of key government positions culminating in her appointment as state Labor Commissioner by Governor Franklin Roosevelt. She lobbied for worker safety laws that became models for the nation. She later said, “the New Deal began on March 25, 1911,” the day of the fire.

Though her handiwork often went unrecognized, Perkins’ proposals laid the foundation for New Deal social policies. Her persistence and political skills as Labor Secretary brought them to fruition. Consciously dressing to appear “motherly” and unthreatening in a political world dominated by men, Perkins chaired key panels, hired brilliant aides, cajoled naysayers, built coalitions, and helped launch large-scale public works programs to create millions of jobs for skilled and unskilled workers.

Her legacy includes the first federal minimum wage laws, restrictions on child labor, provisions for workers’ safety and the right to unionize. Her biographer, Kirstin Downey, aptly credits Perkins as “the woman behind the New Deal.”

Frances Perkins with Balto

Frances Perkins with Balto
Perkins Homestead, 1935
Photo Credit: Courtesy, Frances Perkins Center

The Brick House

The Brick House
Newcastle, Maine, 2013
Photo Credit: Courtesy, Frances Perkins Center

 

A New Book Recognizes the Women of the New Deal

First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt and Ellen Woodward, 1938

First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt and Ellen Woodward, 1938
During the New Deal Woodward served as the director of the Women’s Division of the Federal Emergency Relief Administration (FERA); director of the Women’s and Professional Projects of the WPA; and as a member of the Social Security Board, She was considered “the second highest ranking woman appointee in the Roosevelt Administration, after Frances Perkins.
Photo Credit: Courtesy, National Archives

When millions of Americans lost their jobs, homes, and life savings in the 1930s, Franklin Roosevelt promised them a new deal. A new book, “Women and the Spirit of the New Deal,” reveals the extensive role women played in shaping government’s all-out response to the Great Depression.

Inspired by a conference in 2018 at UC Berkeley, the book is a collaboration of the Living New Deal, the National New Deal Preservation Association, and the Frances Perkins Center to recognize the oft-overlooked female forces behind the New Deal. In brief biographies, it describes one hundred women who shaped the policies and programs that led to America’s economic recovery and protected its most vulnerable.

At a time when society held that “a woman’s place was in the home,” these women expanded the aspirations of the New Deal. They included politicians, administrators, lawyers, social workers, authors, journalists, painters, sculptors, musicians, and scientists. Some are well known like First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, Secretary of Labor Frances Perkins, and educator and civil rights activist Mary McLeod Bethune. Some have been largely overlooked, like political activist Molly Dewson and Clara Beyer, an administrator in the Bureau of Labor Statistics who played an important role shaping legislation to provide worker safety, a minimum wage, and Social Security.

Frances Perkins and Clara Beyer

Frances Perkins and Clara Beyer
Secretary of Labor Perkins was the first woman ever appointed to a presidential cabinet. Beyer was an attorney and associate director in the Division of Labor Standards. She was part of a so-called “Ladies’ Brain Trust,” that advised Perkins during the 1930s and 40s.
Photo Credit: Courtesy Mt Holyoke College

The book is just a beginning. If you know of women who had a part in the New Deal, please share their stories with us so that we may pass on the spirit they brought to the New Deal to inspire a new generation.

 

Frances Perkins: The Woman behind the New Deal

Frances Perkins, The first woman to serve in a presidential cabinet.

Frances Perkins
The first woman to serve in a presidential cabinet.
Photo Credit: Courtesy, Frances Perkins Center

In 1963, at the age of 83, Frances Perkins gave a series of lectures at UCLA entitled, “Labor Under the New Deal and the New Frontier.” She told her audience that for years after her tenure as FDR’s Secretary of Labor from 1933-1945, people would frequently ask her, “What was the New Deal anyway?”

“It was an attitude,” she would answer, “an attitude toward government, toward the people, toward labor . . . an attitude that found voice in expressions like, ‘the people are what matter to government,’ and ‘a government should aim to give all of the people under its jurisdiction the best possible life.’”

The first woman to serve in a U.S. presidential cabinet, Perkins spent 33 years of her long work life in government service–twelve of those years as U.S. Secretary of Labor.

Born Fannie Coralie Perkins in Boston in 1880, she spent her childhood between her family’s home in Worcester and the Perkins farm in Newcastle, Maine. Her grandmother, Cynthia Otis Perkins, a source of Yankee wisdom as well as family stories of life before and after the Revolution, encouraged her not to shy away from opportunity. “If a door opens, walk through it,” she said.

Frances Perkins, Factory inspector, 1911

Frances Perkins
Factory inspector, 1911

Thus, Fannie came of age with a deep respect for the American dream and the belief that everyone, with opportunity, could be whatever he or she wanted to be.

That idealism was reinforced at Mount Holyoke College where, during a course in the history of industrialism, she visited factories in neighboring Holyoke, Massachusetts, and observed first-hand the drudgery and dangers endured by working men, women, and children. She knew she had to do something about what she saw as “unnecessary hazards of life, unnecessary poverty.” Upon graduation she taught at an elite school for girls in Lake Forest, Illinois, and spent her free time volunteering at Chicago Commons and Hull House, two pre-eminent settlement houses. She changed her name to Frances and her religious affiliation to the Episcopal Church, where she was a devout congregant for the rest of her life.

Upon receiving her Master’s from Columbia University in 1910, she accepted a position with the New York City Consumer League where she gained a reputation as an effective lobbyist on behalf of working people and workplace safety.

U.S. Labor Secretary Frances Perkins, Time Magazine Cover, August 14, 1933

U.S. Labor Secretary Frances Perkins
Time Magazine Cover, August 14, 1933

On March 25, 1911, Perkins witnessed the fire at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory where 146 garment workers—mostly young women—lost their lives. It was, she later said, the day the New Deal was born.

In the wake of the fire, she was appointed to head New York’s Committee on Safety and principal investigator of a legislative commission that resulted in the most comprehensive state laws on workplace health and safety to date. Governor Al Smith appointed her to the state’s Industrial Commission in 1919 and later named her its chair.

Perkins joined FDR’s cabinet when he served as governor of New York from 1929 to 1933. Before appointing her, the two spent a day at the Roosevelt estate at Hyde Park. As FDR drove them around the property, she told him that if she accepted the position she would promote a progressive policy agenda that would limit the hours women worked, restrict child labor, develop a better workman’s compensation system, and broaden the state’s labor laws to more industries. He agreed and promised to help her. She soon became the most prominent state labor official in the nation, responding to the deepening economic depression and, at the same time, advancing her boss’s visibility.

Perkins arrives at the White House for a Cabinet meeting in September 1938

Perkins arrives at the White House
Cabinet meeting in September 1938

With his election as president in 1932, FDR was under pressure to appoint a woman to the cabinet. It was no surprise that he chose his trusted advisor as Labor Secretary. In a conversation reminiscent of that day in Hyde Park, Perkins wanted to be sure the new president would share her goals. She pledged to work for a forty-hour work week, a minimum wage, workers’ compensation, unemployment compensation, a prohibition on child labor, expanded public works projects, Social Security, and health insurance for all—a list she called “practical possibilities.”

By the end of her long tenure as Secretary, she had accomplished every item on that list except the last.

Collier’s Magazine in 1945, described her accomplishments as “not so much the Roosevelt New Deal as… the Perkins New Deal.”

Shaking hands with steelworkers

Shaking hands with steelworkers
Homestead, PA, 1933

Perkins stands behind FDR as he signs the Social Security Act

Perkins stands behind FDR as he signs the Social Security Act
August 14, 1935

Social Security at 80: Still Missing the Keystone

Signing the Social Security Act, 1935

Signing the Social Security Act, 1935
FDR signs the Social Security Act with Labor Secretary Frances Perkins, the first woman to serve in the Cabinet.

On August 14, 1935, President Franklin Roosevelt signed the Social Security Act, declaring:  “If the Senate and the House of Representatives … had done nothing more than pass this Bill, the session would be regarded as historic for all time.” Nonetheless, Roosevelt acknowledged that the groundbreaking legislation was “a cornerstone in a structure … by no means complete.”

Once the cornerstone was laid, Social Security soon expanded. Initially, its two social insurance programs, Old Age Insurance and Unemployment Insurance, covered only a portion of the work force. Left out were workers in very small establishments and the public sector, along with the self-employed. Also excluded were domestic workers—largely women and agricultural workers—occupations in which many African Americans were employed.

Within four years Social Security extended benefits to widows and orphans. In 1950, Congress added coverage for domestic and agricultural laborers. Disability insurance was also added in the fifties, and Medicare in the mid-1960s. In 1972, automatic cost-of-living increases began. Unemployment Insurance has been less expandable, but groups previously excluded became covered in 1970 when Congress also provided for automatic extensions of benefits during recessions when many workers are laid off.

Social Security Poster 1935

Social Security Poster 1935
Social Security was funded entirely by payroll taxes.

Headed by FDR’s Labor Secretary Frances Perkins, the Committee on Economic Security, which proposed the Social Security Act, recognized that “employment assurance” was the key to economic security. The committee acknowledged that public-work programs might be necessary not only during periods of economic depression, but during normal times as well. Roosevelt and Federal Relief Administrator Harry Hopkins considered creating a permanent government employment program for those still jobless after receiving short-term unemployment compensation.

Ultimately, the government settled on permanent, short-term Unemployment Insurance as part of the Social Security Act, and a temporary employment program—the Works Progress Administration (WPA), which hired millions of people and vastly enriched the country’s physical, social, and cultural resources. The WPA was terminated during World War II when job creation became temporarily unnecessary. Thus, Perkins wrote in the mid-1940s, “Unemployment Insurance stands alone as the only protection for people out of work.”

What might Roosevelt, Hopkins, and Perkins have said when, in the aftermath of the Great Recession of 2008, many jobless workers collected extended unemployment benefits instead of getting paid to restore the country’s decaying infrastructure, making our economy and planet more sustainable, and providing sorely needed social services?

Ida May Fuller, 1940

Ida May Fuller, 1940
Ida May Fuller was the first to receive a monthly Social Security check. She received $22.54.

Nearly seven years after the Great Recession 20 million people remain jobless or are forced to work part time. The proportion of working-age people working or actively looking for work is the lowest since 1976.

Federal legislation pending in Congress comes close to completing the Social Security edifice begun 80 years ago. The Humphrey-Hawkins 21st Century Full Employment & Training Act, http://conyers.house.gov/index.cfm/jobs introduced by Rep. John Conyers, Jr. (D-MI) commits the U.S. to full employment at a living wage, paid for by a small tax on financial transactions. Rep. Marcy Kaptur’s (D-OH) bill for a 21st Century Civilian Conservation Corps http://kaptur.house.gov/images/114th-Kaptur-CCC-bill.pdf would, like its famous New Deal predecessor, create needed jobs dedicated to preserving and restoring the nation’s resources.

Let’s observe Social Security’s 80th birthday by taking steps toward employment assurance—jobs—the keystone of economic security.