Op/Ed

Victor Nuovo: The indomitable Frances Perkins

Editor’s note: This is the 66th in a series of essays on the history and meaning of the American political tradition.
“Frances Perkins” is not a household name, but it ought to be, for Frances Perkins herself (1880–1965) is legendary. The title of a recent biography, “The Woman Behind the New Deal,” doesn’t say enough, for she conceived the New Deal, gave it birth and nurtured it to maturity. In 1933, when Franklin Roosevelt was choosing his cabinet, he offered her the position of Secretary of Labor. She accepted and remained in office until 1945. She was the first woman to serve as a cabinet secretary, and she holds the record as the longest serving cabinet secretary in U.S. history. It is a record not likely to be broken.
But she did much more than serve time. Her agenda included the following: an eight-hour workday, a 40-hour workweek, time-and-a-half for overtime, minimum wage, workers compensation, unemployment insurance, child labor laws, and social security — all of them programs that in 1933 seemed radical, but are now staples in a good society. She was also an early advocate of a national health insurance. The historian Adam Cohen ranks her with the American founders, for she began a revolution that is still ongoing.
Fannie Coralie Perkins was born in Boston and grew up in Worcester, Mass. Her father, Frederick Perkins, a well-educated patrician, was not well endowed financially, and made a modest living for his family as a retailer of stationery and office supplies. He took a special interest in Fannie’s education. He saw to it that she receive a classical education, tutoring her in Greek while she was still a child and introducing her to the Classics. She attended Worcester Classical High School, where she studied Greek and Latin, and Mount Holyoke College, taking her bachelor’s degree in chemistry and physics. Later in life, she studied economics as a graduate student at the Wharton School, and in 1910, she received a master’s degree in political science from Columbia University.
When she was 10, she received a lesson of a different sort from her mother. Out shopping for a new outfit, her mother told her that she was not and never would be beautiful, and that she should dress accordingly. This did not cause her to forget that she was a woman. She resolved to become a strong woman, entirely self-possessed, and she devised ways to use her womanhood as an instrument of power to make her way in a man’s world. She renamed herself “Frances”; she chose it because it was a stately name, and also because some men, not having met her, might suppose that she was a man, and would be unsettled on meeting her, to discover that they must deal with a women. For the same reason, she chose a wardrobe that made her appear matronly; it added to her power, for as a noted labor leader remarked, “Every man has a mother.” She was also a keen observer of men, and she recorded her observations in a notebook she entitled “Notes on the Male Mind.” In her dealings with men, she was always armed with knowledge, proving Francis Bacon’s assertion “Scientia potentia est,” “Knowledge is power.”
After college, she took a position as a teacher at a girls’ school in Lake Forest, Ill., and became a volunteer at Hull House in Chicago, where she came under the influence of Jane Addams (1869–1935), founder of the settlement house movement in America. Settlement houses offered various services to poor, mostly immigrant families in the inner city, including lodging, childcare, instruction in English and job training. It was a place where upper class, educated people with a social conscience could live side by side with the underprivileged. Her visits to Hull House caused Frances to change her vocation. She would become a social worker. She moved to Philadelphia to work for a charitable organization dedicated to investigating and exposing prostitution rings in the city. She became a socialist.
In 1909 she moved to New York to continue her studies at Columbia University, where she had received a fellowship. There she met Robert Moses (1888–1981), who was destined to rebuild New York, and Sinclair Lewis (1885–1951), who proposed marriage. She also met Paul Caldwell Wilson (1876–1952), who shared her social and political interests, and whom she married in 1910. It was a happy marriage at first, they had a beautiful daughter, Susanna, but Paul began to show symptoms of bipolar disorder. He was unable to work, was hospitalized and finally committed to a sanatorium, where he spent most of the rest of his life. Frances became the family provider.
In New York, she became associated with Progressives, among them Theodore Roosevelt, but also with Democratic Reformers, among them Al Smith (1873–1944), Franklin Roosevelt and John Mitchell (1870–1919), president of the United Mine Workers Union, who also proposed marriage. Mitchell was succeeded by John L. Lewis (1880–1969), whom she knew but did not fully trust. Al Smith was elected governor of New York in 1918, and he appointed her to a seat on the New York State Industrial Commission. Its purpose was to investigate workplace conditions and recommend improvements. She became not only an incisive investigator but a powerful lobbyist for labor reform. Ten years later, Franklin Roosevelt, then governor of New York, made her head of the commission. He did so because of her administrative skill, her compassion for the underprivileged and the working poor, and her indomitable will.
After his election to the presidency, Roosevelt appointed her Secretary of Labor. And she was tireless in promoting and implementing the social programs of the New Deal. In doing so, she was often in conflict with other members of Roosevelt’s cabinet, all male, but she always could count on the president’s support. When Roosevelt died, as was customary for cabinet officers, she offered her resignation to the new president, Harry Truman, which he accepted. He replaced her with a political crony unfit for the job, which infuriated Eleanor Roosevelt. He offered her other appointments in his administration, and she remained in government until 1952. In need of employment, she received an invitation to teach at Cornell in its School of Labor and Industrial Relations. She accepted and remained to the end of her life. She lectured on politics and social policy. She also was appointed senior resident at Telluride House, a residential house for students and faculty. She was much beloved by students for her wit and wisdom, and for her motherly care. When she died, students at Telluride House were her pallbearers.
Postscript: Unfortunately, Perkins delivered her lectures extemporaneously, and no written record of them survives. However, her biography of Franklin Roosevelt, “The Roosevelt I Knew,” is also a memoir, perhaps the best ever written of the New Deal and of the man who presided over it. It is available in paperback, by Penguin. Consult your local bookseller.

Share this story:

More News
Op/Ed

Editorial: Sheriff reform needed; not so easy to do it

A bill introduced last week to reform the way Vermont sheriffs operate is a step in the ri … (read more)

Op/Ed

Ways of Seeing: Reflecting on Dr. King’s dream

Equality is not equity. Dr. King made this point repeatedly. He argued that while white Am … (read more)

Op/Ed

Building the library of the future: Libraries enhance our workforce

I’ve noticed that many politicians talk about the importance of preparing America’s labor … (read more)

Share this story: