When you read about the New Deal, more often than not, you see FDR’s name, but very rarely do you see the name of the woman who pretty much authored its entire outline – Frances Perkins.
It was her, after all, who gave Roosevelt a list of conditions she expected to be met before becoming his incoming Secretary of Labor in 1933. These conditions, that later become the blueprint for the New Deal, included a minimum wage, unemployment benefits, a 40-hour work week, the abolition of child labor, social security, a public services employment program, and nation-wide health care coverage.
“Are you sure you want these things done?,” she asked Roosevelt after reading her list of proposed reformations to him, “Because you don’t want me for Secretary of Labor if you don’t.”
“Yes, I’ll back you,” he replied, without hesitation.
Working with FDR
By the time Perkins came to Washington, D.C. to work for FDR she had already known him for twenty years. They worked together during his time as New York State’s governor, from 1929 until 1932, where she served as his Industrial Commissioner. In that role, she dedicated herself to labor issues in the aftermath of the Great Depression, advocating for the rights and services of the unemployed.
In an age rife with sexism and the prevailing attitude that women should stay home with their children and let their husbands work, Perkins knew even before she stepped foot in the White House that becoming the first female Secretary of Labor in the nation’s capital would be no easy feat.
She accepted the nomination, though, not only because FDR agreed to the social reforms she wanted to pursue, but also because she knew she was lucky to get it. Perkins later said, “(I knew) the door might not be opened to a woman again for a long, long time, and I had a kind of duty to other women to walk in and sit down on the chair that was offered…”
Nevertheless, it wasn’t an easy decision to make. In fact, she wept so intensely after her initial visit with FDR about the Secretary of Labor position, that her daughter Susannah remembered the melancholy of it decades later.
Perkins feared the toll her new position would take on her family, as they were already in a fragile state at the time. After her husband, Paul Wilson, was institutionalized for bipolar disorder in 1918, she guarded her family life from the press’s glaring eye not only for their protection and reputation, but also for their daughter’s, who would later be diagnosed with the same disease.The distance between them, in New York City, and her, working in Washington, D.C., would no doubt be a challenge as well.
Her worries were not unfounded, either. Even after accomplishing the Civilian Conservation Corps. and the National Industrial Recovery Act with FDR during his first 100 days in office, congressmen sniped that while she was intelligent, they would never want her to be their wife. Then, when she actively avoided the press’s growing interest in her personal life, they started giving her derogatory nicknames like “Ma Perkins” among many others. In response, she called them “nasty snoops,” and continued business as usual. Later, congress even tried to impeach her after she refused to extradite Harry Burns, a supposed communist that she knew was innocent. Sadly, even the fellow cabinet members she worked alongside with in FDR’s White House passed notes about her during meetings she attended with them, rolling their eyes whenever she spoke.
“I was apprehensive and on guard at the first official cabinet meeting,” Perkins later wrote in The Roosevelt I Knew, “As the only woman member, I did not want my colleagues to get the impression that I was too talkative. I resolved not to speak unless asked to do so…My colleagues looked at me with curiosity. I think some weren’t sure I could speak.”
Even so, she never lost focus on what she had come to do.
I came to Washington to work for God, FDR, and the millions of forgotten, plain common workingmen.Frances Perkins
She ended up being one of FDR’s longest-serving cabinet members, serving him for the entire 12-year duration of his White House term, even after others had left him behind.
During her time as the Secretary of Labor, she passed a series of reforms and agendas that would later become the backbone for America’s workers then, and in decades to come. They included the Fair Labor Standards Act, the Social Security Act, the Civilian Conservation Corps, as well as countless others.
Perkins had, in fact, done what most would deem impossible – attaining solid legislation and enactment for all but one of the conditions she had carefully handwritten out on a piece of paper for her meeting with FDR back in 1933, before accepting the Secretary of Labor position.
In her later years she would work on the United States Civil Service Commission for Truman in 1953, and teach at Cornell University’s new School of Industrial Relations.
She died in New York City on May 14, 1965, at 85 years-old, after suffering from a stroke.
Today, nearly 114 million Americans rely on the social security and unemployment reforms she initiated. It is clear that even after her passing, her legacy still lives on, and will continue to, in the decades to come.
Berg, Gordon. “Frances Perkins and the Flowering of Economic and Social Policies.” Monthly Labor Review, vol. 112, no. 6, 1989, pp. 28–32. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/41843308. Accessed 6 July 2020.
“Her Life, the Woman Behind the New Deal.” Frances Perkins Center. https://francesperkinscenter.org/life-new/
“The Roots of Social Security by Frances Perkins.” Social Security: Speeches & Articles. https://www.ssa.gov/history/perkins5.html
“Frances Perkins: The Unsung Creator of U.S. Social Security.” How Stuff Works: Historical Figures.https://history.howstuffworks.com/historical-figures/frances-perkins.
Downey, Kristin. “The Woman Behind the New Deal: The Life of Frances Perkins, FDR’s Secretary of Labor and His Moral Conscience.” Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group. March 3, 2009.
“Kirsten Downey: The Woman Behind the New Deal: Frances Perkins – August 28, 2013.” Youtube. Uploaded by The Kansas City Public Library on 3 September, 2013, https://youtu.be/nCptni-Daq4