Sunday, April 10, 2016

The Woman Who Worked for God and FDR

In February 1933, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, the newly elected President, came to see a woman about becoming the labor secretary in his Cabinet. There had never before been a woman Cabinet member. This woman, though, would not agree to take the job if FDR did not agree to support her goals.
She faced FDR squarely and ticked off the items on her list: a forty-hour workweek, a minimum wage, worker’s 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. Quite a list!
The woman in question was Frances Perkins, and she did become FDR’s Secretary of Labor, serving in that position for Roosevelt’s entire 12 years in office.

The story of her meeting FDR and presenting her conditions for accepting his invitation to join his Cabinet is told in the prologue of Kirstin Downey’s definitive biography of Perkins, The Woman Behind the New Deal: The Life of Frances Perkins, FDR’s Secretary of Labor and His Moral Conscience (2009).
Frances Perkins was born on April 10, 1880, and when she stepped down from office in 1945—twenty years before her death in May 1965—she remarked to Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter, “I came to work for God, FDR and the millions of forgotten, plain, common working men” (Downey, p. 398).
Born in Boston, Frances graduated from Mount Holyoke College, where she was president of the graduating class of 1902. She led her class to choose “Be ye steadfast” for their class motto, words taken from 1 Corinthians 15:58, which ends, “ye know that your labor is not in vain in the Lord” (KJV).
A couple of years after graduating, Frances moved to Chicago where she had considerable contact with Jane Addams and Hull House—and also considerable contact with poor and needy people. According to Downey, when friends once questioned her as to why it was important for people to help the poor, “Frances responded that it was what Jesus would want them to do” (p. 18).
In 1909 Frances moved to New York City, and on the afternoon of March 25, 1911, she was having tea with friends near Washington Square Park in Manhattan when they heard fire sirens. She was one of many who rushed to gaze in horror at the fire that had broken out at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory.
The second chapter of David Brooks’s book The Road to Character (2015) begins by relating Frances’s experience on that fateful afternoon. Brooks remarks, “After the fire, what had been a career turned into a vocation. Moral indignation set her on a different course. . . . She became impatient with the way genteel progressives went about serving the poor.”
Perkins’s way to serve the poor turned out to be as Secretary of Labor. By being the woman behind the New Deal and the “conscience” of FDR, her contributions to helping the poor were numerous and praiseworthy.
She instigated Social Security, which many of us benefit from now. She also established the nation’s first minimum wage law and the first overtime law, from which many of us have also benefited. And those are just some of her many meritorious accomplishments.
At her funeral, the minister read the Bible verse Perkins recommended to her college graduating class 63 years earlier. Indeed, she had been admirably steadfast in working for God and for FDR—and she did that by laboring tirelessly for “the millions of forgotten, plain, common working men” and women of the country.

17 comments:

  1. Instantly, this is blog posting is now among my favorites, Leroy. I've been interested in Perkins, but known very little about her. Thanks for the book citations, which I will now seek out to read.

    So what a difference 80 years makes. If someone came into a current presidential administration to "work for God" and that sitting president, what type of scrutiny would that person would endure from progressives like Perkins.

    A great read. Thanks.

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    1. Thanks, David, for reading and responding to this blog article. I am pleased that you liked it -- and it does indicate, as you say, a great difference in the national ethos between 80 years ago and now.

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  2. Meant to say...What type of scrutiny would that person endure from progressives like Perkins?

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  3. A most excellent review! I did visit Hull House in Chicago down by the lakefront. A wonderful history lesson! Thank you!

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    1. Thanks, George, for reading and commenting.

      In case you missed it, I wrote about Jane Addams and Hull House in my Sept. 15, 2015, blog article, which you can find here: http://theviewfromthisseat.blogspot.com/2015/09/jane-addams-on-new-10-bill.html

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  4. This is Charles Kiker posting as anonymous because of password problems. I liked this blog. Thought it was gonna be about Eleanor, who also worked for God, FDR, and me and you. Didn't know Perkins was behind the minimum wage. Have been in a Facebook fight with relatives, descendants of po fokes, who are against the minimum wage. Higher wages hurt everybody,some of them say. But I would bet my nonexistent wages that none of them would like to have their wages reduced. Thank you Frances Perkins. And thank you Leroy for reminding us of her.

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    1. Thanks, Charles, for your comments.

      My first full-time job was in a shoe factory during the summer months after June and I married in 1957. I was very thankful for the minimum wage I received then -- which was $1.00 an hour. (I was on "piece work" and it took most of the summer before I could earn more than what the minimum wage paid.)

      While the minimum wage in Missouri, where I lived then and live again now, has increased to $7.65, most of what we buy has increased by a much greater percentage than that.

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  5. Excellent blog.
    Banning child labor and mandating school attendance in Mexico would turn the tide of immigration in North America.
    Children working compete with grown men and women causing lower wages and high unemployment.
    Educated persons are less likely to turn to criminal activity and better able to confront crime.
    Having lived in the southwest my entire life I have many close friends who came here without visas looking for work and opportunity. Most of them have no education past 6th grade. In Mexico if you work hard and find a way to earn decent money the cartel's target your family and extort your wealth.
    Huge Thank You to Frances Perkins for her hard work in a very difficult time in our history.

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    1. Thanks for reading and responding, Steve.

      Education in Mexico is one problem, it seems. According to Wikipedia, only 62% of Mexican children attend junior high school and only 45% graduate from high school.

      But the biggest problems, as you allude to, are those caused by the cartels. I wonder what can be done in Mexico--and by the United States--to curtail the activities of the cartels, which are so heavily involved in the sale of illicit drugs, human trafficking, and extortion.

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  6. Right on, Leroy! Right on! We progressive Christians--or whatever we choose to call ourselves--must claim our heroes and "she-roes"! Perkins did what she did because of her Christian faith--and she said so! Would that we would follow in her footsteps in word and in deed!

    Indeed!

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    1. Thanks for reading and commenting, Michael.

      One ironic thing now is how some people think that, by and large, Democrats are not Christians. That certainly was not true in Perkins's case--and, of course, it is not true now in spite of the widespread misperception.

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  7. After reading this, it makes me wish we knew in advance something about our current presidential candidates as to their preferred cabinet choices. FDR was elected without the voters knowing all this about Frances Perkins, but can we be this optimistic about our current candidates? When we elected Bush 43, did we know Rumsfeld was on his mind for Defense? We did get a clue, with Cheney as his VP, so shame on us. And if we are going to put off filling the current vacancy on the Supreme Court, shouldn't we know their potential nominees?

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    1. Thanks, Phil, for reading and commenting.

      I assume it is highly unlikely that we could ever expect that presidential candidates would, or could, share their potential choices for Cabinet positions prior to being elected.

      But most choose people who share their general beliefs and political/economic/social worldview. So it was not surprising that FDR picked someone like Frances Perkins--or that Bush 43 picked Rumsfeld.

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    2. And that Bush 43 picked Cheney (and we knew that in advance) and John Roberts for CJ SCOTUS and Gonzales for Atty General and . . . . And we're still paying.
      Charles Kiker

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    3. Yes, Charles, sadly true.

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