Commentary

Frances Perkins: A Role Model for Our Time

By Angela Vullo

April 26, 2018–Frances Perkins was one of the driving forces behind Franklin Roosevelt’s historic presidency.  From her crucial role in FDR’s cabinet when he was Governor of New York, through all of his terms in the White House, Perkins was at his side, battling to bring forth many of the breakthroughs that would constitute the New Deal.  Perkins was the first female cabinet member, appointed Secretary of Labor by Roosevelt in 1933.  Hardly a practical politician, Perkins was a trained scientist and practicing social worker, a woman of ideas and compassion for her fellow man.

If you want a role model for women in politics, Frances Perkins is a good place to start.

Frances Perkins: A Role Model for Our Time

Frances Perkins speaks with FDR.

Perkins was first appointed to New York Governor Al Smith’s Industrial Board in 1924. When Roosevelt succeeded Smith in 1929, she served in the same capacity. Although previously she had not been a big fan of FDR, she recognized a dramatic transformation in Roosevelt following his bout with polio in the early 1920s.  He became more empathetic to the ordinary man.  When FDR won the governorship, he immediately turned to Perkins, a controversial figure, known for her bare-fisted approach to defending the interests of the “common workingman.”  He appointed Perkins as Industrial Commissioner; she would run the labor department, the largest in the nation, supervising the workmen’s compensation judges and factory inspections.

While speaking at a public event in her honor in 1929, she defined her perspective.  “I take it that we are gathered not so much to celebrate Frances Perkins, the person, as we are to celebrate Frances Perkins, the symbol of an idea. It is an idea that has been at work among us for many years–the idea that social justice is possible in a great industrial community.”

A Truth-Teller

Perkins’ focus was on safer working conditions, minimum wage, maximum working hours, abolition of child labor, and affirming the dignity of work.  She argued that workers must not be turned into “robots”.  “We are committed to the belief that the human race is not destined for that kind of efficiency.”

Getting FDR to accept that view was no small task.  But the hard-driving Perkins convinced him to believe that these ideas were his own.

After the stock market crash occurred in 1929, she defined her role in “politics” as a truth teller.  On Jan 22, 1930, Perkins was appalled at a clearly lying New York Times when it ran the headline “Employment Turns Upward, Hoover Reports, Changes for the first Time since Stock Slumps.”  After Perkins checked with the BLS (Bureau of Labor Statistics), she challenged the Hoover administration in public for putting out false reports.  Employment was lower than any December since 1914.  Perkins was proven right, Hoover humiliated, and Perkins had won the respect of FDR.  “Frances, this is the best politics you can do.  Don’t say anything about politics.  Just be an outraged scientist and social worker,” Roosevelt said.

Frances Perkins: A Role Model for Our Time

A protest following the Triangle shirtwaist fire, the atrocity which galvanized Perkins into social action.

Perkins urged Roosevelt to investigate the unemployment problem.  He set up the Committee for the Stabilization of Industry.  After several weeks of investigation, the committee called for steady work, government-funded jobs, and most importantly, a public works programs. People did not need hand-outs; they needed jobs. “The public conscience is not comfortable when good men anxious to work are unable to find employment to support themselves and their families.”

Perkins was emphatic.  “If we had any brains in this country, we would have had a long-range plan for public works.”

Government Responsibility

When FDR won his second term as governor in 1931, in the midst of horrifying misery and suffering, he was even more supportive of public works, labor reforms, and the minimum wage.  On August 28, 1931, he gave his historic speech entitled “What is the State?” which he defined as “an organized society of human beings, created by them for their mutual protection and well-being.”

This became the basis of his presidency.  He then launched a $20 million program called the Temporary Emergency Relief Administration (TERA), which was mainly for public works,–that is, relief tied to productive jobs. This was the precursor to the Works Progress Administration of the New Deal.  It was headed up by another New York social worker, Harry Hopkins, who would become a life-long ally of both Perkins and Roosevelt.

The idea of the State as the guarantor of basic human rights, including employment, production, and dignity turned FDR into a national figure, long before he became president.  In a radio address on October 13, 1932, he said:

“I will go one step further and say that where the state itself is unable to successfully fulfill this obligation which lies upon it, it then becomes the positive duty of the Federal government to step in to help.”

Frances Perkins: A Role Model for Our time

Perkins shakes hands with steelworkers in 1933.

Perkins’ role in defining this policy was unmistakable, and as a result, she became the first woman to hold a cabinet position when she was appointed as head of the Department of Labor.  Her agenda to promote the general welfare by creating productive jobs and a high standard of living remained constant. Her role in the passage of the Social Security act was also crucial.

With the growing discontent in our country for economic, social or criminal justice, this is our moment to continue the fight for victory.  Frances Perkins, the first female cabinet member, set the bar high.  The question today is: will we measure up?

For more information, contact the author at angelamvullo@gmail.com.

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