June 16, 2016 By Jack Jodell.
Those who follow this blog regularly know I have had the tendency to focus on many of the problems our country faces as well as on those whom I believe have helped cause those problems, either through their actions or inaction. I have done so to draw attention to the many flaws we have here in America, in hopes that improvements will be made someday. I will continue doing so on a regular basis. As you know, annually near year’s end, I post a special December feature, which I call “Santa’s Bozo of the Year.” It highlights some of the fools and clowns in public life whose antics were so outlandish that they were deserving of ridicule. In a similar fashion each spring, I take an opposite approach and do a positive feature, which portrays an individual of today or yesterday whose contributions to our country and / or humanity have been so spectacular, courageous, and/or noteworthy that they should be lauded near and far as good examples of what we as humans can achieve, if we only put our minds and hearts to it. After all, not everything going on in the world is doom and gloom! So here is the eighth installment of this annual mid-year feature I call the “Head and Heart Award.” Past recipients have been documentary filmmakers GERARD UNGERMAN and STACEY WEAR of the RESPECTFUL REVOLUTION television series, fellow lefty bloggers GWEN BARRY and BURR DEMING, plus ROBERT REICH, NICK HANAUER, VAN JONES, KEITH OLBERMANN, and MOTHER TERESA. Individuals featured here have used their head and heart to produce great things for humankind, and have shown themselves to be beacons of guiding light in an often vast sea of darkness. These persons should serve as an inspiration to us ALL to actually DO something – to take a principled stand – using OUR heads and hearts on behalf of our fellow brothers and sisters, rather than simply sitting back complacently enjoying the relatively good life we have experienced here in the United States.
This year’s award goes to a remarkable woman who crafted many elements of our social safety net during the dark days of the Depression era 1930s. While the President she served under got much of the credit for what was created, it was actually Secretary of Labor FRANCES PERKINS, this year’s award winner, who played a major role in the creation and implementation of these vital programs of the New Deal.
She was born Fannie Coralie Perkins in Boston in 1880 to Susan E. Bean and Frederick Perkins, both of whom were originally from rural Maine. They were farmers and operated a brickyard until hard times following the end of the Civil War forced them to move to Massachusetts seeking better prospects. Settling first in Boston and later in Worcester, Frederick soon began operating a paper goods company, and, incredibly, this business is still standing and remains successful even now! Young Fannie often spent her summers with her grandmather on the family farm in Maine, and both would migrate to Worcester in the winter months to spend time with the Perkins family. The grandmother was a very world-wise woman who had a profound influence on young Fannie well into adulthood. This grandma acquainted her with facts about the family’s past and imbued in her grandchild a deep and abiding love of history. The young girl heard stories about the French and Indian War and how her grandmaa’s family had played a big role in the colonial and very early years of this country. The summer following Fannie’s fifteenth birthday, a distant cousin, Union General Oliver Otis Howard, first head of the Freedmen’s Bureau and the founder of Howard University, visited the Perkins home. Because the General had lost his right arm in the war, young Fannie became his secretary.
Growing up in a strict, conservative, Republican household, the Perkins children learned frugality and good work ethic. Frederick taught Fannie to read at a very early age, and gave her an early interest in Classical Literature. Though unusual for women in that era, she applied to, qualified for, and attended college at Mount Holyoke College, the nation’s oldest continuing higher education institution for women. The school’s founder, Mary Lyon, taught the students that “education was to fit one to do good” and that students should “go where no one else will go, do what no one else will do,” Popular among her classmates and professors, she became known as “Perk” and was elected Class President her senior year. She was strongly encouraged to enroll in the toughest courses, so she majored in Physics and co-majored in Biology and Chemistry. In her final semester, she took a course in American Economic History which influenced her profoundly. The professor required the students to visit the mills along the Connecticut River in nearby Holyoke and observe the appalling working conditions there. Perkins later recalled, “I was horrified at the work that many women and children had to do in factories. There were absolutely no effective laws that regulated the number of hours they were permitted to work. There were no provisions which guarded their health nor adequately looked after their compensation in case of injury. Those things seemed very wrong. I was young and was inspired with the idea of reforming, or at least doing what I could, to help change those abuses.” In February, 1902, the executive secretary of the National Consumers League, Florence Kelley, was invited to speak at the college. Perkins later recalled that this speech “first opened my mind to the necessity for and the possibility of the work which became my vocation.” After graduation, in defiance of her strict parents who wanted her to come back home to live a quiet life and find a husband from their local conservative Congregational church, Fannie was instead determined to find employment in the field of social work. Unsuccessful at first, she began to read books dealing with that field, such as
Jacob Riis’ study of life in New York’s slums , How the Other Half Lives. She moved to Illinois, changed her name from Fannie to Frances, and joined the Episcopal Church. This church and her belief in the need to make the Kingdom of God in this world would give her a source of strength and commitment throughout her life. She began working at Chicago Commons and at Hull House, which were well known throughout the country as settlement houses helping the poor and needy. She became convinced that she had chosen the correct vocation, later saying “I had to do something about unnecessary hazards in life, unnecessary poverty. It was sort of up to me.” In 1907, she took the position of general secretary of the Philadelphia Research and Protective Association, a new group dedicated to thwarting the conversion of newly-arrived immigrant girls, especially blacks coming from the South, into prostitutes. She further studied sociology and economics at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School under a progressive economist. In 1909, she began a fellowship with the New York School of Philanthropy, and investigated childhood malnutrition among school children in New York’s seedier areas. She also enrolled as a Master’s Degree candidate in sociology and economics at Columbia University. Her research project, entitled “A Study of Malnutrition in 107 Children from Public School 51,” became the title of her Master’s thesis. In 1910, Frances Perkins became Executive Secretary of the New York City Consumers League, working directly with Florence Kelley, the woman whose speech at Mount Holyoke had heavily influenced the course of her life. This work set her focus on the need for sanitary regulations for bakeries, fire protection for factories, and laws to limit the working hours of women and children in factories to 54 hours per week. Much of her work was in Albany, in the halls and committee rooms of the state capitol. There, with the guidance and counsel of Assemblyman Al Smith, Senator Robert Wagner and other progressive allies, Frances Perkins learned the skills of an effective lobbyist for both labor and social reforms. In 1911, while having tea with friends in New York, Perkins heard fire engines racing by. She ran to where the fire was and watched, horror-stricken, as 47 young female workers jumped from the upper floors of the building to their deaths below. A total of 146 women workers died that day, trapped in flame on the highest floors of the building. This fire at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory was, as Perkins later recalled, “the day the New Deal was born.” This tragedy led to the prompt creation of a citizen’s Committee on Safety to help prevent further tragedies in city factories. Progressive Theodore Roosevelt recommended Frances Perkins as the group’s executive secretary. This led to widespread reforms which not only dealt with fire safety but also with other threats to industrial workers’ health and safety. The Commission’s work resulted in the most comprehensive set of laws governing workplace health and safety in the nation. Perkins later stated, “The extent to which this legislation in New York marked a change in American political attitudes and policies toward social responsibility can scarcely be overrated. It was, I am convinced, a turning point.”
The gubernatorial election of 1918 was the first in which women in New York had the right to vote. Frances Perkins campaigned hard to capture the women’s vote for Al Smith, her friend and ally during her prior work in Albany. Shortly after his election as governor, Smith appointed her to a vacant seat on the New York State Industrial Commission. She was the first woman to be appointed to an administrative position in New York state government and, with an annual salary of $8000, the highest paid woman ever to hold public office in the United States. Smith’s goal was to get rid of the incompetence and corruption in the state’s labor department so that Frances and her fellow commissioners would enforce the laws the Factory Investigating Commission had brought about. For Smith’s four terms as governor, Frances Perkins served as his closest labor advisor, working with him to build on the legislative accomplishments of the prior decade. In his final term, he appointed her to chair the Industrial Commission.
In the election of 1928, Smith lost his bid to become the nation’s president, and New York elected a new governor, Franklin D. Roosevelt. Roosevelt asked Frances Perkins to become the state’s Industrial Commissioner, which carried oversight responsibilities for the entire state labor department. Before long, she became the most prominent state labor official in the nation, as she and Roosevelt looked for new ways to deal with rising unemployment.
Perkins challenged the Hoover Administration’s 1930 prediction in that employment was on the rise and recovery from the depression was in sight. She was very upset at what she considered to be a callous deception, and called a press conference to announce that Hoover had been wrong. Figures from the New York Bureau of Labor Statistics showed a steady decline in employment, with that January’s unemployment slated to be the worst in sixteen years. Her confrontation with Hoover’s White House made front-page news throughout the country. As Hoover’s administration continued to make such reassuring statements about the economy, she countered with statistical evidence of growing unemployment. She said, “It is cruel and irresponsible to issue misleading statements of improvement in unemployment, at a time when the unemployed are reaching the end of their resources”.
Frances Perkins worked with representatives of labor and industry to explore long-range programs to increase employment, even helping organize a conference on unemployment in the seven industrial states of the Northeast. She reorganized and expanded the state’s employment agencies, but increasingly, her focus was on creating a program of unemployment insurance. Roosevelt became the first public official in the country to commit himself to unemployment insurance as a result, and in 1930, he sent Perkins to England to study England’s system. She came back loaded with recommendations for an American version of that program.
In 1932, Franklin D. Roosevelt was elected President in a landslide. Frances Perkins became the first female Cabinet member in history, as FDR named her to be his Secretary of Labor. Perkins said,“I came to Washington to work for God, FDR, and the millions of forgotten, plain common workingmen.” She wasted little time in drawing up and implementing for the nation those programs which had proven successful in New York. She outlined for FDR a revolutionary set of new policies which included a 40-hour work week; a minimum wage; unemployment compensation; worker’s compensation; the abolition of child labor; direct federal aid to the states for unemployment relief; Social Security; a revitalized federal employment service; and universal health insurance. She made it clear to Roosevelt that his agreement with these priorities was a condition of her joining his cabinet. Roosevelt said he endorsed them all, and all were adopted except for universal health insurance. Incredible, and done so quickly!
From the outset, Frances Perkins was a very strong advocate of large public works programs, federally funded, to provide useful jobs for the unemployed. With her urging, Congress enacted legislation establishing the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC). Before Roosevelt presented his final One Hundred Days legislation to the Congress, the National Industrial Recovery Act, Perkins convinced Roosevelt to allocate $3.3 billion for public works programs, helping ensure that money was spent on socially useful projects: schools, roads, highway, housing projects and post offices. Public works construction employed a many as 1.5 – 2 million people (including two of my uncles) in 1934, and evidence of what all was built still exists today.
Next, Roosevelt appointed Frances to head a Committee on Economic Security, where she helped create a blueprint of legislation which was eventually enacted as the Social Security Act. Signed into law by the President on August 14, 1935, this beautifully beneficial Act included a system of old age pensions, unemployment compensation, workers’ compensation and aid to the needy and disabled.
In 1938, Congress enacted the Fair Labor Standards Act, also crafted with the support of Perkins, establishing a minimum wage and maximum work hours and abolishing child labor.
When Roosevelt died on April 12, 1945, Frances Perkins was the longest serving labor secretary and one of only two cabinet secretaries to serve the entire length of Roosevelt’s Presidency. In 1944, an article featuring Frances Perkins in Collier’s magazine described her accomplishments over the previous twelve years as “not so much the Roosevelt New Deal, as … the Perkins New Deal.”
When she left the Department of Labor in June of 1945, Frances Perkins stood in the department’s auditorium, and while a full orchestra played, she shook the hands, and also personally thanked every one of the department’s 1800 employees. She began writing The Roosevelt I Knew, a best-selling biography of FDR published in 1946.
The following year, President Truman appointed her to the United States Civil Service Commission, a position she held until 1953. She then began a new career of teaching, writing and public lectures, and serving until her death as a lecturer at Cornell University’s School of Industrial Relations.
Frances Perkins suffered a stroke and died on May 14, 1965, at the age of 85. She is buried alongside her husband in the Glidden Cemetery on the River Road in Newcastle, Maine, a short distance from the place she always considered her home. Her impeccable work ethic, determination, and energy have helped untold millions of Americans. She always believed, and ultimately proved, that government can and should play a positive and helpful role in people’s lives, and she is more than deserving of this year’s Head and Heart Award! We are a far better country because of her compassion and efforts!
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