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Author Holds Up Frances Perkins as Model for Today


She was the subject of a $1,600 Jeopardy answer last November, but none of the contestants could nail the question.

Kirstin Downey Photo by Gina Vergel

Frances Perkins, the first woman cabinet member and secretary of labor, was the most effective social worker in American history, an author said on Nov. 11 at Fordham.

“She was a remarkable public servant,” said Kirsten Downey, the author of The Woman Behind the New Deal: The Life of Frances Perkins, FDR’s Secretary of Labor and His Moral Conscience (Doubleday, 2009).

Downey, who reported on business for The Washington Post for 20 years, gave a talk on Perkins at Fordham’s Lincoln Center campus.

Perkins has a building named after her in Washington, D.C., but she isn’t a household name. That’s because she did whatever it took to get programs implemented, Downey said. Because she encountered opposition due to her gender, sometimes getting things done meant letting someone else have the spotlight.

“She always said 50 people organized could do anything,” Downey said. “I noticed throughout the nine years reporting for the book that with all these issues, there would be 50 people, but there was always one person among those 50 people, and that was Frances Perkins.”

The woman who would have an enormous influence over Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal, Perkins was very goal directed and had a strong grasp of history and of capitalism’s booms and busts, Downey said.

“That’s one of the things we’re the beneficiary of—what they did during the New Deal was try to cushion people from the down times so they can do well during the good times,” she said.

Roosevelt, who had worked with Perkins when he was the governor of New York, asked her to become labor secretary at a grim time in American history.

Downey read an excerpt from her book:

An era of rampant speculation had come to an end. The stock market had collapsed. Banks were shutting down, stripping people of their lifetime savings. About a third of workers were unemployed. Wages were falling. Hundreds of thousands were homeless. Real estate prices were plummeting. And millions of homeowners faced foreclosure.

“Does that sound familiar?” Downey asked.

Despite the economic climate and opposition she would face from the ports, labor unions, businesses and conservatives, Perkins’ agenda was nothing short of breathtaking, Downey said.

A 40-hour work week, minimum wage, workers compensation, unemployment compensation, a federal law banning child labor, direct federal aid for unemployment relief, Social Security, revitalized public employment and national health insurance.

“She was proposing a fundamental radical restructuring of American society,” she said. “Perkins said to FDR, ‘Nothing like this has ever been done in the United States. You know that, don’t you?’”

Though he knew placing a woman in his cabinet would expose him to ridicule, FDR backed her. It would be one of his most important early decisions, Downey said.

Perkins would go on to see the programs she proposed to FDR, and more, get implemented, except for national health insurance.

“At that time, the American Medical Association said it would kill Social Security to prevent what they called socialized medicine,” Downey said. “FDR scuttled national health insurance to save Social Security and instead we got a patchwork system that we continue to deal with today.”

For people who think Perkins accomplished so much because times were easier, lobbyists were weaker and the courts were less hostile, Downey said to think again.

“The times she lived in were eerily parallel to our own. Her whole life, in many ways, mirrors the challenges and issues we are facing today,” she said. “A huge influx of immigration was changing the population and stirring a lot of resentment. The gap between the rich and poor was growing, just like now.”

The role of women also was changing. In fact, Perkins could not vote until she was 40 years old.

“She and other women had to reinvent themselves. They had to imagine themselves in a new world. She did her best to change the world, but she also did a lot of things to reinvent herself.”

Perkins changed her name from “Fanny” to the more gender-neutral “Frances.” Gone were the frilly blouses; she stopped wearing makeup and donned dark dresses and hats.

“It was part of her core realism,” Downey said. “A woman who looks like your mother gets more respect.”

Perkins was proud to call herself a social worker, Downey said.

“She always referred to her social work inquiry skills as key to understanding the nature and causes of complex problems. As a society we have so much to learn from her and you, individually, can take so much into the civic arena as social workers,” she said.

The James R. Dumpson Chair in Child Welfare Studies in the Graduate School of Social Service sponsored the lecture.


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