Tuesday, September 15, 2015

The Woman Behind the New Deal by; Kirstin Downey

The Life of Frances Perkins, FDR’s Secretary of Labor and His Moral Compass Mrs. Perkins is one of the most important persons before and during the Presidency of FDR and decades later after leaving government service. She was directly responsible for many of the freedoms we take for granted today. The following is from the Prologue. It outlines the programs she was determined to enact. On a chilly February night in 1933 she met with President Elect FDR. He wanted her to become his Secretary of Labor when he was sworn in as the thirty second president of the United States. She was interested but only if the president would assist and support her in achieving her goals. They were; a forty hour work week, 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. “Nothing like this has ever been done in the United States before,” she said. “You know that, don’t you?” He said he would back her. Everything on that list was accomplished with the exception of health insurance. The medical industry was able to kill that idea. She faced enormous opposition especially since she was a woman. The rough, tough labor leaders wanted one of their own men to have that job. Having to work with a woman was distasteful to them and frankly to most of Washington. Why she was so successful was due to her keen sense of necessity and her intelligence. It was also due to the strong backing of FDR and of course the terrible depression that was in full bloom at that time. She was the first woman ever to be made a member of the Cabinet. All of her life had prepared her for this position. In her 20’s she came to Chicago and worked at Hull House. It was the nation’s leading settlement house. It offered job training, health services, child care, a library, and a savings bank. She became active in carrying out services to the needy and came to realize the plight of the average worker and families. Moving to New York City and Philadelphia she continued learning and helping. She emerged as a leader in the feminist movement, stating “Feminism means revolution, and I am a revolutionist. I believe in revolution as a principle. It does good to everybody”. She witnessed the Triangle Fire in N.Y.C. 146 girls died as a direct result of the doors being locked and no fire equipment to warn or contain. The floors were littered in lint and cloth which quickly consumed everything and the workers. Just like 9/11 girls jumped to their deaths rather than be burned alive. She took her activism to the Legislature and after a lengthy process a 54 hour work week for women was enacted in N.Y. Doesn’t sound like much now, but in 1912 it was a great stride forward. With the endorsement of Teddy Roosevelt she was named executive director of the nation’s most prominent reform organizations. Out of this a new State Factory Investigation Commission was created with the responsibility to enforce safety standards to prevent another Triangle Fire tragedy. In 1918 she helped Al Smith to be elected Governor of N.Y. He promptly made her a member of the Industrial Commission. When FDR became Governor in 1928 he promoted her to being the Director of the Industrial Commission, the first female to hold such a high position. Most of the book describes the details on how each of her goals were achieved. With Roosevelt’s strong support she accomplished her goals. With the advent of WWII her work was diminished in scope but was still important to FDR. Upon his election for his fourth term in 1944, he pleaded with her to stay on. Shortly after he died she tendered her resignation to Truman. It was accepted and so ended her government service. She enjoyed teaching at Cornell University for a number of years dying at the age of 85. All females owe a debt of gratitude for the pioneering spirit of this brave woman. We males should also remember her for broadening the leadership to include women together with men. She was indeed a very great lady. Jack B. Walters September 15, 2015

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