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  • Writer's pictureJoe Pace

Favorite Non-Fiction Books, #102: The Woman Behind the New Deal, the Life of Frances Perkins

"The accusation that I am a woman is incontrovertible."

When the ravages of the Great Depression swept Franklin Delano Roosevelt into the White House in the election of 1932, it was not immediately apparent that he brought with him the vast progressive agenda that would be his legacy. FDR was a pragmatist, not an ideologue, and by no means was he the proto-socialist that many on the right would claim, then or now. He was a patrician, a philanderer, and a fiscal conservative. He would also become one of the three or four greatest presidents our country has known, largely because of the influence of two women. One was his wife, Eleanor Roosevelt, a brilliant intellect and unrepentant liberal. The other was his Secretary of Labor, Frances Perkins, the first female Cabinet member in US history.

FDR assumed office amidst a tumultuous debate over how the nation's battered economy could be rescued. The business and banking interests insisted that austerity was the answer, that slashing federal spending and stabilizing the credit markets would restore the foundations of American capitalism. The other 99% of the country, the rural farmers and urban workers, were more interested in federal programs that would create jobs, distribute direct aid, and save the lives of those Americans who were increasingly hungry and cold and sick. Initially, Roosevelt sided with the bankers. The first two pieces of legislation in his Hundred Days were The Emergency Banking Act that made currency available to save teetering banks, and The Economy Act that cut the federal budget by nearly 15%. The Economy Act also cut veterans' benefits by 50% at a time when those benefits accounted for a quarter of the federal budget. Not exactly the opening salvo of a communist takeover.

Enter Eleanor, Harry Hopkins, Henry Wallace, and Frances Perkins. These progressives in FDR's orbit worked tirelessly to save the President from his conservative side, and in so doing, saved the country. As Secretary of Labor, Perkins was instrumental in implementing a federal minimum wage, the Civilian Conservation Corps, and a little thing called Social Security. Perkins was an accomplished and fascinating woman - a suffragette, holder of a master's degree in political science, a Hull House volunteer with Jane Addams. She came to the White House with a long history of championing workers and the poor, including heading the New York Consumers League. Following the NY Triangle Shirtwaist Fire of 1911 that killed 146 garment workers (mostly women), she became head of the NYC Committee on Safety and succeeded in creating a fifty-four hour weekly limit for female factory workers.

Oh, and lest we forget: Perkins was a lesbian with a fascinating personal story. At age 33 she married a prominent economist, though she argued in court to retain her maiden name. The couple had a child, but then Perkins's husband began suffering from psychological struggles and would be institutionalized. Perkins proceeded to conduct a two-decade secret intimate relationship with Mary Harriman Rumsey, founder of the Junior League and sister to Averell Harriman (NY Governor and player in JFK's State Department). Perkins's legacy as both a progressive and gay icon is such that immortal Maine Governor Paul LePage ordered a WPA mural of her removed from the state's Department of Labor and her name removed from the department's conference room.

The goal of the modern conservative movement since the 1960s has been to roll back the societal and economic progress of the New Deal, attempting to revise history and claim that the sweeping progress of the FDR administration lengthened the Depression and made things worse. Don't you buy it. Their take on history is as myopic and muddled as their take on the future. Perkins should be remembered more frequently and more fondly for her role in American history. Without her, there's no FDR as we think of him. And maybe no America, either.

(Thanks to Dan Chartrand for the book and recommendation!)

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