Monday, October 13, 2008

What Would Frances Perkins Do? Who?

Working Americans in recent weeks awakened to the reality of a devastated American economy suffering damage wrought by decades of policies aimed at enriching the rich. Today, Paul Krugman, the most widely read American economist, and an unabashed supporter of a “new New Deal,” was made a Nobel Laureate for Economics. Franklin Roosevelt’s reinvention under similar circumstances of this country’s economy and society suddenly looms large.

While we remember those who have gone before us with similar economic and political woes, how many remember accurately who actually devised the New Deal? Here’s a hint: it was not FDR. Rather, it was his Secretary of Labor Frances Perkins, an introverted, religious, de facto single mother, and scholar who became, according to Kirstin Downey, Perkins’ biographer, FDR’s “moral conscience.” This Sunday in Newcastle, Maine, near the Perkins’ family homestead, a steering committee met to begin the process of turning her family home and grounds into a think tank policy center with an eye toward continuing her legacy and attending to her unfinished agenda. This followed Saturday’s slide show with a cappella accompaniment by Annie Valliere of Woolwich, and a talk by Downey about her soon-to-be-published book and Perkins’ legacy. [n.b. One of the most emotional moments of what may come to be known locally as the Frances Perkins Weekend was when Saturday’s crowd of some 160 mostly grey-headed attendees joined Valliere in “Solidarity Forever” and “The Union Maid.” Strong voices pealed out, “Oh you can’t scare me, I’m sticking to the union, I’m sticking to the union…”]

Perkins, born in 1880, was the visionary who created Social Security, unemployment insurance and a wide variety of worker protection laws a reality. Given Wall Street’s current economic meltdown, 47 million Americans without health care coverage and decades of trickle-up tax policies, the challenge to continue Frances Perkins’ work could not be more timely. Universal health care coverage was one of the few visions Perkins failed to reify during her years in office. Health care for all could catalyze scholars and policy makers to carry on her vision. [Obama policy wonks, are you out there?]

In 1932, Frances Perkins might have preferred to be at home monogramming towels. This chemistry ad physics scholar had found herself the family breadwinner due to her husband’s mental illness. Galvanized to workers’ causes and social justice when she witnessed the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Fire in New York City where 146 young women died, Perkins eventually became the Commissioner of Labor under then New York Governor Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Shortly after his election to the presidency, he asked her to head the nation’s Labor Department. This intensely private woman agreed, then went home and sobbed so loudly her teenaged daughter Susannah grew alarmed. Perkins knew that her life would no longer be her own, especially as she was about to be named America’s first female cabinet member.

Her name is not one that readily rolls off the lips of school children reciting names of public figures who shaped the destiny of our nation. Robert Reich, labor secretary under President Clinton, found her portrait in the back of a housekeeping closet. He restored it to a place of honor, on the wall behind his desk. According to Downey, Reich wrote that when he had difficult decisions to make, he closed the door of his office and referred to “Saint” Frances.

In addition to major social changes that became part of the New Deal under President Roosevelt, Perkins’ work is visible in hundreds of everyday ways. The fact that trash is routinely removed from work premises is a result of Perkins insistence on fire safety measures protecting workers. In 1933, her first act as Labor Secretary was to desegregate the cafeteria where she and other cabinet members took their lunch.

Her influence extended well beyond Washington. According to Downey, Perkins’ modus operandi was always to work on three levels at once – state, federal and international. Her theory apparently that when one thread in the braid frayed, the other two would hold the weight. Her international influence started early. In 1933, moments after FDR’s inauguration, in a time of 30 percent unemployment intense anti-immigration phobia bordering on xenophobia, she was able to massage immigration laws enough to save academics, artists, Jews and others at risk from Nazi Germany’s persecution and allow them into the U.S.

Besides seeing necessary change and visionary potential politically, her gift operated on a personal level as well. Among her finds was a red haired gawky writer whom she encouraged to press forward. That man, Upton Sinclair, went on to win the Pulitzer Prize. An advocate for social justice in his own right, Sinclair wrote The Jungle and published over 90 books during his lifetime,

Frances Perkins’ family homesteaded in the 1740s on the west side of the Damariscotta River in Newcastle Maine, where her grandson Tomlin Coggeshall lives still. Coggeshall has recently chosen to devote the rest of his life and the considerable acreage and buildings on the homestead to his grandmother’s memory and legacy. He hopes the Frances Perkins Center, to be located in the Perkins family home, will eventually serve to honor her work and help policy makers and scholars move the nation forward along the visionary lines drawn by his grandmother. [n.b. The center is in the first phase of fund raising, with Maine Initiatives acting as interim not-for-profit umbrella. I encourage those interested in Perkins' legacy to click on the center's "Donate" link and forward a check.]

Kirstin Downey, who won a Pulitzer Prize for her work on the Virginia Tech shooting, reported for the Washington Post for 20 years. She recently left her job there to finish and promote her biography of Perkins. The Woman Behind the New Deal comes out in March 2009 and is available for pre-order now.


Andrea said...

This is great--but I'm insulted that I have never ever heard of her before. (You'd think from your basic American history classes the only women in politics are Susan B. Anthony I nominate Frances Perkins to adorn the next re-issued coin.

snoozetska said...

Trouble is by the time most American history classes get to 1930 they're screeching at breakneck speed to get to Viet Nam and barely have time to mention the New Deal, let alone who administered it.
I'm totally with you on the coin. What a great idea. Do you know Tomlin Coggeshall? He's a sweetheart.