Sunday, August 1, 2010

The Woman Behind The New Deal – The Life and Legacy of Francis Perkins, Social Security, Unemployment Insurance and the Minimum Wage by Kristin Downey

Francis (Fanny) Coralie Perkins was the first woman appointed to the Presidential Cabinet, serving as Secretary of Labor for 13 years under Franklin D. Roosevelt and Harry Truman. Her fate as a founder of many of the social services we now take for granted may have been predetermined, but I think that it was sealed on March 24, 1911, the day she witnessed the Triangle Shirtwaist factory fire in New York, which caused the death of 146 garment workers, almost all of them women, who either died from the fire or jumped from the fatal height. It was the worst workplace disaster in New York until September 11.

“It is a great historic irony,” says author Kristin Downey, “that Frances is now virtually unknown. Factory and office occupancy codes, fire escapes and other fire-prevention mechanisms are her legacy. About 44 million people collect Social Security checks each month; millions receive unemployment and worker’s compensation or the minimum wage; others get to go home after an eight-hour day because of the Fair Labor Standards Act. Very few know the name of the woman responsible for their benefits.” Click on Read More Below...

If that is not impressive enough, she helped establish the first prenatal clinics in New York, saved many Jewish families during the Holocaust through the Immigration Service, helped create the Civil Conservation Corp that put millions to work during the depression, and the Federal Art Project that created those beautiful murals and sculptures in and around federal buildings, worked smart and industriously to quell the fires of the McCarthy Communist witch hunts, worked on the creation of the Federal Home Loan program, and much, much more. And to think that we can’t even get a decent healthcare program approved and implemented!

Sadly, many (especially political rivals) treated her as a heretic during her administration, complaining that it was unbecoming of a woman to be in the same room as leadership, much less make money and decisions. Even Roosevelt often secreted the extent to which he consulted with and relied on Francis for advisement and help getting things done. She was an easy target, resulting in savage attacks and an attempted impeachment, but she persevered at the quiet encouragement of the men in power who relied on her.

Much has been made of Francis’ living arrangement with Mary Harriman Rumsey ( in photo left), founder of The Junior League, and it was presumed that they were lesbian lovers. Why is it that people so often assume that women friends must be lovers? Francis’ husband and daughter both had serious mental illness and spend a good bit of their lives in institutions, so Francis had precious little money left over to support herself.  Mary was a friend who gave Francis shelter, and they obviously had a great deal of love and admiration for each other.  That’s what friends do. If it included sex – heck of a deal! Not my cup of tea, but none of my business.

This book was amazing and I highly recommend it. You’re welcome to borrow mine, but I’ve turned down so many pages and jotted so many notes in the margins that it could be distracting. Did you know that Walt Disney once accused The League of Women Voters of being a Communists front organization? Me neither. Read the book. 

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