Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Frances Perkins

Franklin Delano Roosevelt (FDR) became the 32nd President of the United States in the midst of the so-called Great Depression.  He served for four terms – following his presidency the United States Constitution was amended to limit the Presidency to two consecutive terms.  During the latter part of his time in office, FDR presided over a nation at war – World War II.

In response to the horrendous economic conditions that were a direct result of the economic collapse of the Great Depression, FDR implemented a satellite of policies collectively referred to as the New Deal.  The New Deal had three goals – relief, recovery and reform.  Relief represented the implementation of policies that would bring immediate relief to those who were suffering.  The recovery was directed at assisting those facets of the economy that needed improvement, especially within the realm of economic production, and reform was directed at establishing regulatory controls that would help prevent a repeat of the conditions that caused the Depression in the first place.

The individual on FDR's staff that played a significant role in formulating and helping to implement many of these policies was Frances Perkins who was FDR's choice for Secretary of Labor – the first woman ever to serve on the Federal Cabinet.  She was an extraordinary woman whose singular contribution to the nation at a time of serious crisis has been terribly under-reported.


Before we begin to explore the life of Frances Perkins, we will examine Great Depression in greater detail so as to arrive at a fuller understanding of the nature of the times in which Perkins lived.

The economic depression of 1929 catapulted the national economy into a devastating tailspin from the seeming prosperity of the 1920s.  The rapid decline occurred as a direct result of many factors that were all interconnected.  The so-called Great Depression lasted from 1929 through 1938.

The precipitous decline that so defined the Great Depression began on what is referred to as Black Tuesday – October 29 1929 - when 16 million shares were traded and the industrial stock index dropped 43 points negating all the gains made over the previous twelve months.  By the middle of November of that year, the market had lost a third of its entire value or 40% of all the stock that was traded on the Exchange.  The reasons for this sudden and calamitous event were multi-faceted.

The seeming prosperity that was a hallmark of the 1920s was, in fact, not representative of the majority of Americans.  Following the hard times imposed by World War I, economic production markedly increased, especially in regards to automobiles, home appliances and construction.  In addition, overseas investment doubled to 7.5 billion dollars by 1929.  Although consumer spending increased markedly during this period, individuals were buying beyond their means, placing themselves in a precarious position regarding personal indebtedness.

In addition, the distribution of wealth was skewed markedly to the wealthy.  In 1929, the top 0.1% of American households collectively had as much wealth as 42% of the population and possessed one-third of all the savings.  As a matter of fact, it has been estimated that 80% of the population had no savings at all.

By 1929, investments in the stock market increased far more than any other indicator, and, more to the point, outstripped actual production or sales of manufactured goods.  One aspect of this marked increase in transactions on the stock exchange was the practice of "buying on margin."  Using this approach, an investor determined to purchase $1,000 worth of stock valued at $10 per share, was legally enabled to pay his broker as little as 10% of the actual worth of the stock or $100.  This practice was common in the 1920s; because, the value of stock seemed to be always increasing.  With this in mind, the investor could then wait until the value of the stock rose, sell it at a significant profit, pay his broker and pocket the difference.  This kind of gambling persisted; until, the inevitable happened – the bubble burst.  To some extent, the unraveling began in Great Britain when the country raised its interest rates to lure back domestic investors.  Aware of the significance of this policy change, foreign and U.S. investors began dumping U.S. stocks.

Following Black Tuesday, the economic situation worsened as the nation inexorably slid into depression.  Within three years, the so-called industrial index – a quantitative measure of the performance of shares in major industries such as automobiles – dropped from 452 in September of 1929 to 58 by July of 1932.  At the height of the Depression, one-third of the work force was unemployed and those who were fortunate enough to be employed saw their wages plummeting, tens of thousands were homeless and millions faced foreclosure on their houses.   It must be remembered that it has been estimated that only 2.5% of the entire population actually invested in the stock market; therefore the reason for the depression must have resided elsewhere.  The underlying causes for the Depression itself can be explained by the following factors:


Decline in Industrial Production – Much of the economic growth during this era can be directly related to two major industries, the production of automobiles and construction.  By the end of the 20s, both of these facets of the economy were in decline.

Poverty and Personal Indebtedness – Poverty was, in fact, widespread and personal debt was high as well.  The wages of individual workers had only increased by 8%; whereas, the productivity of the individual worker increased by an estimated 32%.  These data translated into the economic reality that individuals could not afford to purchase the products of industrial output.  This convergence of factors inevitably led to mass unemployment.

Bank Failures - Since banks were heavily engaged in speculation on the stock market and since the banks were using the savings of their customers for these questionable investments, they were unable to effectively deal with rush on the banks when people wished to withdraw their savings en masse.  As a result, thousands of banks failed and many individuals lost their life savings.


Adding to the economic deterioration as outlined above, the Dust Bowl of the 1930's had a devastating impact on farmers of the Great Plains.  After years of farming without adequate rotation of crops, an unusual period of extreme drought together with harsh weather conditions resulted in the topsoil being literally blown away.  Between 1933 and 1938, three to four inches of topsoil were lost to the winds and created what was referred to as "Black Blizzards."  As a result, 500,000 residents of the Great Plains became homeless and 2.5 million moved out of the region by 1940.


The government's response to this deepening crisis was inadequate.  Although President Herbert Hoover felt compassion for the millions who were suffering and although he attempted to use some of the government's resources to address the issue – he requested 2.25 billion dollars from the Congress for public works progress - his political philosophy constrained his efforts in this regard.  He felt strongly that the government should not be involved in direct relief by providing resources to those or were poor, starving and unemployed.  He felt that, "It is not the function of the government to relieve individuals of their responsibilities to their neighbors, or to relieve private institutions of their responsibilities to the public."  In the general election of 1932, the people chose Franklin Delano Roosevelt as their next president, who promised a New Deal.  The fundamental focus of the New Deal was threefold – the so-called 3 Rs – relief, recovery and reform, as mentioned earlier.  In order to accomplish these ambitious goals, fifteen major pieces of legislation were submitted to Congress from spring to early summer.

In spite of all these efforts, it was the onset of World War II that effectively brought the country out of the Great Depression. 


Fannie Coralie Perkins was born on April 10, 1880 in Beacon Hill in Boston, Massachusetts.   As a young girl she had spend her summers in New Castle, Maine on one hundred acres that was the homestead established by her great-great grandfather in 1770; she had fond memories of that experience.  The family once had a brick-making business called, "Perkins Bricks" that enjoyed the economic boom of the 1840s but failed a decade later.

Perkins parents, Frederick and Susan were farmers; the family moved to Boston when she was born.   Frederick took a job as a retail clerk in Worcester and ultimately opened a stationary and office supply store.  Perkins' ethnicity was Scotch-English.  Her ancestors arrived in America in 1680 and were members of a Pilgrim settlement in Maine.  One of her ancestors was James Otis, a revolutionary war patriot and another founded Harvard University.  The family members were Congregationalist and philosophically were proponents of the concepts of self-reliance, tenacity and endurance.  In terms of their politics, they were staunch believers in democratic principles. 

Frederick lavished his attention on Perkins.  He taught her to read Greek by the time she was eight years old and groomed her for college; this was an unusual choice since in that era the roles of women were quite limited and circumscribed.   They were not encouraged to enter into public life.

Although the residents of Worchester were well-to-do, highly conservative in social outlook and Republican in terms of political affiliation, Perkins mother encouraged her to be mindful of the plight of the poor and befriend them.  The era in which Perkins grew up was marked by social unrest and turmoil.   The United States was in the midst of a destabilizing transition from an agricultural-based economy to one based on industry.  On account of the need for workers in the new industries, the country attracted many from overseas.  For example, in 1900 there were approximately 450,000 immigrants that came to America while in seven short years the number jumped to 1.3 million.  

The working conditions for the vast majority of workers in the nation's cities were horrendously bad.  Perkins was deeply influenced by the Jacob Riis' non-fiction work entitled, "How the Other Half Lives."  Life in New York's Lower East Side was representative of these conditions.  It was reported that there were 100,000 shabby dwellings, unsanitary living conditions, abysmal public health facilities and homeless children.  These realities shocked Perkins' sensibilities.  She recognized the growing gap between the rich and poor and vowed to expend her energies trying to make a difference.  She was developing an acute sense of social responsibility.

Inspired by these revelations, Perkins enrolled in Holyoke College near her home town.    Mary Lyons, the school's founder, had a deeply spiritual mission – the goal was to prepare women to accomplish great things in all aspects of social endeavor.  Perkins majored at first in chemistry and physics.  As part of curriculum, she took a course in economic history and, as a result, visited factories where she had a first-hand look at real working conditions.  She was profoundly affected by what she witnessed.  In addition, she was influenced by Florence Kelly – executive secretary of the National Consumers League.  Kelly became a close friend.  Kelly was divorced, raised three children on her own, was energetic, idealistic and pragmatic.  Kelly was highly successful, yet totally unconventional.  She was a Quaker and a Marxist in regards to her political persuasion. Perkins found an ally and mentor in Kelley, who was instrumental in spearheading municipal institutional reforms.  Kelley focused her attention on long working hours, inadequate wages and child labor.  Employers were urged to limit workdays to 12 hours.  Many employers proved intransigent in this regard.  One of Kelley's main goals was the elimination of child labor.  At that time children were employed in factories, offices and even coal mines often working 12 hour days.    Although Kelley was adamant in regards to these issues, she was also an avowed pacifist.  She felt that the answer to these fundamental issues was unionization in order to give laborers the power of collective action.  Kelly made a lasting impression upon Perkins, for she embodied the idea that as a woman she was certainly capable of fulfilling her own destiny.  

Following her graduation from Holyoke and armed with a degree, Perkins moved to Chicago in the 1904.  At that time, Chicago was the home base for Hull House founded by Jane Addams.  Hull House was a focal point for social activism.  Perkins evolved a strategy for social reform in which she operated successfully in two apparently disparate worlds.  On account of her upbringing, she learned to be connected with the elite and, at the same time, was a staunch and relentless advocate for the poor.  At that time in her life she changed her name from Fannie Coralie to Frances, her faith from Congregationalist to Episcopalian and her political affiliation.  She secured a position as a science teacher at Fery Hall, a woman's college in Lake Forest Illinois for those with an affluent background.  The code of conduct Perkins was required to follow was representative of the constrained role placed on women i.e. she was expected to live on campus, obey a strict curfew and attend prayer services.   

Perkins became an occasional resident of Hull House.  Hull House was a settlement house where the residents ate communally; they were, in fact, a large extended family connected to each other through a dedication to social reform.  Hull House inspired a national movement.  Her experiences there moved her inexorably towards her desire to make a difference; to help improve the lives of the least fortunate.  There she was introduced to an entire galaxy of new ideas including the concept of trade unions and collective bargaining.  It was then that she decided to dedicate herself entirely to social reform.

In 1907, Perkins was General Secretary of the Philadelphia Research and Protection Association.  In this role she became aware of the plight of women in the inner city.  At that time European immigrants and black women were lured to cities like Philadelphia where they were promised good jobs.  Instead, they found themselves victimized by the slave trade.  Perkins became convinced that the way out of these horrific predicaments was the availability of good paying jobs.  She grew more convinced that social work was the kind of work for her.

In 1909, Perkins went to New York City, moved into a settlement house and studied at Columbia University focusing on the problems of the poor.  There she received a degree in Political Science in June of 1910 and cultivated connections and friendships with the affluent including the Astors and the Vanderbilts.  She became involved in the Greenwich Village community that she enjoyed and found intellectually stimulating.   There she met John Reed, a journalist who became enamored of Communism and traveled to the Russia during the period of the Soviet Revolution.  There she became involved in the family limitation movement and supported birth control - a revolutionary idea at the time.  Perkins also established relationships with Robert Moses, who would later be a key player in the urban transformation of New York City, and Sinclair Lewis – the well renowned writer, who became so enamored of Perkins that he proposed marriage.  He was rebuffed, but they remained close friends, nonetheless.

Perkins became involved in the women's right to vote movement and emerged as one of its leaders.  According to Perkins, "Feminism means revolution, and I am a revolutionist.  I believe in revolution as a principle.  It does good to everybody." 

A horrific event that galvanized the reform movement was the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire that occurred on March 25, 1911.  As a result of the fire that occurred on that day, 146 workers at the factory, mostly young Jewish and Italian women, perished – many of them jumping to their death.  This event helped focus attention on the horrific working conditions that many people endured; it was a galvanizing event.

Eventually, Perkins became involved in promoting the so-called 54 hour bill out of the New York State legislature that would mandate that the work week not exceed 54 hours.   She became allied with John Adams Kingsbury, a progressive member of the Republican Party.   In order to successfully pass this proposed legislation, Kingsbury enlisted the help of the former President Teddy Roosevelt – winner of the Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts in ending the Russo-Japanese War.   At that time Teddy Roosevelt became deeply concerned about the immense disparity of wealth in the United States – 2% of the population controlled 60% of the wealth.   Eventually, Perkins was introduced to the former president.  As a result, he became so impressed with her intelligence, perseverance, conviction and ability that he suggested that she be made director of the Committee on Safety that was focused on improving working conditions, the cleanup of unsanitary work places and the creation of new fire safety standards.


In regards to her personal life, over the next twenty years Perkins was married and became a mother.  She assisted in Al Smith's campaign for governor of New York in 1918.  Smith had developed a deep regard for Perkins.  She briefly met FDR in 1910 when he was in his late 20s.  At that time he was a New York State Senator; he was lukewarm in his support for the 54 hour bill.  Later, FDR was chosen by President Wilson as Assistant Secretary of the Navy.  Early in his career, FDR suffered a major setback – he contracted polio in 1921 that left him severely disabled.  This did not dissuade him from his political career and in 1928 he became Governor of New York.  After his victory, FDR invited Perkins to run the State's Labor Department.

The onslaught of the Great Depression – as described previously – led to FDR's political ascendency to the presidency.  Once in office, FDR surprisingly chose a woman to be the Secretary of Labor – that woman was Frances Perkins.  He chose her for this post; because, he was well aware of her concern for the plight of ordinary workers and her ability to institute meaningful reform.  Perkins took the job provided that she was allowed to pursue the following labor- related policies:

·         40 hour work week

·         Minimum wage

·         Worker's compensation

·         Unemployment compensation

·         Federal law banning child labor

·         Direct federal aid for unemployment relief

·         Social security

·         Revitalized public employment service

·         Health insurance.

This list was revolutionary in scope.  FDR was aware of the political risks involved in embarking on this course of action.  He realized, however, the crisis that the country was enduring and agreed to her terms.  The rest of course is history.


Perkins died on May 14, 1965 at the age of eighty-five.  She has left a remarkable legacy that is in many regards has been unrecognized until relatively recently.

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