Dan Czitrom on MHC Alumna Frances Perkins

Thursday, March 26, 2009 - 12:00

One of Mount Holyoke's most distinguished alums, Frances Perkins, is the subject of a new book by former Washington Post reporter Kirstin Downey, titled The Woman Behind the New Deal: The Life of Frances Perkins, FDR's Secretary of Labor and His Moral Conscience. As the first female cabinet secretary, Perkins spearheaded the fight to improve the lives of U.S. workers, resulting in unemployment compensation programs, child labor laws, and the 40-hour work week. According to Downey, Perkins pushed for massive public works projects that created millions of jobs for unemployed workers. She bolstered the nation’s labor movement and improved the standard of living across the nation. MHC professor of history Daniel Czitrom weighs in on the Perkins legacy.

QA: This book appears to give Frances Perkins credit for many of the accomplishments that most Americans would simply attribute to President Franklin D. Roosevelt. Do you think that's a fair assessment of her role in his administration?

DC: Yes, and a long overdue one. Perkins has been largely overshadowed in the world of New Deal history and biography. Downey’s book is the first full portrait of Perkins in more than 30 years, and it comes at a propitious moment. Our current economic crisis has pushed many policy makers and citizens to re-examine the Great Depression and New Deal.

QA: Downey says Perkins's greatest achievement was creating Social Security. Do you agree?

DC: It’s certainly arguable. Social Security represented an enormous breakthrough, establishing the principle of government responsibility for providing Americans with a decent retirement. It created old age pensions, as well as unemployment insurance. It has also been the single most successful antipoverty measure in U.S. history. I would argue that the key premise underlying Social Security--socializing risk through a universal system of contributions and coverage--also points the way toward genuine reform of our disastrous health care system.

QA: Was it politically difficult for FDR to appoint a woman to his Cabinet? How was Perkins received/perceived by the American public?

DC: There was sexist grumbling about Perkins's appointment, particularly from some quarters of the labor movement. But most criticism of Perkins came from Republicans and other conservatives who opposed measures she was identified with, such as Social Security, the National Labor Relations Act, and the Fair Labor Standards Act. Like many other liberal New Dealers, she endured a good deal of Red-baiting from these critics. But the broader American public supported her and the New Deal in general.

QA: It's hard to think of a Cabinet member in recent times who has had such a wide-ranging impact on U.S. policies and life. Was her influence a reflection of the relationship she had with FDR?

DC: Perkins brought a great deal to FDR's team. She’d had valuable experience chairing the New York State Industrial Commission in the 1920s. Before that she had earned a graduate degree in sociology from Columbia, worked at Chicago's Hull House and other social settlements, and served as a lobbyist for the National Consumers League. The political savvy that Perkins brought to Washington reflected her deep immersion in the world of New York progressive politics before and after WWI. And unlike many of FDR's other advisers, she was happy to avoid the limelight.

QA: Do you see lessons in Perkins' work for the Obama administration, given the country's economic problems today?

DC: Both Perkins and FDR understood the importance of creating programs that would translate into political support. In my view there has been way too much emphasis on the so-called "Hundred Days," FDR's very busy first three months or so in office in 1933. We see echoes of that today in the media's obsession with Obama’s first hundred days. But what historians refer to as the "Second New Deal," in 1935, was of more lasting importance. Along with passage of the Social Security Act, it also included two other key measures. The National Labor Relations (or Wagner) Act guaranteed, for the first time in American history, the right of workers to join or form independent labor unions and to bargain collectively for improved wages, benefits, and working conditions. The Emergency Relief Appropriations Act allocated $5 billion for large-scale public works programs that eventually employed over 8 million Americans on a vast array of construction projects. The popularity of these programs, all of which delivered tangible material benefits to many millions of struggling citizens, propelled FDR to his landslide re-election in 1936. Perhaps there is a lesson for Obama here.

The tumultuous political climate of the 1930s is too often lost in our discussions of the New Deal today. Programs like Social Security and the Wagner Act did not just "happen"; nor were they "given" to Americans by the New Deal. Roosevelt, Perkins, and other key policy makers were being pushed by grassroots movements and Left radicals. Unemployed councils, farmer cooperatives, a newly energized Communist Party, union organizers, consumer groups, and old age pension advocates were all pressuring the government to take a more central role in helping citizens get through the worst crisis ever faced by American capitalism. FDR and his advisers also feared the emergence of rival populist leaders such as Louisiana's Huey Long, who talked openly about challenging FDR for the Democratic Party nomination in 1936.

Related Links: