Perkins’s work central to Social Security Act.

Thursday, August 14, 2014 - 8:45am
Frances Perkins looks on as FDR signs the Social Security Act. Photo: MHC Archives & Special Collections

Millions of Americans have cashed Social Security checks without knowing about the woman who championed the program and led to its creation.

Seventy-nine years ago today—August 14, 1935—President Franklin Roosevelt signed the Social Security Act into law.  Frances Perkins—his secretary of labor, MHC class of 1902, and namesake of Mount Holyoke’s Frances Perkins Program—was standing behind FDR as he signed the landmark legislation.

On the anniversary of this historic legislation, we celebrate Perkins’s trailblazing leadership, which still resonates in the Mount Holyoke community.

Here’s what some current and former Frances Perkins Scholars have to say about their program’s founder.

“Frances Perkins's passion for social justice and wit were at the base of her ability to advocate with a hand in the Cabinet and a foot ‘in the trenches,’” says Sarah Vazquez FP’11. “She showed how profound change can be when passion meets connection, common sense, and courage. These elements guide my work every day as an educational specialist for homeless youth.”

As a student, Vazquez tutored and mentored students in Holyoke and “embodied the spirit and aspirations of Five College community-based learning in more ways than can be counted,” according to Alan Bloomgarden, director of community engagement. Vazquez credits MHC with introducing her to a “widespread ethic of service and a model of cooperation,” also hallmarks of Perkins’s work.

“At times when I am struggling in my pursuit of a career as an attorney, I think of Frances Perkins for encouragement,” says Holly Sprague FP’11. “I think about the challenges she faced daily, and I take strength from her achievements. Often, I tell myself, ‘If she could achieve her goals and make positive change, I can too.’ ” Sprague—whose law studies focused on Indian estate planning, federal and tribal Indian law, inequalities in public education, and poverty law concerns—aims to protect basic rights in much the same way Perkins did.

“Frances Perkins is Mount Holyoke's most distinguished alumna because she succeeded in translating so much of her fierce idealism into New Deal-era public policies that immeasurably improved the lives of millions of Americans,” says MHC historian Dan Czitrom, who has written about Perkins and her key role in creating the New Deal.

And Perkins’s MHC experience profoundly shaped her adult career. As labor secretary, she pushed key legislation that has improved workers’ lives ever since. That passion was inspired by an MHC course that brought her into Holyoke’s mills, where she saw wretched working conditions.

That tradition of direct community involvement continues at MHC today through MHC’s Community-Based Learning Program. Alan Bloomgarden, director of community engagement, says Perkins’s legacy “is enabling women with invaluable life experience, and often local community knowledge, to be leaders in campus-community collaborations and peer-mentors to other students who learn from them skills and strategies for overcoming personal and professional adversity.”

Elyse Moore FP’15, who overcame her own challenges to reach MHC, says she’s taken some life cues from Perkins’s writings. One is this quote about her appointment as U.S. secretary of labor: “The door might not be opened to a woman again for a long, long time, and I had a kind of duty to other women to walk in and sit down on the chair that was offered, and so establish the right of others long hence and far distant in geography to sit in the high seats.” Moore seized the opportunity to attend MHC, she says, because she knew that this door “might not be opened to me again. And like Frances Perkins, I felt ‘a kind of duty to walk in and sit down on the chair that was offered to perpetuate, where Frances Perkins established, the rights of others to pursue this work, with the common sense and courage that she modeled for women who dare.”

A career chef and grant writer for the Vermont Foodbank before attending MHC, Moore’s academic work integrates women’s economic history and the history of Connecticut Valley food-market and labor issues.

Decades after her major work, the seeds of Frances Perkins’s social justice work, nurtured at MHC and first harvested during her lifetime, are still bearing fruit.

—By Emily Harrison Weir