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FP Program Celebrates 25 Years

Sohail Hashmi Named 2005 Carnegie Scholar

Science Symposium Highlights MHC Student Work

2004-2005 Faculty Award Winners

Meet FP Scholar Elizabeth Hamlin

MHC Extends Its Reach into Holyoke at Open Square

Students Raise Funds to Build Library in Cameroon

MHC Newsmakers

MHC Milestones

MHC Notices

MHC Happenings

Mount Holyoke College News and Events Vista The College Street Journal Archives
May 6, 2005

Frances Perkins Program Celebrates 25 Years

  Francis Perkins Anniversary
  (From left to right) Carolyn Dietel, President Joanne V. Creighton, Kay Althoff, and keynote speaker Penny Colman (photo by Fred LeBlanc)

In a PowerPoint presentation April 21 in Gamble Auditorium, the audience roared with laughter when a film clip appeared of Jennifer Grey gazing into Patrick Swayze’s eyes and telling him that she was named for Frances Perkins, the first female U.S. secretary of labor. Not a soul in the auditorium failed to recognize the reference to Perkins, and most everyone could even identify the movie, Dirty Dancing, from which the clip was taken. These were clearly not your average Mount Holyoke students: the movie—a coming-of-age 1980s romance about an idealistic young woman on her way to Mount Holyoke—was made before some traditional-aged Mount Holyoke students were even born.

The group at Gamble had assembled to celebrate the twenty-fifth anniversary of the College’s program for nontraditional-aged students, which is named for Frances Perkins, who graduated from Mount Holyoke in 1902. The evening was a joyful and festive occasion, honoring the 723 women who have graduated from the program since its inception, as well as the 150 women currently enrolled as Frances Perkins Scholars.

Penny Colman, a biographer of Frances Perkins and other notable American women, was the evening’s featured speaker. Her talk, titled “The Sights and Sounds of Frances Perkins,” brought Perkins to life, revealing her humor and humility and her serious moral convictions about social justice, particularly for women and children. “Only an antiquated reverence for plate-glass windows keeps me from being a stone-throwing type,” she was heard to have said.

Perkins credited Mount Holyoke for giving her the courage and confidence to tackle important issues. Entering in 1899, she was involved in a host of activities—theatre, kite-flying, golf, the YWCA prayer meeting committee, and teaching Sunday school. She studied science and recalled being hounded by chemistry professor Nellie Esther Goldthwaite, who “made me realize I had a mind.” History professor Annah May Soule also influenced Perkins profoundly, sending her and her classmates into Holyoke to survey working conditions in factories. “This was extraordinary for that time,” Colman explained. “It was important to Frances Perkins. She carefully documented her research and facts. She believed strongly in the persuasion of facts well presented. She documented the numbers of men, nationalities, percentages of skilled and unskilled, and the working conditions for women. The level of detail and the care and attention to distinctions all came from her training at Mount Holyoke,” explained Colman.

According to Colman, perhaps the most formative event in Perkins’ early life was witnessing the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire, which took place in a factory in downtown Manhattan in 1911.

President Franklin Delano Roosevelt asked Perkins to be his Secretary of Labor in 1933. While family matters made her ambivalent about taking the job, she did it because she believed that the door might not be open to a woman again for a long time. She accepted the appointment only after FDR agreed to back her in all her initiatives.

Perkins worked tirelessly to improve living and working conditions for the underprivileged, especially women and children. “You just can’t be afraid if you’re going to do anything. You just can’t be afraid,” Perkins said. Among her numerous achievements, noted Colman, Perkins pushed through legislation to abolish segregated lunchrooms.

Kay Althoff ’84, director of the program since 1988 and an FP alumna, has long felt that while the program has received many well-deserved accolades, its namesake has not been adequately recognized for her outstanding achievements. The twenty-fifth anniversary celebration, and particularly Colman’s presentation, went a long way in rectifying that shortcoming.

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