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.