Frances Perkins: The Roosevelt Years
By Harris Chaiklin, Ph.D.
The previous entry (Frances Perkins: Change Agent) covered Frances Perkins life up until the time Roosevelt ran for president. It showed how this very bright girl turned from her family’s Republican background to make a commitment to social reform. She became a woman who sought out and worked with leading reformers. She learned the ins and outs of machine politics and became an expert on labor statistics. In each step forward she had to contend with being a woman who was doing things women of her status did not do. Nothing attests more to her brilliance than the way she overcame these obstacles even though she was not a glad hander.
Roosevelt took office in March 1932. The depression was almost three years old. In terms that are startlingly similar to today Downey describes the social conditions that brought this on, “Homes rose markedly in value, especially in hot markets like Florida and New York City. Borrowers believed that home purchases were no-risk ventures certain to escalate, and they went out on a limb to buy a home. Lenders who had once required large down payments now permitted home purchasers to combine two and three loans to buy a home. People took out what they called “bullet” loans which were interest-only loans that buyers were told they could refinance in three years or five years. Lenders told home buyers not to worry; homes were rising so fast in value that it would always be easy to refinance into another loan. Developers built larger homes. They needed the space to hold all the things they were buying (Downey 2009, p. 106).”
When Roosevelt assumed the presidency the country was frightened and angry. The ringing tones of his inaugural address live on, “This great Nation will endure as it has endured, will revive and will prosper. So, first of all, let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself—nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.” There was social unrest. Early in his term the Bonus March by WWI veterans was broken up by Chief of Staff Douglas McArthur and his aide Captain Dwight Eisenhower. McArthur thought it was a Communist conspiracy.
Roosevelt needed the best help he could get. He created the famous “Brain Trust.” This was a mens club and Perkins was not a part of it. But he decided to make her the Secretary of Labor. This was to be the first woman cabinet member. He did this against tremendous opposition. Labor had supported him but they wanted one of their own in the position. The Baltimore Sun said in an editorial about her, “A woman smarter than a man is something to get on guard about. But a woman smarter than a man and also not afraid of a man, well, good-night.”
The Labor department that Perkins found called into play all her research and political skills. It was corrupt and inefficient and hadn’t accomplished much. Many were removed and some eventually went to jail. No detail was too small. In her shabby offices cockroaches were found. This was because black employees were not allowed to use the department cafeteria and brought their lunches to work. She and her secretary cleaned the office and soon ordered the cafeteria to be integrated.
At the time that she was getting the office in order she was also playing a major role in initiating legislation and programs which fundamentally changed social welfare in this country. Labor statistics were made respectable and she started the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC). Other efforts included protecting immigrant labor through championing the International Labor Organization (ILO), starting the WPA arts projects, and creating the important Federal Home Owners Loan Corporation. She was heavily involved in launching the National Recovery Act (NRA) which the Supreme Court declared unconstitutional.
When she first arrived in Washington she lived with Mary Harriman, a wealthy widow. This was another friend who provided support. Frances’s salary could not cover the payments she was making for her family and living in Washington. One activity that occupied a lot of her time was dealing with labor factions that were in conflict. John L. Lewis moved to organize labor along industrial and not craft lines. This became the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO). This was resisted by the craft organized American Federation of Labor (AFL). She worked hard to promote labor peace. This was difficult because especially AFL labor leaders still did not like her because she was a woman.
One incident which showed how easily she could be attacked concerned the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB). It was known to be biased toward labor and to have Communist members on the board. She was blamed for this even though the Board was not under her control.
What she did do was play a significant role in getting the Social Security bill through Congress. Developing unemployment insurance is less mentioned but is an equally significant program. All of this required that FDR back it. And he did even though by nature he was not that liberal. He did think that the Depression required fundamental change in society.
All this social progress caused great distress among American conservatives. Given the social causes she had championed she became a target. In 1939 an effort was made to impeach her. She was charged by Martin Dies’ House Un-American Activities committee with protecting communists. J. Parnell Thomas, another well known Communist hunter, introduced the motion to impeach her, another first for a cabinet officer. The initiating cause for this effort was her defense of Harry Bridges’s rights. He was a longshoreman labor leader on the West Coast who had won a strike in 1934. This did not sit well with influential shipping industry leaders. An effort was made to deport him as a Communist. Perkins did not like Bridges. Among other things he was a woman chaser and this offended this very moral woman. Still, she insisted that proper procedures be followed and this is what got her into trouble with Congress. She was charged with protecting Communists. The attacks on her were widespread and underhanded. Records were produced that purported to show that she was born a Russian Jew. Rumors were circulated that she was a lesbian and also that she had an affair with Bridges. People questioned why a woman should be in such a position. Since Bridges was CIO the AFL did nothing to support Frances. The Committee finally unanimously concluded that the charges were not warranted. Still the 10 Republicans issued a minority report saying she should be censured.
Throughout all of this Roosevelt did not do anything to defend Perkins and kept cabinet members from doing so also. When it came to playing the political odds friendship and loyalty meant nothing to Roosevelt. She paid a price for this. In 1939 war was imminent. Extremism of all forms was also in evidence; there were America Firsters, the anti-Semitic Father Coughlin, Fritz Kuhn and the German American Bund, and other brands of conservatives. She made attempts to bring more refugees here, labor leaders in particular. This was blocked, especially by a conservative State Department. Control of the Immigration and Naturalization Service was transferred from Labor to Justice ostensibly out of concern for national security. The one thing she did salvage from this was to help support and build the International Labor Organization (ILO). This group played a significant role in rescuing European labor leaders. They were one of the first groups Hitler went after when he came to power. To top all of this off the Supreme Court decided a case which upheld the procedures Frances said should be used in deportation cases.
Being proved right brought little solace to Perkins. Roosevelt was her friend and he relied on her in personal relationships. He would not fire her, but he also saw her as a pacifist and as the war approached he relied on her advice less. She continued to lose power and agencies such as employment and unemployment were transferred to the Federal Security Agency. With the end of the war and Roosevelt’s death she was ready to resign but Truman persuaded her to stay on. She wanted to take over Social Security but he persuaded her to stay in the cabinet. She wrote a good book about Roosevelt, The Roosevelt I Knew , but refused to take book tours so sales were low. She also had to endure new rumors as the McCarthy era commenced.
The end of the Truman era left her at age 77 without a job and needing money. She did short term university teaching and was a good teacher but couldn’t get a permanent job. Her reputation as a radical left most universities leery of her. Then in 1957 Maurice Neufeld hired her to teach at Cornell’s Industrial and Labor Relations School. She was to teach labor history and the New Deal Legacy, courses for which she was eminently prepared. This began what may be the most amazing phase in her career. She still had to struggle to find living arrangements she could afford. She visited the endowed Telluride House in which selected students lived in an intellectual atmosphere. Visiting scholars lived there for short periods. Frances had so charmed the students she was invited to live there permanently. Among the students there were Alan Bloom and Paul Wolfowitz. She quickly became a legend. It is quite a picture, a woman in her eighties getting along famously with undergraduate college students. In the spring of 1965 when she had an eye problem she came to Hopkins and lived at the All Saints Convent in Catonsville, Md. where she had previously come on retreats. She was not a Catholic but religion played a large role in her life. She was still making plans to travel abroad when she died on May 14, 1965.
Downey says, “The secret of Frances’s success was that she had done what she did selflessly, without hope of personal gain or public recognition from those who would come afterward. It was a perpetuation of the Hull House tradition of the old teaching the young how to advocate for the yet unborn.” She was also tough, not aggressive or hostile but she always moved from personal strength. Neither the depth nor scope of her contribution to American society is truly appreciated. The list is long and includes helping pass legislation for fire prevention and safety occupancy codes for offices and factories, Social Security, unemployment insurance and worker’s compensation for job injuries, minimum wages, and maximum work-hours , workplace safety regulations, a ban on child labor—the Fair Labor Standards Act. Her only major failure was in her desire to get universal health insurance. To accomplish what she did she mastered concrete political and research skills. Her tragic personal life did not prevent her from being one of the most important individuals in American history. Perkins demonstrated that the way to achieve change is through understanding and working with politics and politicians. To her politics and compromise were not dirty words but rather, the way to get things done in American society.
Sources: Downey, K. (2009). The woman behind the New Deal: The life of Frances Perkins, FDR’s Secretary of Labor and his moral conscience. New York Doubleday.
Note: This entry first appeared as a column in The Maryland Social Worker (Spring 2012)