Let Us Now Praise…. Frances Perkins

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Let Us Now Praise….
Frances Perkins
By Michael Wormser
This Spring Midcoast Senior College is offering a course
on The Life and Legacy of Frances Perkins, the first
woman ever to serve on a U.S. presidential cabinet. She
served under Franklin D.Roosevelt. The faculty for this
course are Michael Chaney, the Executive Director of
the Frances Perkins Center in Newcastle, Maine and
Leah W. Sprague, a retired justice of the Massachusetts
Trial Court. She is also writing a book on women in the
Michael Wormser, a student of MSC, offered to write
this Inquirer article on Frances Perkins and the Works
Progress Administration (W PA)
“I see one-third of the nation ill-housed, ill-clad, ill-
nourished,” President Franklin D. Roosevelt declared in
his second inaugural address Jan. 20, 1937. And with
“tens of millions of its citizens” still dénied the
“necessities of life” despite all the reforms and
emergency relief legislation enacted during the “Hundred
Days” in 1933, widespread unemployment and poverty
persisted. Much more needed to be done, and Secretary
of Labor Frances Perkins, the first woman in any
presidential cabinet, had taken Roosevelt’s words
seriously long before FDR dramatized these seemingly

intractable economic problems.
Perkins had been one of the president’s longest serving
advisers, starting with FDR’s two terms as governor of
New York. In her book of reminisces about her
association with Roosevelt, The Roosevelt I Knew,
Perkins maintained that FDR came to “understand the
April, 2015
The Midcoast ‘Inquirer
alleviating the plight of the working classes and came to
trust her judgments and political instincts in drafting
social legislation and lobbying Congress. She told him
in 1934 it was high time “to be farsighted about future
problems of unemployment and unprotected old age.”
With unemployment still woefully high, Roosevelt did
problems of people in
trouble” after
confronting his own
crisis when stricken
with polio in 1921. It
might be more
accurate to say that
after his affliction he
developed a humility
and an open
mindedness and
greater capacity to
learn about the
problems of ordinary
people. He became
sensitized to their
needs. FDR’s
understanding of
these problems was
due in large measure
to Frances Perkins.
She became, first in
Albany and then in
Washington, his
educator in chief on
issues of labor
relations and more
specifically on the
dire living conditions
faced by working men
and women during the
Great Depression.
Roosevelt came into
The Weekly
Frances Perkins, Secretary of Labor, Time, August, 1933
not need to be
convinced. In fact,
his enthusiasm for
grand, universal relief
and economic
security, what he
called “cradle to the
grave” insurance, had
to be tempered at
times by what was
feasible. Perkins told
him any proposals
had to be based “upon
a practical knowledge
of the needs of our
country, the
prejudices of our
people, and our
legislative habits.”
She realized quickly
that FDR’s desire to
include a national
health insurance plan
would not survive
politically. “Powerful
elements of the
medical profession
were up in arms over
the idea of any kind
of government-
endorsed system,” she
wrote in her memoir.
Perkins was at the
office with no preconceived master plan for ending the
Depression and held traditional, rather conservative
economic beliefs. His ideas on public spending on relief
projects were distinctly cautious. On the other hand, he
was pragmatic and willing to experiment with whatever
might work. He did not let preconceived prescriptions
interfere with the need for decisive action. Being
practical meant not sacrificing the peoples’ immediate
needs for the sake of some greater ideal, no matter how
laudatory. FDR knew Perkins was committed to
center of the two most important proposals of what came
to be known as the Second New Deal: Social Security
and unemployment relief. The essential role she played
in developing the recommendations that led to successful
enactment of the Social Security Act of 1935, which also
included the first national program of unemployment
insurance, are well documented. She was also influential
in the advice she gave the President on the Second New
Deal’s jobs programs, the most important of which was
the Works Progress Administration (WPA).