The Observer: What would Frances Perkins do?

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By Ron McAllister

It is easy to think that life as we experience it today is much the same as it was decades ago but a little historical perspective shows that life in 2018 is very different from life, say in 1918. Imagine trading your life for that of your parents, grandparents or great grandparents. As an example, think about working conditions 100 years ago.

In 1918, there was no standard 40-hour work week, no minimum wage, no worker’s compensation, no unemployment insurance, no prohibition on child labor, no Social Security. All these initiatives (and more) came into existence as part of the New Deal of the 1930s; programs that have persisted for nearly 80 years.

These programs, along with the alphabet soup of agencies that helped end the Great Depression, were shaped by a woman closely identified with Maine — Frances Perkins, FDR’s Secretary of Labor from 1933 to 1945. Born in 1880 in Worcester, Massachusetts, Perkins became a social worker following graduation from Mount Holyoke College. She subsequently worked with the legendary Jane Addams of Hull House in Chicago, learning about the world of settlement houses and of the precarious lives of laboring people.

Frances Perkins witnessed the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in New York City in 1911. She never forgot the working conditions that killed 146 mostly immigrant workers that day. Seeing young women hurl themselves from the windows of the burning factory had a profound effect on Perkins whose life had been relatively comfortable to the point.

Following his election in 1932, but before his inauguration, FDR invited Frances Perkins to be his Secretary of Labor. They had worked together in Albany when FDR was governor of New York. The president knew the vision, persistence and toughness that Perkins would bring to his cabinet.

She was the first woman ever appointed to a president’s cabinet and she faced widespread opposition from powerful men who did not like the idea of having any woman in power. But there was more than sexism at play in the headwinds Frances Perkins faced. Entrenched interests opposed her appointment and made her job harder than it would otherwise have been.

The Republican opposition she and FDR encountered in the 1930s when they were working on economic security measures like Social Security has not disappeared. The GOP remains hostile to progressive initiatives like Social Security as well as toward subsequent Perkins-inspired social programs like Medicare.

Echoes of New Deal-era Republican opposition also can be seen in Gov. Paul LePage’s resistance to increases in the minimum wage, to limits on child labor and to expanding Medicaid coverage. No fan of Perkins, in 2011 LePage removed a multi-panel mural from the Maine State House that featured her image.

I’m embarrassed to confess how little I knew about Secretary Perkins and her legacy. Much of what I learned followed a visit to the Frances Perkins Center in Damariscotta, Maine. The Perkins family summered in mid-coast Maine for many years. Frances grew up in Newcastle on the Damariscotta River. The Main Street Damariscotta museum dedicated to this remarkable woman is something I recommend. [See for details.]

According to Perkins’ biographer, Kirstin Downey (The Woman Behind the New Deal), Frances Perkins would only accept the president-elect’s cabinet offer if he agreed to let her pursue her progressive agenda. She had a long list of social welfare and labor policies she was eager to pursue. Over the course of her time at Labor, most of her major ideas were enacted with one glaring exception; something we still wrangle over today — universal health insurance.

Perkins pursued a national health insurance program because she could see the need for it. She was vilified in her pursuit but she fought for it relentlessly and if she were alive today, she’d still be fighting for it just as she would be fighting to preserve Social Security, one of the proudest achievements of her extraordinary career.

It is easy to think that life as we know it today is much the same as it will be decades from now but a little imagination suggests that life could be very different in 2118. Voters everywhere should be asking what is best for their families, their state and for their country. Each of us should ask ourselves: What would Frances Perkins do? I’ll tell you: she would be working to protect Social Security and to expand Medicare and Medicaid.

Ron McAllister is a sociologist and writer who lives in York.

ALERT: Due to the Novel Coronavirus (COVID-19) The Frances Perkins Center and Homestead are Temporarily Closed