Skip to main content

We will keep fighting for all libraries - stand with us!

tv   Kirstin Downey The Woman Behind the New Deal  CSPAN  May 29, 2022 5:25am-6:25am EDT

5:25 am
excuse me. great pleasure to welcome to the university of mary washington and to the great lives podium, kirsten downey. you don't. well hello and aloha from hawaii. thank you so much bill. and i also like to single out ali for all your logistics work and making this possible tonight in the face of an ongoing global pandemic.
5:26 am
putting together a big public program and the in the is difficult and the best of circumstances and the challenge is of bringing us together and keeping us safe is presenting a million new complications. thank you for everything. you've done make this happen. i'm here tonight to talk about something wonderful. something almost miraculous it marked a radical transformation when it occurred. it was contrary to centuries of what had gone on before when america actually prided itself on being a dog eat dog culture. those were the times of the laissez-faire economy. in those days poverty in both childhood and old age were blamed on the victim. this suffering was believed to be in immutable condition of the human life. in the first centuries of our new republic human beings were left to sink or swim in the face
5:27 am
of economic prosperity and unavoidable economic downturn. some prospered but many were lost under the waves. then starting in 1933 along came this remarkable development that we now call the new deal. it gave us the social safety network that's allowed people to weather the ups and downs customary in the ordinary human life. this happened in response to the terrifying of event that we now call the great depression. now we saw the latest iteration of this miracle for ourselves in march of 2020 only two years ago. it was a time that terrifying things were occurring. we saw the advent of a frightening new disease that we did not initially know how to treat and that so threatened our health system that we and many other countries around the world
5:28 am
decided to shut down our economy close our schools our offices and most of our stores. we protected people's lives but at the expense of stripping millions of their livelihoods. in 2020 in addition to the fear of illness and death many americans also face the fear of starvation. that's when the miracle happened. on march 27th, 2020 congress did something amazing and surprising now we know these guys never seem to get along no matter how big the threat or problem both parties blame the issue on the other guys. they spend their time talking or tweeting with people who are already agree with them reading news sources that mostly confirm their own views. but at that time both sides came together to work together in defense of a common enemy.
5:29 am
as america braced for the onslaught of the covid epidemic a temporarily united congress reached for a tool that would help cushion the blow. with widespread job losses looming congress voted almost unanimously in late, march 2020 to expand the nation's unemployment system to provide an alternate source of income to america's workers. in the next 12 months a record 48 million people found economic refuge through state employment insurance programs up from just five million the year before the pandemic. even independent contractors recovered it was a vital lifeline allowing people who had lost their jobs to feed their families and heat their homes when the world's economy shut down.
5:30 am
unknown to all but a few however is the name of the person who deserves the credit for creating the program. it was a woman named francis perkins a social reformer from new york who paved the way for unemployment insurance in america? today perkins is known at least to those who know her at all. mostly as the first woman to serve as a president as in a presidential cabinet. that indeed was unique. women had only had the right to vote for 13 years when francis perkins became us secretary of labor under president franklin delano roosevelt. the perkins the perkins roll was far greater. she was arguably one of the most important and successful progressive politicians male or female in us history. and that's because national
5:31 am
unemployment insurance is only one of perkins's accomplishments. she was also the driving force behind social security. behind the 40 hour work week the ban on child labor the international fire safety code and the national labor relations act which gave workers for the first time the right to organize and form unions. perkins legacy is everywhere today and that brings us to the central question that i am raising with you tonight. who was francis perkins and how did she get so much done? how did a social worker turn herself into a miracle worker. that's what i'm planning to tell you about tonight. going to start with a short reading from my book. from the prologue from the woman behind the new deal on a chilly
5:32 am
february night in 1933 a middle-aged woman waited expectantly to meet with her employer at his residence on east 65th street in new york city. she clutched to scrap of paper with hastily written notes. finally ushered into his study the one brushed aside her nervousness and spoke confidently. they bannered casually for a while as was their style then she turned serious her dark luminous eyes holding her gay is gays. he wanted her to take an assignment, but she had decided she wouldn't accept it unless he allowed her to do it her own way. she held up the piece of paper in her hand and he motioned for her to continue. she ticked off the items. 40 hour, work week a minimum wage workers compensation unemployment compensation a federal law banning child labor direct federal aid for unemployment relief social
5:33 am
security a revitalized public employment service and national health insurance she watched his eyes to make sure he was paying attention and understood the implications of each demand. she braced her his response knowing he often chose political expediency over idealism and was capable of callousness even of cruelty. the scope of her list was breathtaking. she was proposing a fundamental and radical restructuring of american society with enactment of historic social welfare and labor labor laws. to succeed. she would have to overcome opposition from the courts business labor unions and conservatives. nothing like this has ever been done in the united states before she said, you know that don't you? the man sat across from her and his wheelchair amid the clutter of boxes and rumpled rugs soon. he would head to washington dc
5:34 am
to be sworn and as the thirty-second president the united states. he would inherit the worst economic crisis in the nation's history. an era of rampant speculation had come to an end. the stock market had collapsed rendering investments valueless. banks were shutting down stripping people of their lifetime savings. about a third of workers were unemployed wages were falling hundreds of thousands were homeless. real estate prices had plummeted and millions of homeowners faced foreclosure his choice of labor secretary would be one of his most important early decisions. his nominee must understand economic and employment issues but be equally effective as a coalition builder. he was a handsome man with aqualine features and he studied the plane matronly woman sitting before him. no one was more qualified for
5:35 am
the job. she knew as much about labor law and administration as anyone in the country. he'd known her for more than 20 years the last four in albany when she had worked at his side. he trusted her and knew would never betray him. but placing a woman the labor secretary's job would expose him to criticism and ridicule. her list her proposals would stir heat it up position even among his loyal supporters. the eight-hour day was a standard standard plank of the socialist party. unemployment insurance seemed to laughably improbable. direct aid to the unemployed with threaten his campaign pledge of a balanced budget. still he said he would back her. it was a job. she had prepared for all her life. she had changed her name her appearance even her age to make herself a more effective labor advocate. she had studied how men think so she could better succeed in a man's world.
5:36 am
she had spent decades building crucial alliances still. she told the president-elect. that she needed time to make her decision. the next day she visited her husband a patient in a sanitarium. he was having a good day and he understood when she told him about the job offer. his first impulse was to fret for himself. asking how this new job might affect him. when she assured him that he could remain where he was and that her weekend visits would continue he gave his permission. that night in bed the woman cried and deep wailing sobs that frightened her teenage daughter. she knew the job would change her life forever. she would open herself to constant media scrutiny. harsh judgment from her peers and public criticism for doing a job a woman had never done before. yet she knew she must accept the
5:37 am
offer. as her grandmother had told her. whenever a door opened to you, you had no choice but to walk through it. the next day she called franklin roosevelt and accepted the offer. francis perkins would become the nation's first female secretary of labor. now as it turned out. almost all of it unfolded as she'd hoped. the social security act which francis perkins championed and which passed in 1935? gave us unemployment insurance the tool that provided an income for 48 million people last year. and social security which is the main source of income to some 68 million old and disabled people in america. let me stop and say that again
5:38 am
because it's so incredible last year 48 million people were on unemployment insurance. and 68 million were on social security. when we shot the us economy down. about a hundred and sixteen million people received their income through programs that francis perkins established through programs at their own past earnings entitled them to receive. there are fact 259 million adults in the us. so just to make that clear 45% of americans were dependent on these key new deal programs last year. 45% almost half so what else did she do?
5:39 am
the fair labor standards act passed in 1938 set the standard of the 40-hour workweek. a minimum wage which she hoped would be a living wage a challenge that remains for us all. a ban on child labor and the concept of overtime pay for workers asked to work long hours. as a genius idea because it allows workers to work longer hours mostly if they wish to do so at higher pay but punishes employers financially if they ask for it too often. she was a major supporter of the federal housing administration what we call fha insurance program to help by people buy houses which allowed people to purchase healthy homes. hygienic with running water and indoor plumbing in america. that was a very important new development.
5:40 am
over the decades some 50 million american families and eight million today have become homeowners. thanks to fha insurance. she was also the primary architect of the civilian conservation corps, which put three million young men and women to work on state and national parks reforesting projects and in combating soil erosion. a lot of the nice features that we all enjoy in the state parks today are as a result of the work of the ccc. now the ccc was fdr's idea. but he asked perkins. to figure out the details and she did. that's not all. she was the largest single supporter in the cabinet for two massive public works programs that we call the wpa and the pwa which rebuilt america's infrastructure and some of the
5:41 am
things they did. would it be including the lincoln tunnel the blue ridge parkway the highway to the florida keys the east bay bridge in san francisco and hundreds of schools courthouses and park structures all over the country. and that's not all. she helped raft the rule that specifically and for the first time in america gave workers the right to organize to collectively bargain for better wages and benefits. in 1932 only 5% of workers were unionized about half of today's level and by the time she died about a third of the american workforce was unionized propelling millions of people into the middle class for the first time. and that's not all. the immigration department then was part of the labor department and she brought tens of thousands of immigrants to the united states to get them out of the hands of the nazis before
5:42 am
most americans even had any idea of the extent of the dangers that they faced there. national health insurance well, it never passed there was too much opposition from the american medical association who said they would kill social security to prevent what they called socialized medicine. fdr backed off to save social security we continue to wrestle with the problem today. quite a bit quite a bit, right? and that's just the years when she was 52 to 59. she had remarkable accomplishments from the time. she was 30 until she was 85 advising the kennedy administration until shortly before her death. it was 55 years of work reshaping americans america's social safety net.
5:43 am
so francis perkins achieved almost all her agenda who was she? and how did she do it? how did that happen? that was the question that got me started on the book. i first heard her name myself as a joke. back in 1988 i went to work as a young reporter at the washington post. i grew up as bill mentioned to you mostly in hawaii in the panama canal zone, and i was a newcomer to the city. i was trying to learn my way around so i took a tour bus tour of the city. and at some point when we were going down along the mall the tour bus driver told a joke. and this is what it was. which american woman had the worst childbirth experience? francis perkins, she spent 12 years in labor okay, i drew a
5:44 am
big laugh on the bus and i have to say i left too. it's a funny joke. but i felt a little bad that i laughed at it and i remembered her name. and then i noticed over the years past over the 20 years that i spent at the washington post that i kept hearing her name. it was like a distant echo in all the issues we covered is news developed around things like workplace rules workplace discrimination and funding social security. i heard again and again about what francis had done to establish this program and that program. and i began to be very surprised that i knew so little about her and that so few others did as well. i also became increasingly amazed by what she had accomplished as i observed events in washington dc over the 20 years. i started to see how really difficult it is to get progressive legislation passed.
5:45 am
the law bs who control the reigns of power figure out ways to bottle up most things from happening even when it's obvious that a crisis is looming. i witnessed this over and over at the post but also later when i served on the staff of the financial crisis inquiry commission looking at the causes of the financial meltdown of 2008. it was a preventable crisis, but washington could not or would not take the steps to stop it from happening. and this again takes us back to francis perkins. how did she do so much when we know how hard it is to make these kinds of changes? so you might be saying oh, yeah. well, maybe she did a lot back then. it must have been easier back. then the lobbyists weren't so strong. the courts weren't so hostile the conservatives must not have been so hateful. but that's not true. she did most of these things in
5:46 am
times that parallel our own. there are some amazing even eerie similarities between our times our time and hers. she was born in a time of rapid change like our own with many technological developments causing seismic shifts in the workplace. there was a huge influx of immigration that changed the population and stirred a lot of resentment. and the gap between the rich and the poor was growing white or every day. the role of women was changing too. she had the women in her generation had to reinvent themselves imagine themselves in a new world. she was born in 1880. james garfield was president. there was a long string of republican presidents during her lifetime. now times were tough in maine when she was born. in fact, there was a big
5:47 am
downturn in the 1880s. and for those of you have been to disney world, you'll know that you will will visit the haunted house ride. and that's where the image of the how it haunted house comes from a big abandoned foreclosed victorian house that people can't afford anymore. that's the time in which francis perkins grew up. her family's brick business collapse in the country was in a downturn. so just like we always do in america when times get hard the perkins family moved. they moved to worcester, massachusetts her father opened a stationary store and she grew up middle class. her parents were runners. still they managed to send her to college at mount holyoke where girls could save money on college expenses by sharing in the housekeeping. she wanted to get a job as a social worker in new york city, but she got turned down. instead she lived at home and
5:48 am
worked a series of temp jobs filling in for teachers who are on leave. i think a lot of american young people could identify with that? it took a couple years for her to get a regular job and she had to move to chicago to do it. she was teaching at a girls school called ferry hall, but it was there that she started volunteering at hull house a settlement house in downtown chicago led by the social worker jane addams. there frances perkins work with low wage workers and help them with their financial and family problems. she saw how bad conditions were for the meat packers. how pressured they were how little leisure time they had. how their families were buckling under the pressures they were feeling. this is something described so clearly by upton sinclair and the jungle. francis perkins saw older people get kicked to the curb particularly when there was an
5:49 am
economic downturn and employers would earn young people instead at lower wages. she saw that people who scraped by could be destroyed by even a brief period of unemployment if they lost their jobs and had no savings. she began to see that much was needed to improve people's lives. she went to graduate school in new york city. and there she had another. shocking and life-changing experience she witnessed the triangle short waste fire one of the most famous industrial accidents of the early 20th century. now the triangle company made gibson girl gibson girl blouses and those of you were remember those were the frilly very beautiful blouses that we see pictures from that era. they employed hundreds of immigrants in their factory that was located on the eighth ninth and 10th floors of a manhattan office building in greenwich
5:50 am
village women were lined up shoulders shoulder at the showing machines with the leftover fabric the thread scraps and remains pushed down through slots behind the sewing machine onto the ground. oil from the machines dropped onto the fabric that was on the floors and some of the men smoked while they worked. the fire broke out on a sunny spring day in march of 1911. it was a saturday afternoon. remember then people typically worked six days a week. workers were locked in and they were trapped. francis perkins was having tea with a friend nearby when the fire broke out. they heard the bells and shouts and they ran across washington square park and they got there just as the first trapped workers started to jump out the windows. about a hundred and forty six people died that day either from burnt being burned alive stampeded or jumping to their deaths to escape the flames.
5:51 am
it was not a freak accident. it's been estimated that a thousand people a day died in workplace accidents in that era. now many thousands of new yorkers witnessed the fire. but francis perkins became determined to do something about it. she decided that regulations were needed to stop these kind of abuses from occurring. she decided it needed to stop. but francis was realizing it wasn't going to be easy. she knew she would need to convince people who did not share her views. she realized that chameleon like she would need to adapt herself to the conditions in the world in which she lived not just wish it to be different. it was part of her great emotional intelligence. from her 20s. she began changing herself to make herself more effective. my book is full of examples of
5:52 am
ways. she got things done. but let me tell you just a few. first of all her real name was in francis. it was fanny. fanny corley perkins she started out as a woman called fanny. now that's a name that has some obvious disadvantages. in her early 20s, well at hull house. she switched her name to francis. people have since wondered why she chose the name francis some people think it was because of an association with saint francis of assisi other people think it was a decision to try to pick a gender neutral name where people wouldn't be quite sure if she was a man or a woman. but in any case she changed her name.
5:53 am
around that same time she changed her religion, too. she was raised in the congregationalism that was common in new england, but she converted to episcopalianism. she was devoutly religious and her current version was true. but it's also worth noting the episcopalian church tended to draw the social elites who could be most helpful in achieving a personal agenda. she began attending a new and rich church in lake forest near the school where she was working where her fellow parishioners were members of the armor family and the swifts. this is part of what she seems to embarked upon which was a strategy of cultivating rich and powerful friends who had the ability to make changes. she changed her political affiliation when she realized it would be a social sigma. in the early 20s before she
5:54 am
could vote francis was a member of the socialist party, but when she entered public life, she registered as a democrat. and later when she was contacted by a historian investigating the that era she denied that she had ever been a socialist at all. instead. she cultivated republicans. she saw it out republicans of integrity and enlisted them in our plans. she sent them notes to the congratulations when they got promoted kind notes of condolence when they lost a family member. she took speaking engagements in crowds where people didn't agree with her viewpoint. she went to the south to explain what they were doing in washington, even though a lot of what they were doing was unpopular there. she learned to talk to people from different backgrounds learn to convince them. she learned how to make humor learned how to use humor to make
5:55 am
her points getting people to laugh was the best way to convince them. and is a little modern note. i'd like to say i spent 10 years going through our papers and i never found a single mean tweet. she had a genius for recognizing people with talent and intelligence. she reached across the aisle to make common ground with them. shout harold ickeys a progressive republican from illinois to run the wpa wpa and suggested him to fdr. she picked another progressive republican john wayne of new hampshire as the american to head the international labor organization and he became our us ambassador to great britain forging an important friendship with the british when it was most needed during world war two. imagine that working effectively across the aisle and not insulting the people whose votes
5:56 am
you need to get things done. francis perkins had learned early how to talk to a hostile crowd and bring them around. she said later that she learned how to talk to people in public. because of her work in the suffrage movement and she gave these an incredible anecdote of how she did it. now during the suffrage movement it was so difficult for women to make the case that they deserve to write the vote the right to vote. even the avenues they had to make the case were very limited. so what women would do is they would take a soapbox they would go to a corner in a city a busy city where there was a saloon on all four corners. they would pull the soapbox out outside a saloon and one of them would stand outside the saloon with a and and begin to talk about the need to for women to have the right to vote and a friend would stand behind or holding up the sign votes for women.
5:57 am
now the men inside the bar drinking after a while, they'd notice there were some young women out there making a ruckus and they'd go out to take a look. sometimes they were interested but a lot of times they were laughing or jeering at the women, but in any case they came out of the bar and they drew a crowd. francis perkins noticed that usually in the crowd even of the people who are jearing and laughing there's one person that has a sort of a sympathetic look on their face. they realize the young woman is being ridiculed by people. and she would turn to that man and say hello, could you help us please? my friend is having a really hard time holding the banner aloft. do you think you'd hold the other side? and the man would come out to the front her friend would go to the side holding votes for women. the man would be on the other side now francis perkins is preaching about the need for women to have the right to vote and behind her are a man and a woman standing to make the case.
5:58 am
then after while she'd see another sympathetic face. oh, my friend is really tired. do you think you'd come and help and then you'd have another man come and he'd take the other side and francis would continue with her talk about women how women deserve the right to vote? but behind her would be two men holding the banner high. these were some of the tricks of the trade that francis perkins used to learn how to convince. an audience that might not have been receptive because a woman standing on a soapbox backed by two men looks very different to a male crowd then a woman with a frail friend standing behind her. now francis perkins took this since she had of the need to work across the aisle very seriously. she was quite religious as i've said before. and she believed in praying for political enemies.
5:59 am
she tried not to hate her political opponents when they were selfish or short-sighted. she would pray for them. sometimes it made her blood boil though to say them by name so she started to pray for them in categories like people who bear false witness she prayed for them. but she felt some relief. when she set up programs she made sure they actually worked so people would have confidence in them. the civilian conservation corps was one of those programs that turned out to be overwhelmingly popular. and it's amazing how well social security has operated after all these years. now some of the things that francis perkins did were just funny. at one point she changed her age. now that could have been female vanity. a lot of women. wish they were younger.
6:00 am
but by making herself two years younger. she made herself the same age as her boss franklin delano roosevelt. anyone who's ever visited a dating site? knows that men think women their own age or younger are much preferable. they think women who are older are much older. and francis perkins began representing herself. around the top that time as having been born in 1882 the same year as fdr making her the same age as fdr and i think that was one of the more interesting pieces of emotional intelligence. she also changed her appearance to better help her succeed in a man's world. she had noticed that most men respected their mothers and gave mothers more honor than other women so she began adopting a matronly persona dark suits pearls of the neck hair swept into a bun tricorner hat you can see a picture of it.
6:01 am
here's francis perkins as she looked in the 30s. now in her youth francis perkins was described as pert. perky fashionable even dimpled but after that she was described as matronly. some people even called her ma perkins which she hated. now most women want to be beautiful and attract men, but francis consciously assumed a persona. she was only 33. and still single and still hoping to marry when she did that. but by looking dependable respectable and matronly. it made her seem more trustworthy, too. and you know, i think that's the great secret of francis perkins life. she applied emotional intelligence to the world around her. and even in the most dire of circumstances, she found it made a difference.
6:02 am
now doing good. just not always mean. there will be a big personal payoff. sometimes there's no payoff. sometimes you do things because they're simply the right thing to do. francis perkins certainly didn't get rich because of what she did in contrast. i might add to many politicians today. instead she suffered for what she did. there was a huge backlash against the new deal from business and social conservatives who didn't like social security or the fair labor standards act. suffered a humiliating impeachment because of her failure to deport hairy bridges a pacific coast union leader who was accused of being a communist. he had been born in australia, which meant he could be deported something employers wondered because he was stirring labor activism. abuse was heaped on her. and the roosevelts astute
6:03 am
politicians as they were. seldom stood up for her in public. and though she had many public successes. she had a tragic personal life. she married, but her husband had bipolar disorder at a time. there was no treatment and her daughter inherited same ailment. it became a lonely existence. their care was expensive and the mentally ill seldom. thank their caregivers for what they've done. francis perkins had to work hard to provide for them. but the essential irony of this is if she had a happy life an easy and good marriage. would she have done what she did? and then that brings us to another question here. how has it happened that she's so little known today. i described to you the long list
6:04 am
of all the things that she accomplished truly extraordinary. how did she get erased? well, there's a couple reasons she didn't like reporters. especially she actually despised many of them for being shallow and short-sighted mean spirited even and other people in the new deal of demonstration, especially franklin and his very able wife eleanor astutely cultivated the press. reporters came to blame fdr and ellen reporters came to praise fdr and eleanor what went, right? and blame francis for what went wrong? part of the reason she avoided them was to protect her husband's privacy. and that of her daughter. deep wooded sexism was a problem for her too. even when she played a key role
6:05 am
in an action many of the men involved would decline for mentioning her and their memoirs. like as though they would be seen as less. if they were associating with a woman. some men in the in the cabinet were spitefully jealous of her friendship with fdr, which they found inexplicable. and later the same sexism among scholars in the middle of the 20th century those responsible for some of the seminal accounts of the new deal chose to overlook or dismiss francis perkins contributions. i'd like to ask you to take a look at some of the books about the new deal that you may have including some of it in your own home library. once you've read my book, you will be amazed at what was omitted. but even amid all this criticism francis perkins took enormous pride in what she had
6:06 am
accomplished and that and her strong religious convictions gave her strength at the end of her life. she had done it all because she wanted to make the world a better place and she did. imagine our world without social security without unemployment insurance if you've ever enjoyed a weekend off work. thank francis perkins for the creation of the 40-hour work week. but she didn't do it for the glory or the fame. one letter to me sums up her motivation. supreme court justice felix frankfurter wrote her a letter as she stepped down a secretary of labor. he congratulated her on her successes, and he noted ruthfully that she had faced much criticism in doing so. she responded to him. i came to work for god.
6:07 am
fdr and the millions of plain forgotten common working men she told him the last conversation i had with fdr was of such a nature that i could say with the psalmist. my cup runneth over and surely goodness and mercy shall follow me. this lecture series celebrates great lives and i hope you will remember this talk tonight as a celebration of francis perkins a person who had a truly great life. and who made all of our lives a good deal better to and i welcome your questions.
6:08 am
well as you can tell i'm not. technologically savvy, but anyway curiously, thank you so much. just a superb presentation that i enjoyed very much. i do have a few questions that we would like to address with life you to address and most of these i have several and most of them deal with personal aspects of her life as opposed to her public accomplishments. and and these are questions that probably have occurred to a number of people certainly would have occurred to me and i would like to get your take on them one is what was her relationship with fdr and was it to any extent romantic?
6:09 am
oh, very good question. well. fdr was quite a lady's man. there were a number of ladies that fell for fdr over the years francis perkins relationship with him was somewhat different when she met him they were both young. he was in the new york senate. she was a young labor activist in new york. and she remembered seeing him on the steps of a state office building before he become disabled before he was handicapped and she noticed how he stood very erect. he was a very handsome man and he had a way of holding his head back like this and someone was asking questions and he was answering the questions like this and she said, you know, it seemed like he just had his nose in the air. he seemed, you know, very snooty in those early years, but she noticed there was a huge change that occurred to him after his terrible disability. some people think it was polio others think maybe he it might
6:10 am
have been some kind of other neurological disease that he had. there's been some dispute about that. but the fact is he had a very terrible disability that came upon him. he found himself in a wheelchair most of his life. it was very humbling. he had to learn to accept what was given to him. he had a very good education. he was enormously well connected and he had that same kind of emotional genius that francis perkins had and at some point the two of them came to recognize each other francis. perkins went to work for the new york industrial commission with governor then governor al smith as a result of her very successful work in the wake of the triangle short waste fire. and so she was already experiencing on the triangle, you know on the on workplace safety and workplace management issues fdr became governor of new york in 1928, and he asked francis perkins to become his industrial commissioner, so she'd already been in public office for four years when she
6:11 am
joined fdr she very quickly became a key a key confidant to fdr. he was someone that she could he could completely trust so francis perkins was not entirely surprised when he selected her to become secretary of labor. she sort of knew it was already coming because they'd already been working together. i would say she was enormously awed by him. she thought he had a kind of a genius almost almost an extra sensory perception in what he could learn and and and do based on knowledge. that always wasn't always entirely presented to him. but she also had a way about him that she was almost someone like an older sister to him. she saw his frail teeth. she thought he was a little funny and she became quite at manipulating him. so they had a very interesting
6:12 am
almost a brother sister relationship. she often said that later that one of the reasons she was so successful in working with him in the cabinet was that she had no politically ambition. she knew she could not go any further. whereas all the other men in the cabinet were hoping that they would someday become president. so she was only looking out for fdr's interests. so she was aware of his many romantic relationships. she did not approve of them. in a sense. she was his best friend. you mentioned al smith. making this up or imagine it. did she start to write a book on al smith? yes. she one of her goals at the end of her life was to write a biography of al smith in some ways. she admired al smith at least as much as she admired fdr and she felt al smith had been treated cavalierly by the roosevelt group and that she was very sorry that he fell away from
6:13 am
them and actually ended up becoming something enemy of fdr and after she left the federal government. she hoped to write a biography of fdr. she also thought she'd live a very long time. she came from a very long lived family, but she'd been under incredible stress for so many years of her life and her health started to fail and she was never able to finish it a version of her book was published and using some of her notes but she was never able to complete that work. i can only imagine how interesting it might have been. yeah. how did she get along with eleanor? eleanor now, this is very interesting. okay, some people at the time assumed that eleanor got francis perkins her job. which was completely untrue francis perkins was an important public figure long before eleanor roosevelt went on to the public stage.
6:14 am
it was an uneasy relationship eleanor had good reason to feel nervous of any woman in the presence of her husband. um women who came into fdrs or but tended to fall in love with him. and it created a lot of complications for the roosevelt family. so eleanor was a little nervous about it. but she and francis perkins had very much in common. they shared very much similar values and they had the same goals. and gradually their relationship grew closer now initially it wasn't that easy. you know, francis perkins was a college graduate and eleanor of roosevelt was not that was a big gulf in those days but their relationship grew closer over the years as the time went on and they also be they actually eleanor francis and fdr formed a very effective trio together fdr would propose an idea francis perkins would consider how to make it possible.
6:15 am
and eleanor threw her enormously popular newspaper columns would explain in simple words why that was a useful program and why it was needed. so she would be the the three of them were enormously effective together. but francis was still a little nervous around eleanor. eleanor could be tough she cut people out when she decided she didn't like them anymore and francis was a little nervous around eleanor. but at the end of their lives they had they they came together in a very intimate way and there's a really beautiful picture at a 50th anniversary commemoration of the triangle shirtwaist fire and eleanor roosevelt and francis perkins are sitting together up at the podium. they're all giving they're each giving talks about what they remember about the triangle fire. and the two women have their heads very close together as they talk about what they remember of those days and it's
6:16 am
very clear from the picture that they really came to love each other. eleanor lived her right? i'm sorry eleanor i lived from did she actually eleanor? who frances perkins outlived ellis just briefly yes briefly and and it was interesting because francis perkins had some very interesting observations about eleanor and how she had managed to build herself up from a shy insecure young woman to this amazingly popular public figure who was known and loved all over the world and francis perkins told some young men at cornell where she was teaching that it was amazing what eleanor had done in her life, but it was also amazing what eleanor roosevelt had done for herself? yes. what about francis husband home. did she marry a little bit very interesting? i'm francis perkins married and
6:17 am
what i think was a love match a very handsome young man named paul wilson a wealthy man from chicago who lived in a very rich neighborhood of chicago and who came to new york as part of a pioneering effort to sort of clean up new york city sort of an anti-tamony group. and so while francis perkins was very important doing things on the workplace front her husband. paul wilson was very important as a key official with a very exciting young. kennedy-esque new york. mayoral administration. but when he was very young and only his mid-30s he started to develop. very dramatic signs of bipolar disorder. he invested his money in a gold mine that failed and left himself penniless and francis perkins became the sole support
6:18 am
of the family. she stayed married with him. in fact, they're buried together outside the family homestead. in damariscotta, maine she loved him very much, but he could never really be a partner again. from that time what about their daughter? they had one daughter. is that correct? they had it they had a very lovely daughter suzanna artistically gifted and part of a very interesting of art guard community of artists in new york, but who developed by polar disorder also and also needed of treatment and care. i have to ask you this. because i've heard this question raised before. was she gay? i think that's a good question. i would say that a lot of it. was that francis perkins loved different people at different points in her life. there's no question that she was in love and loved her husband paul wilson. but after he was
6:19 am
institutionalized and because she was very religious. there was no thought in her mind of divorce or separation from her marriage. so she found herself alone. this was a time that a lot of women were taking a more. a bigger public role and francis perkins lived with a series of different women in what seemed to have been relationships that were much more than friendship one was with mary herriman rumsey the sister of avril harriman one of the wealthiest women in america, and in fact, one of the things that makes that relationship quite interesting is that mary harriman's well, the loud francis perkins to do the kind of socializing that allowed her to help get her point and her case across to powerful people who could help make the things that she wanted happen. so it was a relationship, but it was a relationship. that was very deep and a young
6:20 am
man who knew both women well thought that francis perkins would surely leave public life when mary harriman died unexpectedly in a horseback riding accident after horseback riding, right? accident so i guess what we can say is that francis perkins loved different people at different points in her life. and that some of them are women. you know i ran across a term in your book that i had don't think ever seen before. and i think the town was a boston marriage. what's the boston marriage well, and why is it called a boston mary? well a boston marriage was i think what we would call a partnership today or a civil union but in it before it was possible for people to marry a lot of new england women well a lot of of women found each other
6:21 am
and formed a household together and they like to call it. a boston man, is that a commonly used term? i never heard it, but i think it was known and certainly known in boston known in boston. okay? now a couple lastly a couple of questions more politically more involving policy. is it true that she opposed the equal rights amendment? well, this is something that's made francis perkins a controversial person in the women's movement. france perkins fought very hard to get laws passed that provided protections for women and children back before they got the ban on child labor and the limitation on work hours. they were first able to get some state laws passed that that provided for limitations on women and children based on the fact that their health and emotional and physical development required them to get a certain amount of rest.
6:22 am
and so they were able to get some protections and workforce limitations or work our limitations for women and children that they had not been able to get for men the equal rights amendment would not would would would ban those kinds of differential laws. so although the equal rights amendment has much to commend it francis perkins believed that could end up. inadvertently affecting some people who benefited from more protective legislation that women and children need and so she was not a fan of the equal rights amendment. and that has made her anathema to a generation of a feminist who think that the equal rights amendment is desperately needed and remains needed. but her view was that women need. that the special situation involving around childbearing. caring for aging adults puts
6:23 am
responsibilities on women that most men don't have and that women need. protections and programs that may not equally apply to men right? a last question and also has a head of criticism in it, and that is that some people have noted that farm workers and domestic servants were essentially left out of the fair labor standards act. that's right and many of those were obviously were people of color. that's the question is, why did francis perkins allow this to happen right by 1938 when the fair labor standards act passed? a fdr no longer had the majorities and the political control he'd had earlier when he first became elected his court packing plan had made him a lot of enemies made a lot of people skeptical of what he had in
6:24 am
mind. so the fair labor standards act was not at all what francis perkins envisioned you might remember i mentioned earlier in my talk that she didn't want it to just be a minimum wage. she wanted it to be a living wage. so from the beginning and crafting the fair labor standards at compromises had to be made that she was sorry had to be made but she still thought it was better to get protections for some then be a seek perfection and get protections for none. so as it turned out the fair labor standards act i make at these numbers not exactly precise covered about eight million workers. and so that meant eight million workers for the first time got limitations on their workouts a minimum wage the ban on child labor happened in that. but as you say farm workers and domestic servants were excluded. that was about 500,000 workers at that time most of them.
6:25 am
many of them people of color so people have pointed to that and criticized perkins for agreeing to it. she was a great believer that it was important to get what you could as the best you could for as many people as you could and go back and fix the situation later and the fact is the fair labor standards that continues to have major holes after all these years and it seems a little silly to blame francis perkins for what americans haven't managed to fix since 1938. yeah, sort of reminiscent of roosevelt's overall strategy. that is she was essentially a pragmatist wouldn't you say? will it take a half loaf solution right? you get the best you can at the time and then go back and try to make it better later, but do what you can when you can better to get something than to get nothing right? well. kirsten thank you so much


info Stream Only

Uploaded by TV Archive on