A Woman to Reckon With: The Vision and Legacy of Frances Perkins

By Harlan Baker

 Frances Perkins

“At the time she was a socialist she couldn’t vote,” says Chris Cash about Frances Perkins. “It was no secret she was a democratic socialist. It was her camp.”

Cash does educational outreach at the Frances Perkins Center, which is tucked away in a small alley off the main street in the picturesque town of Damariscotta, Maine. Although the center doesn’t highlight Perkins’s socialist sympathies, it aims to educate the public on her legacy, which was inspired by her socialist sympathies.

Perkins, the first woman ever to hold a cabinet position, was secretary of labor during all of Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s terms and pushed through the elements of the New Deal that provided protection for many U.S. workers.

Her early life held no hint of future radicalism. Perkins was born in 1880 in Boston to a conservative New England family and spent her summers at the family’s homestead in Maine. She attended Mt. Holyoke College and graduated in 1902. There, under the guidance of Professor Annah May Soule, she was exposed to the dire working conditions in the factories in nearby Holyoke. She joined the Socialist Party sometime during a stay in Philadelphia (1907-1909) and, despite leaving the party to become a Democrat, never lost her passion for fighting for the rights of labor.

On March 25, 1911 she happened to be near the site of the Triangle shirtwaist fire, where she witnessed young women jumping to their deaths to escape the flames. Later, she would say that the New Deal was born on that day.

She became a tireless advocate of workplace safety—particularly fire laws—and labor law reform. In 1933, when Roosevelt invited her to join his cabinet, she outlined a set of programs as conditions for her acceptance of the job. These included a 40-hour work week, a federal minimum wage, workers’ compensation, abolition of child labor, direct federal aid to the states for unemployment relief, Social Security, a revitalized federal employment service; and universal health insurance.

Kirsten Downey, one of her biographers, is among many who have noted that elements of the New Deal were in fact socialist ideals. All of Perkins’s priorities were enacted into law with the notable exception of universal health insurance. Obstruction from southern legislators kept many protections from being extended to domestic workers and farm laborers, battles that are still being fought.

Today, says Cash, “People over 60 usually know who she was,” but “most of the time people walk into the center and say, ‘I didn’t know who she was or that she had a connection to Maine.’ ”

Perkins was a modest woman. “She didn’t care if other people took credit,” remarks Cash. “She was interested in the big picture and what they could get accomplished. “She compromised if it meant getting legislation passed. When the American Medical Association threatened to kill Social Security unless the universal health care provision was removed from the bill, she was willing to live with that in order for Social Security to pass.”

Many left-leaning critics of the New Deal have pointed out that the program saved the capitalist system at a time when the socialist movement was gaining strength in America and fell far short of what socialists proposed. Proponents of the New Deal argue that improvements in the lives of working people who were devastated by the Great Depression saved thousands of lives and gave people hope.

New Deal programs have been under attack for the past several decades, and the current administration is determined to roll back all of them. Perhaps the best way to pay tribute to this remarkable woman would be to campaign and win her unattained goal: Medicare for All.

DSAer Harlan Baker is a former Maine legislator and currently teaches public speaking at the University of Southern Maine.

This article originally appeared in the Labor Day 2017 issue of Democratic Left magazine.

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