The Woman Behind The New Deal

Barkley Rosser, Econospeak, The Woman Behind The New Deal, March 16, 2021

I was long aware that Frances Perkins (1880-1965) was the first woman to serve as a cabinet secretary, namely Secretary of Labor for Franklin D. Roosevelt, in which position she was one of the two people to serve in their position all the way through his presidency, the other being Interior Secretary Harold Ickes. Somehow I never heard that much about her, but an article in yesterday’s WaPo’s Retropolis section, “The woman who helped FDR change America in 100 days” proved a real eye-opener on several fronts.  While some of the previously hidden material had been public since the 2009 bio by Kirsten Downey, which bears the title I have used for this post, it seems to be getting fresh publicity now due to this being Biden’s first 100 days, and some people are comparing him to FDR, which can be questioned, but anyway I have now learned about this important and fascinating woman.

It should not be surprising that FDR’s Secretary of Labor would play an important role in many of the important initiatives, but in fact her influence went well beyond those obvious issues.  Indeed, while largely remaining as out of the scene as she could manage, she was a or the key player in many of the most important parts of the New Deal.  These include Social Security in 1935 and in 1933 the 40 hour week, limits on child labor, and the minimum wage. and from the first 100 days the Civilian Conservation Corps and a major expansion of employment-increasing public works spending. While she was less successful with this, during WW II she was one of the leading people trying to get the administration to allow more Jewish refugees to enter the US. She got in trouble with the HUAC in Congress in 1939 for blocking the deportation of portworker organizer Harry Bridges, who was accused of being a Communist.  

Curiously despite all the achievements for the labor movement she brought about, she was not all that popular with many labor union leaders, apparently especially United Mine Workers’ leader, John L. Lewis, with her also unsurprisingly not liked by business leaders. But she had the ear of FDR throughout his presidency. Part of why these groups did not like her perhaps had to do with her being a woman, and one from an old New England family with an old fashioned accent.  She was low key and not an outgoing person, although she achieved a great deal. She would also serves on the Civil Service Commission under Truman.

Quite aside from not knowing how important a role she played in such crucial New Deal innovations as Social Security, the other thing I knew nothing of and apparently was not known at all widely prior to Downey’s 2009 bio, is that she was also the first lesbian cabinet secretary, a matter that was long kept deeply secret.  Her old New England family was conservative and Congregationalist, her father ran a stationer’s business in Worcester, MA and taught her Greek and Latin when she was young, but she became a progressive concerned about poor people and workers while attending Mount Holyoke College, where she majored in physics and chemistry. Teaching those subjects in Illinois she also worked at Hull House in Chicago with Jane Addams where she became an Episcopalian and then attended Wharton to study economics for awhile, and then moved to Greenwich Village where she also got involved in the suffragette movement, and also got a Masters in economics and sociology at Columbia.  She taught sociology at Adelphi College, but got involved in advocating worker safety and got appointed to the New York City Consumers League in 1910 on the recommendation of Theodore Roosevelt and was deeply involved in the aftermath of the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist factory fire. She became very prominent as an advocate for worker safety, rose to state level positions under New York Governer Al Smith and then his successor, FDR, who then took her to Washington in 1933.

Anyway, regarding the more secret part of her personal life, in 1912 she married a male economist, Paul Caldwell Wilson.  She retained her maiden name, and went to court to be able to do so, so as not to get her husband in political trouble because he was the secretary of the New York mayor. She had a daughter in 1916, but two years later her husband began exhibiting bipolar disorder, which became so serious that he spent most of the rest of his life (dying in 1952) in hospitals, with her daughter also suffering from the same problem. Somewhere as all this went on she developed her hidden side.

Her main partner was Mary Harriman Rumsey, who would serve for FDR as the first head of a consumer safety agency. She and Perkins shared a house in Georgetown until Rumsey died after falling off a horse in late 1934. While apparently they held dinner parties, their relationship was very much kept in the closet except for a very narrow group of insiders. Rumsey was the daughter of railroad magnate E.W. Harriman and the older sister of W. Averell Harriman, wealthy banker, whom she convinced to work for the National Recovery Agency of FDR.  He would later be Ambassador to the USSR in WW II, Commerce Secretary under Truman, and New York governor in the mid-50s, as well as many other things. Rumsey, who had been married and had three children, although with her husband dying in 1922, was the founder of the Junior League, a group that supported houses for the poor along the lines of Hull House, an activity through which she initially got to know Perkins. Sometime after Rumsey’s death, Perkins would live with New York Congresswoman Caroline O’Day. In 2015 Perkins was recognized by a national LGBTQ group.  The main building of the Department of Labor was named for Perkins by President Jimmy Carter in 1980.

An odd late item is that in her later years she taught labor relations at Cornell University.  For some period of time doing that she lived in elitist Telluride House in Ithaca, where she intrigued some neoconservative intellectuals who hung out there, most curiously Paul Wolfowitz, who was taken with her reportedly dry wit.  She would die in New York City and be buried in Maine, where her parents had come from.  In any case, she was a woman important on many fronts, far more important than many have been aware of (or at least me). So I am helping to make her better known (and a final point is that she also supported universal national health insurance, but that was one item she was unable to get FDR to push through, and we are still waiting for that).

Barkley Rosser