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.