April 10, 1880– Frances Perkins:
“The accusation that I am a woman is incontrovertible.“
When you think about a New Yorker addressed as Madam Secretary, someone else’s name might pop in your head. History seems to have forgotten poor Frances Perkins. She was just one of the most influential women of the 20th Century, that’s all. If they knew their U.S. History, those Right Wing Religious Conservatives’ heads would explode trying to grasp the story of the life of this accomplished gay woman. She is a Republican’s worst nightmare.
On March 25, 1911, Perkins was having a picnic with friends in Washington Square when they heard fire engines. Running to the scene of the fire, Perkins witnessed in horror as 47 workers, mostly young women, jumped from the eighth and ninth floors of the building to their deaths on the street below. 146 workers perished as flames engulfed the upper three stories of the building. According to Perkins, that fire at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory was “the day the New Deal was born“. In response to the tragic fire, the New York Citizens’ Committee On Safety was established to prevent a further tragedy in the city’s factories. At the suggestion of Theodore Roosevelt, Perkins was hired as the group’s executive secretary. Perkins: “I had to do something about unnecessary hazards to life, unnecessary poverty. It was sort of up to me.“
Perkins was named Secretary Of Labor by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt in 1933. She was the first female Cabinet Secretary in American History. She dedicated her life to improving the lives of American working-class people even as she faced challenging and complex concerns of her own. Perkins’ ideals would become the building blocks for the most important social welfare legislation in the history of the USA: Social Security, Unemployment Compensation, Child Labor laws, and the 40 hour work week.
She started her job as Secretary at the height of the Great Depression. Perkins pushed for massive public works projects that created millions of jobs for unemployed workers. She reinvigorated the beleaguered labor movement, boosting living standards across the country. As head of the Immigration Service, she fought to bring European refugees to the USA, chased from their homes by those damn Nazis. Her greatest triumph was helping create Social Security… and don’t I know it!
Perkins accomplished all these progressive programs for FDR’s administration while confronting personal issues including a husband who was often institutionalized with severe psychiatric problems and her only child’s manic depression, problems not well understood during her era.
At the same time, Perkins was in a 20 year deeply secret romantic relationship with Mary Harriman Rumsey (sister of Averell Harriman, a former Democratic Governor of New York). The pair lived together in Washington DC, hosting parties for the famous and powerful, film stars and politicians. It makes me wonder if the couple played on a softball league with Eleanor Roosevelt and Lorena Hickok.
During FDR’s first year in office, he kept all the lesbians happy by naming Rumsey to lead the new Consumer Advisory Board that had been authorized under the New Deal. Rumsey’s job was to watch that retail prices did not increase proportionately more than the increase that wage earners received. The program was dropped after The Great Depression, but started up again under Barack Obama‘s administration during our Great Depression a decade ago.
Rumsey died in a horse riding accident in 1934. Perkins dealt with her loss by throwing herself into the work on her progressive reforms. Because she had to be in the closet about her relationship with Rumsey, Perkins could not publicly grieve. She lost her home which was in Rumsey’s name. Any attempt on the part of Rumsey to provide for Perkins would have raised eyebrows in scandal addictive Washington DC.
On April 12, 1945, when FDR died suddenly, Harry Truman became President. Perkins had served for the entire 12 years of the Roosevelt administration. Although she stayed for Truman’s first few weeks as the new President, she was the first of the FDR’s holdovers to resign. After disagreeing with her new boss, Perkins suggested to Truman that he find: “A great, strong man to fill my shoes”.
Perkins wrote a bestselling memoir about her time with FDR, The Roosevelt I Knew (1946). She left this world in 1965, at 85 years old.
Perkins was depicted in a stunning WPA mural displayed in the Maine Department Of Labor headquarters, the native state of her parents. In 2011, Maine’s deranged fascist-leaning Republican governor, Paul LePage, ordered the removal of the mural, saying he had received complaints about the mural from business officials and from an anonymous source charging that it was reminiscent of “communist North Korea where they use those sort of murals to brainwash the masses“. LePage also ordered the name of a conference room in the Maine Department Of Labor to be changed. The room had been named The Frances Perkins Room.
After Perkins, the nation has had five female Labor Secretaries: Ann Dore McLaughlin, from 1987 – 1989; Elizabeth “Libby” Doyle, 1989 – 1990, Lynn Morley Martin, 1991-1993; Alexis Margaret Herman. 1997-2001; and the lovely Elaine Chao, who must lie on top of Mitch McConnell, 2001-2009.
The mango-hued, disgraced, twice impeached 45th president went through four Labor Secretaries. His first was a holdover from Barack Obama‘s administration; the next three included some guy who had the job for a few months, and Alexander Acosta, who as an U.S. Attorney approved a plea deal that allowed a child-trafficking ringleader to plead guilty to a single state charge of solicitation. He resigned and was replaced by Eugene Scalia, son of the late homophobic Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia. Scalia was known as a corporate lawyer who had a record of arguing against worker’s rights. During his time as Secretary of Labor, he weakened or rolled back a protections for workers.
Our current Labor Secretary is former mayor of Boston, Martin Walsh. A lifelong champion of equity and fairness, with a strong connection to working people, and a commitment to creating an economy that works for all Americans.
Here we are today with Congress already having approved three stimulus bills to juice the economy amid the new plague. The first was a $2.2 trillion economic recovery package that provides one-time payments of up to $1,200 to millions of Americans, as well as loans, grants and tax breaks for businesses reeling from the economic fallout.
President Joesph Biden signed the $1.9 trillion relief package last month, with a plan to send direct payments of $1,400 to most Americans, and also extend a $300 per week unemployment insurance boost until Sept. 6 and expand the child tax credit for a year. It will also put nearly $20 billion into Covid-19 vaccinations, $25 billion into rental and utility assistance, and $350 billion into state, local and tribal relief. Biden:
“This historic legislation is about rebuilding the backbone of this country, and giving people in this nation, working people, middle-class folks, the people who built this country, a fighting chance.”
Republican lawmakers have longed claimed to want to pass legislation that would rejuvenate the USA’s aging infrastructure and boost economic growth. They might finally get it with Biden as president but with a focus they never counted on: Targeting Inequality.
Biden’s $2 trillion plan is meant to boost productivity, the key to raising wages and improving American living standards, by generating jobs, and strengthening transportation, communications systems and power lines. He wants to invest in the regions that already have the most potential but by also directing funds to underserved areas where people suffer the most from bad roads, poor public transportation and lack of internet access.
It would represent our government’s most sweeping chance to spend federal money not just on helping poor people but on revitalizing the places where they live: housing, childcare centers, water systems, roads and public transit. It’s an ambitious experiment that is part of Biden’s pledge to combat racial and economic inequality. POTUS:
“We all will do better when we all do well, We’re going to bring everybody along. Regardless of your background, your color, your religion, everybody gets to come along.”
Today, states struggle to handle a torrent of unemployment claims that continues to swell as businesses remain shuttered across the country. Perkins understood this.
“The people are what matter to government, and a government should aim to give all the people under its jurisdiction the best possible life.“