April 10, 1880– 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 actually knew their US 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.
“The accusation that I am a woman is incontrovertible.”
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 NY Citizen’s 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 was named Secretary Of Labor by President Franklin Roosevelt in 1933. She was the first female Cabinet Secretary. 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 apex 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 Democratic Governor of NY). 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 Obama during our own recent Depression in the last decade.
Rumsey died in a 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 publically 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 DC.
On April 12, 1945, when FDR died suddenly, 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 POTUS, 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 her 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 charming Republican governor, Paul LePage, ordered the removal of the mural, saying he had received complaints about the mural from business officials & 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 conference room in the Maine Department Of Labor to be changed. The room had been named The Frances Perkins Room.
“The people are what matter to government, and a government should aim to give all the people under its jurisdiction the best possible life.”