By Susan Feiner for WOMEN = BOOKS

Posted on December 14, 2009


A few years ago I learned that Frances Perkins’ family home is just an hour from Portland, Maine, in Newcastle. “The Brick House” is a lovely place, and the No Smoking sign just inside the door is emblematic of the impact of the Triangle Shirtwaist factory fire in 1911.

Fire escapes are familiar elements to anyone who has thought about workplace safety. Most Americans also realize that Social Security, the minimum wage, and limitations on child labor improve the quality of life in our society. But few know that the life's work of Frances Perkins—FDR's Secretary of Labor and the first woman to be appointed to a post in the federal government—is the thread connecting these key elements of economic safety and security. 

The back-story is important: Frances Perkins had first-hand knowledge of male hostility to women with powerful ideas, strong leadership skills, and connections to the nation's power elite. Hence, she cultivated a nondescript public presence, accentuating a matronly image and avoiding the limelight.

When I first discovered the willingness with which Perkins "repackaged" herself for success in the male-dominated world of national politics, I was surprised. Such repackaging is, as we know from far too many experiences, difficult to do without losing touch with the truth at the core. In the travails I’ve faced as a feminist economist, I have never considered this option.

Perkins’s story shows, at a minimum, that at least this much has changed for the better.

If historians were doing their job, our understanding of the New Deal would include her role in it. Instead the most respected historians of the New Deal—lazy and content with sexist views of women—still fail to recognize Perkins’s indispensable work.

That’s why a feminist biography like Kirstin Downey’s The Woman Behind the New Deal, which I review in the November/December 2009 issue of WRB, does so much to set the record straight about Madame Secretary.

Americans owe our small measure of economic security to the sensibility of a social worker, the political commitment of a suffragist, the courage of the nation's first factory investigator, and the moral outrage of a witness to the Triangle Shirtwaist tragedy. Progressives in the United States have much to learn from Frances Perkins.

Next year, 2010, is our opportunity to celebrate this wonderful woman. The Frances Perkins Center is organizing dozens of events to commemorate the 75th Anniversary of Social Security. The Center, located at the Brick House, is the first organization in the United States devoted to preserving and advancing the legacy of a woman who, more than any other, shaped the conditions of our work, the time available for leisure, and our ability to retire.

Please click here to visit the Frances Perkins Center online.


Susan F. Feiner is Professor of Women and Gender Studies and Professor of Economics at the University of Southern Maine in Portland, Maine. Drucilla K. Barker and Feiner are co-authors of the award-winning book Liberating Economics: Feminist Perspectives on Families, Work, and Globalization (University of Michigan Press, 2004).

Read Susan Feiner’s review of The Woman Behind the New Deal in the November/December 2009 issue of WRB.


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