New Deals: "The Most Powerful Woman In Washington" Had It Rough

What does it say that the woman most active to U.S. policy-making was in the Roosevelt administration?

Not to take anything away from any attorney generals and secretaries of state past and present, but Frances Perkins, the first woman appointed to a Cabinet position, remains one of the most influential female pols in U.S. history. Because she was of a generation that oftentimes felt they did more by keeping a low profile – and because hers is a controversial political legacy – her accomplishments have gone largely unheralded, an omission Kirstin Downey‘s new biography, The Woman Behind the New Deal: The Life of Frances Perkins, FDR’s Secretary of Labor and His Moral Conscience, seeks to address.

To quote Christine Stansell’s review in the Daily Beast, what Perkins “aimed for when she took over Labor in 1932 was: unemployment insurance, protection against indigence in old age, work relief for the jobless, the abolition of child labor, the 40-hour week and the minimum wage. In the next few years, those would translate into: Social Security, the Civilian Conservation Corps, and the Fair Labor Standards Act.” Perkins was the scion of a prominent Boston family, educated at Mount Holyoke and brought up with a strong social conscience. As a young woman she immersed herself in charity work and later took on a position with the New York consumer’s league, a job she held onto – along with her maiden name – after her marriage. Roosevelt first hired her when he was governor as head of the state industrial commission, later bringing her to Washington as his Labor secretary.

While Roosevelt may have been unusually open to female colleagues, not everyone in Washington was:

Downey uncovered in her research sneering notes that colleagues scribbled to each other during Cabinet meetings about how annoying her voice was. One of their highest compliments was that she didn’t talk too much; but of course if she talked too little, she risked turning into a nonentity…Normally talkative and articulate, Perkins put on a churchlady-like demeanor “I wanted to give the impression of being a quiet, orderly woman,” she explained without a trace of irony. The reality was, they were men, she was a woman, and so she doubled down. “I just proceeded on the theory that this was a gentleman’s conversation on the porch of a golf club. You didn’t butt in with bright ideas.”

The fact that Perkins was involved in what appears to have been generally accepted as a lesbian relationship could not have made her acceptance much easier. As the biography makes clear, Perkins preferred to fly under the radar, the better to get things done. Says the article,

Like many women in public life, she aimed for an unremarkable life and remarkable achievements. Hers was a generation who spoke softly and wore little hats. They kept their voices low, avoided displays of strong emotion, worked like the devil, and when insulted (which was often) stiffened, prayed, and ploughed on. They did not remotely achieve equality with men, but they won grudging respect and, for their assiduity, they sometimes won power.

Considered in this light, it is perhaps not shocking that Perkins’ achievements should not have been matched for decades: she existed at a unique juncture – the fabled “no ordinary time” – when women like her could slip between the cracks without threatening the status quo. Ironically, by being self-effacing, Perkins managed just that, but one wonders if the very scope of her achievements may have frightened future generations of both sexes as much as they inspired. That, as Stansell puts it, “as the most powerful woman in Washington, she was also the most isolated and exposed” is a chilling lesson even today.

The Heroine Of The New Deal [Daily Beast]

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