The Blog of the Frances Perkins Center

Archive for April, 2009|Monthly archive page

Join us this Saturday!

In Events, Programs on April 27, 2009 at 7:52 am

To register online, go to

Poster for our May 2nd conference

Poster for our May 2nd conference

Frances Perkins remembered at the Department of Labor

In Events on April 24, 2009 at 2:02 pm
Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis addresses the audience, while Barb Burt, Kirstin Downey, Christopher Breiseth, and Tomlin Perkins Coggeshall look on.

Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis addresses the audience, while Barb Burt, Kirstin Downey, Christopher Breiseth, and Tomlin Perkins Coggeshall look on.

April 21, 2009

Administrations are more than one “great man”

In Biography on April 18, 2009 at 7:50 am

The American Prospect has an interesting article by Lizabeth Cohen, “Team of Rivals Redux.” Cohen, chair of the History department at Harvard, compares the jockeying of advisors within the FDR administration to the supposed jockeying going on within the Obama administration.

As David Axelrod, Rahm Emanuel, Timothy Geithner, Christina Romer, Eric Holder, and the rest of the gang are becoming household names — Hillary Clinton and Larry Summers already were before they signed up — interest is growing in how they are jockeying for turf and adapting to the pressures the administration now faces. Roosevelt watchers no doubt wondered the same about the people he brought together at the top of his administration.

In this context, Cohen reviews the two recent books about the Roosevelt days, Nothing to Fear by Adam Cohen and The Woman Behind the New Deal by Kirstin Downey.

As we watch Roosevelt’s team maneuver for power, criticize one another to their boss, and fight it out in Cabinet meetings as well as behind the scenes, we come to realize something to be alert to in the Obama administration. An effective captain of a team of rivals, like FDR, prods his fiercely competitive players to argue with one another to strengthen his own ability to make well-informed decisions. Current Cabinet members beware!

Perkins’ experience demonstrates how complex the relationship between a loyal adviser and the president can be. She had a close connection with Roosevelt, often irking her Cabinet colleagues by managing to get a private word with FDR right after Cabinet meetings recessed. But that access did not always enable her to prevail. She sometimes lost control over programs she felt rightfully belonged to the Labor Department, most notably over immigration, naturalization, and deportation as Nazism spread in Europe and later as fears of communist infiltration raged at home. She was personally hurt that the president failed to come to her defense in 1939 when a committee in the House of Representatives red-baited her for refusing to deport the radical longshoreman Harry Bridges.

Reviewer Cohen points out that writing about history often focuses on a singular figure such as George Washington,

Yet Downey’s and Cohen’s impressive ability to bring these five New Deal figures to life reminds us that administrations are made by more than the great man — someday it will be a great woman — elected by the voters.

Perkins and Roosevelt built first line of defense against economic ruin

In Biography, New Deal Legislation on April 18, 2009 at 7:31 am

Kirstin Downey, author of The Woman Behind the New Deal, recently wrote an editorial in the AFL-CIO Now blog, “Frances Perkins Rides to the Rescue–Again.” Here’s an excerpt:

Americans’ fears about the economy worsened when the Department of Labor reported that unemployment had skyrocketed to 8.5 percent in March, the highest rate in 25 years.

These are not just statistics. The numbers represent real people. At 10 a.m. on a recent morning, more than 150 men stood alongside a main highway into Washington, D.C., in the Virginia city of Annandale, clustered in small groups, huddled against the wind, peering into the windows of passing cars, hoping for work. Motorists sped by quickly, looking away to avoid attracting attention and raising false hopes. Unemployed laborers are a frightening sight to those who are still working.

It is in alarming times like these that some of the key programs of the New Deal demonstrate their continuing significance and highlight how much Americans continue to rely on solutions fashioned then in response to lessons learned, in times that seem eerily similar to our own.

In this case, the economic shock absorber system is unemployment insurance. It is the FEMA of economic hurricanes, and it is keeping more than 6 million households afloat during these bad times.

The unemployment insurance system was propelled into existence by Frances Perkins, the canny but little-known social worker who was President Franklin Roosevelt’s secretary of labor. She had studied the U.S. economy for 20 years before she took up her Cabinet post, and she was Roosevelt’s industrial commissioner from 1928 to 1932 while he was governor of New York. Together, they watched the Great Depression arrive and cast its shadow across the American landscape.

Frances Perkins is most famous today for her role as primary architect of Social Security. But in 1933 and 1934, the program she championed most fiercely was unemployment insurance. Now it has become a first line of defense against capitalism’s ruthless pattern of boom-and-bust cycles.

To read the entire blog post, go to

Frances Perkins discussed on “Fresh Air”

In Biography on April 18, 2009 at 7:22 am
Click to listen to the program excerpt.

Click to listen to the program excerpt.

The New New Deal: Building an Economy That Works for All of Us

In Events, Legislation Today, Programs on April 14, 2009 at 12:49 pm

The Frances Perkins Center is sponsoring a conference:

Saturday, May 2nd, 8:30 am – 3:00 PM
The University of Maine Hutchinson Center
Route 3, Belfast

Speakers include:
•    Teresa Ghilarducci (Distinguished Senior Fellow at Demos working on issues of retirement security and social policy and the Schwartz Professor of Economic Policy Analysis at the New School for Social Research): “Picturing an economy that works for all”
•    Maine House Speaker Hannah Pingree: “The role of government in building an economy that works for all”
•    Maine Commissioner of Labor Laura Fortman: “Lessons from Frances Perkins and the New Deal”

Workshop Topics and their leaders include:
•    New Kinds of Work for a New Workforce – Leader: Cliff Ginn, president of Opportunity Maine
•    Self-Employed, Part-Time, Under-Employed — Where’s my Safety Net? – Leader: Laura Boyett, director of the Maine State Bureau of Unemployment
•    The Changing Shape of Retirement – Leader: John Christie, Manager of the Augusta Career Center and member of the Older Workers Task Force
•    What Women Workers Want (and Need) – Leader: Sarah Standiford, executive director of the Maine Women’s Lobby and the Maine Women’s Policy Center
•    Health Care for All – Leader: Garrett Martin, economic policy analyst at Maine Center for Economic Policy
•    Unions in the 21st Century – Leader: Tim Belcher, executive director of Maine State Employees Association
Panel moderator: Ben Dudley, executive director of Engage Maine

Registration is $35 ($20 for high school or college students), payable by check in advance or at the door.
Continental breakfast, lunch, and snacks included.
To register online:
Questions? Call 207-208-8955 or email


Maine Sunday Telegram showcases the Frances Perkins Center

In Biography, Programs, The Buildings, The Center on April 12, 2009 at 7:11 am


Political reporter Dieter Bradbury and photographer Jack Milton visited The Brick House last week. This article, New Deal leader celebrated in Maine, and accompanying slideshow are the result. The combination makes a wonderful introduction to the Center and its mission.

Happy Birthday, Frances Perkins!

In Biography on April 10, 2009 at 3:19 am

In the almanac today, among the birthdays it mentions is: “Frances Perkins, the first woman U.S. Cabinet member (secretary of Labor), in 1882.”

Whoops. She was born in 1880.

Frances Perkins's birth certificate

Frances Perkins's birth certificate

UPI isn’t the only source to get this information wrong. So, why the confusion?

When Frances became secretary of Labor, she lopped two years off her age. Her boss, President Roosevelt, was born in 1882. Frances evidently felt that it would look better if she were the same age as he, instead of two years older.

Frances knew well the power of “reinventing” personal details: as a young woman, she had changed her name from Fannie Coralee Perkins to the more serious “Frances.” And, although she was described in her twenties as a stylish, dimpled young woman, by the time she was lobbying the New York Assembly on social justice legislation, she had adopted a matronly look.

Frances had important causes to serve, and she was willing to alter herself in service to those causes.

C-Span’s Book TV features “The Woman Behind the New Deal” this weekend

In Biography on April 7, 2009 at 8:22 am

From the C-Span Book TV web site:

Saturday at 8:00 AM, Saturday at 11:00 PM, and Sunday at 7:00 PM
The Woman Behind the New Deal: The Life of Frances Perkins, FDR’s Secretary of Labor and His Moral Conscience
Author: Kirstin Downey

This is a tape of Kirstin Downey’s presentation at the Library of Congress several weeks ago. As they say on network television, this is “must-see TV”!

AFL-CIO NOW blog mentions the Frances Perkins Center

In Events, The Center on April 6, 2009 at 7:01 am

We were pleased to catch a very nice article written by James Parks in the AFL-CIO’s blog about the Center and our upcoming Washington, DC, event on April 21st. You can read it here: