[Written by Frances Perkins Center board member Sarah Peskin.]
Perkins Center board member Kirstin Downey addressed a standing room only crowd at the Massachusetts Historical Society in Boston on Wednesday March 10, 2010 for a public lecture on The Woman Behind the New Deal: The Life of Frances Perkins, FDR’s Secretary of Labor and His Moral Conscience. In his introductory comments, MHS president Dennis Fiore gave a nice plug for the Center and invited our Maine contingent to identify ourselves — thus giving Barb Burt and me a chance to work the crowd later, to give out brochures, answer questions, and invite audience members to sign the guestbook and peruse our website. We set FPC bookmarks at the book signing table and they were snapped up by eager buyers who quickly exhausted the full supply of newly-released paperbacks delivered for the occasion.
Downey asked participants if they had known about Frances Perkins before coming to the lecture, and praised them for being relatively well-informed when most of the hands were raised in the affirmative. She went on to cite Perkins’s many landmark achievements, noting that FP “wasn’t looking for fame” and was more interested in getting things done than in taking credit. Reminding us that 52 million Americans now receive Social Security benefits and another 10 million unemployment compensation thanks to FP’s direct personal efforts, Downey posed the question: How did she do so much?
Other topics highlighted in the talk included Perkins’s key role in establishing the WPA which in turn created so much of the physical infrastructure (bridges, dams, tunnels, highways) that allowed the US economy to boom in the 1950s and 60s, and the Civilian Conservation Corps that made lasting improvements to state and national parks while putting young people to work in the 1930s.
Downey also spoke about her use of a collection of letters from the “brilliant young lawyer Charles Wyzanski, the department’s new solicitor of labor” describing his alarm as early as 1933 when he travelled to Germany and saw persecution of trade unionists, Jews, and intellectuals in many fields. These eyewitness reports prompted Perkins to devote considerable energies, along with other FDR advisors, to quietly easing immigration restrictions so that thousands needing refuge could enter the US. This little known but fascinating history was pieced together by Downey by following clues triggered by the Massachusetts Historical Society Wyzanski letters, several of which were displayed in a case in the lecture room for the event.
Barb and I greeted old and new friends and made several contacts worth pursuing. I was so proud to be associated with this thoughtful and well-presented event. Thanks go to Jayne Gordon of the MHS for planning and coordinating the evening. It was a great success. Kirstin spoke the next day at the Radcliffe Institute at Harvard and is scheduled to address the Organization of American Historians on April 9, 2010 in DC. Go to her website for other stops on what looks like a very tiring book tour.