She’s no household name, but Frances Perkins ought to be on everyone’s minds this year, as US Sen. Bernie Sanders introduces a Medicare for All bill. Who is Perkins? Only the first woman ever appointed to a presidential cabinet, joining Franklin Delano Roosevelt as Labor Secretary in 1933. It so happened that Perkins, raised by a strict Republican family and educated at Mt. Holyoke when few women went to college, in 1911 had witnessed a young woman jumping to her death at the Triangle shirtwaist fire. She became an eloquent advocate for common, working people.
Perkins took the cabinet position only under condition that FDR support her bold agenda that became The New Deal. It included a 40-hour work week, a minimum wage, workers’ compensation and other labor protections, abolition of child labor, unemployment aid, a federal employment service, and Social Security pension insurance—all of which she won, and which we all take for granted. She also sought universal healthcare—the one big measure she lost.
Why? The American Medical Society threatened to kill Social Security unless the provision for healthcare insurance for all, originally included, was removed. She compromised to win what she could.
Her remarkable record of achievements earned her the naming of the Labor Department’s office building in Washington DC—but unlike confederate generals, no statue was raised to remind us that Frances was female and powerful in an un-bloody way.
Biographer Kirsten Downey says that Perkins’ ideas were essentially socialist ones, though she left the Socialist party in 1909 to become a Democrat. Unexpectedly, this year’s bill by Independent/Socialist Sanders is joined by Democratic Senators supporting it, notably Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Kamala Harris, and the numbers are growing. Rachel Maddow considers it a marker of those considering running for President in 2020. Is there something new in the air? www.msnbc.com/rachel-maddow-show/warren-throws-support-behind-sanders-single-payer-plan
You can learn more about Perkins at the center dedicated to her history as architect of the New Deal. EconoGirlfriends, let’s make her a household name. francesperkinscenter.org/life-new/