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Irrepressible Frances Perkins.

The commemoration event for Frances Perkins at the Worcester Public Library last week honored one of Worcester's most eminent women.

Frances Perkins (1880-1965) was a trailblazer on several fronts. We remember her most vividly as secretary of labor under Presidents Franklin D. Roosevelt and Harry Truman. In that post she wielded more power for a longer period than any American woman up to that time and for years after.

Like her good friend, Eleanor Roosevelt, she believed that government could and should be used to make life better for ordinary people.

She was born in Boston but grew up in Worcester. One of her ancestors was James Otis, the fiery orator who kindled the fires of the Revolution. Her family went to Pilgrim Congregational Church (although she later became an Episcopalian).

She went to Oxford Street School, then Classical High (three years ahead of my mother), and then to Mount Holyoke College.

After a stint or two of teaching she found her proper role as a social worker. Along with crusaders Jane Addams and Lillian Wald she campaigned for women's rights, better working conditions, shorter work weeks, more generous workers' compensation and improved housing codes. One of the electrifying incidents in her life was the ghastly fire in 1911 at the sweatshop Triangle Shirtwaist Factory in Manhattan, where 148, mostly low-paid women, perished.

Miss Perkins happened to be there and never forgot the sight of women jumping from the ninth floor to their deaths. Improving the lives of working women was one of her enduring passions.

By 1918 she was one of the top experts in the country on such matters as unemployment, wage and hour laws, child labor, slums and slumlords, prostitution and immigrants. New York Gov. Al Smith appointed her to the state's industrial commission in 1919.

Gov. Franklin D. Roosevelt appointed her industrial commissioner in 1928. When he was elected president in 1932, he named her Secretary of Labor. She served for the next 12 years, still a record.

She turned out to be an able administrator and one of FDR's closest advisors on domestic matters, and a personal friend of both the president and the first lady. She was a prodigious workaholic. Her usual day started with a 7 a.m. service at the Episcopal Church and ended at 9:30 or 10 p.m.

It was a tumultuous time for any secretary of labor. She had to mediate hundreds of strikes and lockouts, some brutal and violent. She had to deal with labor leaders like John L. Lewis, George Meany, Walter Reuther and Harry Bridges, none of them gentle, reasonable types.

In 1933, more than 15 million Americans were out of jobs. Although several people helped shape the New Deal, her fingerprints are all over the main items, The Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), the National Recovery Act (NRA), the Works Progress Administration WPA) and, most important, the Social Security Administration.

She was bitterly attacked by conservatives who resented her pro-labor liberal views. She was called a radical, a communist, a Jew, all deemed detrimental by some. As for being Jewish, she retorted that she was not but would be proud if she were. She was even "impeached'' by the House Un-American Activities Committee for not deporting Harry Bridges, an Australian and fiery leader of West Coast longshoremen.

When Harry Truman became president, he accepted her resignation as secretary of labor but then appointed her to the Civil Service Commission where she served for several years.

In retirement at last, she served as resident lecturer at Cornell's School of Labor and Industrial Relations, and gave speeches to groups all across the country.

She married Paul C. Wilson in 1913 but, like Lucy Stone, always used her maiden name in her public life. When the Mount Holyoke Alumnae Bulletin referred to her as Mrs. Paul Wilson, she fired off a letter of protest: "Feminism is revolution, and I am a revolutionist,'' she declared. "I believe in revolution as a principal. It does good to everybody.''

And yet she was opposed to the proposed Equal Rights Amendment. She feared it would end the special protections for women that she and other Progressives had worked so hard to achieve.

Worcester has two reminders of her distinguished daughter. One is the Frances Perkins Library, loved by generations of neighborhood book lovers. The other is the Frances Perkins Transitional Housing Program, located in the house on Cottage Street where she grew up.

Frances Perkins would have approved of both, I am sure.

Albert B. Southwick's column appears regularly in the Telegram & Gazette.
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Title Annotation:Editorials
Publication:Telegram & Gazette (Worcester, MA)
Date:Oct 30, 2014
Words:761
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