While the future of the global economy remains uncertain, many look to the lessons of the past for advice on how to tackle today’s problems. Kirstin Downey, a Pulitzer Prize winning journalist from the Washington Post, explained this philosophy yesterday while discussing her recently released biography The Woman Behind the New Deal: The Life of Frances Perkins, Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s Secretary of Labor and His Moral Conscience.
Fannie Coralie Perkins was born in Boston in 1880 and quickly realized that her life would be based around helping others. Perkins, who later changed her name to Frances, worked with Jane Addams at the Hull House in Chicago and later worked for the Tammany Hall political machine and then-governor of New York, Al Smith.
However, it was a coincidental incident that made Perkins become so passionate about workplace reform. In 1910, Perkins was eating lunch in Greenwich Village when she heard the alarm bells at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory. Downey described the scene at the factory as “very much like the scene at the World Trade Center on 9/11.” From this moment on, Perkins dedicated her life to reforming workplace conditions.
In 1933, FDR appointed Perkins to Secretary of Labor, making her the first female to serve in a presidential cabinet. Although Downey pointed out that this achievement was monumental, she insisted that Perkins is still “one of the least-known, most important social progressives in history.”
Perkins continued to rise in fame, as she was involved in an enormous expansion of government and regulations as part of Roosevelt’s New Deal. She championed the establishment of a minimum wage and a social security program for all workers.
When the lecture ended and the floor was opened up for questions, the motivation for many of the audience members to attend the lecture became evident. A faculty member’s hand shot up and asked, “Based on your knowledge of Perkins’ life, what parallels do you see between the New Deal and today’s financial situation?”
Downey replied by saying that she sees uncanny similarities between the two periods, hinting at a necessity for new regulations and government involvement in order for America, and the world, to pull out of this troubling time.
Downey emphasized Perkins as a trailblazer not only for women’s rights but also for worker’s rights. “She was a networker extraordinaire,” Downey said. “She appreciated the strengths of those around her [like Eleanor Roosevelt], but in the end, wanted to achieve her goals.”
Perkins effectively balanced her role as a homemaker, raising one child, and as a career woman. She formed strong relationships with everyone she met, including members of the Cornell community while she lived on campus from 1957 until her death in 1965.
Living in Telluride House, she cared for many of Cornell’s students, including Paul Wolfowitz ’65, former U.S. deputy secretary of defense and former president of the World Bank.
By the end of Downey’s lecture, the audience had seen a slideshow of Perkins, listened to her favorite songs and heard a brief biography of Perkins’ illustrious life. Downey asked the audience to help her achieve one of the goals she had in mind when writing her book.
“Tell everyone who Perkins is and make sure they know what she did,” Downey said.
Downey hopes that her book will teach Cornellians and Americans about the life of Perkins and how her life experiences and values can help America and Cornell pull out of this difficult time. Downey’s book was released March 3 and is available at all major booksellers.