Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Mount Holyoke Receives Original Frances Perkins Letters

During July and the first half of August, I worked in Alexandria, Virginia, interning for the Frances Perkins Center, based in Damariscotta, Maine, arranging and logging the Perkins papers of author Kirstin Downey for transport to the Mount Holyoke Archives & Special Collections. I was the first intern for the Frances Perkins Center, and they would like more interns from Mount Holyoke in future years. While I thoroughly enjoyed my internship, it was difficult to explain my work set-up to people because my organization, supervisor, and workplace were in three different locations.

At the end of July, Kirstin and I drove through Virginia, the District of Columbia, Maryland, Delaware, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania to obtain original Perkins letters from the grandson of a significant contemporary of Frances Perkins. The Mount Holyoke Archives & Special Collections is thrilled to receive a new collection of original letters from Frances Perkins. Elizabeth Middleton Maddock, the best friend of Perkins at Mount Holyoke, saved their correspondence during Perkins’ time as Secretary of Labor. Also, Maddock maintained a scrapbook of Perkins’ achievements, which is now a compelling representation of the New Deal Era. In late July in Trenton, New Jersey, Maddock’s grandson gave a box of these items to Kirstin and me to present to Mount Holyoke. It has been my privilege to arrange and log these new materials, especially the hand-written letters. 

I have heard that the smartest people have the worst handwriting – this rule definitely applies to Perkins. She was undeniably brilliant, and her handwriting is nearly unreadable. Sarah Peskin, Secretary for the Frances Perkins Center, ended an email to me, “Good luck with Perkins’ handwriting.” Fortunately, author Kirstin Downey is the best at deciphering Perkins’ seemingly illegible scribbles. It is enthralling for me to archive these original letters, though I probably learn more from the typed ones.

One particular typed letter captured my attention because it addressed the swimming pool at Mount Holyoke. As a Mount Holyoke student, I enjoy swim classes in the Physical Education Department. In March 21, 1950, Perkins wrote to Miss Mildred Howard, Chairman of the Physical Education Department, “The members of my class are particularly delighted that a first-rate swimming pool is to be a part of the physical education building. The Class of 1902 started the fund for a swimming pool… We did it with great enthusiasm, partly because nobody wanted it.” She continued, “If there are any plaques or ribbons or other mementos of donors to be scattered around the new building, we want to be sure that the plaque says the right thing about the class of 1902.” I do not know if there are currently plaques, ribbons, or other mementos, but I know that I will remember Frances Perkins and the Class of 1902, whenever I go swimming this year.  

While most of the new material is from Perkins to Maddock, there are a few letters from Maddock to Perkins, including a heartwarming poem around the time that Perkins retired from public life, “May you stow your New England conscience / Bid duty a stiff goodbye / Let the world handle its own mistakes / Or anyhow let it try.” From Maddock to Perkins, one Mount Holyoke woman to another, these words convey a sense of conviction.  Perkins led her life with a sense of duty that social justice would be her vocation. Ultimately, Maddock acknowledged Perkins’ accomplishments in her position and encouraged her to rest.  Maddock concluded, “And it cheers me up to no end / That you are in this world today / A huskey steadfast friend.” Many of us have cherished Mount Holyoke friends; Maddock’s friend just happened to impact millions of people by advancing social justice, creating economic security, and saving countless lives.

Finally, Kirstin and I enjoyed studying the scrapbook, including news clippings and pictures that Kirstin had never seen before in her extensive research. Although I have previously seen similar images, mainly on the Mount Holyoke Archives & Special Collections Twitter page, I pay special attention to images of Frances Perkins when she graduated Mount Holyoke College in the Class of 1902.  As I enter my senior year, I know that my classmates and I aspire to promote positive change for society in the same meaningful way as Perkins. She wrote that “social justice would be my vocation,” and I hope when I see her image that the Class of 2015 will live up to her legacy. 

Rebecca Brenner
Mount Holyoke ’15
Intern in Alexandria, VA, for Frances Perkins Center and Mount Holyoke Archives & Special Collections 

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

From the Archives: Mount Holyoke Women and the Great War

On June 28, 1914, Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria and his wife Sophie, Duchess of Hohenberg, died of a bombing attack in Sarajevo. This assassination of the Austro-Hungarian heir triggered a war so ghastly that it soured the old saying "dulce et decorum est pro patria mori." In 2014, tributes to the 100th anniversary of the Great War describe it as “bloody,” as “futile,” and as a “carnage.” A century of ill-will later, the slogan of WWI as “the war to end all wars” can only be looked on in an ironic light.

In 1917, the United States entered WWI in the name of democracy and civilization. As the first armed conflict yet to be backed by the might of modern propaganda, the war gained relevance in all aspects of American life. Mount Holyoke, like many other institutions at the time, rallied for the war effort. According to a newspaper clipping in the archives’ war collections, Mount Holyoke students pledged under the “star and spangled banner” to prepare themselves “mentally and physically” for the war by exercising, sleeping with the window open, and by cultivating “a willingness to profit from the wisdom and experience of others.”

More specific actions were also taken. “College girls,” as Seven Sisters students were called in a pamphlet issued by the central propaganda agency during the war, rationed, learned useful skills in “war courses,” studied to become dentists and engineers, and took up work usually done by male employees of the college. A newspaper clipping from January 1918 reported Mount Holyoke students shoveling snow on campus at six o’clock in the morning, completing a task until then had been done by male staff members.

Mount Holyoke also pioneered in establishing a “war garden” on campus. In the spring and summer of 1917 alone, Mount Holyoke “farmerettes” cultivated 14 acres of land, and grew bushels of vegetables that were worth $1,733. In the summer, the students rose daily at five o’clock, and sprayed, weeded, hoed, picked, and gathered in the field all morning. In the afternoon, Mount Holyoke farming squads helped out on other South Hadley farms, did housework, and participated in rallies for the war. Watching the “white clad” young women clear debris from the car track in a storm, a man said, as reported by the Alumnae Quarterly in 1918, “What them women can’t do…”
Mount Holyoke "Farmerettes" at work

Besides farming, Mount Holyoke students also served the war effort in many other venues, including sewing dressings and bandages, campaigning for donations, and participating in conservation. As of June 1918, twenty-four alumnae had departed for the front for various war-related services.

Outside of the college, women were needed in industrial production. Mount Holyoke Economic professor Ethel Dietrich wrote, in her capacity as the Special Investigator of the Ordinance Department, that the war presented the United States with a shortage of 250,000 skilled workers as of August 1918. Though “Rosie the Riveter” and “Wendy the Welder” only become cultural icons after WWII, WWI also relied on women for industrial production. A pamphlet issued by the Committee of Public Information stated that “the shining shield of the war” was “the varied opportunities of work for women. Female chemists, translators and “women with technical training and mathematical minds” were in great demand.

Despite the senseless violence, the innumerable lives lost, the grim disillusionment that followed, and the acrimony which eventually led to another world war, the Great War did facilitate progress. During the war, the women’s suffrage movement gathered momentum in North America as well as Europe, as women proved themselves as equals to men in intellect and civic virtue on the home front. While women had always been equal contributors in production and earnest activists in politics, the Great War afforded women a chance to be finally recognized for their labor and talents.

Besides the war effort, Mount Holyoke women also ardently contributed to the peace effort. Evelyn Eaton, class of 1919, wrote in a letter of her excited fellow classmates who heard a rumor that the war had ended in October 1918. The commotion in the hallways woke all the young women, and they marched to Mary Woolley’s house singing “Star Spangled Banner” with two flag bearers heading the parade. The students, though still without confirmation that the war had indeed ended, listened to an impromptu lecture on college students’ responsibilities in postwar reconstruction in good spirits.
Mount Holyoke Students on Armistice Day

I remember once looking through the class files of the classes that attended Mount Holyoke during the Great War. One photo, of a woman in Laurel Parade bearing a sign that reads “Three Wars Later, We Are Still Working for Peace,” stood out at me as earnest, optimistic, engaged, and empowering. Maybe WWI was good for something—it legitimized women’s rightful role in the world of work as well as in the world of politics. Soon after the end of the war, women in the United States gained the vote with the passage of the 19th amendment in 1920. The Great War accelerated the fight for women’s rights, a fight that continues still today.

WWI taught us to cherish peace. Perhaps this time around we will do a better job, with women’s voices and efforts better incorporated in the safeguarding of it.

Ruilin Fan, Class of 2017, is a Student Assistant in Mount Holyoke College's Archives and Special Collections.

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Introducing LITStagram!

Hipster Jorge wants you to follow LITS on Instagram, or, as we like to call it, litstagram! Check out daily photos of LITS behind the scenes as documented by our fabulous student workers.

Hipster Jorge hanging with students outside Rao's
Hipster Jorge hanging with friends outside Rao's
Anatomy of Hipster Jorge
The anatomy of Hipster Jorge

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

My Weekend with Frances Perkins: 160 Books and a Visit to Her Friend's House

Last Thursday, I arrived with author Kirstin Downey and her family at their country house in Betterton, Maryland.  Betterton is home to a gorgeous beach, quaint community, and Kirstin’s 160 books related to Frances Perkins.  Collectively, these books are a one-stop-shop for understanding the FDR administration, the broader New Deal Era, and all of Perkins’ previous experiences that prepared her to make history.  Upon arrival, I transported the books in the picture below (and more) from the shed into the house.  My task was to alphabetize, organize, and log them, as well as determine which ones should move permanently to Mount Holyoke.  

Friday was an adventure – Kirstin and I drove through Virginia, the District of Columbia, Maryland, Delaware, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania to obtain original Perkins letters from Trenton, New Jersey.  Elizabeth Middleton Maddock was the best friend of Frances Perkins at Mount Holyoke.  Although some of Perkins’ peers viewed her as too liberal politically, Elizabeth Middleton Maddock consistently supported her best friend.  She saved the letters that they exchanged and kept a scrapbook of Perkins’ achievements.  On Friday in Trenton, Maddock’s grandson gave a box of these items to Kirstin and me to give to Mount Holyoke.  The pictures below depict the family compound of the Maddocks, where Secretary Perkins visited.  Furthermore, Kirstin and I speculate that this was the house where Perkins’ husband Paul Wilson attempted to recover from bipolar disorder.

From Friday night through Sunday morning, I continued working with the 160 books.  Organizing books is a fantastic way to discover what has been written.  For example, I was previously unaware that Winston Churchill compiled a massive memoir.  Eleanor Roosevelt also wrote one.  I do not understand why these invaluable pieces of history are no longer in print, but they are characteristic of Kirstin’s extensive Perkins-related collection.  Maybe the most unique book is Be Ye Steadfast by Winnifred Wandersee, which is the bound copy of the unfinished manuscript by a young professor who died of cancer before she could complete her work on Frances Perkins.  Wandersee’s family bound only a few copies, so Mount Holyoke is fortunate to receive one.  Two pictures below depict how the collection appeared after I alphabetized and organized – they will look even better at Mount Holyoke!

On Monday, Kirstin and I opened the box from the Maddocks; below are pictures of some hand-written letters from Perkins.  The letters and scrapbook illuminate Perkins’ time at Mount Holyoke and career path, as well as her valiant efforts to aid refugees from Nazi Germany.  I am beyond excited to explore the contents of the box; my next blog post will be about what I learn from this material!

Rebecca Brenner
Mount Holyoke ’15
Intern in Alexandria, VA, for Frances Perkins Center and Mount Holyoke Archives & Special Collections 

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

First Impressions of Frances Perkins

Everyone knows the name Frances Perkins at Mount Holyoke College, particularly because of the prestigious continuing education program.  Perkins was arguably our most historically significant graduate because she was, as the title of Kirstin Downey’s book suggests, the woman behind the New Deal.  As I have started to sort Downey’s archival material related to Frances Perkins for transport to the Mount Holyoke Archives & Special Collections, Perkins has emerged as the political powerhouse between most of the sociopolitical reform of the New Deal Era. I recently had the opportunity to visit Frances Perkins- or rather, “Flat Frances,” her cardboard likeness that resides in the United States Department of Labor.  I baby-sit for a girl whose father works in the Department of Labor, and he kindly brought me on a tour and introduced me to Danielle Germaine, Mount Holyoke ’93.  They took me to Flat Frances on the sixth floor; you can see her in the picture below.  As the namesake for the Frances Perkins Department of Labor building, Perkins receives attention and support there that she should have received during her lifetime.  Their regular publication is called “Frances.”

Kirstin Downey’s The Woman Behind the New Deal presents Perkins as a political powerhouse with supreme ethical and moral conviction.  I am now reading Perkins’ biography of Roosevelt, in which she wrote of herself, “Social justice would be my vocation.”  She championed several causes, including Social Security, general economic security, support for mothers, and significant labor reform.  Moreover, I recently discovered that Perkins battled the State Department to aid refugees from Nazi Germany.  While historians expose President Roosevelt for overlooking Holocaust victims, Perkins personally ensured the safety of hundreds of people, including Sigmund Freud and the Von Trapp Family Singers.  I cannot adequately express how much this impressed me; I hope to research it further.

A heartbreaking moment in The Woman Behind the New Deal was when Paul Wilson, Perkins’ husband with severe bipolar disorder, disappeared in New York City while President Roosevelt was signing the Social Security Act that Perkins had spearheaded.  Perkins appeared calm in photographs from this historic moment, but afterwards she secretly rushed to search for her missing husband.  She found him, but this incident is characteristic of the many personal difficulties that Perkins overcame in her pursuit of social justice.  Her accomplishments are even more impressive when you take into account a troubled family and a government bent on undermining her.  In a world of widespread sexism, the United States Congress attempted to impeach Perkins.  Since she persevered as an inspiring figure, Downey was careful not to write a hagiography, an overly praiseworthy biography.  Her book is a brilliant account of the strengths, weaknesses, triumphs, and challenges of Frances Perkins, so it is my privilege to organize the original research.

I have so far sorted eighteen boxes of material, organized correspondence, oral history, and photocopies of books, and I am compiling a thorough log.  I enjoy discovering gems in the material, such as Downey’s correspondence with Susanna Wilson Coggeshall, Perkins’ daughter, who died shortly before the publication of the book.  I look forward to the rest of the summer.  Also, I have the best archiving buddy: Kirstin Downey’s exceedingly cute dog, Marshmallow! 

Rebecca Brenner
Mount Holyoke ’15
Intern in Alexandria, VA, for Frances Perkins Center and Mount Holyoke Archives & Special Collections