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