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  

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