The Woman Who Changed America

When Frances Perkins was appointed Sec­retary of Labor in 1933 by Franklin Delano Roosevelt, 25 percent of the American labor force was out of work. Perkins, the first woman to hold a U.S. Cabinet position, is widely credited as being one of the prime intellects and moving forces behind Roosevelt’s New Deal. She was FDR’s “conscience.”

Prior to her Cabinet ap­pointment, Perkins met with Roosevelt privately. According to Kirstin Downey’s new book, The Woman Behind the New Deal, Perkins held a scrap of paper in her hand as she addressed the president-elect. Scribbled on it was her visionary platform for a new economy: Social Security, a public works program, the 40-hour work week, a minimum wage, worker’s compensation, unemployment benefits, a federal law banning child labor, and health insurance. It would take a complete government overhaul and changes in the Constitution, but Perkins was convinced it could be done. She convinced Roosevelt too.

But there was another side to Perkins. She was a religious mystic in the Anglo-Catholic tradition; when she first moved to Washington, D.C., she had hoped to live simply and quietly with Anglican nuns at a convent in the Maryland suburbs while carrying out her official duties. Though this idea was scuttled when she realized what the press would do with the story and how it might disrupt the lives of the cloistered community, Perkins went monthly to All Saints Sisters of the Poor convent for a day of silent retreat all 12 years she served in the Cabinet. In fact, she drafted our national Social Security program and Fair Labor Standards Act there. “The nuns found her in the early morning hours in the chapel,” writes Downey, “praying on her hands and knees for guidance.”

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Sojourners Magazine June 2009
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