Meet FDR’s Backbone: Frances Perkins – An Extraordinary Woman Leader

By Jim Taggart, Changing Winds, published January 25, 2010, updated May 12,2011

fp2tFranklin Delano Roosevelt rates as being one of America’s greatest presidents. Yet he was despised by many during his ascendancy to president and during his four term tenure. And he is still reviled by conservatives and many Republicans.

FDR, of whom I am a great admirer, was an exceedingly complicated man. He most certainly had his warts, weaknesses and biases, but he was also a visionary who understood what America needed to do during the Great Depression and as World War Two proceeded initially in the absence of the U.S. Furthermore, FDR was probably the most effective president at initiating and sustaining action. He launched the Civilian Conservation Core, instituted the New Deal, and deftly handled a demanding Winston Churchill during the War.

This all sounds great. And it is. But there’s one important omission: FDR didn’t accomplish his achievements alone. One person who served under him, and who was in effect his backbone in many ways, was a woman. Her name was Frances Perkins (April 10, 1880 – May 14, 1965).

As early as 1930 when Roosevelt was the Governor of New York, Perkins relentlessly prodded him to support social insurance. When he took office as president in 1933, Roosevelt stalled in proceeding with social insurance because he believed that the country was not yet ready for such change. During his first Hundred Days (a concept borrowed from Napoleon), FDR argued that Perkins, as Labor Secretary, should commence an education campaign on the subject to begin laying the foundation within government and the American public. In addition, he wanted a panel of experts to study what would be involved in introducing social insurance.

Perkins accepted this approach and began a focused effort during which she raised the subject over two dozen times in Cabinet meetings during 1933, and delivered 100 speeches across America in which she touted the benefits of social insurance.

As the months proceeded through 1934 and as FDR continued to show ambivalent behaviour towards introducing social insurance, Perkins took drastic action in December of that year. At a Cabinet meeting at her home, during which the discussion became heated over whether social insurance should be run by the federal or state governments, she locked the doors to her house and disconnected the phone, stating that no one was going to leave until an agreement was reached. At 2 am a tentative agreement was finalized.

Of course, there were still many rough patches in the months afterwards. For example, I find it amazing that one of the issues that concerned Cabinet in 1935 was that an aging population would eventually contribute to a deficit in social insurance by 1980. Yes, that’s 1980, 45 years later! How often do we see politicians looking that far ahead nowadays?

Perkins was a pit bull when it came to grabbing onto an issue she believed was critical for America and then driving it forward. Hers is a fascinating story of how one woman was the impetus for a program that has served tens of millions of Americans, serving as an automatic economic stabilizer, as well as mitigating the effects of poverty among the elderly. Incidentally, it wasn’t until January 1940 that the first individual received a Social Security check, in the amount of $22.54, a Miss Ida Fuller of rural Vermont.

Frances Perkins may not be well known as an incredible leader, but she is in the ranks of other contemporaries, such as Eleanor Roosevelt and Mary Parker-Follett, seen as the Mother of Modern Management. We have a lot for which to thank Frances Perkins. JT