Frances Perkins is well-known to most of us not only because she was a student at Mount Holyoke (Class of 1902) but because she was the first woman in a Presidential Cabinet.
For our Zoom Mini Reunion held May 8th, Meg Conkey and Judy Burger-Gossart presented a fresh look at Frances’ life and path to the White House. While she was at Mount Holyoke, she witnessed the egregious working conditions in a paper mill which made such an impression on her that she felt “summoned” to do something to help. And so she did.
When Frances entered New York politics and became the Industrial Commissioner, FDR noticed her. In 1933, when he asked her to be Labor Secretary, she presented him with a list of nine demands to which, in fact, he agreed! In the resulting New Deal, only health insurance failed to be included, which is interesting to note because it’s still in contention.
Meg presented first. She has been teaching a full semester course at Berkeley on Frances Perkins and managed to give us ,while screen-sharing slides, a “mini” summation of her course. Judy followed and drew on several photographs to illustrate how Frances’ matronly, dowdy style, charmed the men in the cabinet and helped achieve her goal.
Though many of the 41 classmates who attended had read The Woman Behind the New Deal, we were treated to new insights into Frances’ brilliance as a politician. And, of course, we had a lively question and answer exchange, followed by two breakout sessions where the dialogue about this amazing Mount Holyoke woman continued.
Footnote: Frances Perkins spoke at Mount Holyoke’s Centenary in 1937. Whom shall we choose to speak at our Bicentenary?
Submitted by Sunny Eaton Steadman
Selected Resources to find out more or more details:
The Woman Behind the New Deal, by Kirstin Downey, 2009
The Courage to Meddle: The Belief of Frances Perkins, by Tom Levitt, 2020
A Woman Unafraid: The Achievements of Frances Perkins, by Penny Colman,1993
Frances Perkins: First Woman Cabinet Member, by Emily Keller, 2006
Frances Perkins, First Lady of the Cabinet, by Don Lawson, 1966
Madam Secretary Frances Perkins: by George Martin, 1976
Cabinet, by Lillian Holmen Mohr, 1979
Deal, by Naomi Pasachoff, 2000
Cabinet, by Bill Severn, 1976
Frances Perkins Center (Damariscotta, ME):
The Living New Deal ( Berkeley, CA );
Frances Perkins Center, 2019
You May Call Her Madam Secretary, Vineyard Video,
1987 (available on YouTube)