Frances Perkins stands behind Roosevelt

(WOMENSENEWS)–In 1933, the new president faced a country in economic collapse, with massive unemployment and home foreclosures leading to widespread homelessness, hunger and despair. The face of this human devastation, as the fourth year of the Great Depression began, was generally male: shutdown steel mills, men begging in the streets or standing on bread lines.

Less visibly, women had been hit hard. Lay-offs on all levels of federal, state, city and local governments greatly impacted education, forcing school closures and putting teachers, most of whom were women, out of work. Cost-cutting within the federal government meant that married women were the first to lose their jobs. In industry, women whose husbands made a living wage were considered expendable from the work force.

Domestic work was not considered "real" work; hours and benefits and working conditions were private–and dismal. The most invisible women suffering during the Depression were these domestic workers, most of whom were not white and not "native born."

President Franklin D. Roosevelt and those around him were determined to use the power of the federal government to help the American people. His allies included his wife, the outspoken Eleanor Roosevelt, and her friends, a network of social reformers bred in the settlement house and labor reform movements of the previous decade. President Roosevelt, the former governor of New York, had brought to Washington Frances Perkins, once his state’s industrial commissioner, and named her secretary of the Labor Department. The first woman to hold a cabinet post, Perkins had spent her life working with poor people and immigrants, focusing particularly–and effectively–on worker safety and security.

On the whole and much to their dismay, this extraordinary and unprecedented array of female brain power and access to influence could not assure a fair deal for women. As executive orders and legislation were put into effect during Roosevelt’s first term, gender discrimination was the norm.

Regulating wages and hours, the government enshrined a system whereby men’s jobs paid more than women’s. Pumping money into the economy meant government subsidy of enormous construction projects (largely jobs for men) and the relegation of women’s work to less visible, less prestigious sewing projects or domestic service. Discrimination in the employment of married women would be a contentious subject for decades to follow.

The past is prologue and women are watching. As President Obama proposes programs to stimulate the current economy, today’s historians and activists are reminding him of women’s needs as workers and citizens. In addition to physical infrastructure such as roads, highways and bridges, they are urging attention to social infrastructure such as nurses, day care workers and senior centers.

A recent open letter to the president signed by more than 1,000 historians put it best: "We need to rebuild not only concrete and steel bridges but also human bridges, the social connections that create cohesive communities."

Louise Bernikow is the author of seven books and numerous magazine articles. She travelsto campuses and community groups with a lecture and slide show about activism called "The Shoulders WeStand On: Women as Agents of Change."

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