Kirstin Downey

(WOMENSENEWS)–On a chilly February night in 1933, a middle-aged woman waited expectantly to meet with her employer at his residence on East 65th Street in New York City. She clutched a scrap of paper with hastily written notes. Finally ushered into his study, the woman brushed aside her nervousness and spoke confidently. They bantered casually for a while, as was their style, then she turned serious, her dark, luminous eyes holding his gaze.

He wanted her to take an assignment but she had decided she wouldn’t accept it unless he allowed her to do it her own way. She held up the piece of paper in her hand, and he motioned for her to continue.

She ticked off the items: a 40-hour work week, a minimum wage, worker’s compensation, unemployment compensation, a federal law banning child labor, direct federal aid for unemployment relief, Social Security, a revitalized public employment service and health insurance. She watched his eyes to make sure he was paying attention and understood the implications of each demand. She braced for his response, knowing that he often chose political expediency over idealism and was capable of callousness, even cruelty.

The scope of her list was breathtaking. She was proposing a fundamental and radical restructuring of American society, with enactment of historic social welfare and labor laws. To succeed, she would have to overcome opposition from the courts, business, labor unions, conservatives.

‘Nothing Like This Before’

“Nothing like this has ever been done in the United States before,” she said. “You know that, don’t you?”

The man sat across from her in his wheelchair amid the clutter of boxes and rumpled rugs. Soon, he would head to Washington, D.C., to be sworn in as the 32nd president of the United States. He would inherit the worst economic crisis in the nation’s history. An era of rampant speculation had come to an end. The stock market had collapsed, rendering investments valueless. Banks were shutting down, stripping people of their lifetime savings. About a third of workers were unemployed; wages were falling; tens of thousands were homeless. Real estate prices had plummeted and millions of homeowners faced foreclosure.

Kirstin Downey

His choice of labor secretary would be one of his most important early decisions. His nominee must understand economic and employment issues, but be equally effective as a coalition builder.

He was a handsome man, with aquiline features, and he studied the plain, matronly woman sitting before him. No one was more qualified for the job. She knew as much about labor law and administration as anyone in the country. He’d known her for more than 20 years, the last four in Albany, where she had worked at his side. He trusted her and knew she would never betray him.

But placing a woman in the labor secretary’s job would expose him to criticism and ridicule. Her list of proposals would stir heated opposition, even among his loyal supporters. The eight-hour day was a standard plank of the Socialist Party; unemployment insurance seemed laughably improbable; direct aid to the unemployed would threaten his campaign pledge of a balanced budget.

He said he would back her.

Life-Long Preparation

It was a job she had prepared for all her life. She had changed her name, her appearance, even her stated age to make herself a more effective labor advocate. She had studied how men think so she could better succeed in a man’s world. She had spent decades building crucial alliances.

Still, she told the president-elect that she needed time to make her decision. The next day she visited her husband, a patient in a sanitarium. He was having a good day and he understood when she told him about the job offer. His first impulse was to fret for himself, asking her how this new job might affect him. When she assured him that he could remain where he was and that her weekend visits would continue, he gave his permission.

That night in bed, the woman cried in deep, wailing sobs that frightened her teenage daughter. She knew the job would change her life forever. She would open herself to constant media scrutiny, harsh judgment from her peers and public criticism for doing a job a woman had never done before. Yet she knew she must accept the offer. As her grandmother had told her, whenever a door opened to you, you had no choice but to walk through it.

The next day she called Franklin Roosevelt and accepted the offer.

Frances Perkins would become the nation’s first female secretary of labor.

Kirstin Downey is the author of a new book, “The Life of Frances Perkins, FDR’s Secretary of Labor and His Moral Conscience, The Woman Behind the New Deal,” Nan A. Talese/Doubleday, 2009. She was formerly a staff writer at the Washington Post, covering economics and workplace issues.

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Kirstin Downey

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