Labor Secretary Perkins Did Her Part to Make Sure Social Security Endures

A Feb. 27, 1935, memo by President Roosevelt to Francis Perkins regarding Social Security went to auction in December 2008.

By Jim O’Neal

President Theodore “Teddy” Roosevelt created the U.S. Department of Commerce and Labor on Feb. 14, 1903. It was renamed the Department of Commerce in 1913 and various bureaus and agencies specializing in labor were shifted to a new Department of Labor.

Until 1920, women were prohibited from having Cabinet-level positions since they were not allowed to vote. President Franklin D. Roosevelt broke this barrier in 1933 by appointing Francis Perkins as Secretary of Labor. She was instrumental in aligning labor with the New Deal.

The New Deal was a complex integrated plan to provide present relief, future stability and permanent security in the United States. Much of the president’s thinking about security – which would soon come to be called “social security” – rested on a premise that overcompetition in the labor market depressed wages, spread misery rather than income, curtailed the economy and worked special hardship on the elderly.

Roosevelt was determined to find a way to “dispose of surplus workers,” in particular those over the age of 65. The federal government could provide immediate relief to able-bodied workers as the employer of last resort, while returning welfare functions to the states. Unemployment insurance would relieve damage from economic downturns by sustaining workers’ living standards, and removing older workers (permanently) through government paid old-age pensions would create broad economic stability.

The longer-term features of Roosevelt’s grand design were incorporated into a landmark measure whose legacy endured and reshaped the texture of American life: the Social Security Act. No other New Deal measure proved more lastingly consequential or is more emblematic of the very essence of the New Deal. No one was better prepared to thread the needle of the tortuous legislative process than Secretary of Labor Francis Perkins and FDR personally assigned her the task of chairing a Cabinet committee to prepare the legislation for submission to Congress.

Madame Secretary (as she preferred to be called) brought to her task the commonsense practicality of her New England forebearers; compassion of the special milieu from her time at social-work pioneer Jane Addams’ Hull House; and a dose of political expertise gained as a labor lobbyist and industrial commissioner in New York. Perkins had evolved from a romantic Mount Holyoke College graduate, who tried to sell “true love” stories to pulp magazines, into a mature, deadly serious battler for the underprivileged.

She owed her position to a comrade-in-arms relationship with New York Governor Al Smith and FDR in New York reform battles and also the spreading influence of an organized women’s faction in the Democratic Party. She wisely believed that enlightened middle-class reformers could do more for themselves through tough legislation than union organization; and without the distraction of industrial conflict and social disruption.

Meanwhile, the American labor movement, led by the stubborn Samuel Gompers, relied exclusively on protection of labor’s right to organize. Even after his death, his American Federation of Labor (AFL) spurned legislation and continued to bargain piecemeal, union by union, shop by shop … a strategy that collapsed as the depression deepened.

We know how this ended on Jan. 17, 1935, when President Roosevelt unveiled his Social Security program. Today, 61 million people – or one family in four – receive benefits. However, there is no “lockbox” for Social Security and the flow of taxes and benefit payments are co-mingled with all General Obligations; which includes Medicare, military spending, food stamps and foreign aid. Everything is dependent on the federal government’s ability to levy taxes and borrow money to fund the unsustainable debts backed by “the full faith and credit of the United States.”

Some say that when it comes to global sovereign debt, we live in the best house on Bankrupt Street. However, I am willing to bet that FDR’s cherished Social Security program will never be touched. Francis Perkins did a superb job of getting this concept engrained in a special way and she must still be smiling. She liked her work and served for 12 years and one month – almost a record. James “Tama Jim” Wilson holds that distinction, serving as Secretary of Agricultural from 1897 to 1913, the only Cabinet member to serve under four consecutive presidents, counting the one day he served under Woodrow Wilson.

Intelligent Collector blogger JIM O’NEAL is an avid collector and history buff. He is president and CEO of Frito-Lay International [retired] and earlier served as chair and CEO of PepsiCo Restaurants International [KFC Pizza Hut and Taco Bell].

President Wilson’s Daughters Were Champions of Women’s Suffrage

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A poster featuring Inez Milholland Boissevain was produced to commemorate her ride through Washington, D.C., and her fateful death in 1916. This example realized $402.50 at a June 2005 auction.

By Jim O’Neal

On March 3, 1913, the day before the presidential inauguration, the Thomas Woodrow Wilson family arrived in Washington, D.C. There was very scant attention paid to the arrival of the new president-elect since it coincided with an unusually high-profile demonstration.

About 8,000 women, led by Vassar-educated lawyer Inez Milholland Boissevain (astride a beautiful white horse), were marching in the capital’s streets to further the cause of women’s suffrage. There were marching bands, floats and pageantry galore along the route. The demonstration was intended to emphasize frustrations with the slow progress in Congress, despite the many years of effort to gain national rights.

Prior to 1912, only 1.3 million women in six states had equal voting rights with men and a mere three states had been added for a grand total of nine. However, the movement seemed to be gaining broader support, although eight more years would be needed before the 19th Amendment was approved.

On this particular day, the crowds were boisterous and opponents took delight in spitting on their banners and throwing lighted cigarettes and cigars at and on marchers. At times, the crowds got out of control and more than 100 people were trampled or bruised to the point they required hospital care.

The three Wilson daughters, Margaret, Jessie and Eleanor (nicknamed Nellie), were all ardent supporters of women’s suffrage and were constantly badgering their father to make it a priority even before he was elected. Jessie had even taken a bold stance while in college and ended up resigning from her sorority when her efforts were scorned.

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Jessie Woodrow Wilson

Jessie Woodrow Wilson was born on Aug. 28, 1887, and educated far beyond most women of the day, similar to outgoing First Lady Helen Taft. She had studied at Goucher College and Princeton, where she was Phi Betta Kappa after her high academic accomplishments. After college, she worked at the Lighthouse Settlement House for women millworkers, where she observed firsthand the downtrodden women, and it transformed her into a passionate supporter of women’s suffrage and equal rights.

In 1915, Margaret acted as honorary hostess for the convention of the National American Women Suffrage Association (later known as the League of Women Voters) and Eleanor would speak at the convention along with members of her father’s cabinet. 1915 was also the first year a U.S. president would attend the World Series. The Philadelphia Phillies won the first game, but it would take 65 years before the next one (1980). The Red Sox easily won the series 4-1. Their pitching staff was so good that a young pitching star named George “Babe” Ruth was limited to a single appearance as a pinch-hitter (he grounded out).

Jessie Wilson continued her political career and even introduced Al Smith as the first Catholic presidential nominee in 1928 (he lost to Herbert Hoover), and was obviously poised for big things when Franklin D. Roosevelt won the first of his four elections and dominated the Democratic Party.

Alas, on Jan. 15, 1933, Jessie Woodrow Wilson Sayre died at age 45 following complications from abdominal surgery. I suspect she would have been heavily involved in politics had she lived a longer life.

Jim O'NielIntelligent Collector blogger JIM O’NEAL is an avid collector and history buff. He is President and CEO of Frito-Lay International [retired] and earlier served as Chairman and CEO of PepsiCo Restaurants International [KFC Pizza Hut and Taco Bell].