Category Archives: Inspiring Women

Frances Perkins: First Female Presidential Cabinet Member

I’ve always wanted to take a turn as a cast member of a Broadway Musical. To my good fortune, I’ve been selected to play a bit part in the Sherwood Foundation for the Arts summer musical, Annie. In addition to participating in ensemble numbers, I’ll play Frances Perkins, Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s (FDR) Secretary of Labor and the first woman to serve in a U.S. President’s cabinet. I thought it only fitting to learn a bit about her.

Frances was born in Boston MA on April 10, 1880. She grew up a shopkeeper’s daughter in middle-class Worcester MA. With her parents’ encouragement, she was among the 3% of women who earned a four-year college degree. Her exposure to liberal-minded activists at Mount Holyoke College set the course for her life’s work.

She taught school for 2 years in Worcester before heading to Chicago to pursue social work. She had a particular interest in poor immigrant women and took a job rooting out the perpetrators of sex slavery who preyed on desperate women. She took note of systematic bias against women in labor markets – e.g., lower pay for the same work and denial of union access. She bolstered her credentials to address these issues through graduate studies at The Wharton School of Finance and Commence. Thereafter, she pursued a fellowship at Columbia University and was granted a Master’s degree in political science.

Fresh out of graduate school, Frances was hired to run the New York office of the National Consumers League. Her charter focused on 4 priorities: working conditions, long work weeks and substandard wages for women, child labor, and fire hazards. She lobbied against sweat shops and worked for corrective legislation. She recognized humane manufacturers by dubbing their wares “White Label Items” and encouraged consumers to “wear their conscience.” She redoubled her commitment to safe working conditions after 146 women died in the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory on March 25, 1911. That horrific event also galvanized her supporters.

In the aftermath of the fire, Teddy Roosevelt asked Frances to lead a Committee on Safety to improve working conditions and institute fire safety standards. He’d been impressed by her vitality, intrinsic optimism, self-confidence, work ethic, and boundless energy. Her investigative work provided the impetus for legislative reform.

Frances married Paul Wilson on September 26, 1913. He was a wealthy, handsome, connected activist who trafficked in New York City politics. After a miscarriage and a stillborn son, Frances delivered a healthy baby girl on December 30, 1916 who they named Susanna. Ever the activist, she spearheaded the formation of the Maternity Center Association to provide free ob-gyn exams and newborn wellness care for poor women.

A changing of the guard in NYC politics left Paul out of work and out of favor. He became volatile and unemployable while gambling away all of their money. He was subsequently diagnosed with mental illness and would spend the rest of his life in and out of institutionalized care. This development placed Frances in the unenviable position of having to work to support her family and pay for Paul’s care.

Frances PerkinsUnder Governor Al Smith, Frances earned a post on the Industrial Commission where she established workplace safety rules and mediated labor-management disputes. FDR tapped her to serve in his cabinet when elected to serve as New York’s Governor. With the dawning of the Great Depression, she advocated for a State Employment Service, explored unemployment compensation, and became the nation’s foremost authority on labor statistics.

Upon his election to President of the United States, FDR asked Frances to serve as his Secretary of Labor. Though arguably the most qualified individual for the post, she faced extreme bias on many fronts from those who resented placement of a woman in high office. While these contrarians were a constant source of pressure throughout her tenure, she kept her focus squarely on the work and consistently took the high road.

With rampant unemployment at the start of FDR’s Presidency, Frances’ work was front-and-center on the President’s agenda. A short list of her accomplishments:

  • She rooted out corruption and inefficiency in the Department. For example, she oversaw the conviction of 12 immigration officials for malfeasance, dismissed 13 for misconduct, and accepted resignations from 5 others. She also transformed the Bureau of Labor Statistics into a trusted source of information.
  • She worked with FDR to institute a Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) that employed over 3.5 million citizens in forestry and ecology over a 9-year period. The CCC improved the value of public lands while stimulating the economy and bolstering worker confidence.
  • She administered the Federal Emergency Relief Administration and put 26 million Americans back to work through the Civil Works Administration and the Federal Works Administration.
  • She had a hand in the formation of the International Labor Organization (ILO) to push for international labor laws that would move the dial on the home front. She was also instrumental in preserving the organization through the ravages of WWII.
  • She provided the research, legislative support, and administrative support for the establishment of unemployment insurance, social security, and welfare programs.
  • Her fingerprints were all over the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1928 which brought about minimum wage standards, a 40-hour work week, and overtime pay.
  • She greatly expanded the U.S. Conciliation Service to help the nation deal equitably with labor strikes.

Frances’ personal life was never of a source of comfort during these difficult times. Paul could not manage on his own; he could not be trusted to circulate among the persons of influence with whom Frances worked. Susanna inherited her father’s mental illness and required an extra measure of support after her first marriage failed and a second one fell short of financial sufficiency. Frances’ financial obligations forced her to sustain full-time work after leaving FDR’s cabinet at age 65. She worked for President Truman as a Civil Service Commissioner and then took teaching positions at universities. She worked full-time into her 80s.

Frances Perkins did not achieve her due recognition in the annuls of history. Yet she would never have been one to toot her own horn. In reflecting on her life’s work, she would simply say: “I came to work for God, FDR, and the millions of forgotten, plain, common working men… ‘My cup runneth over and surely goodness and mercy will follow me.’”

Source: The Woman Behind the New Deal: The Life of Frances Perkins, FDR’s Secretary of Labor and His Moral Conscience, by Kirstin Downey

First Lady Michelle Obama

Michelle Obama came to town last week to speak at the Moda Center as part of her book tour for Becoming. I just finished reading it. Sure wish I’d had the foresight to get a ticket for her talk!

I’d absorbed snippets of information about Michelle Obama during the presidential campaign and her 8 years as First Lady of the United States. I knew that she’d gone to Princeton as an undergraduate and Harvard Law thereafter. I knew that she was a loving wife, committed parent, and powerful public speaker. And I knew that she oozed grace and class. But I’d barely scratched the surface of this remarkable woman.

She shared a 1-bedroom apartment with her parents and older brother while growing up in the South Side of Chicago. Her father had a blue-collar job which he executed faithfully despite suffering from multiple sclerosis. Her mother devoted herself to giving her children every possible opportunity to succeed. Neither parent complained about their life circumstances. They worked hard and instilled a strong work ethic into their children.

As the neighborhood fell victim to “white flight,” Michelle witnessed first-hand the waning support for public schools and other critical social services. She saw what it was doing to their collective confidence. She reminds us that failure starts as an idea before it becomes a reality. Though the odds may have been stacked against her, Michelle was driven to succeed, even when a high school counsellor deemed her “not Princeton material.” She persevered. She worked even harder and built confidence with each success.

michelle obamaI felt a sense of kinship when she wrote about her acceptance into the Harvard Law School. She hadn’t really thought about whether or not law was her thing. Rather, acceptance into such a prestigious institution was a public affirmation of competency and being deemed “good enough” to run with the nation’s elite. (I definitely relate to that feeling!) She completed her training, passed the bar, and worked for a few years in a law firm before realizing that it wasn’t fulfilling. Not surprisingly, her mother had a no-nonsense response when hearing of her daughter’s bourgeoning sense of disquiet: “Make money first and worry about happiness later.”

While continuing with her law practice, Michelle orchestrated a series of interviews that eventually helped her launch a career in public service – first in government and later in not-for-profit settings. She also found mentors who provide invaluable professional guidance while helping her navigate the joys and challenges of being a working mother. To all appearances, she seems to have achieved her twin objectives of working with purpose and parenting with care.

Being thrust into the limelight as a political wife brought a whole new set of challenges. She took her responsibility as the first African American First Lady seriously – a debt to all the pioneering women who preceded her. She focused several initiatives on children to stem the tide of childhood obesity and to provide supports to help them succeed in life. As she says, kids will invest more of themselves when they feel that they are invested in… when they are told (and shown) that they matter.

I imagine that she was often frustrated by the slow rate of change, especially given her compassion for those in dire need. But she seemed to find peace in having her feet planted in reality but pointed in the direction of progress. As she said, “You may live in the world as it is, but you can still work to create the world as it should be.”

Loved the book. Bowled over by the woman who wrote it. Wonderful to experience America through a different set of eyes. Thoughtful and thought-provoking. Highly recommend it.

Portrait of an Extraordinary Artist

They first met in 1966. Malka Marom was a wife, mother, and popular Canadian folk singer in the duo Malka & Joso. Her seemingly idyllic life was unraveling as she walked into a dimly lit coffeehouse in Toronto. As she listened to the young singer, Malka felt as though this woman knew her. “And the more she sang, the more her voice became my own.” She was amazed to discover that the woman wrote her own material. She felt certain that she’d become a star. She was right.

joni mitchellAs a journalist seven years later, Malka landed the first of three in-depth interviews with that young woman. It marked the beginning of a close friendship that spanned decades. Joni Mitchel: In Her Own Words allows the reader to sit on the sofa while these two kindred spirits reflect on the life of an extraordinary artist.

As I read through the material, I took note of several themes that characterized Joni Mitchell’s artistic journey.

She didn’t get caught up in the world’s judgment; she held to her own inner compass. As a young child, Joni was labeled a mediocre student by her teachers. Yet Joni noticed that the “good students” were those who simply spit back what the teacher told them. Joni was interested in the unasked question, or the question that didn’t have an easy answer. So their labels didn’t mean much to her. Years later, Joni drew criticism when her work didn’t attain the expected level of commercial success. She didn’t get worked up about it. She accepted the fact that people wouldn’t always appreciate her artistic growth. She takes pride in her “experimentiveness.”

She identified with being an artist. While her grades may not have inspired enthusiasm, she discovered her skill as a painter by winning an art contest. (She drew the best dog house.) That discovery provided another avenue to distance herself from her banal education. She also leveraged her gift to quell anxiety. When a teacher suggested that she could also paint with words, a poet was born.

She was endlessly curious and inventive. She didn’t want to learn the masters when playing piano; she wanted to write her own material. She played London Bridge is Falling Down backwards to yield a far more interesting sound. She kept fiddling with the tuning on her guitar so that she could continue to explore and re-discover the instrument. She craved freshness and never wanted to sound like anybody else. When asked if she ever feared that the creative well would run dry, she responded: “As long as you still have questions… the muse has got to be there.”

She plumbed the depth of her experience and her emotions to create authentic material. She deemed herself ultra-sensitive, perceiving things that others do not. When writing a song, she was open to the encounter, giving herself the space to experience the miraculous. “The muse passes through you as you allow yourself to experience.” Recording was a process of discovery, searching more and more for reality, not an affectation. She was also keen to experience her songs as she performed them. If she felt that she’d gone on auto-pilot and started thinking about 100 different things, she’d stop.

She made difficult choices in service of her art. Joni and her first husband became a successful folk duo. When she realized that she couldn’t grow with him, she set out on her own. She refused to be a formulaic recording artist who produced derivative material (even of herself!) for the sake of fame or fortune. She turned down highly lucrative performance gigs if the venue, material, or vibe didn’t align with her artistic integrity.

She was never addicted to applause or honorariums. She was driven by her muse, by the need to explore. She felt it was important to “keep a carrot in front of your nose for growth.” At the end of the day, the art was the thing.

“Freedom for me is a luxury of being able to follow the path of your heart, to keep the magic in your life. Freedom is necessary for me in order to create, and if I cannot create, I don’t feel alive.”
– Joni Mitchell