Women March, the immersive New-York Historical exhibition about 200 years of women’s activism and organizing, demonstrates that collective action begins when just one person confronts injustice, and then another joins her, and then another. The exhibition features a digital interactive on individual activists’ lives, representing a portrait of the many instrumental figures in women’s activism. These profiles were compiled by high school interns in New-York Historical’s Teen Leaders program. While the Museum is temporarily closed to help contain the spread of COVID-19, we’re committed to sharing the ideas of Women March from afar.
One activist featured in the biographies interactive is Frances Perkins, a key, if somewhat overlooked, figure in American and women’s history who is also the subject of a new documentary by filmmaker Mick Cauoette. The first woman to ever serve in the U.S. Cabinet, Frances Perkins had a tremendous impact on the movements for both women’s rights and labor reform. As the Secretary of Labor in President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s administration for 12 years, Perkins spearheaded the development of the U.S. Social Security system, pushed for a standardized hourly work week and the regulation of minimum and overtime wages, and played a fundamental role in the implementation of elements of FDR’s New Deal. Perkins had a lifelong commitment to the protection of those most at risk, including the elderly, women and children, and working-class laborers.
Summoned: Frances Perkins and the General Welfare is available online through a local PBS affiliate for a limited time, and through streaming services thereafter. Archival images and footage—including a revealing clip of FDR introducing his cabinet, with Perkins at the very end of the line and very evidently the only woman among them—as well as recordings of Perkins’ voice explaining her motives in her own words, are interspersed with commentary from compelling contemporary figures, including politicians like House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senator Amy Klobuchar, and journalists Lawrence O’Donnell and David Brooks. The documentary also features interviews with the Center for Women’s History’s own Scholarly Advisory Board Chair, Alice Kessler-Harris.
Summoned provides a complex, enlightening portrait of Perkins, as both a public advocate and political professional and as private wife, mother, and friend. It traces the development of Perkins’s career in politics and government — beginning from her education at Mt. Holyoke College, to her early work in the Midwest settlement movement. Her time living in New York City was central to her intellectual and political life: witnessing young women jumping to their deaths to escape the flames of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire was one of the major turning points in her personal and political life. This period gave Perkins insight into the unique challenges she faced as a woman in an arena dominated by men, and she built the tools and networks necessary to propel her successful career in state and then federal government.
The Center for Women’s History attended a screening of the film at Columbia University’s Journalism School in late October 2019, prior to its release on PBS. The program featured pre-screening opening remarks from Alice Kessler-Harris, as well as a post-screening panel with filmmaker Caouette, Kessler-Harris, Perkins’s grandson Tomlin Perkins Coggeshall, Sarah Peskin of the France Perkins Center, and Columbia Professor of Journalism, Samuel Freedman.
Kessler-Harris kicked off the event by making a “confession” that she and her generation of historians had largely overlooked Perkins. Within the field of women’s history, Kessler-Harris posited that Perkins was likely discounted because she was “a woman who played a man’s game”: Rather than harnessing pathways of the women’s movement, Perkins utilized more traditional, male-centered levers of power. As Perkins once wrote to suffragist Carrie Chapman Catt,
“The door might not be opened to a woman again for a long, long time, and I had a kind of duty to other women to walk in and sit down on the chair that was offered, and so establish the right of others long hence and far distant in geography to sit in the high seats.”
Within labor history, Kessler-Harris suggested that Perkins was largely passed over due to her chosen strategies for implementing change. As a cabinet member, Perkins shaped legislation, as opposed to collective action—the central mode of change-making mobilized by unions. Dr. Kessler-Harris rounded out her “confession” with three central lessons to be learned from Perkins’s life and work: 1) Perkins “taught us something about the art of compromise,” 2) Perkins “teaches us something about coalitions and coalition politics,” and 3) Perkins “taught us something about politics and political skills”—“she rose to the top because she earned it, she learned it.”
Caouette also shared a few thoughts before the screening of the film, noting that making the film illustrated to him that “there is hope, and change is possible.” Perkins worked as a cabinet member during a politically fraught time; her actions, Caouette suggests, can inform us now in our own politically charged moment. Though he made these remarks last fall, his words ring even more true today in our current economic crisis. In the midst of a national emergency, Perkins’ accomplishments in creating new safety net programs, and the government’s activist role in improving the general welfare, are inspiring and remarkable.
Written by Caroline Shadle, Intern, Center for Women’s History, New-York Historical Society