Conservative Liberal Frances Perkins

(This is the second part of the Texas Liberal series running this week on Where’s the Outrage? called Four For The Fourth—Alternatives To Accommodation And Assimilation.)

Frances Perkins (1882-1965), the first woman to serve in a Presidential cabinet, helped chart Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal and was a champion of the initial passage of Social Security.

As Labor Secretary, Perkins served as a reformer close to the center of power. Like many reformers, Perkins could in some ways be termed conservative. She did not embrace the most radical solutions proposed to end the Great Depression.

Perkins’ mix of imagination and practical experience is a hallmark of the successful reformer. Before working in government, she worked with the poor at Jane Addams’ Hull House in Chicago. Perkins worked in the 1920’s for New York Governor Al Smith. Smith advocated an expanded place for government in the lives of citizens and is viewed as a “founding father” of the New Deal.

Perkins had an understanding about the lives of the poor. She knew government could help if America could begin to imagine government in that role.

Progress in politics, and in many aspects of life, is often a product of imagination. In the case of the New Deal, imagination got a strong push from the demands of the Depression.

Frances Perkins engaged in a mild form of resistance to the prevailing society. She sought to use existing tools of power in a new way. It is often these more mild reforms that are most effective. The kind of change Perkins embraced was in many ways meant to protect America from its free market excesses.

That said, Perkins’ view that government had a duty to help those most in need was revolutionary in its implications for those who got the help.