Frances Perkins, the godmother of modern America’s social safety net, could be among the first women in 125 years to be nominated for a place on the New York State Capitol’s Million Dollar Staircase.
(Governor Kathy Hochul recently told the New York Times that the late Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg is, in all likelihood, “the first of many” additions to that gallery of 19th century portraits.)
Perkins’ candidacy has at least two prominent advocates, both of whom live in the Adirondacks. One is her grandson, Westport resident Tomlin Perkins Coggeshall. The other is Christopher Breiseth of Ticonderoga, who befriended Perkins as a graduate student at Cornell University; they remained close until her death in 1965.
Perkins was the first woman to serve in a president’s cabinet; Franklin Roosevelt appointed her Secretary of Labor in 1933, a post she held until FDR’s death in 1945.
Back in Albany, Perkins oversaw Governor Roosevelt’s Industrial Commission, which regulated workplace safety, wages and hours, among other things, throughout the state. Roosevelt’s predecessor on the state capitol’s second floor, Al Smith, named her one of five members of that board in 1919.
“Her success came in part from her self-confidence, acquired over this wonderful career in New York State, where she learned how to deal with Al Smith and Franklin Roosevelt, and before them, Theodore Roosevelt and Robert Wagner, who later became a very powerful U.S. Senator,” Chris Breiseth said in a recent interview with the Lake George Mirror. “She had every confidence that women could do everything that men could do, and do it better.”
On March 5, Coggeshall and his husband, Christopher Rice, hosted a screening of the documentary, “Summoned: Francis Perkins and the General Welfare” at the Westport Library, which also exhibited six-panel display about the life and legacy of Frances Perkins throughout March in honor of Women’s History Month.
New York State and the Modern Welfare State
According to Breiseth, who was president and CEO of the Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt Institute in Hyde Park, NY, before retiring to live full-time on northern Lake George, Perkins’ years in Albany “were crucial” to the policies that emerged from the New Deal, Social Security foremost among them.
‘It’s one seamless continuum of progressive ideas, from Theodore Roosevelt’s Bull Moose movement through Al Smith’s very successful governorship and FDR’s efforts to cope with the collapsing economy, the massive unemployment and the deprivation that followed the crash of 1929, which came within one year of becoming governor,” said Breiseth.
Perkins and the CCC
Among the programs with New York roots to be implemented during the first New Deal – the largest expansion of federal power since the Civil War – was the Civilian Conservation Corps.
“Within months of the inauguration, they had millions of young men working for the government, sending the bulk of what they earned home to their families,” said Breiseth.
At Perkins’ direction, the US Army organized and supervised the camps, many of which were established in the Adirondacks, throughout Hamilton and Essex Counties and in the Town of Bolton, among other places.
According to Bolton’s official co-historian, Ted Caldwell, the former 1,000-acre Alma Farm, acquired by New York State in 1925 and located seven miles north of the hamlet of Bolton Landing, was an ideal site for a CCC camp.
“Every morning, the men would load up large trucks and travel,” says Caldwell. “They planted thousands of pine seedlings on the 200 acres of open land on the Alma Farm. Near the lake, stream banks were rip rapped to control erosion, and fish spawning habitats were improved. The shores of the islands were also rip rapped to counteract the fluctuations in lake levels. The men constructed buildings on Glen Island, in Hearthstone Park, in Fort George Battleground Park and in Rogers Rock Park and built hiking trails on Tongue Mountain. Keeping 200 men busy was a daunting task that required planning, supervision, and the cooperation of many, many people.”
Perkins and Social Security
In our interview, Chris Breiseth recalled, “I once asked Miss Perkins, as she preferred to be called, ‘what do you regard as your greatest accomplishment?’ and she replied, ‘Social Security.”
Old age and unemployment insurance, a minimum wage and a forty-hour week were among her conditions for accepting Roosevelt’s offer to become his Secretary of Labor, said Breiseth.
According to Breiseth, Perkins was disappointed that some form of public health insurance was not included in the 1935 Social Security Act. That would have to wait for another thirty years, when Congress amended the original Social Security Act to create Medicare and Medicaid, and, after another half century, the passage of the Affordable Care Act of 2016. But those would not have been possible without the foundations laid by Perkins in New York State and in Washington.
To affirm the many connections, both direct and indirect, between Frances Perkins and the safety nets we now take for granted, Tomlin Coggeshall and Christopher Rice have established the Frances Perkins Center at the family homestead in Newcastle, Maine. According to its mission statement, “The Frances Perkins Center honors the legacy of Frances Perkins by sharing her commitment to the principle that government should provide all its people with the best possible life, and by preserving the place that shaped her character.” To learn more, visit francesperkinscenter.org.