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March 27, 2011

Expanded Memory Hole Now Accepting Cabinet Secretaries

By: Aaron Datesman

My personal heroes include Saul Alinsky, Kurt Vonnegut, and David Dellinger, which only indicates my conclusion that “troublemaker” is just a way of saying “saint” with more syllables. Among the other Americans on the list, there is a woman, too. I believe that no human being ever did more to improve the lives of Americans than she did(*). Because of this, I doubt that one American out of one hundred has ever heard of her.

Her name is Frances Perkins. That’s her in the black coat and hat in the middle panel below.


If you’ve been following the news, you might recognize these panels as belonging to the labor history mural which the governor of Maine is trying to remove (perhaps he has succeeded by this time) from the state labor department. I’m sure that removing images of Frances Perkins from the public domain has nothing to do with, oh, attacks on public sector unions or Social Security.

It’s an especially classy touch, I think, that the attempt in Maine (the site of Perkin’s grave) to toss this one small remaining shred of our shared history into the Memory Hole comes on the centennial of the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire. Perkins witnessed that tragedy in 1911. According to her biographer, it was a turning point in her life.

(*) P.S. The biography of Perkins by Kirstin Downey, The Woman Behind the New Deal: the Life and Legacy of Frances Perkins, is one of the most exceptional books I have ever read. The following excerpt from the book’s prologue describes her interview with Franklin Roosevelt for the position of Secretary of Labor - a position which she held for twelve years. It’s a bit dramatized, I think, but it supports my opinion that no other single person ever did more to improve the health, safety, welfare, and quality of life of her fellow Americans.

He wanted her to take an assignment but she had decided she wouldn’t accept it unless he allowed her to do it her own way. She held up the piece of paper in her hand, and he motioned for her to continue.

She ticked off the items: a forty-hour workweek, a minimum wage, worker’s compensation, unemployment compensation, a federal law banning child labor, direct federal aid for unemployment relief, Social Security, a revitalized public employment service, and health insurance.

— Aaron Datesman

Posted at March 27, 2011 10:28 AM

Perhaps someone should send a copy of this book to Michele Bachmann and Sarah Palin.

Posted by: Ron Datesman at March 27, 2011 11:13 AM

May I suggest a few different perspectives? Imagine that:

1. All those things you mention were actually free will offerings from the industrialists to the laboring class, motivated purely by the goodness of their hearts.

2. We can't afford them any more.

3. In the long run, they are bad for people, by rewarding lazyness and lack of foresight.

Posted by: mistah charley, ph.d. at March 27, 2011 12:01 PM

I wonder if women are STILL counted as 3/5 ths of a man, in today's Census?

Posted by: Mike Meyer at March 27, 2011 03:06 PM

Perhaps someone should send a copy of this book to Michele Bachmann and Sarah Palin.

Maybe when they're done with it they could give it to Obama.

Posted by: Happy Jack at March 27, 2011 04:42 PM

Thanks for the history Aaron. I'll have to borrow that book. Mother Jones and Jane Adams and some others did an awful lot of groundwork over the prior decades for those achievements, but I look forward to find out more about Perkins, who to my knowledge hasn't received as much attention/credit as Harry Hopkins. Then again, almost no one knows mucha bout Harry Hopkins or even FDR now either. Such a pity that is.

Posted by: N E at March 27, 2011 05:27 PM


Posted by: Amandasaurus at March 27, 2011 07:20 PM

Remember that PSA during the last election, sponsored by the Labor Unions, that showed obits of industrial accident victims while a deep voice (I think it was James Earl Jones) intoned: "A lot of Americans are dying for a job"?

Yeah, I don't remember it either.

Posted by: coriolis at March 27, 2011 11:17 PM