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Bristol Area Lions learn about Frances Perkins 11/27/2011

Posted by DS in meetings, speakers.
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Laura Fortman, newly appointed executive director of the Frances Perkins Center, talked passionately about the career of the first woman cabinet member, Secretary of State Frances Perkins.

Perkins earned a bachelor’s degree at Mt. Holyoke, and a master’s in sociology at Columbia. While there Perkins took a course in history. The class had students observe working conditions at some factories and she saw their low wages and poor working conditions.

In 1910, before women had the right to vote, she achieved statewide prominence as head of the New York Consumers League. In that position she lobbied arduously for better working hours and conditions. While in N.Y. she witnessed the tragic Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in 1911 where 146 working women died. At first she thought they were throwing out bolts of cloth from upper story windows, and then realized it was women jumping to their deaths onto the streets below. Management had locked the doors and there was no way out.

Perkins was chosen to serve on the N.Y. State Factory Commission established after the fire to improve job safety. Later she served as N.Y. Labor Commissioner under Franklin Delano Roosevelt. In 1933 when FDR was appointed President of the United States he called her into his office. He wanted her to be his Secretary of Labor, the first woman to serve on a Presidential Cabinet. She told him she would only accept under her own terms. She held a piece of paper 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.”

Perkins was proposing a fundamental and radical restructuring of American society. “Nothing like this has ever been done in the United States” she said. “You know that don’t you?” He paused and said he would back her. She held that position for 12 years longer than any other Secretary of Labor.

Tomlin Coggeshall, founder of the Frances Perkins Center, then gave a PowerPoint presentation of her life and the family home, a 57-acre farm on the River Road in Newcastle. He remembers his grandmother fondly. Perkins grandmother and parents were Mainers and the family business was brick making. The kiln was on their land next to the Damariscotta River. When the industry began to decline, in the 1870’s, her father moved the family to Boston, where Frances was born.

She used the home in Newcastle frequently as a retreat from her demanding work and retiring to it later in life. She is buried in Newcastle. Coggeshall talked about her unending perseverance in facilitating the passing of the Social Security Act of 1935. The previous year Congress had hastily authorized the Committee on Economic Security, but adjourned without making any appropriation to support it. Perkins had to “borrow” staff from other government departments and raise money from charitable organizations. The Lions Club of America was one that put up money for actuaries.

In 2010, 75 years after its birth, nearly 53 million Americans received $703 billion in Social Security benefits.

The next meeting of the Bristol Area Lions will be Mon., on Dec. 5, when the guest speaker will be Mark Gosselin, Director of Admissions at Central Maine Community College. Special guests for the evening will be Jay Pinkerton, Headmaster of Lincoln Academy and George Masters of Masters Machine. To make dinner reservations for that meeting, or to learn more about the Bristol Area Lions Club, please call 677-2095.

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