Remembering Social Security's Forgotten Shepherd As Social Security turns 70, President Franklin Roosevelt is remembered for bringing this popular government program to life. But it was Roosevelt's Secretary of Labor Frances Perkins who led the team that created the plan for Social Security and steered it through Congress.
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Remembering Social Security's Forgotten Shepherd

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Remembering Social Security's Forgotten Shepherd

Remembering Social Security's Forgotten Shepherd

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President Franklin Roosevelt signed legislation creating Social Security 70 years ago this Sunday. One of the people standing by his side on that day in 1935 was this country's first female Cabinet member. Frances Perkins had a pioneering career in politics as secretary of Labor, but it was her push for Social Security that made history. Penny Colman has written a biography of the secretary titled "A Woman Unafraid: The Achievements of Frances Perkins." She joins me now.

Good morning, Ms. Colman.

Ms. PENNY COLMAN (Author, "A Woman Unafraid: The Achievements of Frances Perkins"): Good morning.

WERTHEIMER: Let's begin with how Frances Perkins' character so uniquely prepared her to work to improve conditions for the poorer kind, as she called them.

Ms. COLMAN: Her character, her character that was formed in the crucible of the earthly 1900s when many Americans were awakening to not just the amazement of American industrialization but the awfulness. And she remembers back to being a 12-year-old and remembers having--one of her closest, dearest friends lived in a poverty-stricken family. And she would ask her parents, `Why are these people poor?' And her parents would give what was the conventional answer at that time, which was they drank or they were lazy. But she would say to herself, `That's not true.' And Perkins was a deeply religious person, so she would talk vocation and mission and leading a useful life and making a difference.

WERTHEIMER: Now how was it that Franklin Roosevelt decided to tap a woman like this to be his secretary of Labor?

Ms. COLMAN: Because Frances Perkins and Roosevelt had met years earlier when she was a lobbyist for the Consumer League and he was a member of the Legislature in New York. He also appointed her as his industrial commissioner when he was elected governor of New York state. Roosevelt knew from long experience that Frances Perkins was the best person for the job.

WERTHEIMER: Frances Perkins took a startling agenda to the White House. I want you to hear some tape of how it was received by President Roosevelt. She explained in a 1962 speech that she had told the president, `You may not want me because I have some serious things I want to do.' One of those things, of course, was what ultimately turned out to be Social Security, but here's the tape.

(Soundbite of tape)

Secretary FRANCES PERKINS (Department of Labor): Among the things I wanted to do was to find a way of getting unemployment insurance, old-age insurance and health insurance. And I remember he looked somewhat startled and he said, `Well, do you think it can be done?' And I said, `I don't know.' He said, `Constitutional problems, aren't there?' `Yes, very severe constitutional problems,' I said, `but what have we been elected for except to solve the constitutional problems?'

WERTHEIMER: Roosevelt's notion of how to get this done was to create a kind of a commission. Tell us how that worked.

Ms. COLMAN: Well, at first, he had thought about having it be a commission of legislators, but Perkins pointed out to him that it would be more efficient to have it be Cabinet members because that would be closer to his oversight, and so he did, and asked Perkins to be the chair. Roosevelt insisted because he knew that Perkins would get this done and she would deal with the key obstacle, which, of course, was the constitutional issue of how to have this financed and how to have the legislation written in a way that it would not be overturned by the Supreme Court.

WERTHEIMER: Now there's a wonderful scene that Frances Perkins describes again in that 1962 speech. Faced with the constitutional question, she took her campaign to tea with the wife of Supreme Court Justice Harlan Stone. And Perkins knew that the justice would be there if she went late, so she did. Her description.

(Soundbite of tape)

Ms. PERKINS: He said, `How are you getting on?' And I said, `All right.' And then I said, `Well, you know, we're having big trouble, Mr. Justice. We're not quite sure, you know, what will be a wise method of establishing this law.' And he looked around to see if anybody was listening and he put his hand up like--and he said, `The taxing power, my dear, the taxing. You can do anything.'

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. PERKINS: I didn't question him any further, but I went back to my committee and I never told them how I got my great information. As far as they knew, I went out in the wilderness and had a vision.

WERTHEIMER: That's sort of a back-door way of finding out what she needed to know.

Ms. COLMAN: Right. Well, that exemplifies why she made such extraordinary achievements. She was so strategic. And there was nothing accidental about that.

WERTHEIMER: Now when the Economic Security Act, which created Social Security, actually passed Congress, how much of that was she responsible for?

Ms. COLMAN: Well, as the person who finally got the committee to get its report ready--I mean, there's, of course, the famous story that she relates, that final week when they had to get this report written and they were still going back and forth, she summoned the committee to her house and said, `We are staying here until all these decisions are made.' And she locked the door and I think put a bottle of whiskey or something on the table and said, `This is it.' And there they were until 2 AM. And Frances Perkins had had this mission from the early 1900s and she, through her brilliance, her strategic thinking, was in the position, because Roosevelt appointed her as secretary of Labor, to get the Social Security Act of 1935 passed.

WERTHEIMER: I want to play one more clip of tape from France Perkins' 1962 speech just to sort of bring this conversation around to the present day.

(Soundbite of tape)

Ms. PERKINS: No politician, no political party could possibly destroy this act and still maintain our democratic system. It is safe. It is safe forever and for the benefit of the people of the United States.

WERTHEIMER: So do you think Frances Perkins will turn out to be right?

Ms. COLMAN: Yes, absolutely. And what's so important about the excerpt that we just heard is Perkins' pairing of Social Security and our democratic system. And what Perkins understood and believed was that in order for a civilized society to thrive, it has to be a society that is based on social justice, economic opportunity and equality. And so, yes, absolutely, I believe that Perkins is right.

WERTHEIMER: Penny Colman is the author of "A Woman Unafraid: The Achievements of Frances Perkins." Thank you so much.

Ms. COLMAN: Thank you very much.

WERTHEIMER: More milestones in the history of Social Security are at This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Linda Wertheimer.

STEVE INSKEEP (Host): And I'm Steve Inskeep.

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