A Hidden Hero

Mar 24, 2009

“Social workers are responsible for social security,” I often heard.  In NASW’s focus on social work reinvestment, we have invoked the name of Frances Perkins, the first woman to serve in a Presidential cabinet and as United States Secretary of Labor.  She was one of the longest-serving cabinet officers in history.  As we are facing current economic challenges, Frances Perkins’ name continues to rise.   One night, I happened to catch author Adam Cohen on a TV show, talking about the five most influential people during the first 100 days of the Franklin Delano Roosevelt administration.  Two of them were social workers, Frances Perkins and Harry Hopkins.  As I read Cohen’s book, Nothing to Fear, I found a new hero – Frances Perkins.  Close to finishing Cohen’s book, I stumbled upon a new biography of Perkins, The Woman Behind the New Deal:  The Life of Frances Perkins, FDR’s Secretary of Labor and His Moral Conscience by Kirstin Downey.  On Monday, I heard Ms. Downey speak at an event hosted by the Library of Congress.

Frances Perkins was an early social worker.  Born in 1880, she worked at Hull House with Jane Addams in the early 1900s.  After college, she continued to move in and out of social work volunteer positions and employment, but it was witnessing the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire in New York City in 1911, that galvanized her lifelong commitment to improving the lives of all people, especially in the area of working conditions.  She used social work skills of finding the “strengths” in people.  She formed unconventional alliances to accomplish her means, bringing people together who did not always agree with each other.  Social justice was a guiding principle for her.

The Library of Congress presentation was recorded for C-Span’s Book TV and will be shown on April 11, 12, and 13.  The presentation will also be available on the Library of Congress website http://www.loc.gov/loc/cfbook/ .  So many of the programs of our social safety net that we take for granted are the result of the efforts of our sister social worker, Frances Perkins.  She shows us how valuable our skills are for our clients, their families, their communities, the nation and the world.

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