The Cabinet: The Last Leaf

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Descended of New England Puritans, victor of many savage Albany battles involving labor-management relations, Frances Perkins was not about to bend before Washington's political winds. "Being a woman has only bothered me in climbing trees," was her one concession to critics who howled when Franklin Roosevelt appointed her Secretary of Labor in 1933—the first woman Cabinet member in U.S. history.

"The accusation that I am a woman is incontrovertible," she allowed at another point, shaking her trim tricorn hat like a panache at the antifeminists. William Green, doughty president of the A.F.L., accepted the challenge. "Labor," he said grimly, "will never be reconciled to her appointment."

"Call Me Madam Secretary." During the following twelve years—the era of New Deal reform, unprecedented labor strife and the huge demands of World War II—the tricorn hat, the patrician Boston accent and the impassioned air of the social worker became a signal for battle to opponents of the Secretary of Labor. John L. Lewis, caustic head of the United Mine Workers, called her "woozy in the head," adding that although she would make an excellent housekeeper she didn't know as much about economics "as a Hottentot does about moral law."

"The attitude of both labor and employer toward Miss Perkins," snapped New York's churlish Robert Moses, "is a good deal like that of habitués of a waterfront saloon toward a visiting lady slummer—grim, polite and unimpressed." Harold Ickes, Secretary of the Interior was constantly annoyed by her. "She talks in a perfect torrent, almost without pausing to take breath," he complained.

But F.D.R., who as Governor of New York had admired her work as his industrial commissioner, remained a staunch backer and more than once refused her offer to resign. Much of his New Deal legislation, including the monumental social security law, could be traced directly to her influence.

Despite Ickes' blasts, Madam Perkins, as she was often called ("Call me Madam Secretary," she had told her staff), tried to corral her tongue and happily recounted the amazed remark of that gnarled old Texan, Vice President John Nance Garner, after Roosevelt's first Cabinet meeting: "You're all right. You've got something on your mind, you said it, and then you stopped." Said Madam Perkins: "I guess he feared I would be a vague woman—not quite sure of anything. Really I don't believe men would long tolerate vague women in public office."

At Hull House. The press found her positively closemouthed about her private life. "We New Englanders like to keep ourselves to ourselves," she said. She was brisk with reporters. "When I was a child," she said, "my father used to rap on the table and say, 'Don't waste people's time with vaporings. If you have anything to say, say it definitely and stop.' "

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