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A Woman’s Story: 72 years ago

On August 14, 1935, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt (FDR) signed the Social Security Act. The woman in the picture is Secretary of Labor Frances Perkins, the subject of my biography A Woman Unafraid: The Achievements of Frances Perkins.

Perkins was the first woman in the United States cabinet and the architect of some of the most far-reaching and important reforms and social legislation ever enacted in America, including the establishment of Social Security. FDR had insisted that Perkins head the committee that created the Social Security Act: “You care about this thing,” he told her. “You believe in it. Therefore I know you will put your back to it more than anyone else, and you will drive it through.” And she did.

Perkins invited members of Congress who had fought for the bill to attend the signing ceremony, and she had enough pens for FDR to use as he signed the copies of the bill to give one to each person present. Except one for herself.

FDR noticed. “Frances, where is your pen?

“I haven’t got one,” she replied.

Turning to his secretary, Marvin McIntyre, FDR said, “All right, give me a first class pen for Frances.”

“It is a great satisfaction to see the foundation stone laid in a security structure which aims to protect our people against the major hazards of life,” Perkins told reporters.

Frances Perkins died at the age of eighty-five on May 14, 1965. Several years before her death, she had talked about the state of the world. “I hear people say that the world is in a crisis . . . . I think crisis has occurred in the world’s history many times. I’m glad to say that in those other crises we didn’t have radio, television, and the movies to run it up until everybody died of terror. . . . You can’t do any of the things we did in the early part of the century if you’re afraid. . . . You just can’t be afraid . . . if you’re going to accomplish anything.”

For an NPR segment on Frances Perkins, see the link on the home page at

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