Monday, February 29, 2016

The Ladies' Brain Trust & other influential women of the New Deal

In 1938, syndicated columnist Drew Pearson suggested that a Ladies' Brain Trust existed, consisting of four women who advised Frances Perkins. Below are Frances Perkins, the four members of the Ladies' Brain Trust, and several other women important to the New Deal.
Above: U.S. Secretary of Labor Frances Perkins leaving the White House, 1939. Perkins was a major architect of Social Security and once wrote, "What was the New Deal anyhow? Was it a political plot? Was it just a name for a period in history? Was it a revolution? To all of these questions I answer 'No.' It was something quite different... It was, I think, basically an attitude. An attitude that found voice in expressions like 'the people are what matter to government,' and 'a government should aim to give all the people under its jurisdiction the best possible life." For more information on Perkins, visit the Frances Perkins Center. Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Above: Ladies' Brain Truster No. 1 - Clara Beyer, right, confers with Frances Perkins, ca. 1938. Beyer was an administrator in the Bureau of Labor Standards and an aide to Perkins. When Beyer passed away in 1990, the New York Times pointed out that she played an important role "in the development of much of the social legislation that marked the New Deal: establishing worker safety, maximum hours, minimum wages and Social Security." And Beyer had been fighting for workers long before the New Deal. In 1922, when the New York Times condemned the concept of a minimum wage, Beyer wrote to them and declared, "If a minimum wage is economically unsound, then Great Britain, New Zealand, Australia, France, Argentina, Norway, and all of the Canadian Provinces bordering on the United States with the exception of New Brunswick, as well as twelve of our states and the District of Columbia, are committed to an unsound principle, for in these [areas] minimum wages... are established by law" (Clara Beyer, "The Minimum Wage," New York Times, November 2, 1922). Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Above: Ladies' Brain Truster No. 2 - Mary LaDame, 1933. Pearson described LaDame as a social worker, previously employed by the Russell Sage Foundation, and also the "most active trusterette." During the New Deal, LaDame worked in the employment service division of the Labor Department, and did not hesitate to take her ideas past her supervisor, and directly to Secretary Perkins (Madera Tribune, January 18, 1938). Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Above: Ladies' Brain Truster No. 3 - Congresswoman Mary T. Norton, surrounded by reporters at Capitol Hill, 1939. Norton served in the U.S. House of Representatives from 1925-1951. Upon her passing in 1959, the New York Times wrote "Mrs. Norton was a staunch New Dealer and helped to guide the late President Franklin D. Roosevelt's wage and hour legislation as well as to defend it later. She also championed the Fair Employment Practices Act and was instrumental in raising the minimum-wage level from 40 to 75 cents an hour" ("Mary Norton, 84; Legislator, Dead," New York Times, August 3, 1959). Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress.
Above: Ladies' Brain Truster No. 4 - Mary Dewson (or "Molly" Dewson) confers with other members of the newly-created Social Security Board, 1937. Dewson not only served on the Social Security Board, she helped shape the Social Security Act itself as an adviser to the Committee on Economic Security. Reflecting on the New Deal, Dewson remarked, "At last women had their foot inside the door. We had the opportunity to demonstrate our ability to see what was needed and to get the job done while working harmoniously with men. The opportunities given women by Roosevelt in the thirties changed our status" (Susan Ware, Partner and I: Molly Dewson, Feminism, and New Deal Politics, 1987, p.193). While certainly a true statement, Dewson was downplaying her own skill as an agent for change- a skill honed by years of working for social justice causes, for example, women's suffrage. Pearson said Dewson was "probably the shrewdest lady around the New Deal high command" (Madera Tribune, January 18, 1938). For more information on Dewson, see her Living New Deal biography here: Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

Other influential women of the New Deal...

 Above: The Director - Hallie Flanagan at the Lafayette Theatre in Harlem, New York, 1936. After conservative members of Congress shut down down the WPA's Federal Theatre Project (FTP) in 1939 (over concerns about "wasteful spending," communism, and the mixing of races) Flanagan wrote, "If [the FTP] had been less alive it might have lived longer. But I do not believe anyone who worked on it regrets that it stood from first to last against reaction, against prejudice, against racial, religious, and political intolerance" (Hallie Flanagan, Arena, 1940, p. 367). Flanagan and her workers gave 64,000 performances to 30 million Americans. For more information on Flanagan, see her Living New Deal biography here: courtesy of Wikipedia.

Above: The Social Justice Dancer - Helen Tamiris, in Vanity Fair magazine, 1930. When Tamiris died in 1966, the New York Times wrote: "Largely through her efforts as the first president of the American Dance Association, dance was included in the Federal Theater of the Works Progress Administration. She served as the theater's chief choreographer in New York from 1937 until 1939. As the nineteen-thirties unfolded, Miss Tamiris's dancing and choreography showed a strong social and political involvement. The despair of the unemployed, the plight of the Southern Negro and the horrors of war all found expression in her work. One of the most successful of these was 'How Long, Brethren?' which was produced in 1937. 'The validity of modern dance,' she explained, 'is rooted in its ability to express modern problems and, further, to make modern audiences want to do something about them'" ("Helen Tamiris, Dancer, Is Dead: Choreographer Put a Stress on Social Responsibility," New York Times, August 5, 1966). Image scanned from a personal copy.

Above: The Teacher - Mary McLeod Bethune, reading from her bible at Bethune-Cookman College, a school she helped create decades earlier, 1943. Bethune was a top administrator in the National Youth Administration and a member of FDR's Black Cabinet. During World War II, Bethune called on African Americans to help the nation win the conflict. She said, "Despite the attitude of some employers in refusing to hire Negroes… we must not fail America…” Congressman Martin Dies (D-Tex), of the House Un-American Activities Committee rewarded her work by calling her a communist, a charge that was quickly withdrawn by the larger committee. When she passed away in 1955, the Washington Post wrote: "Not only her own people but all America has been enriched and ennobled by her courageous, ebullient spirit." Today, a statue of Bethune stands at Lincoln Park in Washington, DC. For more information on Bethune, see her Living New Deal biography here: Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Above: The Tough-As-Nails New Dealer from the South - Ellen Woodward watches as children from low-income families dive into some toys made (or refurbished) on a WPA work project in New York, 1938. Born and raised in Mississippi, Woodward held several positions important to the New Deal, including head of the WPA's Women's and Professional Projects division. Woodward helped secure more work-relief jobs for unemployed women, told the red-baiting (and publicity-seeking) House Un-American Activities Committee that they were the ones who were un-American, and bristled at the idea that WPA wages were too high for African American women, declaring: "Government isn’t justified in paying people starvation wages because they only got that much before." For more information on Woodward, see Martha Swain's book, Ellen S. Woodward: New Deal Advocate for Women, 1995, as well as her Living New Deal biography here: Photo courtesy of the National Archives and the New Deal Network.

Above: The First Lady Extraordinaire - Eleanor Roosevelt visits a WPA work project in Des Moines, Iowa, 1936. Few, if any people in history have done as much for civil and human rights as Eleanor Roosevelt. During the New Deal she opened up more opportunities for women, minorities, and youth - the director of the National Youth Administration wrote: "Her unfailing interest, her deep and sympathetic understanding of the problems of youth, and her endless courage were a source of great strength and guidance to the NYA, to the youth on its program, and to the youth of America." After the New Deal, Eleanor Roosevelt chaired the UN Commission on Human Rights and helped draft the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Article 25 of the Declaration states: "Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services, and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond his control." We haven't come anywhere near these aspirations of course, not even in the United States (the supposed wealthiest country in the world) but someday, when humanity is informed and mature enough, Eleanor Roosevelt's work will be there to tap into. For more information on Eleanor Roosevelt, see her Living New Deal biography here: Photo courtesy of the FDR Presidential Library and Museum.

Above: Women in New Deal Work Programs - A statue of a WPA worker at the Norfolk Botanical Garden in Virginia. Hundreds of thousands of formerly-unemployed women in the various New Deal work programs were influential because they answered a call; because they proved that they could perform all manner of work if someone just gave them opportunities instead of insults. During their time in the WPA, women worked on scientific projects to fight disease, preserved our nation's history, delivered books to Americans in remote rural areas, fed the nation's children, cared for the nation's sick, clothed the needy, provided administrative support for infrastructure projects, and much more. And when America entered World War II, they contributed by sewing and repairing various military gear, and enrolling in the National Youth Administration's defense industry training - many Rosie the Riveters and Wendy the Welders came from the NYA. All these women, through their voluminous work, justified the New Deal and its work programs. Author Nick Taylor wrote of WPA workers: "These ordinary men and women proved to be extraordinary beyond all expectation. They were golden threads woven in the national fabric. In this, they shamed the political philosophy that discounted their value and rewarded the one that placed its faith in them, thus fulfilling the founding vision of a government by and for its people. All its people" (American-Made, 2008, p. 530). Photo courtesy of the Norfolk Botanical Garden.


  1. Brent:

    This is just outstanding work, doubly meaningful to me since I am well into a fairly recent biography (2009) of Frances Perkins by Kirstin Downey, who used to be a business reporter for the WaPo (interesting contrast there between occupation and subject of inquiry). Its title, "The Woman Behind the New Deal: The Life of Frances Perkins, FDR's Secretary of Labor and His Moral Conscience" is a pretty good roadmap to the contents so far, 130 pages into it. I was just reading last night how unhappy William Green, head of the AFL was in 1933 when she was named to head the Labor Depart. Has the gap between feminists, especially the upper middle class leadership, and male blue collar workers narrowed much to this day? It's still one of the widest chasms around, as wide as the one between South Carolina black voters and Bernie Sanders' campaign.

    Frances Perkins had a remarkable ability to "network" before it was called that, and when it was predominantly still face-to-face human contact. She had her hands - and heart - in most of the major reform movements of the Progressive Era, especially on factory working conditions and hours, and yet she maintained good relations with the wealthy wives of major financial powers, mainly Democrats but also "liberal" Republicans of the day (the good old days?)and this talent of hers extended to working for both Al Smith and FDR when they were Governors of New York, with Al famously turning on FDR after he lost the 1928 Presidential race, but Perkins amazingly managed to navigate the troubled relationship, including dealing with the formidable Belle Moscowitz, who held a comparable post with Al Smith...

    One other rather personally embarrassing note: I spent all of my professional environmental career in New Jersey, and did considerable work in Jersey City, which I grew to love for its famous raucous public hearings and spirited citizen defense of Liberty State Park - Jersey City's Central Park. I still stay in touch with Sam Pesin who heads its defense. Yet I don't think I ever heard the name of the Rep. Norton come up - and that was her home district, Jersey City. I wonder, because she seems to have been close to labor, whether she was red-baited in the late 1940's and that's the reason.

    Once again Brent, great work, and maybe someday we'll have the green new New Deal we both want. But after reading Chris Hedges this morning (the last day of Feb. 2016) it doesn't look like its "just around the corner."

    Frances Perkins would have understood that.

    I w

  2. Congratulations for a very comprehensive article. Wish I had a network of thousands I could share this with!