Friday, November 18, 2011

Famous Speech Friday: Frances Perkins on the roots of Social Security

Frances Perkins led one amazing life focused on labor and social issues. As a social worker and political activist, she witnessed the infamous Triangle Fire in New York City in 1911 and ran the National Consumers League. She served as New York's industrial commissioner in the state's labor department when Franklin Delano Roosevelt was New York Governor, and then became FDR's Labor Secretary when he was elected president--making her the first female member of a presidential cabinet in the U.S.

In her cabinet role, Perkins gave numerous speeches and represented the FDR administration in a variety of settings large and small, such as the time she described social insurance for the U.S. in a nationwide radio broadcast in 1935, outlining what would eventually become the Social Security programs. When FDR died, she hoped that President Truman would appoint her to run the Social Security Administration, but he did not. Many decades later, however, she returned to the Social Security offices in Baltimore, Maryland, to give a 1962 address to the staff about the origins of the law that governed their work. "The Roots of Social Security" is an astonishing speech, full of the types of details that often get lost in the shuffle of history--details that make this a fascinating personal account from a woman who made it her business to bring about social insurance. And from her opening lines, she also made it clear that she had strong opinions about the issue: 
I must say I feel very much at home even though I just arrived. I feel at home because the Social Security Administration has, ever since it was established, been a sort of special concern of mine, although by the chicanery of politics it was not placed in the Department of Labor. I, of course, thought it should be.
No word-mincing there. Perkins at this stage of her career was an almost irreplaceable source of small historic details, and they're peppered throughout this speech, as in the moment when she describes how social security records were retrieved for citizens in the pre-computer era:
I remember seeing ladies climbing up on great high stepladders and getting files out of shelves--dusty, dirty--many wearing gloves so they wouldn't get their hands dirty while hunting through the files for John Jones' record. A terrific problem of recordkeeping! You don't do that today.
And she recalled how her appointment as Secretary of Labor came about: 
Before I was appointed, I had a little conversation with Roosevelt in which I said perhaps he didn't want me to be the Secretary, of Labor because if I were, I should want to do this, and this, and this. Among the things I wanted to do was find a way of getting unemployment insurance, old-age insurance, and health insurance. I remember he looked so startled, and he said, "Well, do you think it can be done?" I said, "I don't know." He said, "Well, there are 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? Lots of other problems have been solved by the people of the United States, and there is no reason why this one shouldn't be solved."
She also describes visiting the home of Supreme Court Justice Harlan Stone for a social tea during the time she was working to create the establishing legislation for what became the Social Security Administration. When the justice inquired about her progress, she confided that the issue of where to find the constitutional authority for the legislation was problematic:
He looked around to see if anyone was listening. Then he put his hand up like this, confidentially, and he said, "The taxing power, my dear, the taxing power. You can do anything under the taxing power." I didn't question him any further. 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 into the wilderness and had a vision. But, at any rate, I came back and said I was firmly for the taxing power. We weren't going to rig up any curious constitutional relationships. "The taxing power of the United States--you can do anything under it, " said I. And so it proved, did it not?
Here's what you can learn from this famous speech:
  • Recreate conversations: Don't just summarize important discussions you've had. Once in a while, it pays to recreate a conversation to add drama and interest to your narrative. In this case, Perkins chose wisely, recreating two highly significant conversations that others could never have overheard.
  • Talk like an eyewitness: Describing the little details--such as the clerks wearing gloves and climbing ladders to retrieve dusty files--adds immediacy to history and brings the past alive. If you were there, it helps us to feel as if we listeners were there alongside you, and that makes for a gripping speech.
  • Have fun with it: Despite discussing far-reaching legislation and big political battles, Perkins does so with tongue firmly in cheek when she says "As far as they knew, I went out into the wilderness and had a vision" of her confidential chat with a Supreme Court Justice. So should you, when you're talking about the historic and important. Bring it back down to earth with a little humor, and you'll avoid sounding self-important, to boot.
Audio clips from this famous speech are archived here, and the full text of the talk is here. Below is a short excerpt from the documentary "You May Call Her Madam Secretary," about Perkins. What do you think of this famous speech?



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