About Frances Perkins

January 17, 2019
Finding Frances and the Serendipity of Characters
May 6, 2019

F rances Perkins (1880– 1965) was an American sociologist and workers-rights advocate who served as the U.S. Secretary of Labor from 1933 to 1945. As a loyal supporter of Franklin D. Roosevelt, she helped pull the labor movement into the New Deal coalition. Perkins played a key role in the cabinet by writing New Deal legislation, including minimum-wage laws. Her most important contribution, however, came in 1934 as chairwoman of the President's Committee on Economic Security (CES). She worked tirelessly for the U.S. adoption of social security, unemployment insurance, federal laws regulating child labor, and adoption of the federal minimum wage.

She remained in office for the entirety of Roosevelt’s presidency, becoming not only the first woman appointed to the U.S. Cabinet, but the longest serving secretary in that position. She also became the first woman to enter the presidential line of succession.

Following her government service career and after the death of her husband, Perkins remained active as a teacher and lecturer at the New York State School of Industrial and Labor Relations at Cornell University until her death in 1965 at age 85.

For the purposes of this story, I have fictionalized various elements of Mrs. Perkins life, such as her lecture at University of Minnesota in 1947 at which Eliza first meets her, and the exact timing of her work at Cornell. The date of her death, while approximately correct, is also inaccurate in this novel. Finally, for many years while at Cornell, she lived at the Telluride House, an intellectual community of students and faculty, primarily men.

For more reading on Frances Perkins read – “The Woman Behind the New Deal,” by Kristin Downey

Always a writer, Susan often attempts to solve her problems in third person, creating fictionalized versions of herself and the main characters in her life—mostly in her head, but sometimes on paper. Nearly a decade ago, in the days after discovering her own adoption story for the first time, she turned to her imagination to trick her reeling mind so she could get a good night’s sleep. A THREAD SO FINE was born of those creative threads weaving into nocturnal dreams as she struggled to re-write the beginning of her own life story. Welch created Shannon and Eliza, Nell and Miriam as a way to imagine how women such as her Midwestern birth mother and adoptive mother might have overcome challenges as young Catholic women in an optimistic, but socially restrictive post-World War II culture. With the exception of FDR’s Labor Secretary, Mrs. Frances Perkins, the people in A THREAD SO FINE are all much loved fabrications layered with realities, truths and insights about her cherished mother, her brave birth mother, her beloved mother-in-law, her younger sister, and herself. When not traveling for work or pleasure, Susan spends her time either on the family houseboat in Seattle, or in a cabin in the dark and rainy, sometimes balmy woods of Lummi Island – and if she’s lucky, her husband Bruce is right there with her.

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