I named my daughter after Eleanor Roosevelt.
She has a framed picture of the former First Lady, at work in the United Nations, in her room.
So you can imagine my chagrin, when, after reading The Woman Behind the New Deal, about Frances Perkins and her role within the Roosevelt Administration and the architecture of the New Deal, I realized that (while I still think Eleanor is an amazing woman whose role in history is well-deserved) I’ve been a bit duped.
Our history seems to only have enough room, often times, for one really monumental woman at a time. And, with Eleanor’s proximity to the President, she’s often been the one given that historical spotlight.
So, while it was Frances Perkins whose ideas became much of the social legislation of the New Deal, and whose ability to see “the elements of disintegration in the social fabric” (p. 294) foretold the fall of France to the Nazis, and whose commitment to preventing injustice saved more refugees during World War II than any other individual in the U.S. government, and whose vision secured the role of the International Labor Organization as a voice for workers worldwide, and whose government service created much of the infrastructure that opened careers for generations of social workers, and whose belief that statistics tell human stories brought to the White House a dedication to alleviating suffering during our nation’s greatest economic tragedy…there hasn’t been much room for her in our understanding of the forces shaping the modern welfare state, or even in our social work education.
My first instinct was to feel chagrined–I’ve been guilty of overlooking one woman’s accomplishments because of too much focus on another’s. And then I got angry–where did this instinct come from, to jump from one heroine to the next, instead of arming myself with a whole phalanx of awesome women to serve as role models for my life (and that of my daughter)?
This isn’t just about what I name my daughter (although Frances is looking kind of appealing). In an age where textbooks are being rewritten to exclude even more of the stories of courageous campaigners for social justice, and even more of the voices of marginalized populations, what we understand about the past is increasingly important as statements about who we are, and who we want to become.
So here’s to not just Eleanor, and Frances, but Grace Abbott and Jane Addams and Florence Kelley and Caroline Love O’Day and Mary Dreier and Bertha Reynolds and Lugenia Burns Hope and Lucretia Mott and Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Sarah and Angelina Grimké and the countless others I can’t wait to learn about.
I’m not going to have enough daughters to honor them all, but my young woman still has a lot of room on her wall.