Echoing at “Occupy”: The Women Behind Social Security

Echoing at “Occupy”: The Women Behind Social Security

By Carolyn Gage

November 23, 2011

The emergence of the Occupy Wall Street movement would not have been a surprise to one woman activist born over a century ago. Mary Harriman Rumsey was the partner of President Franklin Roosevelt’s Secretary of Labor, Frances Perkins, who was the first woman to occupy a Cabinet position.

Perkins has been called the “woman behind the New Deal.” Her achievements include the adoption of the minimum wage, the 40-hour work week, worker’s compensation, unemployment insurance, employer-provided health insurance, welfare, Social Security, job-creation programs and the banning of child labor.

Perkins made adjustments to fit into the male-dominated arena of politics. She changed her name from “Fannie” to Frances and dressed to remind men of their mothers. But after her cabinet appointment, she found herself in an awkward position. The wives of male cabinet members were expected to host social gatherings where the real business of government frequently was conducted. Perkins didn’t fit the protocol.

Mary Harriman Rumsey came to the rescue. She rented a house in Georgetown and invited Frances to become her “roommate.” History notes that the two were far more than roommates, and that Mary was far more than a typical cabinet wife.

Rumsey, the daughter of a railroad tycoon, had grown up on an estate in upstate New York, where she eventually supervised the 600 employees. Her dinner parties with Frances were legendary, and, as one biographer noted, one would find Will Rogers, Eleanor Roosevelt, Margaret Bourke-White, General Douglas MacArthur and unknown Appalachian folk singer all at one table.

Rumsey founded a Washington weekly called Today, which later became Newsweek magazine. More significantly, Roosevelt named her to chair the new Consumer Advisory Board.

It was Rumsey’s job to see that the retail selling price of goods would not increase proportionately more than the increase which wage earners would receive for their labors. She understood that, for all the pioneering legislation that her partner was putting through as Secretary of Labor, none of these wage protections would have meaning if the price of consumer goods outstripped the purchasing power. In an interview with the New York Times, Mary explained, “There have been disagreements between labor and capital in which each has made known its ills, but seldom has the man or woman who actually footed the bills, by purchasing the things that were manufactured or grown, had a voice in the selling price.”

Sadly, this principle was forgotten in the decades following the New Deal, when credit cards were introduced to consumers. By the 1970s the price of goods and services was increasing at a rate higher than wages, but nobody seemed to notice because, suddenly, even working-class people could get instant “mini-loans” via credit cards. By the 1990s, the debt load of an average family was $40,000 and the credit craze spread to the housing market, where lack of adequate regulation led people to take out mortgages on homes that would be one paycheck away from foreclosure.

Mary Rumsey would have seen right through this smokescreen of a credit economy to the widening gap between wage and price increases. She would have decried a government willing to allow its citizens to be seduced by promises of upward mobility, even as they slid deeper into hopeless debt.

Mary died unexpectedly on December 19, 1934, from complications resulting from a fall from a horse. At the time of her death, Frances was in middle of the fight for Social Security and Roosevelt had given her a tight deadline. Because of the closeted nature of her relationship with Rumsey, only a few very close (and lesbian) friends could acknowledge the degree of her loss. “You are going through one of those tremendously alone experiences, yet lacking in importance outside yourself,” one noted.

So, the same week her partner died, Perkins called the members of her committee to her home, set a large bottle of Scotch on the table, and told the men that no one would be going home until they finished the work. As a result of that night, millions of Americans have been able to retire with financial security. Frances, unfortunately, later lost their home since it was Rumsey who had paid the lion’s share of the rent.

In the Occupy movement, one can hear the echo of Mary Rumsey. In one interview, referring to her multimillionaire father, she said, “His period was a building age, when competition was the order of the day. Today the need is not for a competitive but for a cooperative economic system.”