National Archives News

Archives Audience Among First to See ‘Summoned,’ Story of Frances Perkins

By Jonathan Marker | National Archives News

WASHINGTON, October 29, 2019 — Ninety years ago today, the United States plunged into the Great Depression on Black Tuesday—the fourth trading day of a devastating decline in stock market share prices on the New York Stock Exchange.

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Filmmaker Mick Caouette (left) and historian Christopher Breiseth answer audience questions in the William G. McGowan Theater on Saturday, October 26. (National Archives photo)

In 1933, after more than three years of national economic misery, newly inaugurated President Franklin D. Roosevelt implemented the tenets of a “New Deal,” which he had promised in his Presidential campaign, in the hopes of pulling the nation out of the Great Depression. To lead the implementation of this New Deal, Roosevelt selected Frances Perkins to serve as his Secretary of Labor, the first woman to ever serve on a Presidential cabinet. In her 12 years heading the Labor Department, Perkins championed Social Security, the 40-hour work week, the eight‐hour day, minimum wage, and unemployment compensation.

On Saturday, October 26, the National Archives honored Perkins’s achievements by hosting a screening of Summoned: Frances Perkins and the General Welfare at the William G. McGowan Theater in Washington, DC. The film presentation is one of many events that the National Archives is presenting in conjunction with the Rightfully Hers: American Women and the Vote exhibit, which is on display in the Lawrence F. O’Brien Gallery through January 3, 2021. According to filmmaker Mick Caouette, the audience at the National Archives were among the first to see the film.

After the screening, Caouette and historian Christopher Breiseth hosted a question-and-answer session with the audience. The National Archives was Caouette’s second stop on the calendar of 2019 screenings of Summoned, which began with a screening on October 24 at the University of Southern Maine and will end with a screening on November 7 at Perkins’s alma mater: Mount Holyoke College in South Hadley, MA.

“While there are many lessons to be learned from the life of Frances Perkins, at its core, her story holds a profound message: that at our darkest moment as a nation, there is hope, and change is possible if enough of us demand it,” Caouette said. “Together with President Roosevelt, Perkins began to mend a broken society by developing the American social safety net, and bringing us a step closer to the ideas espoused by the Constitution.”

Before Perkins’s advocacy for worker’s rights and protection resulted in her selection by President Franklin D. Roosevelt to be his Secretary of Labor in 1933, she had accumulated significant experience in advocating for worker’s rights in Philadelphia and New York City.

In the ruins of the stock market crash on October 29, 1929, Perkins pressured then-New York Governor Franklin D. Roosevelt to focus on unemployment as a national issue, and she traveled to England to study the country’s unemployment compensation model and adapt it to the United States.

In January 1930, Perkins’s public contradiction of President Herbert Hoover’s downplaying of the severity of the United States’s economic and unemployment crises earned her Roosevelt’s trust. So, when Roosevelt was elected President of the United States in 1932, he selected Frances Perkins as his Secretary of Labor because of her demonstrated tenacity and competence, and he knew that she could rise above the criticism she would endure as the first woman to serve on a Presidential cabinet.

Summoned: Frances Perkins and the General Welfare explored the many achievements of Frances Perkins during her tenure as President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Secretary of Labor between 1933 and 1945. As the first film biography of Frances Perkins, its screening at the National Archives offered the public the rare opportunity to view the feature film months ahead of its official release. The film accentuated its historical analysis with interviews of contemporary figures, including Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives Nancy Pelosi, Minnesota Senator Amy Klobuchar, and New York Times political writer David Brooks.

During the post-screening Q&A, an audience member asked Caouette and Breiseth to elaborate on the relationship between Eleanor Roosevelt and Frances Perkins. Caouette was quick to point out that Breiseth was the more appropriate respondent, given Breiseth’s service as the past president and former CEO of the Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt Institute, the nonprofit partner to the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum in Hyde Park, NY. The FDR Library is one of 14 Presidential Libraries and Museums that are managed by the National Archives’s Office of Presidential Libraries

In spite of Perkins’s ascent to the President’s cabinet, Breiseth said that Eleanor Roosevelt still applied some of the gender-normative bias common to the era, at least where social gatherings were concerned.

“Frances Perkins had access to President Roosevelt on the most important issues: the policies of the New Deal,” Breiseth said. “Eleanor Roosevelt controlled the President’s inbox; she curated the memos that she wanted the President to address. Some of the best things the President did during his tenure, he did them under the pressure of Eleanor Roosevelt. These two women approached the President from different angles, and that affected Frances and Eleanor’s relationship.”

“When Eleanor would have the wives of the cabinet members to tea, she expected Frances to be there,” Breiseth said. “Frances was a cabinet member; she wasn’t a spouse. I know that was an issue.”

Be that as it may, when Eleanor Roosevelt approached the end of her life, she requested that Perkins consult with her on settling final arrangements.

"Eleanor seemed, to Frances Perkins, very lonely at the time,” Breiseth said. “None of her children were around, and she wanted to talk about her finances. Frances was the person she trusted. . . . The morning after [Eleanor Roosevelt] died, I called up Mrs. Perkins—living at Telluride House [a residence for scholars at Cornell University, where Breiseth also lived in 1962]—on our intercom system to ask if she had heard about Mrs. Roosevelt’s death.

“Before I had anything to say,” Breiseth continued, “Mrs. Perkins said, ‘You know, a lot of the world is going to talk about how much Mrs. Roosevelt did for the world, but I’ve known her long enough to know how much she did for herself.’ If I was encouraged to write a book on the relationship between Frances Perkins and Eleanor Roosevelt, it would be to give meaning to that reaction.”


A schedule of screenings of Summoned: Frances Perkins and the General Welfare is on the South Hill Films website.

Find out about upcoming events in the National Archives online calendar.