Perkins' most significant legacy is her role in the founding of social security. Roosevelt had specifically authorized her to explore ways to create a form of insurance for the elderly, and she took the task to heart. The bill was drafted during late-night meetings in her home in the days before Christmas in 1934. She was careful that it be drawn up so as to be constitutional as well as sweepingly effective.

When the bill was before Congress, President Roosevelt asked Perkins to deliver his weekly radio address and explain it to the public. "We now stand ready to build the future with sanity and wisdom," she said. "It has taken the rapid industrialization of the last few decades, with its mass production methods, to teach us that a man might be a victim of circumstances far beyond his control, and finally it took depression to dramatize for us the appalling insecurity of the great mass of the population and to stimulate interest in social insurance in the United States. We have come to learn that the large majority of our citizens must have protection against the loss of income due to unemployment, old age, death of breadwinners and disabling accidents and illnesses, not only on humanitarian grounds, but in the interest of our national welfare."

Roosevelt signed the Social Security Act into law in August 1935, with Perkins standing behind him. But she had no time for celebration after the ceremony. That morning, she had received word that her husband had fled the sanitarium in White Plains. She immediately boarded a train to find and resettle him, as always stoically filling her duties while at the same time making bold visions come true.

Even as World War II came to the forefront of the nation's concerns, she continued to be at the center of the administration's agenda. She worked with Eleanor Roosevelt to protect Jewish refugees fleeing persecution. Standing up to the xenophobia of her time, she argued against a mostly hostile Congress that the United States should not deport those they deemed "illegal" but rather "relieve the strain on a terrorized people." She also developed evacuation plans and assigned the work-relief programs to wartime operations.

Although she offered to step down many times, Perkins remained as Labor Secretary until Roosevelt's death on April 12, 1945. She was frequently embattled by her critics, ridiculed, smeared and even subjected to an impeachment hearing on the charge that she was coddling communism. But her determination never wavered. As she wrote to her friend Felix Frankfurter: "I didn't come here to work for the press anyway. I came here to work for God, F.D.R. and the millions of forgotten, plain, common working men."

Perkins spent the remainder of her life teaching and working on some adjunct government projects. When she died on May 14, 1965, the secretary of labor at the time, Willard Wirtz, paid her tribute: "Every man or woman who works at a living wage, under safe conditions, for reasonable hours, or who is protected by unemployment insurance or social security, is her debtor."


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