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Finding a place at the cabinet table: Discovering the rhetorical disposition of Frances Perkins during the New Deal

Ann J Atkinson, University of Massachusetts Amherst


I place the political career of one woman through an examination of her public rhetoric. Frances Perkins served as Secretary of Labor for twelve years, an accomplishment more impressive than that of being the first woman to serve in this post. I examine her career as the Secretary of Labor (1933-1945) in terms of selected portions of the speeches she delivered, articles and full-length works she published, and the legislation she helped to enact. To establish the characteristics of Frances Perkins's arguments, it is important to discuss the individuals who influenced her and how she interacted with them. The list includes: Professors Annah May Soule and Simon N. Patten; photojournalist Jacob A. Riis; politicians Timothy D. Sullivan, Alfred E. Smith, and Franklin Delano Roosevelt; social reformer Florence Kelley; and Democratic Party organizer Mary W. Dewson. The terms that frame the study are: (1) placement, drawing upon the Greek notion of topoi, that is, the place one goes to find arguments; (2) public; and (3) memory. The questions about Frances Perkins that most intrigue me are about: (1) the nature of the arguments she discovered which then inspired her to choose and sustain a long political career; (2) the way she developed her public persona; and (3) ways the accomplishments of admirable political women from the past can be woven into the fabric of time that is history. The following views of particular theorists dominate the theoretical framework of the study: (1) Kenneth Burke's notions of terministic screens and creative circumferencing; (2) Ernesto Grassi's belief in ingenium, "the source of the creative activity of topics"; (3) Lucy F. Townsend's concentric circle approach to the writing of biography; and (4) Carolyn G. Heilbrun's appeal to scholars to tell heroic tales of women. A topical philosophical view, informed by feminist criticism, maintains that logic and imagination are inseparable, that first principles precede deduction. Sophocles's Antigone is utilized to explicate this belief and to highlight the guiding principle in Frances Perkins's career--maintaining a balance between the needs of the individual and the needs of the state.

Subject Area

Communication|American history|Womens studies

Recommended Citation

Atkinson, Ann J, "Finding a place at the cabinet table: Discovering the rhetorical disposition of Frances Perkins during the New Deal" (1996). Doctoral Dissertations Available from Proquest. AAI9619369.