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Perry on Politics: Real people for big jobs

Published by Tim McNulty on .

By James M. Perry

The first woman Cabinet member was Frances Perkins, Franklin D. Roosevelt's first and only Secretary of Labor.

francesperkinsTwenty-five others have followed her into the Cabinet, but none of them has done as much as this amazing woman from Worcester, Massachusetts.

She was instrumental in creating Social Security, passing child-labor laws, and establishing the minimum wage, and that's just the top of the list.

Her performance, one might think, should have opened doors for more women to do important and significant things. Yet, no more women joined the Cabinet until President Eisenhower appointed Oveta Culp Hobby the first secretary of the newly created Department of Health, Education, and Welfare.

Mrs. Hobby, a bird colonel, ran the Women's Army Auxiliary Corps, the WACs, in World War 2, and went on to publish her husband's newspaper, the Houston Post.You might think her performance at HEW (now Health and Human Services), bringing it into existence, should have introduced more women to the Cabinet. Not so. The next FOUR presidents -- Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, and Ford -- failed to appoint a single woman to the Cabinet.

I think Mrs. Perkins -- everyone called her "Ma," and she hated it -- would have understood.

As a young woman -- as a very bright student at Mt. Holyoke College -- Mrs. Perkins was often described as "pretty" or "dimpled." That, she decided, was a hindrance. To get ahead, she turned in her frocks for drab, dumpy clothing that suggested she was a harried mother, not a a pretty, dimpled young woman. Even when she had become an important political figure in Washington, she sat with the wives while the movers and shakers, all men, sat at the head table. Even so, she made her point.ovetahobby

The head-table men in Washington began to realize, about the time Jimmy Carter took office, that they would have to do better. Carter named three women to his Cabinet -- Juanita Morris Kreps at Commerce, Patricia Roberts Harris at Health and Human Services, and Shirley Mount Hufstedler at Education. You may be excused if you never heard of any of them.

Reagan named three women to his first Cabinet, George Herbert Walker Bush, two.

So far, though, no women had been named to run any of the Big Four departments -- State, Defense, Justice. Treasury.

And then Bill Clinton named five women to his Cabinet, led by Madeleine Albright at State and Janet Reno at Justice, two of the Big Four. To top it off, he named three other women, bringing the total to five -- five out of fourteen.

George W. Bush named Condoleezza Rice the first female Secretary of State, and an African-American woman at that. He named four other woman to lesser posts, meaning that five of his fourteen Cabinet officers were women.

Barack Obama picked four women for his first-term Cabinet, but one of them was Hillary Rodham Clinton at the State Department. Now she's gone and Mr. Obama is under fire to bring more diversity to his presidency. Once that meant a few ornamental appointments, now it means real people for big jobs, women such as Frances Perkins, dowdy clothes and all.

James M. Perry, a prominent veteran political reporter, is contributing regular observations for post-gazette.com. Mr. Perry was the chief political correspondent of The Wall Street Journal until his retirement. Prior to that, he covered national politics for the Dow Jones weekly, The National Observer.

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