Fight between Boredom
Awareness in a Woman's Mind, part 3
In his lecture Mind
and Kindness Mr. Siegel said:
Frances Perkins felt in a big way, that she couldn't.
Deep in the meaning of the word kind
is a feeling that through being born there is a relation to everything
which is also born or existing….I mean by kind, a proper awareness of all
things that are in any way like you…(And he asked:) Can a person take care
of himself by being inadequately aware of what is like himself?
After graduating from Mount Holyoke and despite her family’s feeling she
should settle down and find a suitable husband, she began to work with
Jane Addams in Hull House in Chicago. This was 1906, and labor unions,
which her father had denounced as the work of the devil, were not yet the
force they would become. Settlement houses seemed able to offer more
di-rect help to families who were hungry, needed medical assist-ance, persons
who had been left destitute by the effect of profit economics.
When she met people face to face after having trudged through back alleys,
visited sweatshops and slaughterhouses, climbed tenement stairs, instead
of feeling cynical Francis Perkins was inspired. She said, "I had
to do something about unnecessary hazards to life, unnecessary poverty….Definitely
the circumstances…of the people of my generation was my business, and I
ought to do something about it."
In a class in 1976, Mr. Siegel spoke about
the meaning of obligation. "Do you think you owe anything to people?"
he asked me. "Yes," I said. "I think I owe a great deal."
She Saw Her Obligation to People As Expressing Herself
ES. If you were on the
subway and saw a woman ill, would you give her a seat?
ES. If you can make anything
stronger, would you want to do it? If there were a smudge on the
window would you want to brush it away?
LA. Yes. And he explained,
"Obligation comes from the desire to
have the world stronger and better….Good will is a terrific obligation,
present with every beat of one's heart. The depth, greatness, need
of good will is one of the most beautiful things in the world.... Every
person has to see obligation as expressing oneself while at the same time
taking care of oneself."
In his lecture, Mr. Siegel said, "Awareness
consists of two things: concentration and comprehensiveness."
Frances Perkins was visiting a friend in Washington Square, one afternoon
in 1911, when the Triangle Shirt-waist Factory on Greene Street went up
in flames. She watched, horrified and helpless, as young screaming
girls with hair and clothes on fire, frantic to escape, leapt from windows
to their death. Bill Severn writes:
Most of the girls…recently had been
hired to replace other girls fired for joining a union and striking for
better working conditions….Exit doors were locked because the company did
not want the girls wandering from floor to floor.146 young women died. Frances Perkins wrote, "It was a torch that lighted
up the whole industrial scene," and she set out to make herself an expert
on factory safety. She met with architects, engineers, chemists,
whom she said, "sat with me, hour after hour,…teaching me the rudiments
of…what makes a safe factory." She had a beautiful, fierce concentration
and she also wanted to be comprehensive--to know the laws that needed to
In 1912, as the director The New York State Factory Commission, with the
support of Senate President Robert Wagner and Assembly leader Al Smith,
she inspected factories all over the state. When she recommended broad
new fire safety legislation, real estate operators "protested such a law
would limit their income" and "that there was no need for it, since the…
workers who died each year by fire were only a tiny fraction."
This hideously contemptuous way of mind, I've learned, is the basis of
the profit motive. In her article "Ethics—the Only Answer for the
Economy!" Ellen Reiss explained: "Once you are after profit, you
can't be too interested in what people deserve, what they feel: it will
cramp your ability to make money from them."
Despite the protestations then, within a
year, fire bills and other safety regulations were enacted into laws.
Private and Public, One Person and Many
In a lovely poem Eli Siegel wrote of Henry
James, that James felt “The awareness of another possible awareness / Is
the kindest deed ever.” This is what we want in love, as Frances
She was past thirty when, in 1913 she and Paul Wilson were married. He
was called a "progressive republican," who became a financial advisor to
New York's Mayor John Mitchel. She had written to him of the happiness
they would have “as we summon the courage to really know each other …[to]
admit each other to the inner places.” She had gone back and forth as to
marriage for years, and "attempting to explain her attitude" then, she
said: "I know Paul Wilson well. I like him…and I might as well marry and
get it off my mind." Was there a desire in her not to be aware—to
take for granted she knew someone before she really did? The circumstances
around the wedding were kept secret--no one was invited, and they both
agreed that their public and private lives should "be kept entirely apart."
Yet, how could Ms. Perkins publicly attack the city's policy on fire prevention
while her husband was the mayor's Assistant Secretary? There was
conflict. Paul Wilson supported his wife's work early on, but then
he became more politically conservative.
Five years after they married he became ill, "in a way," George Martin
writes "that perhaps neither he nor his wife ever clearly understood."
"He suffered from an up and down illness," Frances Perkins said later.
Martin wrote that Miss Perkins felt a sense of guilt, and seemed 'ashamed'
of him and his illness" which was of "alternate moods of elation and depression."
The public never knew of the problems that
concerned her privately. Most of their married life until his death in
1952, her husband spent in mental institutions. It seems she didn't
speak of him or his illness even to her closest friends. Can a husband feel, "This woman is not aware
of what is going on in me—she is not interest- ed?" Was there the same
impulsion, comprehensive and deep, to know her husband as she tried to
know, for instance, all the conditions in a factory that affect people
working a 12-hour day? I think Frances Perkins did not go after knowing
her husband deeply, including "the inner places" she had spoken of, and
this must have made her ashamed.
It Is Delightful to Be Aware
When Michael Palmer and I first talked over
dinner, I was affected by his lively interest in things—history, sports,
and current events--and by his desire to know me. We spoke about
ways we both wanted to change and be better people, and I liked his seriousness,
and also his sense of humor. As our care for each other grew, the
subject of marriage came up, and we decided to live together. But
a few months after I moved in, things were not so lively in our apartment.
I had the feeling I'd gotten my man, but I didn't feel good. In a
class, I mentioned that I was more agog before I moved in. "How did
this happen?” Ellen Reiss asked me, "He gave you to eat of the lotus?
Do you think" she continued "when you know a man it's lullaby time?"
That made me think of a reverie I'd had of being a sleeping princess, with
an adoring man awakening me with a kiss. Then she asked, "Are you
enough interested in Michael Palmer liking himself?” I hadn't been.
"The thing that is going to stop this," Ellen Reiss explained, "is good
will—[where] you're very interested in where does he hold himself up,
Yes! And I thank and love her for these questions,
which made for greater awareness and happiness. Recently Michael
and I celebrated the anniversary of our marriage, which has more meaning,
and true romance with each year. Mr. Siegel wrote, "We should be
aware because it is delightful to be aware." I'm grateful to feel
also, Where is he proud of himself?
and Where can [you] encourage that?… When you wanted to be with Mr. Palmer
you were saying "I owe it to this person to do all I can to have him like
himself."…Do you think Michael Palmer's mind is worthy material for you
to get excited about—something you should be interested in, concerned about,
and educated by all the time?
Aesthetic Realism shows that the thing most needed for a marriage to be
strong is what will make a nation strong: good will, "the desire to have
something else stronger and more beautiful, for this desire makes oneself
stronger and more beautiful." Frances Perkins worked to have Americans
In 1933 as Secretary of Labor and at the height of the Depression, she
moved with passion and speed to formulate landmark legislation to get the
Nation out of economic collapse. She said, "a government should aim
to give all the people under its jurisdiction the best possible life."
This was the feeling that impelled her in building a permanent social security
Today, what Frances Perkins worked toward and hoped for can be realized
for people personally and nationally, when this important question asked
by Eli Siegel is known and studied, “What does a person deserve by being
a person?” When it is, it will make for the ethical awareness so
urgently needed, and will have people kind and fair to one another.
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