The Remarkable Mothers of Social Security
This Mother’s Day, let’s celebrate the remarkable Mothers of Social Security. Without them, this essential program may never have been born. It certainly would be much less successful and effective.
The Mothers of Social Security pushed for an expansive, ambitious program. When necessary, they fiercely resisted men too cautious to embrace their bold vision. All of us benefit immensely from their work—particularly women, for whom Social Security’s modest benefits are especially important.
Best known of Social Security’s many mothers is Frances Perkins, the first female member of a presidential Cabinet in the history of the country. When President Franklin D. Roosevelt first asked Perkins to become Secretary of Labor, she told him that she would only accept his history-making offer if he agreed to fully support her fight for Social Security, as well as other significant measures to increase all of our economic security. He did. True to her principles and values, she was a driving force behind the healthy start of Social Security, from the system’s conception to its birth and its early growth.
A less-known pathbreaker was Dr. Barbara Nachtrieb Armstrong, the first tenured female law professor in the country. A Ph.D. economist, she taught both law and economics at Berkeley and authored a landmark treatise, Insuring the Essentials, an exhaustive study of social insurance and minimum wage programs around the world.
Armstrong chaired the Roosevelt administration working group that invented Social Security. Other policymakers, concerned about the constitutionality of Social Security, argued that it should be a state-based program. Armstrong successfully convinced them that only a federal program was workable. When those who oversaw her work contemplated dropping Social Security because they feared it was too big a lift, she leaked their plan to friendly journalists whose exposés got Social Security back on track.
Without Armstrong’s bold leadership and keen intellect, Social Security might not even exist at all today. If that sounds hyperbolic, those same policymakers whom Armstrong outwitted later decided to not propose national, guaranteed health insurance. Cautiously, they decided it was better left for the future. Today, we are still fighting for improved and expanded Medicare for All.
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