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How Miss Perkins Learned To Lobby
April 1976 | Volume 27, Issue 3
He stood at the foot of the aisle absolutely confident, beaming. Wagner called in a parliamentarian, who ruled in Sullivan’s favor. The assembly’s bill exempting the canneries was called up for a vote.
The two Sullivans, with overcoats on, voted first and then left to catch the boat. Meanwhile pandemonium had broken out, for many of the senators, knowing nothing of Perkins’ switch, shouted to colleagues to vote against the bill while others shouted back that they were now to vote for it. In the confusion many hurried up to her, behind the brass rail, asking, “Is this right? Are you for it? Is it a trick?”
“Yes, yes,” she said excitedly, “I’m for it. I’ve authorized it. We want it. We want it.” But to increase the confusion, there at her side was Pauline Goldmark saying, “No. We don’t want it. You mustn’t say that.”
“Pauline, this is my responsibility,” she insisted. “I’ll do it and hang for it if necessary.”
But at the end of the roll call the tally was fourteen against and twentyfour in favor—two votes short of the twenty-six votes needed for a majority. After Big Tim’s departure two waverers had switched to vote against it. Wagner, at the end of the roll call, perhaps because he could see the bill already had been lost, voted for it. More significantly, Murphy’s lieutenant, Foley, had not voted.
Having made her decision to compromise on the original bill, Perkins refused to abandon the fight for the amended substitute. She told MacManus that she would call the Sullivans back from the boat and urged him to demand immediate reconsideration of the assembly’s bill. Under the senate rules he could do this as one who had voted for the bill, and his motion to reconsider—an internal procedural matter—would only need a majority of senators actually present and voting; 24-14 would be more than enough. Now the rising excitement in the chamber aided her. As she hurried to phone the Sullivans on the boat she heard MacManus taunt one of the waverers: “We’ll make you eat crow.”
Her opponents, however, were not yet defeated. Recognizing that MacManus’ motion to reconsider would pass easily, they concentrated instead on the vote on the bill itself, which would follow. They demanded a “closed call of the house": that is, during the roll call the doors of the chamber would be locked. The Sullivans would have to arrive before the call began or they would be locked out. Wagner ruled in favor of a closed call.
Under the rules governing motions to reconsider, each senator was allowed five minutes to explain his vote. When the call reached MacManus, he rose and for five minutes talked what later was described as “drivel.” Several other senators also stalled, using up every minute of their allotted time; one allegedly gave a lecture on birds. Just before the end of the call the Sullivans burst in—Big Tim red-faced and puffing, Christy white-faced and gasping. They had missed the taxi she had sent for them and had run up the hill. “Record me in the affirmative,” roared Big Tim as he came through the door.
“It’s all right, me girl,” he said to her while order was being restored. “We is with you. The bosses thought they was going to kill your bill, but they forgot about Tim Sullivan.”
This time, with Big Tim firmly in charge, the final vote on the bill itself was 27-16: passed. The senate and galleries broke into loud applause. Wagner and Foley, though they had voted in favor, looked sulky, but Big Tim grinned and beamed and accepted congratulations all around. Incidentally, among those voting for the bill, although he had not actively supported it, was a young senator named Franklin D. Roosevelt.
Later Perkins met a smiling Smith, who said to her, “You pulled a smart one. That was very smart. I didn’t think you had the courage to do it.” But her pleasure was somewhat diluted by the realization that she still had to face the Consumers’ League and its emotional and outspoken leader, Florence Kelley. As it turned out, Mrs. Kelley fell on her neck with praise and joy because for the first time in years there would be some limitation on the hours women could be required to work. Following this lead, Pauline Goldmark was also reconciled.
And the next year the law, without much opposition, was broadened to include the canneries.
There are experiences that seem to be decisive in a person’s life. For Frances Perkins this lesson in practical politics was such an experience. Ever after in her personal or professional life she was, as a close friend described her, “a half-loaf girl: Take what you can get now and try for more later.”
On April 19 Governor John A. Dix signed the bill. There was a small ceremony in his office with representatives of the Consumers’ League and other organizations that had supported it. Though Perkins made a short, positive speech about what the bill would mean to women, Governor Dix signed it with misgivings. “I don’t think this is a good idea,” he said. “I think it will put women out of work. I think they’ll hire men instead. I think women will lose their jobs. Anyhow, it’s not good for them not to be fully occupied.” He evidently subscribed to the argument put forward in the legislative debates that women, if working only fifty-four hours a week, would use their free time for immoral practices.