Long before Justin Bieber came along and channeled MacGyver by making a career out of a haircut and singing the word baby incessantly, there was a little movie that made Baby Houseman a pop culture icon.
She inspired teenage girls across the nation to wear white Keds, tie their shirts in knots, and practice complicated dance moves while walking across bridges, logs serving as bridges, and at times while swimming fully clothed, in various bodies of water. Dirty Dancing. The best movie. Ever.
I always watch it if it’s on. At the very least, if I realize it’s on during one of my favorite, look-at-how- talented-I-am-and-you’re-not shows (Top Chef, Project Runway), Dirty Dancing will occupy the alt channel, and I’ll switch over and watch during commercials to calm my nerves as I await various judges’ agonizing decisions. I watch. I swoon. I recite the words and reminisce about the days when Patrick Swayze was alive and Jennifer Grey had her old nose.
So, naturally you can imagine my surprise while watching recently, when I realized a Constitutional connection I have so egregiously overlooked in the past 24 years. Baby, whose real name is Frances, was named after the first female member of the Cabinet?
You remember the scene: Johnny, with hungry eyes, asks Baby what her real name is, and she explains. I had to find out more about this woman. I put down my cockapoo and told him, for the tenth time, that I wouldn’t dance with him if he insisted on having spaghetti arms, and went straight to the computer.
Indeed, the internet confirmed, Frances Perkins became the first woman to join the Cabinet as the U.S. Secretary of Labor during all three terms of the Franklin D. Roosevelt administration this day in history in 1933.
Educated at Mt. Holyoke College and Columbia University, Perkins made a name for herself in New York City politics by advocating for better wages and better working conditions for laborers. In 1929, after three years of working on the New York State Industrial Commission, then Governor Franklin D. Roosevelt, appointed her as the commissioner. When he became president in 1933, he took Perkins with him and appointed her to the post for which she would become most well-known.
During her tenure as U.S. Secretary of Labor, she:
- expanded factory investigations
- reduced the workweek
- championed minimum wage
- championed unemployment benefits
- supported welfare
- supported federal regulations on child labor
- engaged in hearings and established reports that ultimately resulted in the Social Security Act of 1935, which still ensures continued wages for retired and unemployed individuals today.
Perkins joined hands and hearts and voices. Voices, hearts, and hands in the pursuit of fair treatment for the American worker. I have to say that knowing what I know now, I’m a little bummed that Baby decided not to go by Frances. Her namesake was quite a woman. I’m comforted however when I remember that like Perkins, Baby goes on to stand up for what she believes and becomes quite the woman herself. It took guts to go that guy from Law and Order to get help when Penny was in trouble! He was scary.
So next time you’re watching Dirty Dancing, looking for a little inspiration, remember Frances Perkins. Nobody put her in a corner either.