"If you study the Secretary of Labor as an individual, she is an intelligent, charming lady with a brilliant record as a social worker and as a crusader for the underdog. But if you examine her Department of Labor as an institution, the most charitable thing you can say of Miss Perkins is that she is no executive."
The Washington Times-Herald said that in 1938 about Frances Perkins, the only woman in FDR's Cabinet and the person now recognized as a major architect of such fundamental New Deal programs as unemployment insurance, compensation for work-related injury and Social Security. The article was one of many throughout Miss Perkins' nine- year tenure that claimed FDR had fired her or was about to. He never did.
"Throughout her career in Washington, she has loyally served her beliefs, her constituents and her president. Unfortunately, she does not seem to be endowed with the management skills required to bring the gargantuan Department of Health and Human Services under control."
The Washington Times said that two weeks ago in an editorial about Margaret M. Heckler, who had just been relieved of her job as secretary of Health and Human Services. Their opinion apparently was everybody's. Colleagues of Heckler's concurred in a Post news story that though Heckler "has often been far ahead of the White House in divining the most compassionate, and simultaneously politically effective, stance for the Reagan administration on controversial health and welfare issues . . . there is a widespread belief in both the White House and on Capitol Hill that her skills as an administrator of the massive agency were lacking."
Peggy Heckler may be no Frances Perkins. She is also no Elizabeth Dole, who, one need hardly point out, is in little danger of losing her post as secretary of transportation. Nonetheless, here's what a source within Dole's department said of her in July:
"Her work habits have isolated her a bit and she's very dependent on people around her. She's not a first-class administrator." Also this: "She doesn't delegate enough and she is difficult to reach." Consumer advocate Ralph Nader, who has clashed with Dole over her handling of airbag regulations, says: "I would call her a weak, ineffectual secretary of transportation with good, basic instincts that would require a progressive president to nurture."
Coincidence? Or are a disproportionate number of women in high government office tagged early as bad managers? There are no other women just now in the Reagan Cabinet, so it's hard to set up a scientific experiment. But plenty of them have come and gone since Frances Perkins' time. Did they all lack "managerial skills" and have difficulty "delegating authority?"
By rehashing the oddly repetitive criticisms that follow, I do not mean to assert that any particular allegation was true or false in its time. But it's interesting to note the similarity in attacks upon women otherwise admired as effective; women criticized and/or fired for such problems; and women criticized and/or fired for other reasons altogether.
"Despite her tough-minded, critical approach to her job, (she) has made few practical changes that might give the U.S. more clout. She is often behind schedule, and her staff once kept Soviet U.N. Ambassador Oleg Tregezovsky cooling his heels in the lobby of the U.S. mission for 15 minutes. . . . Morale has been so poor that two key staffers have quit in the past year, partly as a result of (her) lack of concern for administrative detail."
It's hard to recall now, in her ascendancy, that two years ago statements like this one from Time represented the conventional wisdom about Jeane J. Kirkpatrick, U.S. ambassador to the United Nations. As recently as last May, a "former U.N. colleague" was summing up her performance this way to New York magazine: "Jeane didn't work well with the staff at the U.N. She didn't know how. She was disorganized and as often as not just wouldn't touch the necessary bases at the White House."
By then, Kirkpatrick had left the job for reasons that no one even hinted had anything to do with lack of administrative skill.
"She suffers from a certain naivete both in terms of how the White House functions and in terms of how to get things done."
Faith Ryan Whittlesey, formerly White House liaison to public interest groups and the only female member of the White House inner circle, was eased back to her previous job as ambassador to Switzerland several months after a White House source said that to UPI -- not because of bad management but because her outspoken right-wing positions had made her a political embarrassment.
"Behind the public demeanor -- the Ice Queen stare as cold as a faceful of acid rain -- there is, at bottom, a two-term Colorado legislator with virtually no environmental experience at the head of one of the most sensitive agencies in the federal government." (Newsweek, March 1983)
The unlamented Anne Burford certainly didn't leave the Environmental Protection Agency in 1983 because of problems administering it. On the contrary, she had, to general alarm, succeeded in dismantling a large portion of that agency before she resigned under fire.
"From all accounts I have received, she is intelligent, dedicated, diligent and extremely capable. However, one of the major problems confronting the new department will be one of management and organization. I am not sure what skills Judge Hufstedler has in this area."
Sen. Claiborne Pell asked that at his subcommittee's confirmation hearings for Shirley Mount Hufstedler as the first secretary of education in 1979, and several committee members voted nay after voicing the same worry. Hufstedler was confirmed and got generally good reviews until she left with the rest of the Carter administration in January 1981.
"The department's image as a manager of complex national programs is bad."
That was the Department of Housing and Urban Development under the late Patricia Roberts Harris, evaluated in 1978 by the trade magazine House and Home. Harris went on to become Carter's secretary of the newly reconstituted HHS, and then to run unsuccessfully, in 1982, for mayor of D.C. At that time it was said in The Post of her record that "though she maintained relatively good working relationships with Capitol Hill, she was criticized by Congress for slow implementation of recommendations."
What more people remember about Harris was the image many other beleaguered women Cabinet members left as well -- the tough, hard-bitten fighter whose perceived personality was reflected in nicknames such as the Dragon Lady (Whittlesey), the Ice Queen (Burford), or the Cactus Flower (Harris). If Frances Perkins had such nicknames, they aren't recorded, but her contemporaries -- notably labor leader John Lewis -- did call her "a bottleneck," "a notorious incompetent," and "woozy in the head." She wasn't, of course. But we only know that because FDR let her stay.