Frances Perkins vs. Hilda of Whitby

"The End is Near!" proclaims the ubiquitous sign of the doomsday prophet. In the case of Lent Madness 2013, our sign-wielding friend would be correct. Welcome to the Faithful Four. After weeks of learning and voting and debating, the saintly field has been whittled down from 32 to four spiritual heavyweights: Frances Perkins, Hilda of Whitby, Luke the Evangelist, and Oscar Romero.

As we like to tell our five-year-olds when they join their first soccer team (that’s football for our friends across the pond), “there are no losers, everybody’s a winner.” Of course we’re lying. Thus, while we can sing the praises of these saints, only one Golden Halo will be awarded.

Today Frances Perkins takes on Hilda of Whitby; tomorrow Luke the Evangelist battles Oscar Romero; and on Spy Wednesday the championship round will take place. For the Faithful Four, we let our remaining Celebrity Bloggers loose as they answer the question “Why should Saint XX win the Golden Halo?” In other words, they’ve been charged with letting us know why their particular saint is so awesome. In this match-up, Heidi Shott is advocating for Frances Perkins and Laurie Brock for Hilda of Whitby. Tomorrow Laura Toepfer is writing for Luke the Evangelist and Megan Castellan for Oscar Romero.

To make it to the Faithful Four, bracket Cinderella Frances Perkins made it past Damien of Molokai, Martin Luther King, Jr, and Jonathan Daniels. Hilda of Whitby bested Samuel SeaburyIgnatius of Antioch, and Harriet Tubman. Here's your chance to send one of these inspiring women off to vie for the Golden Halo.

Don't forget to watch Maple Anglican's video previewing today's match-up.

perkins-momFrances Perkins

In his 2010 essay in The Anglican Examiner,Frances Perkins: Architect of the Gracious Society,” Donn Mitchell begins by recounting how Perkins once answered a provocative question.

‘Don't you think it's wrong for people to get things they don't pay for?’

‘Why no,’ Frances Perkins responded. ‘I find I get so much more than I pay for. Don't you?’

The woman who had conceived, birthed, nursed, and nurtured the New Deal's crowning achievement — the Social Security Act -- the Social Security Act — was revealing the theological perspective that informed her long career advocating, shaping, and ultimately implementing social policy. She knew she had not paid for the earth she walked on or the parents who had raised her. She had not ‘earned’ the breath in her lungs. All life was an unearned gift from God, as she saw it.

Perkins with President Franklin Delano Roosevelt

Perkins with President Franklin Delano Roosevelt

What we ‘got,’ in her view, was a function of grace, not merit or its inverse correlate, sin. A godly society, therefore, would be a gracious society. Just as God had endowed humankind with the basics and then allowed them freedom to develop their capacities to create and contribute, so the community should graciously guarantee basic provision for its individual members while allowing maximum freedom to make their way in the world.


Plaque at St. Andrew's, Newcastle, Maine

We talk a great deal about the theology of abundance and the theology of scarcity in the Episcopal Church. Often it’s used to transform our old notions of stewardship or to get members thinking about capital campaign gifts. The transformation is local -- our own hearts or perhaps, on a truly miraculous scale, the collective heart of a congregation.

But Frances Perkins took her belief in the theology of abundance to an astonishing level. Through incredible hard work and determination and in the midst of a political and social climate that is unimaginable for a late-boomer woman like me, Perkins extended her theology to the whole nation for the benefit of all its citizens.


Perkins with President John F. Kennedy (Bettman/Corbis)

The prologue of Kirstin Downey’s biography, The Woman Behind the New Deal: The Life of Frances Perkins, FDR’S Secretary of Labor and His Moral Conscience, begins with the ultimatum that Perkins gave to Roosevelt before she would accept the appointment to become his Secretary of Labor.

“On a chilly February night in 1933, a middle-aged woman waited expectantly to meet with her employer at his residence on East 65th Street in New York City. She clutched a scrap of paper with hastily written notes. Finally ushered into his study the woman brushed aside her nervousness and spoke confidently....

He wanted her to take an assignment but she had decided she wouldn’t accept it unless he allowed her to do it her own way. She held up the piece of paper in her hand, and he motioned for her to continue. She ticked off the items: a forty-hour workweek, a minimum wage, worker’s compensation, unemployment compensation, a federal law banning child labor, direct federal aid for unemployment relief, Social Security, a revitalized public employment service, and health insurance.”

Sloane, the girlfriend in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off,  might have been just as astutely describing Perkins as Ferris when she said, “You knew what you were doing when you woke up this morning.”

Frances Perkins knew what she was doing.

perkins_1911I wasn’t thinking about Perkins, years ago, when I wrote an essay called “Cleaning the Fridge,” but now it seems obvious. “The people we revere most are simply human beings choosing from among the options laid out before them and then doing the work they’ve been given to do. Most of them would avoid the hard and unpleasant stuff given the chance. Most, like Melville’s Bartleby, ‘would prefer not to.’ But the difference between our saints and the rest of us is they do the hard things anyway.”

Frances Perkins -- lay woman, public servant, doer of hard things because they needed to be done. She knew God imbued her with the strength, talent, and experience to do them, and, like another saint in the bracket, she knew she could do no other.

-- Heidi Shott

images-2Hilda of Whitby

Hilda (or, more correctly Hild of Streaneschalch) is not known for one spectacular moment. Some saints are. That one moment where they make such a devoted decision out of love we are left in awe. She is not known for a profound body of literature, as are other saints. In fact, nothing of her own writing exists. Most of what we know about her was written by Bede. She is not known for anything other than perhaps hosting a synod.

Or at least that’s what I thought when I began my Lenten relationship with Hilda. Almost forty days and several rounds later, I am in awe of this woman who is not known for anything spectacular other than her profound ability to encourage others.

She might not have left her own writings, but when a young monk named Caedmon who

Abbess Hilda receiving Caedmon

Abbess Hilda receiving Caedmon

cared for animals at Whitby had a dream about composing song, Hilda encouraged him to write. In doing so, she helped birth what would become English poetry. She might not have been a great queen or powerful politician, but her compassionate wisdom grounded in the Gospel encouraged kings and rulers who sought her advice. She might not have been a pope or priest or bishop, but she created a community where equality of property, study, and communal prayer encouraged education and parity in a double monastery. Five of her monks became bishops; two are revered as saints.

She might not have even carried the day at Whiby, that synod she hosted. Yes, the Roman date of Easter and monastic hairstyle won, but Hilda continued to encourage. She encouraged Christianity to remain unified, despite differences. She encouraged obedience to the vote that carried the day, even though she personally disagreed with the outcome. She stood with unified dignity in a way our modern church leaders could emulate as we struggle with decisions that can be divisive.

images-3However we view saints, they are (hopefully) very human people who lived their lives in very remarkable ways. And while I will always be impressed with Hilda’s turning snakes to stone, I am in awe of her extraordinary ability to encourage others and to create a community where that encouragement could thrive. I am humbled by her example of desiring a unified, faithful community over her own position.

Hilda’s life is a holy example that speaks to us today as we wrestle with a changing church, with new understandings of theology that can be challenging and divisive, and with the temptation to nurture our own egos rather than encouraging lives lived in the radical love of Christ. She reminds us that this place is nothing new for the church. Her life speaks with calm love to us all. And her ministry of encouragement -- all of those spectacular moments she wove together in her days -- is still urging us on to live our lives in love, service, and community.

Thanks be to God.

-- Laurie Brock


Frances Perkins vs. Hilda of Whitby

  • Frances Perkins (61%, 3,434 Votes)
  • Hilda of Whitby (39%, 2,154 Votes)

Total Voters: 5,584

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153 comments on “Frances Perkins vs. Hilda of Whitby”

  1. Friends, Anglicans, Countrymen, lend me a small part of your computer screen. Are we going to let the US Department of Labor “muscle” us out of our own Lent Madness? Nay, nay I cry! Let us not turn back now, but let us move forward together in Christian harmony under the watchful eye of our Shepherdess who holds her crosier high…Saint Hilda of Whitby! Saint Hild of Streoneshalh, our Mother Superior, a leader to both monks and nuns, our dedicated teacher, and our patron of the arts. Our holy sister who defended Celtic Christianity but when she knew she was defeated, acquiesced for the sake of unity. In all times, (since 614AD) and in all languages may we forever chant the name: Hil-da, Hil-da, Hil-da!

    1. Hil-da! Hil-da! Hilda, Hilda, you're our saint! If you can't do it, nobody aint! Okay, bad English, but I thought if I wrote 'girl' I might have aspersions of the worst kind thrown at me and not the kind at the end of a wonderful scented branch of rosemary.

      1. Saints are people made for their times. I don't work for the Dept. of Labor but it just dawned on me this morning that in THIS day of deteriorating worker rights, unlivable wages, and attacks on social security and healthcare for the sake of preserving privilege for the wealthy, FRANCES PERKINS is made for this year's Golden Halo.

  2. Perhaps I shall be deemed a grump ... but is the contest in some danger of being carpet bombed by Department of Labor folks and Mount Holyoke alumni? Now, I will be the first to say that neither affiliation is disqualifying in any way. As a Hilda fan, I am a bit worried that she doesn't have enough 20th century connections to defeat a social media campaign for Frances Perkins. (Returning to my spot under the bridge.)

    1. I followed Lent Madness last year as well and am a pledging member of my local Episcopalian church. I ALSO happen to be a Mount Holyoke alumna. Guess what: not mutually exclusive. So yes, you are a grump.

      1. Me, too, Anna. Go, Frances Perkins! I love that she went in to a conference with FDR and said: this is what people need.

    2. Dear Mr. Moyers:
      A correction is in order: Mt. Holyoke graduates, of which I proudly claim membership (alumna: Frances Perkins Program, 1996), must be termed alumnae, not alumni as you stated in your post (March 25, 2013).

      Back out you get from under the bridge... and send in your mea culpa.

      Laura Bellusci, FP '96

    1. But Hilda was a politician too! My definition of government has been that it is an institution that works out how we live together in this place, in this town, in this state, in this country, in this world; and my definition of church is that is is an institution that works out how we live together in this world in relation to God our creator. In the end not a lot of difference, particularly if the politician or govt worker is a person of faith. Of course, we all bring a wide range of belief and baggage to our own faith. I have been disappointed at the several comments disparaging bureaucrats and politicians. While there are clearly bad apples among us all whatever our field, most are really trying to do the best they can---just like Hilda did even tho she was unsuccessful in persuading the church politicians of her time to choose the direction she perceived as best.

        1. Neither did Frances's works. At the time, they were seen by many, for better or worse, as reforming and saving capitalism.

    2. Besides all that, involvement in public policy is a noble calling! Public servants like Frances Perkins are wonderful examples for today's aspiring saints.

  3. I was all ready to vote for Hilda but when I read this morning's match-up, I changed my mind. My vote goes to Frances Perkins for all good she helped accomplish in this country.

  4. I do not think Frances was really a politician. While she was part of a political administration, she did not "run" for her office and how many political appointees of FDR gave HIM an ultimatum before they would accept nomination to office? Both ladies as outstanding role models for today but my vote goes to Frances this time. As the old "political" saying goes, vote early and vote often!

  5. I went with the one who led me to tears and encouraged me to encourage others. Without Hilda, Frances might not have happened

  6. I tire of people saying “This is the hardest one yet!” – every day. But for me, today’s choice is a struggle. The US would be a very different, “less than” nation had it not been for the vision and dogged perseverance of Frances Perkins. However, Anglicans worldwide do well to heed the lessons taught by Hild – offering encouragement and support for others in the face of not getting one’s own way. No losers here, but my vote goes to Hild. (And great write-ups Heidi & Laurie - Thank you both.)

  7. Today's matchup raises a larger question for me. How does the Episcopal church define a saint? Clearly, the notion changed as demonstrated by the explosion of the number of people included in "Holy Women, Holy Men" as compared to "Lesser Feasts and Fasts." I agree there are many people who have done commendable things that have had huge impacts on things that concern the church. Does this make them a saint? My gut says this alone is not the criteria. Being a saint, I think, used to mean one who has lived a life that left a pattern worth copying behind. This is more than all of the redeemed being "saints" or having a great accomplishment. Lent Madness is fun at its core. However, when reflecting on the "saint" more worthy to wear the Golden Halo, I ask myself "as a Christian, who left behind a truer pattern to follow?" (Today, my vote went to Hilda.)

    1. i rather like the designation of Holy Women, Holy Men, because as mother Theresa responded to a reporter- "we are all called to be holy" , the conundrum presented for us today is that both of these women led lives worth copying! Still mulling....

  8. I'm about to boycott today because I'm still upset about Perkins' defeat of Daniels and Hlda's defeat of Tubman. Are we redefining the saintliness of our civil rights and slave freeing martyrs?

    1. Dann Brown, I think you should vote for Hilda because not only did Perkins defeat Daniels but she defeated MLK as well, MLK!!! I say teach those anti-civil rights folks a lesson and vote for Hilda.

    2. I too faced this exact dilemma on these two match ups. Then I thought perhaps I was just too entrenched in my perspective because I lived in the deep south during those hard pre civil rights days; so my heroes were these "saints of the people". So I continued. And I do terribly admire Frances Perkins. I too spent my career as a civil servant and I know their are good, honest hard working civil servants out there. But, I don't put Frances in the category of sainthood. Therein lies the it's Hilda of course and ultimately it will be Luke for me. You vote from whom you are I suppose.

      1. Yes! Thank you for pointing that out. Social Security is not a "handout", anyway--we pay into it all our working lives!!

        1. Yes, and most beneficiaries collect vastly more in proportion to what they have paid in.

          1. NOT REALLY. Most of us work 40 to 45 years before collecting Social Security and many won't live 15 years after they begin collecting Social Security. Figure out what we paid in, factor in minimal bank interest and then divide the result in 180 payments and you'll find that in most cases, the Government should make money on Social Security.

          2. From a recent article in the Tampa Bay Times:

            The Urban Institute, a non-partisan research institute in Washington, produces statistics on this topic annually. Institute researchers figured out what people turning 65 in various years have already "paid in" to the system and what can expect to "take out" after they reach age 65.

            Because marital status and family income can significantly affect both the amount paid in and the amount paid out, the institute offers its calculation for various types of family units. To make the final amounts comparable to what might have been done with the tax money had it been invested privately, the institute adjusted all dollar figures at 2 percentage points above the rate of inflation. (The authors note that different assumptions for long-term returns on investment would change the results.)

            According to the institute’s data, a two-earner couple receiving an average wage — $44,600 per spouse in 2012 dollars — and turning 65 in 2010 would have paid $722,000 into Social Security and Medicare and can be expected to take out $966,000 in benefits. So, this couple will be paid about one-third more in benefits than they paid in taxes.

            If a similar couple had retired in 1980, they would have gotten back almost three times what they put in. And if they had retired in 1960, they would have gotten back more than eight times what they paid in. The bigger discrepancies common decades ago can be traced in part to the fact that some of these individuals’ working lives came before Social Security taxes were collected beginning in 1937.

            Some types of families did much better than average. A couple with only one spouse working (and receiving the same average wage) would have paid in $361,000 if they turned 65 in 2010, but can expect to get back $854,000 — more than double what they paid in. In 1980, this same 65-year-old couple would have received five times more than what they paid in, while in 1960, such a couple would have ended up with 14 times what they put in.

            Such findings suggest that, even allowing for inflation and investment gains, many seniors will receive much more in benefits than what they paid in.

            Granted, new research shows trending that says Baby Boomers may likely be the first generation of beneficiaries for for whom this is not true. But we digress...

            The point for LM is that whether the story is about defending Celtic forms of Christianity by fighting political battles against Romanization... or tackling the complex maze of trying to create equity and justice out of social policy... both of these women tackled important issues of their time and have given us great examples to emulate.

            Hurrah for both.

  9. Two outstanding subjects in today's race, that's for sure. But this face off also begs the question, what makes one a saint? Does the title have to be officially conferred on one to be thought as such? I think not. If that were the case, many of those we honor would never be recognized. That said, while I respect and honor the work that Hilda did, my vote today goes with Francis. For without her, the U.S. would be a different place today. She was simply doing what Jesus would do.

  10. This is an incredibly difficult vote today, as they are my #1 and #2 choices of the Faithful Four. I love love love what Frances Perkins did for us; she was truly an incredible woman (and by the way this was a GREAT writeup!). However, as much of an uphill batttle as she had, Hilda had to overcome even more. It was, after all, the dark ages. To accomplish so much and yet still act with humility when she didn't get her way, to encourage and influence so many, well, that gets her my vote. If Hilda doesn't win today however, I hope Frances takes it all the way for the Golden Halo!

    1. Thank you, Mary, for saying what I wanted to say much more clearly than I would have been able to. I am so grateful to Frances for all she has done, but Hilda, indeed, lived in an age when it was nigh impossible for a woman to wield the influence she did. Take the long view of history, dear LMers.

      1. Actually, in the Middle Ages the monastery was a route for women to have incredible power. It's the Reformation, with its disestablishment of the monasteries that women were restricted to one role.

  11. Terrific write-up for Frances! Wish I could vote twice...but my single vote goes to Hilda (or Hild)! Something about a "longitudinal" perspective (I suspect that even Frances would have appreciated that...)

  12. "Her profound ability to encourage others"--yes! That's why Hilda is one of my favorite saints; as I reflect on all the people who have encouraged me in my life and work, I've come to believe that one of the most necessary--and saintly--things we can do as the Body of Christ is to encourage each other. And I like to think of Abbess Hilda encouraging--well, nagging, maybe--Caedmon, as my mother used to urge me, to "do something with your writing!"

  13. Thanks Heidi Shott for your great piece about Frances Perkins. I learned more about her because I am a social worker and she was too. She was involved with the profession when it was young and I believe helped to shape it. I LOVED that her faith informed and was the foundation for her life and work. While the latest economic downturn has been tough, I don't think we fully acknowledge that the hard work Frances Perkins accomplished prevented even deeper suffering....

  14. Two wonderful write-ups and two wonderful saints. It's going to be a close one. I voted for Hilda partily because she encouraged Caedmon to write [as an English prof, that really appealed to me].

  15. I was devastated after we lost the vote for female bishops in the Church of England. I really love my church and am keen to one day become a priest maybe. I nearly lost my faith, but seeing Saint Hild in all her glory made me think, maybe there is a chance for women to become bishops someday. My vote goes for Hild.

  16. I am in favor of recognizing the laity as worthy of being considered saints, not just as politicians or those not worthy of living Godly lives worth consideration of being emulated. Frances Perkins fought against male-dominated bureaucracy to labor for those "little people" belittled by a disgruntled former LENT MADNESS correspondent who obviously preferred more Christ-like disciples. Perkins has been recognized as a devoted disciple in the Episcopal Church by her superiors and peers for her God-given talents that still benefit countless numbers of American citizens who would have little, if anything, to even put in the offering plate without remembering who was largely responsible for what they, and we, have to offer as gifts and tithes.

  17. I am impressed by Hilda's abilities with reconciliation, leadership, and humility, all informed by "her compassionate wisdom grounded in the Gospel." I think of these qualities also in our Katherine, the Presiding Bishop.

  18. I believe Francis was as sincere as many other Christians in governments throughout the world adopting generous if not even Christian socialist programs (pre and post WWII). I agree that she is worthy of recognition for her faith and service. It was an incredibly challenging time to face poverty, hunger and more, and I do trust she acted as she thought best. Indeed, good did come from her efforts. As a Lutheran, I also agree with her ideas about grace. Yet from my past work and service, I have seen too much coruption related to such programs -sometimes the government, sometimes businesses taking advantage, and yes, sometimes involving the people served. As another coincidence with Lent Madness matchups, Cyprus and other countries are hurting today due to both big banks and big labor. Retirement and medical expenses are huge and part of their crisis. Sinner-saints (including me, as we all are even at our best) are not always as caring about others as we should be and such programs are often sadly abused. That's not Francis' fault and I recognize Social Security has been and still is a lifeline for many, but I'll be voting for Hilda today. As a descendent of Two Kingdoms theology, I do indeed trust, understand, and demand that government has to be part of the solution, but we have to be smarter and demand more accountability and care. Government is a bureaucracy after all. People are imperfect. I also sometimes wonder if some of us rely on government as a solution to social ills way too much or (worse?) would rather pay taxes to support such programs than be in relationship with the poor. A heavy post I suppose for Lent Madness, but truly my thoughts as I vote today. With the animosity and black and white thinking that often accompanies such conversations (to our society's detriment in my view), perhaps we better lift up an example of unity and love like Hilda.

    1. Look at the administrative costs in this county for social security-they are extremely low. Look at the administrative costs for traditional retirement plans on wall street-they are high. Plus, many of them lost more than half of their worth just a few years ago. There is nothing wrong with Social Security. What is wrong is that OUR GOVERNMENT has been taking money out of the fund for years and does not want to pay it back.

      1. Our government is a bureaucracy made of flawed humans overseeing the Social Security system. In addition, people do take advantage at times of the system. I can't realy seperateall these things in my mind. I see it all together as imperfect, and I really only ask what we can do better - if anything. Too often, we attack one another rather than wrestle with the problem, part of which you correctly identify. (I am not saying you are doing that as your comments are both prudent and understood.) For these reasons, I say, "Go, Hilda!"

  19. Both women are worthy of winning, but I can't help but wonder how successful Perkins would have been in her cause without the support and open-mindedness of her boss, FDR. This doesn't diminish her accomplishments or her Christian zeal, but another President may not have given her the chance to make such sweeping changes in governmental policy.
    Perhaps Hilda also benefited from being in the right place at the right time (and from the support of St. Aidan), but somehow it seems that she would have made her mark regardless of which men were in power at the time. And, she did it all while coping with the harshness of daily life in Anglo-Saxon England.
    Frances rocks, but my vote goes to Hilda.

  20. Go Frances! Why are people such downers on someone who worked so hard for everyone...? As a woman, I am trying hard (and currently succeeding!) not to be offended by the continuous criticism of her value and place in this FUN contest. Thank you Heidi for your quote: "Through incredible hard work and determination and in the midst of a political and social climate that is UNIMAGINABLE for a late-boomer woman like me..." All the saints deserve our votes - but it is a game and someone always loses eventually.

  21. My name indicates my dual loyalty. Yet, long before I came to Maine, Francis Perkins was a formative force in my life and ministry. It is work, yes, to encourage others and seek unity above personal preference. But to devote a lifetime to the uplifting of an entire nation's "anawim" with dogged determination, and to apply the force of will to such complex and challenging issues of social and economic justice, drawing on every point of human connection and binding her will with deep Christian conviction and a personal sense of God's extravagant grace...Frances Perkins wins the day for me.
    Her witness is not just a testimony to the combined power of God's grace and human will. Frances was an advocate. I've worked with the voiceless--both the literally nonverbal and those whose voices have been silenced by larger systems. Frances took on the challenge of advocacy and became a voice for thousands--even millions--of people dismissed and/or silenced by The Powers That Be. She raised up the vital concerns of children, women, refugees, elders, people with disabilities, and an entire nation's working, suffering poor. She refused to let her own voice be dismissed, and she kept up the fight until most of her enormous causes were won! I marvel at the enduring strength of her voice. I marvel at the enormity of human suffering she personally eased, ended, and prevented. I marvel at the millions of lives that continue to be touched and aided and mended because of her successful mission.

    With a deep bow of respect to Saint Hild, this Celtic Christian casts a vote for Frances Perkins.

  22. Both write-ups are wonderful. Thank you!

    As her commentator wrote, "She stood with unified dignity . . . " Hilda gets my vote. She was an encourager, and the world needs more of her kind.

  23. I choose the radiant and encouraging Hild, whose "calm love" reaches beyond her home, beyond her time to foster creation, cooperation, and caring that reaches all the way to my breakfast table and into my modern heart. I'm so glad to have learned about Hild and about Frances Perkins, who carried out her own loving works, set her own courageous example, and made America a better place for all.