As we celebrate International Women’s Day, let us recall the contributions to our nation’s vibrant social insurance infrastructure by those women who are no longer with us, but whose legacies remain strong.
Among these often unsung heroines are:
- Bernice Bernstein – Bernice was Regional Director of the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare, after serving on the Social Security Board. She was also Counsel to the Study Group on Social Security. Bernice was a Founding Member of the National Academy of Social Insurance.
- Lenore Bixby – Lenore held various positions at the Social Security Administration’s Office of Research and Statistics from 1954-1977. Previously, she was responsible for studies of family income and expenditures at the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Lenore was a Founding Member of our Academy.
- Evelyn Burns - Evelyn was a staff member of the President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Committee on Economic Security. She helped formulate the specifics of the Social Security Act of 1935. She was later director of research for the Committee on Long-Range Work and Relief Policies of the National Resources Planning Board.
- Charlotte Crenson – Charlotte was one of the highest-ranking women at the Social Security Administration from 1943-1973. She focused on issues that affected women in the workplace. She was a Founding Member of our Academy.
- Martha Derthick – Martha was Director of Governmental Studies for the Brookings Institution from 1978-1983. She also taught at Harvard University and Boston College. She served on the Congressional Panel on Social Security Organization in 1984. She was the author of Policymaking for Social Security (1979) and Agency Under Stress: The Social Security Administration in American Government (1990). Martha was a Founding Member of our Academy.
- Margaret Gordon – Margaret was a member of President Lyndon B. Johnson’s 1968 Commission on Income Maintenance Programs and the Committee on Research Development for the Social Security Administration. She was also a research economist at the Institute of Industrial Relations at the University of California, Berkeley. The author of Social Security Policies in Industrial Countries (1990), Margaret was a Founding Member of our Academy.
- Ida Merriam – Ida joined the staff of the Social Security Advisory Board in 1936 and then spent her career in the Social Security Administration’s research and statistics bureau. She was the founder and first Chair of the Committee on Social Security Research of the International Social Security Association. Ida was a Founding Member of our Academy.
- Joyce Miller – Joyce was Chair of the AFL-CIO’s Committee on Social Security and Vice President of the Amalgamated Clothing & Textile Workers Union. She was Executive Director of the Glass Ceiling Commission under President Bill Clinton. Joyce was a Founding Member of our Academy.
- Molly Orshansky – While working at the Social Security Administration during the 1960s, Molly developed the poverty thresholds that became the federal government’s official statistical measure of poverty. Her thresholds remain a major feature of American social policy.
- Frances Perkins – Frances was appointed Secretary of Labor in 1933, making her the first woman to hold a cabinet-level position. She served as head of President Franklin Roosevelt's Committee on Economic Security. The original Social Security legislation sprang from the work of this committee. The Department of Labor’s headquarters in Washington, D.C. is now named after her.
- Mary Ross – Mary was Director of the Legislative Reference Staff at the Social Security Administration, where she began working in 1960. She provided staff support to several Social Security Advisory Councils. Mary was a Founding Member of our Academy and served on the Disability Policy Panel in 1996 and the Panel on Evaluating Issues in Privatizing Social Security in 1998. When she passed away in March 2001, she left the Academy with our largest bequest received to-date – ensuring that we could continue the vital education work in which Mary firmly believed.
- Carolyn Weaver – Carolyn was Director of the American Enterprise Institute’s Social Security and Pension Project. From 1981-84, she served as the Chief Professional Staff Member on Social Security for the U.S. Senate Finance Committee. She was a Senior Adviser to the 1983 National Commission on Social Security Reform. She was the author of Crisis in Social Security: Economic and Political Origins (1982). Carolyn was a Founding Member of our Academy.
- Elizabeth Wickenden – Known as “Wicky,” Elizabeth held administrative posts in a succession of New Deal agencies. She was a member of the federal Advisory Council on Public Welfare during the 1960s and President John F. Kennedy’s Task Force on Health and Social Security Legislation. As a consultant on public social policy, she analyzed and interpreted policy and legislation and promoted social action. Elizabeth was one of the Founding Board Members of our Academy.
And Dorothy Rice, who recently passed away. An analyst with the Social Security Administration, Dorothy wrote a 1964 report, which found that about half of the U.S. elderly population did not have health insurance. Her research led to the development of Medicare. Dorothy was a Founding Member of our Academy.
Please feel free to share your memories of these social insurance pioneers, or to add others to the list in the comments section below.