4 Women Who Shaped Modern Retirement

Stories of pioneers in creating the federal government’s retirement safety net and reaping its benefits.

Since 1987 March has been designated as Women’s History Month. It is a time to reflect on the great women of history and the path they paved for women today. Four women in particular played a large role in the development of retirement benefits provided by the federal government: Frances Perkins, Ida Mae Fuller, Betty Villemarette, and Millie Parsons.

Frances Perkins

Frances Perkins was the first woman to hold a cabinet position. She served as Labor Secretary under Franklin D. Roosevelt’s administration. In this position she was part of many workplace reforms including a minimum wage and the unemployment system. She went on to be the Chair of the President’s Committee on Economic Security which led to the passage of the Social Security Act in 1935. When she was 80 years old, she gave a speech to the Social Security Administration and said this, “we have to admit that no matter how much fine reasoning there was about the old-age insurance system and the unemployment insurance prospects, no matter how many people were studying it, or how many committees had ideas on the subject, or how many college professors had written theses on the subject—and there were an awful lot of them—the real roots of the Social Security Act were in the Great Depression of 1929. Nothing else would have bumped the American people into a Social Security system except something so shocking, so terrifying, as that depression.”

Ida Mae Fuller

Ida Mae Fuller was the first recipient of the monthly Social Security Benefits. She began paying into Social Security in 1937, just three years before she retired. She worked as a legal secretary in Vermont when the social security tax rate was 1% of the salary by both the employee and employer on the employee’s first $3,000 of earnings. “Before she retired, Fuller paid $24.75 in payroll taxes on total earnings of $24,750 from June 1937 to September 1939. She then received a benefit that started out at $22.54 per month. Fuller lived to be 100 years old, and over her lifetime received a total of nearly $23,000 in benefit payments. A trip to the Social Security office in Rutland, Vermont, at the end of Fuller’s career definitely paid off. “It wasn’t that I expected anything, mind you,” she later said, “but I knew I’d been paying for something called Social Security and I wanted to ask the people in Rutland about it” (Flanagan 22).

Betty Villemarette

Betty Villemarette was a CIA employee who was instrumental in obtaining benefits for former federal spouses. Betty was not always a CIA employee herself. She first began as a spouse of a CIA officer. She often accompanied her husband on dangerous missions overseas, where on one occasion she disarmed an agent in Ethiopia that was supposed to be guarding their home. By the early 1970’s Betty’s marriage was over, and she was in dire financial trouble as there were no laws to provide former spouses with income, retirement, or health benefits. Betty began her own career with the CIA shortly after and served for 10 years. During that time, she fought to secure rights for former spouses of federal employees. “She testified before a congressional committee in support of the legislation that would become the 1984 Civil Service Spouse Equity Act. Former CIA Director Leon Panetta called Villemarette “a tireless advocate for agency employees and families. Her hard work and dedication did much to improve the quality of life for our officers and their loved ones” (Flanagan 22).

Millie Parsons

At the time of Millie’s death in 2012, she was the longest continuously serving employee in the history of the FBI. She began her career in1939 and retired at age 88 in 2002. Millie served under a total of 6 FBI directors and had 30 different supervisors over her career. Millie had served for over 62 years and accumulated thousands of hours of sick time because she never called in sick. “Since federal employees earn 2,080 hours of sick leave every 20 years, after 62 years of service Parsons could have earned more than three years of such leave. But when she was first hired, there wasn’t a formal sick leave system. Even with her long career, Parsons was able to enjoy retirement for more than 10 years before she died just shy of turning 100 years old” (Flanagan 22).

By: Beth Gray