Frances Perkins: Secretary of Labor

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Frances Perkins, 1880-1965

Frances Perkins, 1880-1965 (Photo credit: Penn State Special Collections Library)

The stock market crash of October 1929 resulted in the Great Depression, a time when  unemployment reached 25%, poverty increased, and deflation occurred. When Franklin Roosevelt was elected president, he created several laws, known as the New Deal, that created employment amongst Americans. These measures included social security, minimum wage, normal work hours, and child labor laws. Though it was Roosevelt who managed to have all of these laws passed, there was a woman behind the scenes who came up with several of the New Deal laws. Her name was Francis Perkins.

Fannie “Frances” Perkins was born in Boston, Massachusetts on April 10, 1880. Her parents supported her education; she graduated from Mount Holyoke College in 1902 with chemistry and physics degrees and graduated from Columbia University with a Masters in sociology. In 1910, she became head of the New York Consumer’s League and lobbied for better working hours and conditions. On March 25, 1911, she witnessed the deadliest industrial disaster in American history: the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire. A total of 146 garment workers died from fire, smoke inhalation, or falling to their deaths. Most of the victims were Jewish and Italian immigrant women – the youngest were 14-year-olds Kate Leone and Sara Rosaria Maltese. As was the common practice at the time, the managers had locked the doors leading to the stairwells and exits to prevent thievery. From that moment on, Perkins spent the rest of her life improving working conditions for the American worker. She quit her job and went to work for the Factory Investigation Commission in New York City as a factory inspector. When she wasn’t working or studying, she volunteered at settlement houses, including the Hull House in Chicago.

On the Factory Investigation Commission, she sat on the committee that was created to understand what happened at the Triangle Shirtwaist factory and how to make sure it would never happen again.She later became executive secretary for the Committee on Safety of the City of New York. In 1913, she married Paul Wilson and had a baby daughter. After two years of marriage, her husband developed what is now known as a bipolar disorder. He was institutionalized, leaving Perkins to raise her daughter by herself. In 1919, she was added to the Industrial Commission of the State of New York by Governor Alfred Smith. In 1929, she was appointed by Governor Franklin Roosevelt to the New York State Commissioner of Labor where she worked to expand factory investigations and to reduce the workweek for women to 48 hours. She also worked on getting a minimum wage set, create unemployment insurance laws, and to put an end to child labor.

When Roosevelt was elected president in 1932, she was invited to become the Secretary of Labor. She became the first woman appointed to the U.S. Cabinet. Perkins proposed several ideas that Roosevelt supported, including social security, which provided unemployment benefits, pensions for the elderly, and aid to the poor. She served 12 years and 3 months as a member of the cabinet, the longest officer to have served. After Roosevelt died, President Harry Truman asked her to serve on the U.S. Civil Service Commission, which she did until 1952 when her husband died. She spent the rest of her life teaching at the Cornell School of Industrial and Labor Relations until she died on May 14, 1965.

Before Perkins, men, women, and children were working 60-hour weeks in dangerous factories for little pay. After witnessing the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory, Perkins dedicated the rest of her life to make sure nothing like that ever happened again. When she wasn’t creating labor laws, she was raising her daughter by herself because her husband suffered from a mental illness. When Roosevelt became president during the Great Depression, he knew the Secretary of Labor must be someone capable of brining America out of the depression. By appointing Perkins, he showed that she was the best person for the job. Because of Frances Perkins, there is a minimum wage, child labor laws, and social security. She later reflected as to why she went to work in Washington D.C.; “I came to Washington to work for God, FDR, and millions of forgotten plain common workingmen.”

Sources:

Social Security Pioneers

Frances Perkins

The 1911 Triangle Factory Fire

 

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