Tag Archives: New Deal

Frances Perkins: Secretary of Labor


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.”


Social Security Pioneers

Frances Perkins

The 1911 Triangle Factory Fire


Franklin Roosevelt’s Greatest Strength


President Franklin Delano Roosevelt was born on January 30, 1882, to a wealthy family in up-state New York. After attending Harvard and Columbia Law School, he focused his sights on the White House by following his relative’s, President Theodore Roosevelt, footsteps by first becoming Assistant Secretary of the Navy. His journey to the White House halted in 1921 when Roosevelt became ill while vacationing with family in Canada. After several doctor visits over a span of a couple of weeks, it was discovered that Roosevelt had contacted Poliomyelitis and now had polio. At the age of 31, Roosevelt became paralyzed from the waist down. Roosevelt’s mother begged him to retire from politics, but his wife, Eleanor, would not let him because she knew that he would regret it. Though the current times believed people with disabilities were a burden, Roosevelt would use his paralysis to lead his country through troubled times.

Franklin D. Roosevelt in Warm Springs, Georgia...

Franklin D. Roosevelt in Warm Springs, Georgia  (Wikipedia)

In 1924, Roosevelt learned about Warm Springs, Georgia where the springs were rumored to cure paralysis. At the springs, Roosevelt found that his legs would hold him upright and that he could swim for hours so he bought the springs for $200,000 as a place for polio victims to seek therapeutic treatment; he personally led pool exercises. Though it was $42 a week for a polio victim to stay at the springs, no one was ever turned away due to lack of money because Roosevelt would personally cover the bills. Though the springs never did cure paralysis, it became a place for people with disabilities to seek therapeutic treatment. Roosevelt Warm Springs Rehabilitation Center is still in existence and serves 4,000 people each year.

While Roosevelt was in Georgia, he came in contact with the locals where he saw extreme poverty, something he never forgot about when he became president in 1932. In his first term, the New Deal (set of programs and policies designed to promote economy recovery and social reform) took place. Roosevelt signed the Tennessee Valley Authority Act (TVA) because the civilians of Tennessee Valley had an average income of $639 per year and 30% of the population had malaria. The TVA developed new fertilizers, taught farms how to replant forest and improve habitats for wildlife, and created dams that provided electricity. Another important part of the New Deal was the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC). The CCC hired a total of 2.5 million young men who planted 3 billion trees and created 800 parks.Each man was paid $30, but $25 of that was sent back home to his family. Separate programs put 200,000 Blacks to work and the Indian Emergency Conservation Work allowed Native Americans to develop roads and schools on reservations. Congress also passed the Social Security Act; it established  federally funded old-age benefits and funding for states to provide assistance to blind individuals and disabled children, and extended existing vocational rehabilitation programs. Roosevelt never forgot about the people he met in Georgia and made it his goal to put America back to work and to give Americans self-esteem.

One of only a few known photographs of Rooseve...

One of only a few known photographs of Roosevelt in a wheelchair (Wikipedia)

Roosevelt was never photographed in his wheelchair because he did not want Americans to view him as “weak” since he lived at a time when Americans believed people with disabilities were an inferior group of people. He only made two public appearances that showed his paralysis. In 1936, while dedicating a new building at Washington’s Howard University (a Black University) he was asked by the university’s president Dr. Mordecai John if the students could see that he was crippled because the students were crippled because of their race. By seeing that the president was crippled, he would inspire the students. Roosevelt agreed and walked, with his leg braces, painfully down the aisle to the platform. The second time happened in July 1944 when Roosevelt went to Pearl Harbor for strategy sessions. On his spare time, he visited military hospitals. In the amputee ward, Roosevelt was pushed in a wheelchair by Secret Service because he wanted to show his useless legs to those who would face the same affliction. As Sam Rosenman, adviser and speechwriter to Roosevelt, noted “I never saw Roosevelt with tears in his eyes… That day as he was wheeled out of the hospital he was close to them.”

Roosevelt continued to return to Warm Springs every year and every year he was reminded about the poor children in Georgia. Rosenman stated, “He (Roosevelt) made it clear in private conversation that he felt strongly that there was no reason why a child born in some county too poor to sustain a good school system should have to start life in competition with children from sections of the country that had fine schools.” Before World War II, less than 5% of young adults attended college because college was reserved to the wealthy. Roosevelt saw his chance to open education to all of America by using the World War II veterans. In his message to congress he requested federal support for college and vocational training for every returning veteran for up to four years. “Lack of money should not prevent any veteran of this war from equipping himself for the most useful employment for which is aptitudes and willingness qualify him…I believe this Nation is morally obligated to provide this training and education and the necessary financial assistant by which they can secure,” said Roosevelt. The G.I.Bill of Rights passed and Roosevelt signed it into law on June 22, 1944. For the first time in American history,colleges and universities accessible to the common man because Roosevelt saw how important it was for everyone to have education in America.


Join March of Dimes (Wikipedia)

President Franklin Roosevelt once considered retiring from the public life to focus on getting better, but instead he proved that people with disabilities can overcome obstacles at a time when Adolf Hitler and the Nazis were murdering millions of people deemed inferior due to race, religion, and disabilities. Though he never gave up on his dream of regaining the use of his legs, his paralysis opened his eyes to world filled with poverty, unemployment, poor education, and people who needed inspiration. In 1938, Roosevelt organized the March for Dimes; though it currently focuses on infant mortality, it was once the principle fundraiser for research on polio and provided aid for polio victims. On January 30, 1946, what would have been Roosevelt’s 64th birthday, the dime bearing Roosevelt’s face was released in his honor. On April 12, 1955, 10 years after Roosevelt died, Dr. Jonas Salk announced that that there was a cure for polio…the research was primary funded by Roosevelt’s March of Dimes. As Eleanor said, “Franklin’s illness . . . gave him strength and courage he had not had before. He had to think out the fundamentals of living and learn the greatest of all lessons — infinite patience and never-ending persistence.

Polio victims lay wreaths at Roosevelt’s grave (History.com)

Source: Smith, Jean Edward. FDR. New York: Random House, 2007. 186-636. Print.