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March 2018

 

Frances Perkins and her “moonshot” for a better world: Celebrating Women’s History Month
Susan Rubenstein DeMasi

 

  Frances Perkins
 
Frances Perkins prepares to testify in front of Congress to promote the proposed Social Security program in 1935. (photo courtesy Library of Congress)

Social security. Unemployment relief. Fair wages. Workers' compensation. In today's political climate, while unions and other groups fight to preserve these financial protections and labor rights, take a moment to remember Frances Perkins, the woman who is largely responsible for these collective societal safeguards.

As secretary of labor under President Franklin D. Roosevelt, she is considered the "principal architect of the New Deal." After her appointment 85 years ago this month, Perkins—the first woman to serve in the U.S. Cabinet—became "the driving force behind the Social Security Act," according to her grandson, Tomlin Perkins Coggeshall. She also helped shape the Fair Labor Standards Act. 

Perkins' work as a social justice advocate began at a young age. According to Coggeshall, a number of events stirred her to spend her life fighting for "social justice and economic security for all." As part of a project during her time as a student at Mount Holyoke College, Perkins observed the horrific conditions faced by workers, children included, in the mills of Holyoke, Massachusetts.

After graduation in 1902, she volunteered to help immigrants in Chicago and Philadelphia. Later in New York, she watched in horror as young women jumped to their deaths in the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire of 1911. That event was pivotal in her career, said Coggeshall, and "motivated her to help improve safety and working conditions." While earning her master's degree at Columbia University, she progressed through a number of positions, all focused on creating safer working conditions and aiding the less fortunate. After the Triangle Factory Fire, she became an investigator for the state's Factory Investigating Commission, an agency whose work ultimately led to legislation improving working conditions for New Yorkers.

In 1929, New York State Governor Franklin Roosevelt appointed her as the first state commissioner of labor where she focused on worker safety as well as unemployment. Her concern for people caught in economic distress was clear. "We have awakened with a shock to the frightful injustice of economic conditions which will allow men and women who are willing to work to suffer distress of hunger and cold and humiliating dependence," she said.

When Franklin Roosevelt won the 1932 election, he asked Perkins to join his administration as secretary of labor. Although she would go on to preside as the longest serving secretary of labor in history, she initially balked, wanting to ensure that Roosevelt would let her concentrate her energies on the social justice issues she cared most about, issues she knew to be vital to help the country emerge from the Great Depression. Coggeshall said that when Roosevelt invited her to his New York City townhouse to discuss her possible appointment, "she brought with her a list of things she wanted to work on if she was going to be secretary of labor." She had decided, "I’m going to shoot for the moon and if he'll support me, I supposed I better do it."

That moonshot included social security (then called old age pensions), a 40-hour work week, a minimum wage, unemployment benefits, workers’ compensation, and the banning of child labor. Also on her list was universal healthcare, which sadly remains the only unfulfilled initiative (it was quashed by the American Medical Association).

Perkins advocated for labor unions and, during her tenure as secretary of labor, the National Labor Relations Act was passed, which protects the rights of workers to organize and bargain collectively.

Thanks to Frances Perkins, we now enjoy safer working conditions and a measure of economic security. Her legacy is with us every day. Let's honor that by carrying on her work and fighting against the dismantling of New Deal protections. Want to know more about Perkins? Check out the Frances Perkins Center website. Better yet, take a trip north this summer and visit the Center in Maine.