Women You Should Know: Frances Perkins

Women You Should Know: Frances Perkins

The door might not be opened to a woman again for a long, long time, and I had a kind of duty to other women to walk in and sit down on the chair that was offered, and so establish the right of others long hence and far distant in geography to sit in the high seats. –Frances Perkins

As we wind down the Labor Day weekend, we want to highlight a woman whose impact on workers in America is immeasurable. Today we celebrate the legacy of Frances Perkins and her numerous contributions to working life in America.

Frances Perkins was the first female Presidential Cabinet Secretary, serving three terms with President Franklin D. Roosevelt as his Secretary of Labor from 1933 to 1945. This made her the first woman in line for the Presidency. Her impact can be found in some of our nation’s most important progressive policies, particularly in many aspects of the New Deal. In fact, Forbes Magazine stated that it was “not so much the Roosevelt New Deal, as…the Perkins New Deal.” Perkins was the architect of the Social Security Act and the Fair Labor Standards Act. She established unemployment benefits, pensions, and “welfare” for people living in poverty. She pushed for the first minimum wage, overtime laws, child labor laws, and the 40-hour workweek. She pushed for massive public works programs until Congress enacted the Civilian Conservation Corps. She is credited with creating the modern middle class.

Frances Perkins’ path towards worker protection was borne from a traumatic and life-changing experience—when she witnessed the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in New York City in 1911. Standing on the street she watched the factory become engulfed in flames with workers trapped helplessly inside due to poor working conditions and rules. Perkins watched 47 women plummet to their deaths to escape the blaze. A total of 146 people died in the fire that day. She referred that moment as “the day the New Deal was born.”

Perkins began her career as a social worker and her political career in the New York state government as industrial Commissioner. She was ultimately appointed by then Governor Franklin D. Roosevelt as inaugural Commissioner of the New York State Department of Labor. Together they led a state-wide progressive revolution which would inspire much of their work together at the federal level.

Upon arriving in DC, Perkins stated that she “came to Washington to work for God, FDR, and the millions of forgotten, plain common workingmen.” At the end of her tenure, Perkins remarked that the only item on her to-do list which wasn’t accomplished was universal health care for all.

If you are interested in learning more about Frances Perkins we recommend, The Woman Behind the New Deal: The Life and Legacy of Frances Perkins—Social Security, Unemployment Insurance, and the Minimum Wage by Kirstin Downey. (http://www.amazon.com/The-Woman-Behind-New-Deal/dp/1400078563)

Reference: Frances Perkins Center 

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