March 4 In Labor History: Hello Frances Perkins!

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Photo: The Frances Perkins Center

On March 4, 1933, the newly inaugurated president Franklin Delano Roosevelt nominated Frances Perkins as secretary of Labor. This first female Cabinet member in American history, Perkins was a remarkable figure who dedicated her life to improving the lives of working Americans.


Born in 1880, Perkins attended college at Mount Holyoke and became a prototypical Progressive reformer: upper-middle class, well-educated, and seeking to do well in a world that often blocked educated women from both marriage and work. Building on the legacies of older pioneering Progressive women such as Jane Addams and Florence Kelley, Perkins worked in the settlement house movement after graduating from Mount Holyoke. While there, in 1902, she was involved in founding a chapter of the National Consumers League, dedicated to fighting child labor. They invited NCL founder Florence Kelley to speak, and this experience changed Perkins's life. She graduated from college in 1902 and moved to Chicago to teach at a girls' school, against her family's wishes. There she volunteered at Hull House and Chicago Commons, gaining experience in fighting for the working class. In 1907, she took a job in Philadelphia with an organization dedicated to stopping newly arrived immigrants to the city from ending up in prostitution, while also studying as a graduate student in the Wharton School. She then moved to New York to complete a master's degree at Columbia on childhood malnutrition. In 1910, she became the executive secretary of the New York City Consumers League, where she lobbied for all sorts of reforms to American working class exploitation.

On March 25, 1911, Perkins happened to be in the vicinity of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire. She ran over to the site of the fire and watched 146 people die to make clothing she may have worn herself. Already committed to improving workers' lives, she became a national leader in fighting to ensure nothing like this would ever happen again. She became executive secretary of the Citizens' Committee on Safety. There she led an investigation into workplace and fire safety, connecting it to the larger exploitation of workers' lives. She convinced Al Smith and other leading New York politicians to enter the workplaces themselves, leading to major changes as they were shocked with what they discovered. New York City cleaned up its fire building codes, prohibited smoking in factories, and required new fire suppression techniques and technologies. Al Smith and Robert Wagner took Perkins's suggestion to create the Factory Investigative Commission that led to the passage of 15 new bills by 1915 to make workplaces safer. This made Perkins a national leader on labor reform. She became a close ally of Al Smith and was his leading labor advisor while he was governor of New York. When Franklin Delano Roosevelt became governor after Smith, he named Perkins state Industrial Commissioner, overseeing the state's labor department. The two of them worked together to fight against the deepening Great Depression.

When Roosevelt named Perkins secretary of Labor it was remarkable for a number of reasons. The most obvious is that she was a woman, an unprecedented step. I don't believe a woman had even been considered for a Cabinet position before this. She also wasn't a union member. Most people who had held the job of secretary of Labor had been unionists, and with the Democratic Party far closer to organized labor than Republicans, this was expected. The unions were suspicious, though they soon learned what an ally she was. She had a strong agenda for what she wanted to see the Democrats do while she was in the Cabinet — create a 40-hour workweek, federal unemployment insurance, old-age insurance, the abolition of child labor, federal employment of the unemployed, and national health insurance. She would be centrally involved in getting much of this passed. She brought a young Harry Hopkins from New York to help with the federal employment programs, particularly the Federal Employee Relief Administration, which he headed.

Perkins also faced down the capitalists. On July 28, 1933, Perkins gave a speech in Homestead, Pennsylvania. Homestead was the home of U.S. Steel, which had long led the nation in unionbusting. They basically owned the town government as well. She arrived in Homestead to explore conditions in the steel industry for the new steel code to be developed under the National Industrial Recovery Act. To town burgess John Kavanaugh, free speech did not exist when it threatened the social order. Kavanaugh had simply banned all open union meetings or any public talk of labor organizing in his town since the early 1920s. So he was highly unhappy with Perkins's visit. She gave her talk and lots of workers came. In fact, the room was packed. There were workers who couldn't get in. When the talk was over, Perkins realized this. So she demanded to speak to the workers waiting outside to meet her. Kavanaugh flat out refused this, saying, "No, no, you've had enough. These men are no good. They're undesirable reds. I know them well. They just want to make trouble." She started speaking anyway. Then he interrupted her and warned her there was a law against making public speeches. Basically, he threatened to arrest the secretary of Labor.

But Perkins was not someone easily intimidated. Some two-bit local thug wasn't going to shut her down. So she asked to go to a nearby park to give the speech. Kavanaugh said that speeches weren't allowed there either. Thinking quickly, she marched over to the Post Office. That was federal property. Kavanaugh had no authority on the steps there. And she gave her speech and talked to the workers.

Perkins's primary role as secretary of Labor for FDR was helping to write much of his key legislation to benefit the millions of impoverished Americans in the Great Depression. This included the Social Security Act of 1935. She also chaired the President's Committee on Economic Security, which oversaw all the New Deal's economic legislation goals. She refused to deport the radical International Longshore and Warehouse Union head Harry Bridges in 1939, angering congressional conservatives, but she faced no real pressure to step down. She famously called General Motors head Alfred Sloan in the middle of the night once, yelling at him for not settling with the United Auto Workers. She said, "You don't deserve to be counted among decent men. You'll go to hell when you die."

Perkins and Interior Secretary Harold Ickes were the only Cabinet members to serve all 12 years of Roosevelt's administration, although Henry Wallace served the administration as Agriculture Secretary, Vice-President, and Commerce Secretary during the entirety of the administration as well. She stepped down in June 1945. She then wrote a biography of FDR that was published in 1946. Truman named her to the United States Civil Service Commission in 1946. She worked in that role until 1953, when she became a lecturer at the new Cornell School of Industrial Relations. She died in 1965 at the age of 85.

Why It Matters Today

I doubt I need to explain to Wonkette readers why Perkins matters. She's an inspiration for all of us on how one woman can transform American politics through the fight for justice!

For Further Reading

Kirstin Downey, The Woman Behind the New Deal: The Life and Legacy of Frances Perkins—Social Security, Unemployment Insurance, and the Minimum Wage.

Naomi Pasachoff, Frances Perkins: Champion of the New Deal

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Erik Loomis

Erik Loomis is Associate Professor of History at the University of Rhode Island. He's the author of A History of America in Ten Strikes (The New Press, 2018).

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