Let’s Give Thanks for Frances Perkins

November 24, 2014
Frances Perkins

Frances Perkins

’Tis the season for being thankful, so it’s appropriate that I am writing about Frances Perkins. Although revolutionary in her day, the ideas she fought for are so commonplace today that most Americans take them for granted. Perkins was born on April 10, 1880, in Boston, Massachusetts. She attended Mount Holyoke College and graduated in 1902. Initially, she studied chemistry and physics but became interested in the working poor and labor conditions. (More on her Mount Holyoke experience and the women who influenced her throughout her life will follow in a later blog!)

By 1910, she had earned a master’s degree in economics and sociology from Columbia University. While in New York, she worked in settlement houses and as a factory inspector. By chance, she witnessed the infamous Triangle Shirtwaist Fire in 1911, a garment factory fire that claimed the lives of 146 workers. Perkins saw many women jump to their deaths out of the factory windows. She wrote that the fire was “seared on my mind as well as my heart — a never-to-be-forgotten reminder of why I had to spend my life fighting conditions that could permit such a tragedy.” This harrowing experience galvanized Perkins’ desire to improve working conditions for Americans. She served on several committees that investigated the causes of the fire and helped put laws in place to prevent future workplace tragedies.

In 1929, New York Gov. Franklin D. Roosevelt appointed Perkins as the state’s commissioner of labor. When Roosevelt became president just four years later, he appointed Perkins as his secretary of labor. She came into the position during a critical time in the nation’s history, as Americans were reeling from the effects of the Great Depression and struggling through dark days of poverty, unemployment, and hopelessness.

As secretary of labor, Perkins became the principal architect of many New Deal initiatives designed to improve the lives of working Americans, such as the Civilian Conservation Corps, the National Labor Relations Act, the minimum wage, restrictions on child labor, and the Social Security Act. She worked tirelessly on behalf of working Americans and became a champion for those who were often ignored and overworked. A highly effective leader, Perkins remained in the position throughout Roosevelt’s presidency, becoming — at 12 years! — the longest-serving secretary of labor.

Perkins was an AAUW member, and she spoke at the Association’s national convention in Denver, Colorado, in 1939. During her speech, titled “Women in Public Administration,” Perkins pulled out a worn sheet of paper containing scribbled notes she had made eight years earlier. The notes included a list of ideas, such as “shorter hours and higher wages, abolition of child labor, provision for needy old age and unemployment, public works to stimulate slack employment and business, free public employment changes on a national scale, measures for industrial safety and health, one day’s rest in seven, [and] recognition of the right to organize and bargain collectively.” After she read them off, she reminded the audience that all the ideas were now in practice and had been put into place to protect “another generation against the hazards and devastations of the worst poverty this country has ever seen.”

Perkins was a champion for all Americans, a true heroine. Yet today, few people recognize her name or appreciate how her contributions have improved all of our lives. So this Thanksgiving, as you are thinking of all the things for which you are thankful — and enjoying a day or two off — perhaps you should add her to your list.

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2 Comments

  1. […] As secretary of labor, Frances Perkins was a principal architect of many New Deal programs and became a champion for Americans who were often ignored and overworked. Read more »  […]

  2. Nancy Butler says:

    From the website of the School of Industrial & Labor Relations at Cornell University:
    “France Perkins began her career here as a guest lecturer in 1955, when she was 75 years old. She was soon asked to be a member of our faculty and taught ILR students until her death in 1965. Her very popular course was on the New Deal.”

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