As the Supreme Court wrestles with the future of U.S. social programs, it seems appropriate to recognize Frances Perkins on her birthday. Perkins was a tireless advocate for workers and their families. She was the first woman to ever hold a U.S. cabinet position, and as Secretary of Labor during the Great Depression she was the driving force behind federal legislation creating social security, unemployment insurance programs, a federal national minimum wage, overtime premiums, and protections for child workers.
Born on this day in 1880 from descendants of early New England families, Perkins was concerned with the plight of the poor from an early age. After graduating from Mount Holyoke, she volunteered in Chicago at the famous Hull House, a charitable community center for poor immigrant workers. From there, Perkins moved to Philadelphia where she worked to shut down agencies that lured women to Philadelphia with the promise of factory jobs and instead forced them into sexual slavery as prostitutes. She also interviewed many factory girls who were paid less than men, relegated to the worst jobs, and discriminated against within labor unions.
A few years later, Perkins ran the New York City office of the National Consumer League fighting dangerous working conditions, excessive working hours for women, and child labor. She witnessed the tragic Triangle Shirtwaist fire firsthand in 1911, and she became an influential figure in the subsequent investigations and reform movements. In 1919, at the age of 38, Perkins was appointed to the New York Industrial Commission, a state agency overseeing factory safety and regulation. This was a major appointment at a time when women did not yet have the right to vote and the leadership ranks of government, business, and labor were dominated by men. When he was elected governor of New York in 1928, Franklin Delano Roosevelt promoted Perkins to chair this commission. With the onset of the Great Depression, Perkins advocated for investigations into the problems of unemployment, and urged the creation of unemployment insurance systems which did not yet exist in the United States.
When Roosevelt was elected U.S. President in 1932, he appointed Perkins as Secretary of the Department of Labor. The challenges she faced were enormous--nearly a quarter of the U.S. workforce was unemployed, the idea of federal government policies on work was widely seen as unconstitutional, the Department of Labor she inherited was disorganized if not corrupt, and a woman had never before held a Presidential Cabinet post. The challenges further increased with the outbreak of bitter strikes in the mid-1930s. But she worked tirelessly--so tirelessly that her chauffeur was run ragged and quit.
Perkins' concern with worker voice led her to help bring about section 7(a) of the National Industrial Recovery Act (NIRA), but her greater interest in the NIRA was a public works component to provide work for the unemployed. Even more importantly, Perkins was instrumental in the passage of the Social Security Act and the Fair Labor Standards Act, even while enduring sharp personal attacks by opponents of these initiatives and by those uncomfortable with a woman in a position of power and influence. By overcoming these attacks, broad segments of the labor force would be protected by minimum wages, overtime premiums, child labor restrictions, unemployment insurance, and old-age insurance (social security) for the first time in U.S. history.
Perkins served as Secretary of Labor for 12 years, a period that included much of the Great Depression and World War II. During the war, she promoted the contributions of female factory workers and ensured that Roosevelt and Winston Churchill would support the continuation of the International Labor Organization as an international agency advocating for workers. Perhaps her only major goal that she was unable to achieve was an issue that remains highly contested today--universal health insurance to further enhance the security of workers and their families.
Owing to Frances Perkins's intellectual abilities, determination, passion, and untiring efforts, she was perhaps the one individual most responsible for the lasting legacies of the New Deal for the American worker. More generally, this New Deal period was, in her own words, a "turning point in our national life--a turning from careless neglect of human values and toward an order...of mutual and practical benevolence within a free competitive industrial economy."
Notes: The ending quote is from Kirstin Downey, The Woman Behind the New Deal: The Life and Legacy of Frances Perkins, FDR's Secretary of Labor and His Moral Conscience (New York: Doubleday, 2009), p. 337. For more about Frances Perkins, visit the Frances Perkins Center.