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Frances Perkins: A Woke Woman You Should Know

Perkins with Eleanor Roosevelt in 1961, the 50th anniversary of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire

Published in ChicagoNow, October 24, 2017

The continuing education class I am taking at Northwestern University is called Notable Achievement: Focus on Women, and yet ironically only three of the nine lecturers are women. Nevertheless, let’s persist because in a lecture by Robert Coen, I learned about the life of Frances Perkins, FDR’s Secretary of Labor for all twelve years of his administration. She was the first female cabinet secretary and someone you should know.

Demonstration of protest and mourning for Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire of March 25, 1911

You should also know about the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, which Perkins saw first-hand, on March 25, 1911. Because sweat shops were allowed to function without regulations back then, 145 young immigrant women died. They were unable to escape the fire that broke out on the eighth floor of the building because the door was locked from the outside (to make sure workers didn’t take breaks), the fire hose was rotted and its valve was rusted shut, and the fire escape was too narrow for 600 workers to climb down. Reminiscent of scenes from the horror of 9/11, 58 people jumped to their death. The rest died in the fire.

Because of what Perkins observed that day, she was deeply committed to securing workers’ rights. And she realized that in order to make progress, she had to work with politicians and legislators and be open to compromises. In that era, social reformers crossed party lines. Teddy Roosevelt, a Republican, recommended Perkins to serve on the New York Commission on Safety. Later in her career she worked with Democrats, ending up in Franklin Roosevelt’s cabinet.

Bodies of young women who jumped to the death trying to escape the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire

Frances Perkins came from a life of privilege, but was raised to have a social conscience. Born in 1880, she was a bright, precocious child raised with New England Yankee values of self-reliance and lucky to be in a family that believed girls deserved an education. A college graduate, rare for women back then who still could not vote, Perkins spent time at Hull House in Chicago and became interested in immigrant issues, child labor, sexual slavery, and social injustice among the factory working class.

Through her association with New York politicians, she met Franklin Roosevelt and worked with him on the state labor commission when he became governor. After FDR was elected president in 1933, he appointed her to be his Secretary of Labor. At that point, America was in the throes of the Great Depression with an unemployment rate of 23 percent and income inequality out of control.

  • Perkins had an unbelievably ambitious agenda.Improve worker safety, hours, and pay

  • Abolish child labor

  • Create the Civilian Conservation Corps and Public Works Administration to get people back to work

  • Draft the Social Security Act of 1935

  • Pass the National Industrial Recovery Act

  • Chair the committee on economic security, including unemployment insurance, working standards, and labor’s right to organize and collective bargaining

  • Create a minimum wage and 40-hour work week

  • End corruption, fraud, and abuse in the Immigration Bureau

  • Professionalize the Bureau of Labor Statistics

  • Staff the children’s’ and women’s bureaus

Her one regret was that she couldn’t secure health insurance as a right for all Americans. Not only are we still unable to do this, but many of the rights she fought for have eroded. Unions have lost membership and bargaining power. Income inequality is on the upswing. Women’s participation in the workforce is more challenging because our nation lacks programs to support the elderly and provide childcare, tasks that generally fall to women.

Much like back in 1911, we still find it easy to forget oppressed people

Thanks to an excellent lecture by Coen, I now know about a woman whose service to our country touched the lives of many Americans. Frances Perkins dedicated her life to helping people rise from situations like working in sweatshops twelve hours a day, seven days a week, for a weekly pay of $15. May her example of compassion, caring, and dedication be an example of what can be done through hard work and persistence. She was truly woke.

Perkins with FDR as he signs Social Security Bill


by Laurie Levy
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