Adventures in Feministory: Frances Perkins and the New Deal
1935 was an interesting year, to say the least. Capitalism, the industrialization of the labor market, and, most importantly, the Great Depression, had combined to create a perfect storm that left American workers and their families facing unprecedented hardships with little help from the government to overcome them. President Roosevelt faced the gargantuan task of coming up with solutions to these problems, and to help him he appointed the first-ever female cabinet member, Secretary of Labor and mother of the American welfare state Frances Perkins. Thanks to her, that year also got to see the passage of the Social Security Act.
Frances Perkins cut her social work teeth early while involved with the settlement movement of the early 20th century, which sought to provide the poor with a safety net to alleviate poverty and prevent people from slipping through the cracks. It was New York’s Triangle Waistcoat Factory fire of 1911, however, that galvanized Ms. Perkins’ involvement with the labor movement. At the time, the laws protecting workers were slim to none, and at this particular factory, the owners kept the doors locked from the outside during business hours to prevent workers from stealing garments and union organizers from getting in and giving the workers the tools they needed to tell the man where to stuff it. This spelled disaster when a cigarette fell into a remnant drawer one day, igniting the entire place in flames. Perkins, who was visiting with a friend in a nearby park, heard the fire engines and went over to the building where 146 workers—mostly women and children—either jumped to their deaths or were burned in the fire.
This event led Perkins into a lifelong fight for workers’ rights. She became involved first with the National Consumers’ League, which sought to introduce such taken-for-granted things like minimum wage and child labor laws. She then went on to work for the New York State Legislature (this would be her first rendezvous with FDR—he was governor of New York at the time) where she was instrumental in expanding the rights and protections of workers.
Perkins keeping it real with some Golden Gate Bridge construction workers.
When the very popular FDR went on to be elected president in 1933 to fix the massive economic problems that were completely ignored by the previous administration (my, how history has a way of repeating itself!), he needed help in a big way. They say behind every great man is a great woman, and Roosevelt was lucky enough to have two of them. His wife Eleanor dropped Perkins’ name as a potentially awesome person for his Secretary of Labor, and when he offered her the position, she agreed on the terms that he would help her pass the smorgasbord of social reforms she had planned for the land of the free. Not everybody was as excited as the Roosevelts, though, with Ms. Perkins’ new post. Labor organizers said she didn’t have enough union experience to be Labor Secretary, the Department of Labor was mad that she dared criticize their practice of deporting immigrants for potentially radical views, and the other cabinet members could not believe the president was putting a woman in charge of the Department of Labor at such a crucial time.
Lucky for Perkins, her experience in politics, as well as the notes she kept of what works and what doesn’t when trying to get male politicians to listen (which she called “Notes on the Male Mind”), made her well-prepared for the uphill battle she was about to face. "I tried to have as much of a mask as possible,” she recalled. “I wanted to give the impression of being a quiet, orderly woman who didn't buzz-buzz all the time. ... I knew that a lady interposing an idea into men's conversation is very unwelcome. I just proceeded on the theory that this was a gentleman's conversation on the porch of a golf club perhaps. You didn't butt in with bright ideas.” She said that she noticed that men were much more likely to listen to you if you reminded them of their mothers, and she showed up to work dressed accordingly.
That may be President Roosevelt signing the Social Security Act of 1935, but its author is Frances Perkins, standing just behind him to the right.
Her workplace strategy worked. During her tenure, Perkins fought to bring us workman’s compensation, unemployment insurance, Social Security, national health insurance, and a ban on child labor. These proposals became known as the New Deal, and with the exception of national health insurance (which, very much to Perkins' disappointment, was strongly opposed by the American Medical Association), they all passed.
Perkins' tireless efforts in the world of politics and social reform left us with one of the most important social programs ever created in this country. She also cracked open the door for women who wanted a life in politics. And as we adjust to this latest economic downturn, maybe we can channel our inner Frances Perkins and figure out a way to move forward.
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