Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Frances Perkins

Frances Perkins was the first woman cabinet member in the United States. She was also the longest serving labor secretary, to date. She was an activist and early feminist and suffragette. All these are impressive, and yet are far from completely describing the woman she was.

She came from a middle class family in Massachusetts, and became a Democrat after reading Jacob Reis' "How The Other Half Lives". After graduation from Mount Holyoke she worked at Hull House as a social worker. From there she moved to New York and became active in the suffragette and early civil rights movement. She witnessed the Triangle Shirtwaist fire and that event changed the direction of her life.

From that point, Frances became a tireless worker for labor rights and worker safety. She worked first in city governments and for several administrations in both New York City and the state.

Ms. Perkins eventually became a cabinet member of FDR's administration when he was governor. He had to persuade her to join his administration when he was elected president. She gave him a list of what she wanted before she agreed to work for him in Washington. The list contained, Social Security, Unemployment Insurance and universal healthcare. He agreed! She went on to become perhaps the most influential Labor Secretary in history.

All this was accomplished despite opposition on every front. She was fought tooth and nail by almost every politician and labor leader of the day. She was wickedly clever and was able to outsmart them all.

Obstacles at work were only part of her struggle. She had a husband who spent years in mental facilities, (he probably suffered from a bi-polar disorder) as well as a daughter to raise. Financial difficulties were always a problem for her.

Sadly, these days when you mention Frances Perkins, most people have no idea who she was. And yet she is the woman we have to thank for Social Security, Unemployment Insurance, and many of the workplace regulations we now take for granted. She fought for safe working conditions, sick pay. the 40 hour week, and many more. She also wanted a universal health care plan, and if we ever get single payer, perhaps we should name it for her.

AWU post & comments at