Frances Perkins: “The Day the New Deal Was Born”

Frances Perkins (Francis Perkins Center)

Courtesy of The Frances Perkins Center

On March 25, 1911, Frances Perkins was having tea with friends in New York City’s Washington Square when the group heard fire engines. Running to the scene of the fire, Frances Perkins witnessed in horror as 47 workers – mostly young women – jumped from the eighth and ninth floors of the building to their deaths on the street below. In all, 146 died as flames engulfed the upper three stories of the building.   The fire at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory was, she later proclaimed, “the day the New Deal was born.” In response to the fire, a citizen’s Committee on Safety was established to recommend practices to prevent a further tragedy in the city’s factories.

At the suggestion of Theodore Roosevelt, Frances Perkins was hired as the group’s executive secretary. One of the committee’s first actions was to seek a state commission to investigate and make legislative recommendations. The Factory Investigating the commission’s mandate was much broader than originally contemplated: to study not only fire safety, but also other threats to the health and well-being of industrial workers and the impact of those threats upon families. Frances Perkins, by that time a recognized expert in the field of worker health and safety, served as expert witness, investigator and guide, leading legislators on inspections of the state’s factories and worksites to view first-hand the dangers of unfettered industrialism. The commission’s work resulted in the most comprehensive set of laws governing workplace health and safety in the nation.

These new laws became a model for other states and the federal government. Reflecting on her years as lobbyist, investigator and researcher, Frances Perkins later said, “The extent to which this legislation in New York marked a change in American political attitudes and policies toward social responsibility can scarcely be overrated. It was, I am convinced, a turning point.”

When, in February, 1933, President-elect Roosevelt asked Frances Perkins to serve in his cabinet as secretary of labor, she outlined for him a set of policy priorities she would pursue: a 40-hour work week; a minimum wage; unemployment compensation; worker’s compensation; abolition of child labor; direct federal aid to the states for unemployment relief; Social Security; a revitalized federal employment service; and universal health insurance. She made it clear to Roosevelt that his agreement with these priorities was a condition of her joining his cabinet. Roosevelt said he endorsed them all, and Frances Perkins became the first woman in the nation to serve in a Presidential cabinet.

From her earliest days in the Roosevelt cabinet, Frances Perkins was a forceful advocate for massive public works programs to bring the nation’s unemployed back to work. Within a month of Roosevelt’s inauguration, Congress enacted legislation establishing the Civilian Conservation Corps, which Roosevelt asked Perkins to implement. Roosevelt also asked her to present a plan for an emergency relief program, and she delivered a young social worker from New York named Harry Hopkins who had visited Frances in Washington with his own proposal. That proposal became embodied in the Federal Emergency Relief Administration, which Hopkins led. Before Roosevelt presented his final “One Hundred Days” legislation to the Congress, the National Industrial Recovery Act, Perkins convinced him to allocate $3.3 billion for public works from the moneys appropriated. Serving as a member of the Special Board for Public Works, Perkins helped to ensure that money was spent on socially useful projects: schools, roads, highway, housing projects and post offices. Public works construction employed as many as 1.5 – 2 million people in 1934.

In 1934, Roosevelt appointed Frances Perkins to head a Committee on Economic Security, where she forged the blueprint of legislation finally enacted as the Social Security Act. Signed into law by the president on August 14, 1935, the act included a system of old age pensions, unemployment compensation, workers’ compensation and aid to the needy and disabled.

In 1938, Congress enacted the Fair Labor Standards Act, also crafted with the support of Perkins, establishing a minimum wage and maximum work hours and banning child labor.

At the time of Roosevelt’s death in April of 1945, Frances Perkins was the longest serving labor secretary and one of only two cabinet secretaries to serve the entire length of the Roosevelt presidency. In 1945, a piece portraying Frances Perkins in Forbes magazine described her accomplishments over the previous 12 years as “not so much the Roosevelt New Deal, as … the Perkins New Deal.” She had accomplished all but one of the items on the agenda she had presented to the newly elected president in February of 1933: universal access to health care.

Before leaving the Department of Labor in June of 1945, Frances Perkins stood in the department’s auditorium, and while a full orchestra played, she shook the hands, and personally thanked every one, of the department’s 1800 employees. The following evening, she was honored at the Mayflower Hotel. The months that followed were busy, as she began writing The Roosevelt I Knew, a best-selling biography of FDR published in 1946, and serving as head of the American delegation to the International Labor Organization in Paris.

The following year, President Truman appointed her to the United States Civil Service Commission, a position she held until 1953. She then began a new career of teaching, writing and public lectures, ultimately serving until her death as a lecturer at Cornell University’s new School of Industrial Relations.

Frances Perkins suffered a stroke and died at Midtown Hospital in New York City on May 14, 1965, at the age of 85.

For information about the Francis Perkins Center:

This biography posted as a part of our recognition of Women's History Month. 

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