Perkins: her 12 years as Secretary for Labour is a record: it took American women 50 years to match her tenure between them.

Tom Levitt introduces his book on the life of Frances Perkins.

Frances Perkins was the most important woman in democratic politics anywhere in the world in the first half of the twentieth century. Importance, however, does not equate to either profile or gratitude, as many women pioneers have learned to their cost. In government, any credit earned goes to the leader and in the US that’s always been a man.

My claim is not difficult to justify. Frances’ 12 years in the US Cabinet improved life for millions of poor people – between the depression and World War 2 – and is still changing lives globally today.

On 25th March 1911, Frances – then a  30-year old social worker – was already passionate about factory safety. She witnessed the Triangle Factory Fire in Greenwich Village, New York, where 147 workers died. During that burgeoning industrial era some 1,000 skyscrapers were built in a decade in New York, testing workers, especially women, to their limit. She spent the next 20 years researching and implementing new laws on safety, child labour and “a fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work” under State Senator, later Governor, Al Smith – as part of his Industrial Commission.

In 2019 I told the city archivist in Rome, NY, that Frances had resolved his city’s massive copper strike, a century previously. “Really?” he said, “They sent a woman?” Yes, they did. And she succeeded.

Frances Perkins was Industrial Commissioner of New York State. On March 25, 1930 she testified about unemployment in New York State to the Senate Commerce Committee, Washington DC.

In 1928 Smith stood down, to run for president. Frances joined Eleanor Roosevelt to front the Democrat Party’s embryonic women’s campaign to elect him, albeit unsuccessfully. This was just a decade after women had achieved the vote. Although Smith fell out with his successor as governor, the then little-known Franklin Roosevelt, Roosevelt not only inherited Frances but promoted her and took her with him to Washington in 1932.

Her 12 years as Secretary for Labour is a record: it took American women half a century to gather 12 more years of Cabinet tenure between them. Dragging the country out of depression, taming the worst excesses of big business and working with the over-enthusiastic but often blinkered trade union movement, was difficult enough, and keeping FDR on course was a major achievement. Working with misogynistic union leaders didn’t help.

Frances’ programme was at the heart of the New Deal. Alongside her workplace measures Roosevelt included massive levels of capital spending, on infrastructure and the environment, on agricultural reform, inspiring “Green New Deal” reformers even today (FDR planted over three billion trees). Although credit for the plan is often afforded to half a dozen men – the President’s Brain’s Trust – Frances had pioneered many of the measures in New York and her alternative team – the Ladies’ Brains Trust – formalised her workplace reforms well before the men.

Evidence of her impact in several key areas is still with us today. Why isn’t the USA signed up to international agreements to end child labour? Because its Federal ban on child labour is not only the toughest in the world, but is also well enforced. This is Frances Perkins’ law. Although minimum wages and maximum hours for the working day and working week have existed since the 19th century in many countries, Frances was the first person to write them into Federal law (at the second attempt). Factory safety and inspection was also nationalised on her watch and given a sound, evidence-led foundation.

Basic trade union recognition was supported in law for the first time in the US under Frances’ leadership and America’s rudimentary social security system – withstanding attack almost ever since – is essentially the one she introduced in 1935. Many regard that act as her proudest achievement.

“The first in her family to go to university, she surprised her parents by studying science.”

Biographies of Frances, a wise and matronly New Englander, cover her public life comprehensively but she worked hard behind the scenes, too. Under her, the Department of Labour became the first department to employ black Americans in senior roles and she ended racial discrimination amongst her own employees. She was the first to put concern about the rise of Hitler on the Cabinet agenda and, later in the 1930s, was almost a lone voice in government arguing for refugee status for German jews as she found herself fighting the State Department’s institutional antisemitism. On these broader political issues she found FDR’s reluctance to take a public stand most frustrating.

Social Security Act on August 14, 1935. Standing with FDR are Rep. Robert Doughton, Sen. Robert Wagner, Rep. John Dingell, Rep. Joshua Twing Brooks, Secretary of Labor Frances Perkins, Sen. Pat Harrison and Rep. David Lewis. (Library of Congress)

Her internationalism was profound. She had America join the International Labour Office (ILO), the last remaining vestige of the League of Nations, and saved it when its Swiss headquarters were facing the Nazi threat. She did this through her protégé John Winant, who became the US Ambassador to Britain during World War 2. She was a frequent visitor to England, spending time here as a student at Toynbee Hall and Oxford summer schools, meeting a young Winston Churchill in 1906. This acquaintance was put to good use later when she persuaded FDR and Churchill (in a corridor confrontation in the White House) to structure the new United Nations on the established – and successful – ILO model.

The first in her family to go to university, she surprised her parents by studying science. Training as a teacher and then social worker she worked with America’s first female Nobel Peace Prize winner, Jane Addams, in the Toynbee Hall-inspired settlement house movement in deprived Chicago. Uncomfortable with her mother’s puritanism, and aware that becoming a Catholic would deeply hurt her parents, she became a devout Episcopalian. Her belief would sustain her throughout life not just in the public eye but in coping with a husband and an only child who both developed lifelong mental illness in adulthood.

One thing Roosevelt would not allow Frances to do was resign; she offered in 1941 and again in 1945. After his death she saw incoming President Truman (another protégé) through his first few weeks before stepping down into apparent obscurity. In fact she then wrote a best-selling book, (The Roosevelt I Knew), and helped establish the groundbreaking Centre for Industrial Relations at Cornell University. Indeed, she lived at Cornell for much of her final decade, aged 75 to 85, sharing accommodation with 20 young men. “The happiest years of my life”, she said.

In 1965, frail, almost blind but still lecturing, she died. Future Democrat stars attended her funeral and even acted as pall-bearers. Her simple gravestone stands next to that of her husband, Paul Wilson, in sight of the elegant Damariscotta River in Maine, her historic family home.

Describing her approach to politics Frances Perkins once replied that she had “The courage to meddle”. And the world is better for it.

Tom Levitt

Tom Levitt is the author of ‘The Courage to Meddle: the Belief of Frances Perkins’. His day job is writer and consultant on responsible business (’The Company Citizen’, 2018) and …

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