Suffragist of the Month, April, 2019

Frances Perkins, 1880 – 1965

Frances Perkins’ devotion to the cause of woman suffrage came early in her life and informed many of the decisions that she would make in the future. She was born April 10, 1882 in Boston, Massachusetts to Frederick Perkins and Susan Bean; her family later moved to Worcester, where her father ran a successful stationery business. Both parents tried to instill in her a sense of responsibility to “accomplish something with her life,” and from an early age she felt an acute awareness of social injustice, railing against the deep chasm between rich and poor.

While attending Mt. Holyoke College she became interested in the plight of working women and children, who often labored in factories for long hours under dirty, dismal conditions, with no provision for compensation for on-the-job injuries. She began working with Progressive organizations, while taking part in suffrage marches and making street-corner speeches about how the vote would improve women’s lives. After graduation she took a teaching job in Lake Forest Illinois, and later moved to New York City where she earned a Master’s Degree in economics and sociology from Columbia University. In 1910 she took a job as head of the National Consumer League, where she continued to lobby for improved working conditions for women and children. But it was an incident that occurred in 1911 that solidified her devotion to that cause, and changed the path of history.

On March 25, 1911 she stood on the pavement on Greene Street in lower Manhattan and witnessed the tragedy of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire, where 146, mostly young immigrant women plunged to their deaths from the eighth floor. The factory owners had locked the doors to discourage theft; there was only one fire escape which could not handle the crowd; and the ladders of the fire department could only reach to the sixth floor. As a result of personally witnessing this disaster Frances’ devotion to social reform and political activism was set.

In 1913 she married Paul Caldwell Wilson, but refused to take his name. After the birth of her daughter she retired from public life until 1918 when she took a position on the New York State Industrial Commission, becoming Chair in 1926. In 1933 President Franklin D. Roosevelt offered her the position of Secretary of Labor, the first woman to hold a cabinet post.

As a condition for accepting the position Frances insisted on several objectives she considered most important: a 40 hour work week; a minimum wage; abolishment of all child labor; unemployment compensation; workman’s compensation; national health care; and inarguably the most important of all her reforms – the Social Security Act upon which millions of older Americans still depend to this day. Almost all of her goals were realized. She also influenced the passage of the National Labor Relations Act of 1935 that gave workers the right to collective bargaining.

Her tenure was not without controversy. Being the first woman in such an important post, she suffered intense criticism during her confirmation hearings. She alienated businesses in her unremitting quest to protect American workers, insisting on safety measures in factories and places of business. She served for twelve years, the longest tenure of any cabinet member.

Frances Perkins’ steadfast devotion to social reform might have begun with her support of woman suffrage, but it took her farther than she could ever have imagined. She died in 1965 at the age of 85.

Happy Birthday, Frances Perkins!

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