Most Americans spend Labor Day weekend shopping or having picnics with their families. We don’t often think about what we are celebrating. Labor Day doesn’t mark the end of a war or the birth of a famous man. Instead, it celebrates a revolution for the average person. The biggest changes in American life have come about not through wars and heroics, but through the ways that the lives of average workers have been changed. And the woman who played a major role in bringing about this major change in people’s lives is seldom mentioned today—Frances Perkins.
Frances Perkins was born in Boston in 1887 into a prosperous family, but she spent most of her life in New York and Washington D.C. Like many women of her time, she was given a good education but was not expected to use her education in a job or career. Her destiny, as her family saw it, was to marry a prosperous husband and raise children to follow the same path as her mother and aunts. But Frances saw life differently.
During the late 19th century and the first years of the 20th century, America was becoming a business powerhouse. Farming was no longer the only option for young people growing up. Manufacturing, mining, and trade developed requiring an increasing number of workers. Also during these years, there were few job opportunities for working class people in Europe, so many of them fled to America to find peace and security in which to raise their families.
Employers were able to hire workers for a few dollars a week and require them to work for ten or twelve hours a day six days a week. Most immigrant families could not survive on the wages of one person, so children were sent to work as young as seven or eight years of age. Jacob Riis’s book, How the Other Half Lives, revealed to many middle-class people the difficulties faced by immigrant families. Frances Perkins read Riis’s book and was inspired to move to the city to see what could be done to improve conditions.
After Perkins moved away from New England, she became a social worker in Philadelphia and New York, but a dramatic fire in 1911 changed the course of her life. The Triangle Shirtwaist fire, which caused the death of 146 workers, occurred in her neighborhood. It opened her eyes to the overwhelming unfairness of the problems faced by workers. She began to realize she could do more through politics than she could through providing care to individuals as a social worker.
Perkins began working in New York with a government committee to ensure fire safety. Working with politicians meant mingling with men who were unused to seeing women as anything other than wives and mothers. During this period of her life, Frances realized that the men she worked with were uncomfortable confronting a young, well-dress woman and did not know how to treat her. The solution Frances found was to try to appear older than she was, to wear somewhat dowdy clothes, and to project a motherly image. This was her way of not frightening off her male colleagues and she became famous for looking like someone’s wife rather than a politician.
By the time Franklin Roosevelt was elected president in 1932, he was aware of work Perkins had been doing in New York and appointed her the Secretary of Labor in in Cabinet. She was the first woman ever to serve in such a position and she served for twelve years, becoming the longest-serving cabinet member.
Frances Perkins was responsible for some of the major achievements of the New Deal—including the minimum wage law, unemployment insurance, and Social Security. She tried to introduce healthcare as a benefit for all workers, but the American Medical Association killed that provision.
Social Security is probably Frances Perkins’ most lasting achievement. Today about half of people over 65 get fifty percent of their income from Social Security and 25 percent get ninety percent of their income from that program. Some Republicans have tried over the years to end the Social Security program, but it has made such a lasting impact on American society that it is unlikely that it will end.
Behind the scenes of her political life, Frances Perkins led a difficult personal life. Her husband, an engineer, became mentally ill and had to be cared for or institutionalized for many years. Frances Perkins tried to keep her private life very separate from her public service in government, but her biography by Kirstin Downey, The Woman Behind the New Deal (2009) fills out the picture of this fascinating woman. She deserves a thank-you from all the Americans who benefit from the programs she supported.