Amid the speculation about the possibility of Sarah Palin becoming the first woman to serve as vice president, don’t forget the first woman who actually did serve in a president’s cabinet – Frances Perkins, one of the most important leaders, woman or man, to ever hold any federal post.
Perkins, Franklin D. Roosevelt’s first – and only – secretary of labor, had a tremendous impact on government policy and the status of ordinary Americans. Her politics were far different from Republican Palin’s rigid conservatism. Perkins was a liberal Democrat, a very liberal, politically astute Democrat who devoted her entire career to improving the lives of
Perkins served as labor secretary throughout
It was Perkins who first proposed many of the laws and others that made up the most revolutionary social legislation in
She saw children toiling long hours at work that often led to serious injury. She worked with a visiting nurse, making the rounds of filthy, unheated tenements with no running water, helping wash sick babies with water drawn from fire hydrants on the streets below.
Most tellingly, she was in the crowd that witnessed the horrendous fire in 1911 in a nine-story
"It was seared on my mind as well as my heart," Perkins recalled – "a never-to-be-forgotten reminder of why I had to spend my life fighting conditions that could permit such a tragedy."
She began fighting in that very year as a lobbyist for the National Consumers League, which sought to make the public aware of the miserable conditions in so many of the workplaces where consumer goods were produced. She managed to get the New York Legislature to pass a bill limiting the workweek of women and children to what was then a radical 54 hours.
A few years later, Gov. Al Smith made Perkins a member of the State Industrial Commission, the highest office ever held by a woman in
That included the Social Security Act and its old age and unemployment insurance programs, laws prohibiting child labor and, among other major New Deal measures, those requiring employers to pay a minimum wage and limit the basic workweek to no more than 40 hours.
Perkins was a major proponent as well of the National Labor Relations Act of 1935, which granted
She also was a major proponent of the public works projects that put many jobless Americans to work building or rebuilding bridges, highways, schools and other badly needed facilities.
"The programs that Frances Perkins fought for were not merely milestones of the time, but rather were milestones for all time," noted one of her successors, Ray Marshall. He spoke at the ceremonies that dedicated the Labor Department’s headquarters in
President Jimmy Carter told the crowd of "the enormous debt this nation owes her. She left us a rich legacy." Yes, a rich and rare legacy, a great contribution to the lives of all Americans.