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A First For Labor, A First For Women


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 America‘s working people and helping provide them and others true economic justice and security.

 

Perkins served as labor secretary throughout Roosevelt‘s presidency, from 1933 until his death in 1945, vigorously enforcing laws and regulations that guaranteed unionization, job safety protections and other vital rights to workers.

 

It was Perkins who first proposed many of the laws and others that made up the most revolutionary social legislation in U.S. history, the core of Roosevelt‘s New Deal programs. Perkins first came to believe fervently in the need for such measures because of what she saw during her days as a college student and teacher in Massachusetts and New York, and as a social worker in Chicago.

 

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 New York tenement that housed the Triangle Shirtwaist factory. Perkins and the others had to stand by helplessly as 146 workers died. Perkins would never forget seeing victims, many of them young female immigrants, clasp their hands in prayer and then leap to their deaths from the upper floors of the building that had no fire escapes.

 

"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 New York State. Throughout the next decade, she traveled the state, lining up support for other workplace reforms. In 1929, Roosevelt, Smith’s successor as governor, appointed her to head the commission.

 

One of Roosevelt‘s first acts as president was to ask Perkins to became his secretary of labor. But she balked, arguing in a handwritten response that "someone from the ranks of some group of organized workers should be appointed – to establish firmly the principle that labor is in the president’s councils … and keep you realistically aware of the fundamental needs and aspirations of the workers."

 

Roosevelt convinced Perkins to change her mind, but only after he agreed that key union leaders should have an important voice in Labor Department decisions and agreed to support a list of reforms and new federal programs Perkins wanted his administration to pursue.

 

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 U.S. workers the basic union rights they needed to escape the economic misery of the Great Depression and begin forming a substantial middle class.

 

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 Washington, D.C., as the Frances Perkins Building in 1980, 15 years after Perkins’ death at age 85.

 

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.

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