You Probably Never Heard of the Most Influential Woman of the 20th Century

By Roger Linnett

What woman would you say had the biggest influence on 20th Century America?

Susan B. Anthony? Eleanor Roosevelt? Rosa Parks? Marilyn Monroe? Helen Gurley Brown? Gloria Steinem? Jacqueline Kennedy?

Not even close. Her name was Frances Perkins, and she changed the lives of hundreds of millions of Americans.

Born Fannie Coralie Perkins in Boston in 1880 into a comfortable middle-class family, Frances graduated from Mount Holyoke College in 1902 and received her master’s degree from Columbia University in sociology and economics in 1910.

For several years in between she worked as a teacher and volunteer at settlement houses, most notably Hull House in Chicago. During this time, she learned first-hand about the dangers of factory work and the crushing poverty and desperation of working-class Americans.

A born politician, she was active in the women’s suffrage movement, and while working at the New York State Consumers’ League, was instrumental in getting the state legislature to limit the workweek for women and children to 54 hours.

A pivotal experience in her life occurred in 1911, when she watched helplessly as 146 workers, most of them young women, died tragically in the Triangle Shirtwaist Co. fire, leaping to their deaths from the upper-floor windows of the building because it had no fire escapes.

Perkins later said, “[it] seared on my mind as well as my heart a never-to-be-forgotten reminder of why I had to spend my life fighting conditions that could permit such a tragedy.”

In 1918, Perkins was appointed the first female member of the New York State Industrial Commission, and later became its chairwoman. In 1929, the new governor, Franklin D. Roosevelt, appointed her the Industrial Commissioner of New York, the chief post in the state’s labor department.

Perkins helped put New York in the forefront of progressive reform, expanding factory investigations, reducing the workweek for women to 48 hours and championing minimum wage and unemployment insurance laws.

When Roosevelt became president in 1933, he appointed Perkins his Secretary of Labor, the first woman to attain a Cabinet-level post. She put her formidable energy into creating a safety net for a Depression-scarred nation, securing a remarkable array of benefits for American workers as one of the prime architects of Roosevelt’s “New Deal.”

Her first proposals as labor secretary included: immediate federal aid to the states for direct unemployment relief, an extensive program of public works, a study to establish a national minimum wage, legally limiting the maximum number of hours an employee could be made to work in a week, the abolition of child labor, true unemployment and old-age insurance, and the creation of a federal employment service.

And although they were considered radical programs at the time, Roosevelt accepted them enthusiastically.
The Civilian Conservation Corps, which helped to put thousands of unemployed Americans to work in the 30s, planting thousands of trees all across the country among other projects, grew out of a conversation she had with Roosevelt shortly after he took office.

She consistently supported the rights of workers to organize unions and to pressure employers through economic action. She was instrumental in the passage of the landmark Wagner Act, which gave workers the right to organize unions and bargain collectively.

One famous incident captured in a widely-circulated newspaper photo of the time, shows an indomitable Perkins marching with thousands of steelworkers trailing behind her.

Perkins also chaired the Committee on Economic Security, which developed and drafted the legislation that became the Social Security Act in 1935.

In 1938, Perkins worked to pass the Fair Labor Standards Act, which eliminated “labor conditions detrimental to the maintenance of the minimum standards of living necessary for health, efficiency and well-being of workers.” It also established the 40 hour work week and a maximum workweek for men and women, and for the first time a national minimum wage that started at 25 cents and increased to 40 cents over the next six years.

In 1939, the House Un-American Activities Committee brought an impeachment resolution against her after she refused to deport Harry Bridges, the head of the west coast longshoremen’s union. The impeachment charges were eventually dropped for lack of evidence.

After Roosevelt’s death she resigned as labor secretary, and President Harry S. Truman appointed her to the Civil Service Commission. In 1953, she left that post to assume a professorship at Cornell University’s School of Industrial and Labor Relations.

She died in 1965 at age 85. In 1980 the headquarters of the United States Department of Labor in Washington, D.C., was named The Frances Perkins Building in her honor.

Categories: History, Roger Linnett, Women