► Frances Perkins: 1880-1965. There’s little doubt that Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal forever changed America, mostly for the better. But what isn’t well known is that the individual responsible for the lion’s share of the New Deal’s enduring legacy was Frances Perkins, who, as Secretary of Labor, already made history by becoming the first woman cabinet secretary barely thirteen years after the Nineteenth Amendment guaranteed women the right to vote. Lesser-known still was the fact that by being a woman, Perkins broke an important code in Washington society, one in which a Cabinet secretary was expected to guests to his home with his wife playing the role of gracious host, which entailed a lot of planning, coordinating, preparations, etc. Perkins, having no wife, could not be expected to perform all of those functions while also still put in a full day’s work as Labor Secretary. Perkins’s husband was of no use; he was permanently sidelined with debilitating mental illness. But her special friend, railroad heiress Mary Harriman Rumsey, came to the rescue, with a finely-appointed Georgetown home which the two shared, and where the consummate power-couple hosted dinner parties said to include Eleanor Roosevelt, Will Rogers, Margaret Bourke-White, Gen. Douglas MacArthur, and unknown Appalachian folk singers.
Perkins became interested in labor issues while in New York, where she personally witnessed the tragic Triangle Shirt Factory Fire of 1911. The fire killed 147 young men and women, mostly seamstresses, who were unable to escape because the owner locked the exists for fear that feared theft from his employees. Perkins joined a commission that investigated the fire and recommended changes to the state’s labor laws. She then served in several labor-related commissions in state government under Gov. Alfred Smith. When Franklin D. Roosevelt was elected governor in 1929, Perkins served as his first State Commissioner of Labor. It would only be natural, then, that Perkins would follow him to Washington as his Labor Secretary when FDR was elected President.
When Perkins arrived in D.C., she was brimming with ideas. She saw hundreds of thousands of productive, employable people who were out of work, and she came up with an unemployment insurance fund which would be paid into during good years and drawn from in bad. She saw the elderly, no longer able to work, being thrown out of their homes after draining their life savings, and thought that there ought to be some kind of a social security that could protect them. She saw companies hiring children instead of adults to cut costs, children who should be in school and not supporting their families, and argued that child labor laws were needed. And with FDR’s backing, she set about putting those ideas into action.
Perkins’s most enduring legacy, Social Security, came about during a particularly trying time. While struggling to meet a Christmas 1934 deadline for her committee to complete its work designing the system, Rumsey died on December 19 from complications from a fall from a horse. Amid the intense political pressure of designing a brand-new federal program, Perkins also was mourning Rumsey’s death, quietly and alone. And so on the very same week Rumsey died, Perkins called the committee members to her home — a home she would soon lose because only Rumsey could afford the rent — sat a bottle of Scotch on the table, and announced that no one would leave that night until the work was done.
As Labor Secretary, Perkins oversaw the creation of the Civilian Conservation Corps and the Federal Works Agency. She established the minimum wage and the forty-hour work week through the Fair Labor Standards Act. Perkins remained Labor Secretary for all four terms of FDR’s presidency. In 1945, President Harry Truman asked her to serve in the Civil Service Commission, a post that she held until 1952 when her husband finally died. After her career in government service, she taught at Cornell until her death in 1965 at the age of 85.
Perkins’ parents were Maine natives, and that’s where she was buried. It’s also where an eleven-panel mural celebrating labor throughout history — including colonial shoe cobblers, lumberjacks, “Rosie the Riveter, striking paper mill workers, and Frances Perkins in a conversation with a family — was on display at Maine’s Department of Labor. In 2011, Maine’s tea-party governor, Paul LePage, ordered the mural’s removal. His spokesman claimed that the mural was reminiscent of “communist North Korea where they use these murals to brainwash the masses.” LePage also ordered the re-naming of seven conference rooms, including one originally named for Perkins.