Recently the Treasury Department has announced its intent to place a prominent woman of historical importance on the U.S. currency. There is no one who is more deserving of this honor than Frances Perkins, a New York woman, who was probably the most significant and important female government official of the 20th century.
As Secretary of Labor throughout President Franklin Roosevelt’s four terms and the first woman ever to hold a cabinet position, Frances Perkins designed most of the New Deal Social Welfare and Labor Policies, such as social security, the minimum wage, the Fair Labor Standards Act, and protections for unions, and reshaped America.
Ironically Perkins got her start when as a social worker in Hell’s kitchen for a Protestant Welfare agency, she had a chance meeting with Tammany Hall District Leader Thomas J. McManus that led to a long alliance with Tammany Hall and New York politicians such as New York governors Al Smith and Franklin Roosevelt. She thus comes out of a period in the nation’s history when New York led the nation in politics and social reform.
As the Secretary of Labor for all of Roosevelt’s Presidency (one of only two cabinet officers to serve throughout his tenure) Perkins was responsible for designing the social security system, the Fair Labor Standards Act (including the minimum wage), the New Deal programs such as the CCC and WPA to provide work for unemployed men (the forerunner of the stimulus packages), and the protections for labor unions, She also wanted to implement a system of national health insurance, but may have been thwarted in this effort by Republican efforts in 1938 to have her impeached for allegedly failing to deport communists (the Labor Department at that time also included the immigration department).
Although other advisers to Roosevelt are often given the credit for successes of the New Deal social welfare programs, Perkins – who generally shied away from publicity – was Roosevelt’s closest and longest standing adviser on labor and welfare matters, and the most critical factor in the creation of the labor and social welfare policies of the New Deal, most of which are with us today. She had come to Washington with Roosevelt from New York where she had served with him as the New York State Labor Commissioner from 1928 to 1932 when he was governor, and before that had served in a somewhat similar capacity under Governor Al Smith, Roosevelt’s predecessor.
Ironically Perkins grew up in a family of conservative Republicans who generally disliked the Democratic party, and began her career with Protestant social reform agencies. As a woman in a profession where almost all other leaders were men, she had to learn how to influence and lead high achieving male colleagues. She also personally faced significant difficult family challenges with which she had to deal while maintaining such important high profile public positions.
Frances Perkins was born in 1880 into an old line Boston family, which had seen better days. The family brick business which had brought prosperity in earlier generations had gone bankrupt and her father moved from Boston to Worcester when she was two, where he opened a stationary store. They generally voted Republican and considered the Democratic party as the party of immigrants, Southerners and Catholics. Frances’ father (in a period when few women went to college) encouraged her to attend nearby Mount Holyoke College. A relatively progressive women’s school, where field trips were made to visit the appalling conditions in local factories.
Perkins became interested in the problems of the poor and income inequality, and upon graduation unsuccessfully sought a job with one of the leading social work agencies in New York City. She then went to Chicago where she worked with one of Jane Adam’s settlement houses and taught at a private school for young women.
Around this time (1900-1909), the American economy was rapidly changing from agricultural to industrial, with more and more workers (including large numbers of immigrants and African-Americans) moving to work in the factories of the burgeoning industrial cities, creating large urban slums. There was little regulation of safety in these factories or of working conditions or pay. The settlement house movement sought to improve the poor through education, both moral and economic and to provide impoverished families with a place to live. In general the founders and leaders of the settlement house movement while supportive of economic reform such as housing improvement, were generally not actively involved in politics and stressed individual improvement.
In 1909, Perkins moved back to New York City where she obtained a master’s degree in social work from Columbia University and began to meet leaders in the social reform movement such as Florence Kelley, the leader of the Consumers Union of America, where she obtained a full time position as an advocate for low income workers. On March 25, 1911, she was visiting a friend in Greenwich Village, when a huge fire broke out at the nearby Triangle Shirtwaist Factory. She watched in horror as hundreds of young women jumped from the seventh and eighth floors to their deaths in one of the worst industrial accidents in the City’s history. The Triangle Shirtwaist fire would greatly influence her and the City and she resolved to try to do something about conditions for working people, particularly women.
Around this time she moved into Hartley House, a settlement house on Manhattan’s West Side in the area known as Hell’s Kitchen. At the time Hell’s Kitchen was a high crime slum district populated largely by Irish and German immigrants and their descendants. It was notorious for its warring street gangs and the poverty of its residents. Politically it was controlled by Thomas J. McManus, the local Tammany Hall district leader. In 1904, McManus wrested control of the district from his erstwhile mentor the legendary George Washington Plunkitt (whose 1904 discourse on New York politics had described the distinction between “honest graft” and “dishonest graft”).
At the time Tammany Hall was the predominant political power in the City, based on its alleged support of the immigrant poor and its highly developed organizational structure. From the point of view of the social welfare reformers (usually Protestants) the Tammany leaders were the personification of evil because they deluded the poor immigrants from supporting real social reform (including Prohibition). From the point of view of the Tammany leaders (who were usually Catholic and often were allied with the Catholic Church), the Protestant social welfare agencies were the tools of wealthy moneyed interests who did not understand and could care less about the real needs of the immigrant poor.
The contrast between the two competing visions was soon brought home to Perkins when she encountered the case of a family in which the son, whose job was the family’s sole support, had been arrested. Perkins sought help from a Protestant Welfare Agency. They conducted a lengthy investigation and decided the family was not worthy of assistance because one of the children was illegitimate.
Perkins was livid. Desperate to help her client she went to the McManus Democratic Association and asked for help. McManus told her he would look into it and she should come back the next afternoon. The next morning the family elatedly told her that all charges against the son had been dropped.
Perkins began to wonder whether the services provided by Tammany Hall district leaders were as bad as her reform colleagues had said. She became more interested in the possibility that politics and government (even if controlled by corrupt Tammany politicians) could play a significant role in alleviating the problems of poverty.
In her job with the Consumer Federation she began advocating for state legislation protecting workers rights, particularly legislation limiting the work week of women and children in factories to no more than 54 hours. This job Introduced her to the rough and tumble world of New York State politics in Albany. Through McManus, who was then a state senator, she met other powerful Democratic party leaders such as Big Tim Sullivan, Tammany leader Charles Francis Murphy and his proteges, Speaker of the Assembly Al Smith and State Senate Majority leader Robert F. Wagner.
To the skepticism of many of her colleagues in the reform movement, she enlisted the support of these Tammany leaders for the limitation on the work week for women, and, after some compromises limiting its scope, the bill which had languished for the previous ten years, was passed by the New York State legislature. Her success in engineering the passage of the 54 Hour Bill made 32-year-old Frances Perkins a rising star in reform and to some extent Democratic party circles. In 1913 she married Paul Wilson, a fellow municipal reformer who would serve as a high level aide to reform Mayor John Purroy Mitchell, a major Tammany antagonist.
After the Triangle Shortwaist fire, one of the worst industrial accidents in American history in which 146 young women died, a number of “fact finding” commissions were appointed to study the reasons for the fire and how to improve industrial safety, On the suggestion of former President and now reformer Theodore Roosevelt, Perkins was appointed the executive director of two of the most important of these commissions, and she insisted that Tammany leaders Al Smith and Robert Wagner serve as Vice Chairmen. In exposing the horrific and dangerous working conditions in many New York factories, they formed the basis for reform recommendations to the New York legislature which Tammany candidates generally supported over employer and Republican opposition.
In 1918, the Democrats nominated Al Smith, a pure Irish Catholic Tammany man from New York’s Lower East Side to challenge incumbent governor Charles Whitman (former New Jersey governor Christine Todd Whitman’s grandfather-in-law) who had come to power as a crusading prosecutor of corrupt Tammany policemen. To the shock of some of her colleagues in the reform movement Perkins actively supported and campaigned for Smith, who was narrowly elected. Smith appointed Perkins to the $8,000 per year position as a member of the State industrial board, an unheard of position for a woman at a time when women had just earned the right to vote.
With her friend Belle Moskowitz, Perkins would play a key role in shaping the progressive labor and social welfare policies that put New York and its governor Al Smith in the forefront nationally of efforts to protect workers and alleviate poverty. It was as a result of these efforts that Smith became a candidate for President in 1928. Perkins actively campaigned around the country for Smith, who was trounced by Republican Herbert Hoover. However, Smith’s handpicked successor political ally Franklin Roosevelt was narrowly elected as New York’s governor that year.
Roosevelt asked Perkins to serve as the head of the New York State Labor Department and she continued to press for measures that would protect industrial safety and generally the rights of workers to organize. As the depression worsened, she also won national attention for criticizing the Hoover administration’s Labor Department for distorting statistics on the level of unemployment, thus earning a reputation as one of the Democratic party’s most articulate critics of the Republican labor policies. By the time of the 1932 election, the economic situation could not have been worse with almost a third of the nation out of work and an exponential increase in poverty.
Although it is sometimes said the Franklin D. Roosevelt had no clear plans when he took the office of President, it is more likely that he intended to continue and expand on a national level the aggressive social welfare and labor policies of the Smith and Roosevelt administrations in New York. The natural person to undertake this effort as his Secretary of Labor was the person who had pioneered these efforts – his State Labor Commissioner Frances Perkins.
After obtaining assurances from Roosevelt that he would permit her to pursue the aggressive social welfare agenda she had in New York, Perkins accepted his offer to become the first woman ever to hold a cabinet position. Just as the nation was looking to Roosevelt for immediate action and Roosevelt would looked to his Secretary of Labor and close confident Frances Perkins to design and implement programs to bring the nation out of its economic crisis..
Both Perkins and Roosevelt believed that in order to improve the economic situation of most working people the government had to aggressively and quickly undertake programs that would increase the purchasing power of the American worker. She was immediately immersed in designing stimulus programs, based on similar programs in New York, such as the Works Progress Administration (WPA) and the Civilian Conservation corps (CCC) that would put unemployed workers back to work on government projects.
She also sought to greatly expand worker protection programs, such as the Fair Labor Standards Act, which set maximum working hours and minimum wages. As part of the legislation created the National Recovery Act, she in effect gave a significant impetus to the formation of unions and created the National Labor Relations Board to regulate employer-employee disputes.
Perhaps most important, however, was her income security provisions. She created a nationwide system of unemployment insurance to mitigate the harsh impact of a job loss. Even more significantly, President Roosevelt was facing strong pressure to establish a program whereby the government would pay pensions to the elderly. Perkins was placed in charge of a task force which resulted in the Social Security Act of 1935. She intended to have this system, once it was underway, expanded to a nationwide system of health care.
The popularity of Social Security was an important factor in Roosevelt’s landslide reelection in 1936. Perkins did not regularly promote her own critical role in creating these highly successful programs, and Roosevelt’s all male “Brain Trust” now often receives greater credit for them.
One reason she may not have sought as much public acclaim was her family situation. Her husband Paul, who she tried to visit every weekend for 20 years, had severe mental illness and was confined to a mental hospital in New York City. In an era in which there was a much greater stigma associated with mental disorders, she may have been concerned about public scrutiny of her husband’s situation. In any event she clearly faced the conflict between family and professional success that many highly successful women do today.
This is not to say that her role was completely obscure. There were many Republicans and Republican politicians who hated Roosevelt, and his “socialistic” policies. “Ma Perkins” (a name she hated) did, in the latter part of Roosevelt’s second term, became a target for enemies of the New Deal.
Among the most vocal critics was Congressman J. Partnell Thomas, the Chairman of the House Un-American Activities Committee, who in 1938 brought an impeachment proceeding against Perkins for failing to deport Harry Bridges, an Australian Labor Leader who was the head of the West Coast Longshoreman’s union and an alleged Communist. Although she survived this proceeding and remained in office until Roosevelt’s death, her ability to implement high profile proposals like national health insurance was more limited. Furthermore as the country moved toward the Second World War, Roosevelt’s priorities shifted from social welfare to national defense.
Nevertheless, even in Roosevelt’s third and fourth terms she played a significant role. During the war she unsuccessfully opposed Japanese internment and also opposed proposals for women to have an active role in combat. As the Secretary of Labor however, she strongly encouraged the movement of women taking substantive roles in the defense industries. This policy would ultimately lead to a restructuring of the U.S. workforce in which there would be much greater female participation. Furthermore the growth of union membership from 300,000 to 3,000,000 that occurred in the period she was Labor Secretary. By greatly increasing the purchasing power of the majority of American workers these developments contributed to the growth of the American middle class in the second half of the 20th century.
Although a number of women have been advanced as candidates for inclusion on the currency, which heretofore has had only Presidents or high government officials, Frances Perkins is the only one who has served in a high government position for a significant period of time. The policies she promoted are of direct relevance to the modern debates on income inequality and the role of government in alleviating poverty. Unfortunately, she is not as well known today as she should be both here in New York and nationally. Many that are familiar with her story, such as California Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi, have announced their support for her inclusion on the currency.
It is very appropriate that New Yorkers and particularly the New York history community make their feelings known to the Secretary of the Treasury. Placing her on the currency would highlight a period in which New York led the nation in important and innovative social policies, and a very important New Yorker of which all New Yorkers should be proud.
Recently, James R. McManus of the McManus Midtown Democratic Club and the Democratic District leader of the Hell’s Kitchen district on the West Side of Manhattan for the last 53 years (James is Tom’ McManus’ great-grand-nephew), and Nicole Cicogna, the Executive Director of Hartley House and the National Democratic Club, have written a letter to Secretary of Treasury Jacob Lew urging that, if there is a woman to be placed on the currency, it be Frances Perkins. A similar letter was written earlier by the executive director of the Frances Perkins foundation in Newcastle, Maine (her ancestral home).
They all urge that others throughout New York State and the nation join the fight and write similar letters to Secretary Lew in support of Frances Perkins’ inclusion on the U.S. currency.
Olivia and Caroline Kaplan contributed to this post. Photos, from above: Francis Perkins; Perkins with President Franklin D. Roosevelt as he signs the National Labor Relations Act (June 6, 1933); Frances Perkins meets with Carnegie Steel Workers in 1933; and Secretary of Labor Perkins on the cover of Time in 1933.