Frances Perkins, who served as President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Secretary of Labor in all four terms of his administration, is often credited with designing many of the New Deal’s social welfare programs, including Social Security. As such, she ranks among the most influential women of the 20th Century.
Few however, know that Perkins began her career in the Hell’s Kitchen area of the city of New York, work that as inspired inn part by a chance meeting an Irish Tammany Hall District Leader Tom McManus.
Frances Perkins grew up in Worcester, Massachusetts, where her father owned a prosperous stationary store. On her mother’s side she was descended from Dr. Joseph Warren, killed at the Battle of Bunker Hill. Her father, who was a rock-ribbed Republican, encouraged her to seek a college education. In 1903, she graduated as President of her class from Mount Holyoke College, a progressive school for women in nearby South Hadley, Mass.
After a brief period of teaching in Chicago, Perkins gravitated to social work, one of the few professions in which women could gain prominence at the time. In Chicago, and later Philadelphia, she worked with Jane Addams in the Settlement Movement. She moved to the city of New York in 1909 where she studied social work at Columbia University and began to meet socially and sometimes politically prominent New Yorkers.
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. There was little regulation of safety, working conditions, or pay in these factories. 1.5 million immigrants and others lived in close to abject poverty.
As a social worker her job was to work with the poor. The Settlement Movement sought to improve the poor through education, both moral and economic, and to provide impoverished families a place to live. In general the founders and leaders of the movement, while supportive of economic reform such as housing improvement, were generally not actively involved in politics and stressed individual improvement. Social workers were often asked to live in settlement houses in poor areas so that they would understand the needs of their clients. Perkins assignment was to Hartley House, a settlement house on West 46th Street in the Hell’s Kitchen area of Manhattan.
Perkins began to meet leaders in the social reform movement inn the city, such as Florence Kelley, the founder of the National Consumers League, 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 dozens of young women jumped or fell to their deaths in one of the worst industrial accidents in the city’s history. The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire would greatly influence her and she resolved to try to do something about the poverty of urban workers
Hell’s Kitchen, where Hartley House was located, was a squalid and overcrowded district populated largely by Irish and German immigrants and their descendants. It was notorious inn the popular press for its 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 mentor George Washington Plunkitt (whose 1904 discourse on New York politics had described the distinction between “honest graft” and “dishonest graft”).
From Tammany Hall’s point of view, the way to alleviated poverty was to provide poor constituents with government jobs or some private payments (turkeys at Thanksgiving for example). This was dispensed by the Tammany district leaders to individuals in need who presumably could be expected to vote the Tammany approved ticket in the next elections.
At the time Tammany Hall was a predominant political power in the city, based on its support of the immigrant poor and its highly developed organizational structure. From the point of view of the social welfare reformers (usually Protestants), Tammany leaders were the personification of evil who kept the poor from supporting real social reform (including Prohibition). From the point of view of the Tammany leaders (often Catholic in this period), 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 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 from Tom McManus. He 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. Both Perkins and the family were amazed, as she had spent weeks unsuccessfully trying to help the family.
Perkins began to wonder whether the 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 sometimes corrupt Tammany politicians) could play a significant role in alleviating the problems of poverty. (McManus and other Tammany leaders would later come to the view that support of government sponsored social welfare programs could pay dividends at the polls.)
In her job with the Consumers League 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 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 and after some compromises limiting its scope, the 54 Hour Bill, which had languished for the previous ten years, was passed by the State Legislature. Her success in engineering its passage 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 Puroy Mitchell, a major Tammany antagonist.
The success of the 54 Hour Bill also influenced Tammany Hall’s leader Charles Francis Murphy. “That bill won us a lot of votes,” he later told Perkins. He and his protégé Al Smith would soon come to realize that rather than Tammany’s old way of privatized welfare based on the fruits of corruption, the enactment of public social welfare measures by Tammany controlled legislators could prove a more effective way of securing public support at the polls.
After the Triangle Shortwaist Factory Fire, a number of fact-finding commissions were appointed to study the causes of the disaster, and make recommendations for policy improvements. On the suggestion of former President Theodore Roosevelt, Perkins was appointed to direct two of the most important of these commissions, and she insisted that Tammany leaders Al Smith and Robert Wagner serve as Vice Chairmen. Exposing the terrible working conditions in many New York factories, their recommendations to the Legislature were generally supported by Tammany Democrats, and opposed by owners and Republicans. During this time she worked particularly closely with Al Smith with whom she formed a mutually admiring relationship.
In 1918, the Democrats nominated Smith, a classic 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.
Despite a split in the Republican Party, Whitman initially led the race by a wide margin as Republicans painted Smith as a corrupt tool of the Tammany machine. However, on November 1, 1918, a week before the election, there was a horrific accident in which 82 people were killed when scab subway conductor replacing striking workers ran a train off the tracks in Brooklyn.
The Smith campaign blamed Governor Whitman and his subway safety board for lax regulation and for trying to break the strike. A week later Smith was narrowly elected as the first Tammany governor in more than 50 years. A few weeks later Smith called Perkins to offer her the $8,000 per year position as a member of the Industrial Commission of the State of New York. This was an unheard of position for a woman at a time when women had just earned the right to vote. It was considered one of the most plum patronage positions in the state government (prior occupants had not done much work to improve industrial safety) and made her one of the highest paid women in government in the country. Though many in the Tammany Hall organization bitterly opposed giving a Protestant woman who had largely been affiliated with Republican reformers such an important patronage position, Smith insisted on his prerogative as Governor to make the appointment.
With her friend and fellow Al Smith advisor Belle Moskowitz, Perkins would play a key role in shaping the progressive labor and social welfare policies that put New York and its Governor Smith in the national forefront of efforts to protect workers and alleviate poverty. In her role as a member of the Industrial Commission she pushed hard for tightened factory regulations to protect workers, for the first unemployment insurance and worker compensation statutes in the nation, and for support of striking workers in important labor disputes. It was as a result of these efforts that Smith, formerly considered a Tammany hack, became known as a leading social welfare reformer, and Perkins known as his key advisor on labor and social welfare matters. He was reelected Governor several times and became the Democratic Party candidate for President in 1928, the first Catholic nnominated by a major party.
Perkins actively campaigned around the country for Smith, who, with the help of widespread nativism and still significant support of prohibition, was trounced by Republican Herbert Hoover. Smith’s handpicked successor and political ally Franklin D. Roosevelt was however narrowly elected as New York’s Governor in that year.
Roosevelt asked Perkins to serve as the head of the New York State Department of Labor 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 federal Department of Labor 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 elected to the office of President, he did in fact intend to continue and expand to a national level the aggressive social welfare and labor policies of the Smith and Roosevelt administrations in New York State. The natural person to undertake this effort as his new Secretary of Labor was the person who had pioneered these efforts in his gubernatorial administration in New York – Frances Perkins.
After obtaining assurances from Roosevelt, Perkins accepted his offer to become the first woman to hold a cabinet position. Just as the nation was looking to Roosevelt for immediate action, Roosevelt would look to 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 of 1938, which set maximum working hours and minimum wages. As part of the National Industrial Recovery Act of 1933, 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 importantly, was her income security provisions. She helped create 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 healthcare. To this day Social Security is considered the most effective antipoverty program in American history.
Although her influence waned somewhat when she was investigated by the House Un-American Activities Committee and when the interests of the Roosevelt Administration shifted to the Second World War, she remained one of the few cabinet members to serve through all four FDR terms.
In the 1950s Perkins became somewhat more religious, and later was a professor of Labor Relations and Social Policy at Cornell University. She died at the age of 85 and her memory is perpetuated by the Frances Perkins Center in Damariscotta, Maine, the site of her ancestral homestead. The Center annually gives awards in her honor to individuals who promote her ideas. In 1980, President Jimmy Carter designated the United States Labor Department Headquarters in Washington, D.C., the Frances Perkins Building.
In 2017, the McManus Club and the National Democratic Club (now led by McManus’s great-nephew, Mickey Spillane), petitioned to Manhattan Community Planning Board 4 to have the street in front of Hartley House in Hell’s Kitchen named “Frances Perkins Way,” it would have been the only public recognition of Frances Perkins in New York State.
With the backing of the Frances Perkins Center in Maine, the proposal passed the community board unanimously and was to be sent to the New York City Council for an approval which never came. Recently Councilman Corey Johnson helped spearhead a deal to save Hartley House from developers for the use of low income housing for the elderly, but the Common Council has yet to follow up and recognize Frances Perkins on the street where her governmental career began.
Photo of Frances Perkins meeting with American workers.
Amy Eckman says
She was truly one of the original feminists!!
Steven Ferraro says
Great article, Mr.Kaplan
Chris Traskos says
Just finishing her biography. Someone should make a movie or mini-series about her life to highlight her role during such historic events.