Amid the speculation that Sarah Palin could possibly become our first woman 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
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. 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.
Copyright (c) 2008 Dick Meister