Written by Danny Webster
I hadn’t heard of Frances Perkins before this summer. As an avid follower of history and politics both sides of the Atlantic I am somewhat ashamed to have missed her central role in American history between the world wars. Franklin Delano Roosevelt is well known as the longest serving president of the United States, he is also known as the president who brought in the New Deal to help America recover from the great depression. What is rarely noted is that throughout his tenure as president the force behind the New Deal was Frances Perkins.
Frances Perkins was the first woman to serve in the US Cabinet, and she held the role of Labor Secretary from 1933-45. Perkins had an impressive manifesto when she took on the job and warned Roosevelt: ‘are you sure you want this done, because you don’t want me for Secretary of Labor if you don’t want these things done.’ Perkins set about unemployment relief for those without jobs, public works programs so they could have a job, and she was the champion for a forty hour week and minimum pay and overtime rules. She campaigned to end child labour – both to keep children in school and to ensure there were jobs for adults. At the top of her agenda was a pension scheme which was to find its place at the centre of the 1934 Social Security Act.
America looked different because of Frances Perkins leadership, she battled against impeachment procedures in congress, political opponents and court cases seeking to strike down the landmark legislation. After Truman succeeded Roosevelt in 1945 Perkins resigned, but not for a quiet life, she took up a role with the US Civil Services Commission, wrote a biography of Roosevelt and continued to lecture, even taking up a visiting post with Cornell University aged 75.
But the remarkable part of her story is not the height it reached, or the depths it travelled, but the spark that started it.
Perkins was born in the late nineteenth century into a comfortable middle class family, a family who were committed to their church and provided their daughter with strong moral foundation and Christian values. However, they also saw poverty as mainly the result of moral failings – something their daughter became more and more fervent in her disagreement with.
During her time at college at the start of the twentieth century Perkins saw factory labour conditions up close for the first time. Soon after leaving college she began working for a series of charitable organisations committed to aiding workers – in particular migrants and women. In 1910 she began working for the National Consumers League and while there helped secure a fifty-four hour working week.
Everything about Perkin’s life and passion stepped up a gear after witnessing the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire in 1911. Bins of fabric caught light, exits were blocked, and the building was overcrowded. One hundred and forty six people died, most of who were young immigrant women. Perkins later said this occasion served as ‘a never to be forgotten reminder of why I had to spend my life fighting conditions that could permit such a tragedy’.
Through her work with the National Consumers League Perkins came into contact with Al Smith, and when he became governor of New York she became a member of the State Industrial Commission. This wasn’t an easy decision, and Perkins is quoted as recalling the advice of her grandmother: ‘If somebody opens a door for you, unexpectedly, without connivance on your part, walk right in and do the best you can. It’s the Lord’s will for you.’
Smith was succeeded in the governor’s mansion by Franklin Delano Roosevelt who asked Perkins to head up the commission, and when Roosevelt became president she followed him to Washington.
Perkins once said that: ‘Christians must regard entrance into politics and political activity as a major basic Christian duty, and they must enter it as Christians’. Perkins is remembered by the Episcopal Church in the US as a holy woman with a feast day (13 May). The collect for that day recalls her words: ‘The special vocation of the laity is to conduct the secular affairs of society that all may be maintained in health and decency.’
Danny works for the Evangelical Alliance leading their Public Leadership programme which seeks to encourage and equip Christians to take on responsibility and influence in all areas of public life. He loves the outdoors and gets out of London whenever possible.