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Frances Perkins: The Unsung Creator of U.S. Social Security

Frances Perkins
Former Secretary of Labor Frances Perkins, left, with Eleanor Roosevelt at the 50th anniversary commemoration of the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire in March, 1961. Kheel Center/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

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The first time author Kirstin Downey heard about Frances Perkins, it was within the context of a joke — a pretty lame one at that. "I worked as a reporter at The Washington Post for 20 years and when I got there, I took a bus tour of the city," she recalls. "We had a guide who was making little jokes and when we passed one big building he said, 'What American woman had the worst childbirth experience?' It was quiet for a moment, there was a pause. Then he said, 'Frances Perkins. She spent 12 years in labor.'"

This is where you'd cue the "ba dum tss" sound of a cheesy comedy club rimshot. Except to even politely guffaw at the tour guide's joke requires some basic understanding of who Frances Perkins was — and as Downey soon found out, that piece of history has largely been omitted from the books. "I thought it was kind of a funny, stupid joke even though the feminist part of me got really irritated," says Downey, an award-winning journalist and author of "The Woman Behind the New Deal: The Life of Frances Perkins, FDR'S Secretary of Labor and His Moral Conscience." "But I remembered that because FDR [President Franklin Delano Roosevelt] got elected four times, she was our secretary of labor for 12 years."

The joke may have fallen flat, but it got Downey thinking. And as the world prepares for the economic aftermath of the current COVID-19 crisis, many others are thinking about the work of Perkins as well — even if they're unaware that she's the one responsible for some of the most important programs currently keeping Americans afloat. "Her name stuck in my head as someone who was interesting and it bothered me that she was just a joke," Downey says, noting that during her time at the Post, she covered a diverse range of business news stories that all seemed to lead back to one single person. "I got assigned to cover all kinds of things about Social Security and unemployment and I noticed over a period of time that when I'd write a paragraph in each news story about how current Social Security and unemployment insurance programs started, Frances Perkins was responsible for all the key parts of our social safety net — but no one had ever heard of her."

Perkins, née Fannie Coralie Perkins, was born in Boston in 1880 but had roots in Maine. Yet as Downey learned while reporting her book over the course of a decade, even residents of Perkins' hometown of Damariscotta, Maine, didn't seem familiar with her legacy. After graduating from Mount Holyoke College in 1902, Perkins pursued a career as a social worker and later continued her education at the Wharton School of Finance and Commerce of the University of Pennsylvania and then at Columbia University, where she earned an M.A. in social economics in 1910. For the next two years, she served as the executive secretary of the Consumers' League of New York where she successfully lobbied for improved wages and working conditions, particularly for women and children.

The Triangle Shirtwaist Fire

It was during that time that Perkins witnessed a life-changing event that would shift the course of her own professional life, as well as the future of American labor conditions. On March 25, 1911, Perkins was having tea with a friend in Manhattan when a commotion broke out nearby. It turned out to be what is now known as the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire, one of the deadliest U.S. workplace disasters of all time. The fire claimed the lives of 146 workers, many of whom were immigrant women who were burned alive or jumped to their deaths.

"She had already been investigating workplace problems as a young social worker in Manhattan but was in the neighborhood having tea with a friend when the fire broke out," Downey says. "They ran across Washington Square Park and got there just as the first people started jumping out of the windows and hitting the ground. She was already thinking about workplace abuses and, because she was the key person administering the New York State Factory Investigating Commission, that led to the creation of all our fire codes. By the time she was in her early 30s, she had crafted legislation in New York that led to exit signs, occupancy limits on rooms, sprinklers, fire escapes, and how wide doors had to be to escape safely."

Frances Perkins
Frances Perkins with David Dubinsky, president of the International Ladies' Garment Workers' Union.

Following the horrific fire, Perkins grew even more resolute about revolutionizing the country's dysfunctional labor system. From 1912 to 1917, she served as the executive secretary of the New York Committee on Safety and from 1917 to 1919, worked as the executive director of the New York Council of Organization for War Service. In 1919, New York Governor Alfred E. Smith appointed Perkins to New York's State Industrial Commission and four years later, she was named to the State Industrial Board, becoming chairman in 1926.

First Female Cabinet Member — FDR's Secretary of Labor

It was Smith's successor, Franklin D. Roosevelt, who partnered with Perkins to push for lasting changes to the labor system. In 1929, he appointed Perkins as the Industrial Commissioner of the State of New York and when the stock market crashed that year, Perkins was the one who encouraged FDR to take swift and serious action. When FDR created a committee on employment, he appointed Perkins to head up the efforts. "So it made perfect sense that when FDR was elected president [in 1933], she went to be his secretary of labor," Downey says. By the time he became president, she had already known him for 20 years. She was a close, trusted friend of FDR's."

However, despite Perkins' impressive achievements over the course of her career to that point, the American public was less than welcoming when she arrived in Washington. "When FDR picked her, there was a huge backlash," Downey says. "A lot of people were appalled that he named a woman to his cabinet. Remember, women didn't get the right to vote until 1920 when Frances Perkins was 40 years old. So she had a whole career to age 40 doing all these important things and didn't even have the right to vote. When FDR was elected president, it was only 12 years after women got the right to vote, so you can see why people were shocked about it."

According to Downey, one particular group was especially turned off by the prospect of Perkins serving as the secretary of labor. "The unions opposed FDR naming her because a lot of unions didn't permit female members, and were particularly insulted because they wanted a 'good union man' to be secretary of labor," she says. "Frances Perkins had a background as a government administrator and a social worker and they were suspicious. But in fact, because of the things she did, she was able to essentially reshape the labor movement, which was dying when she became secretary of labor. By the time she died, unionized employees made up one-third of the American workforce."

The Social Security Act

Perkins had a lot on her agenda when she made the move to D.C., but one of her biggest ideas has proven to have a lasting impact on Americans to this day — especially today. "She went to Washington with a set of plans in her head and things she wanted enacted," Downey says. "Among them was Social Security and unemployment insurance and within two years of getting to Washington, the Social Security Act passed. Enacted in 1935, the Social Security Act created a system of transfer payments that relies on younger, working people supporting older, retired people. Since it passed during FDR's administration, the law has been responsible for providing aid for jobless citizens through unemployment insurance, dependent mothers and children, victims of work-related accidents, the blind and physically disabled and more. The law was part of FDR's Second New Deal initiatives to help Americans cope with social and economic changes in the wake of the Great Depression.

Frances Perkins
Frances Perkins, front and center, the only woman among a group of congressional leaders, as President Roosevelt signs the Social Security Act on Aug. 14, 1935.

"Perkins had a particular approach to public service and was not a politician and never held public elective office," Michael Chaney, executive director of the Frances Perkins Center, dedicated to preserving the Perkins Family Homestead in Newcastle, Maine, says via email. "She was a policy expert in the field of worker safety, just compensation, and the safety net when injured or no longer able to work because of age — her lasting legacy, Social Security."

"She is the one human being — and everyone involved in the legislation, and even the people administering it say it — most responsible for the Social Security Act passing," Downey says. "FDR didn't run saying he'd do that and it wasn't anything he really cared about hugely as he had a bunch of things on his plate. Without Frances Perkins, Social Security would've never happened and that means both traditional pension and unemployment insurance. Basically Frances Perkins created the lifeline we're using today.

Unemployment Insurance, Fair Labor, Minimum Wage and Child Labor Laws

"Unemployment insurance is a national network of state unemployment systems and is the mechanism we're using to get money to people across America who've lost their jobs [through] no fault of their own," Downey says. "We've got 50 states and some territories using the same basic mechanism. Even if the federal government authorizes additional money, the first line of defense was this state unemployment insurance system that was organized into a federal confederation because of legislation that Frances Perkins got enacted. So almost all of the existing social safety network has her imprint. She set up all these programs that spun off into other departments but were [there] because of her handiwork."

Perkins also helped craft the Fair Labor Standards Act, which Congress enacted in 1938, a law establishing a minimum wage and maximum work hours and banning child labor. By the time FDR died in 1945, Perkins was the longest-serving labor secretary and one of only two cabinet secretaries to serve the entire length of the Roosevelt presidency. "Frances Perkins wrote in 1945: 'These social and economic reforms of the past 12 years will be regarded in the future as a turning point in our national life — a turning from careless neglect of human values and toward an order — of mutual and practical benevolence within a free competitive industrial economy,'" Chaney says.

The next year, Perkins published a bestselling biography of FDR titled "The Roosevelt I Knew," and served as head of the American delegation to the International Labor Organization in Paris. President Harry Truman then appointed her to the United States Civil Service Commission, a position she held until 1953. According to the Frances Perkins Center, by that point, Perkins "had accomplished all but one of the items on the agenda she had presented to the newly elected President in February of 1933: universal access to health care."

After leaving government service, Perkins was active as a teacher and lecturer at the New York State School of Industrial and Labor Relations at Cornell University until her death in 1965 at age 85.

The Resurgent Legacy of Frances Perkins

So if Perkins is responsible for such significant, lasting change, why have so few of us ever heard of her? "A lot of men were writing New Deal histories in the '70s and '80s and wrote her out entirely," Downey says. "I went back to the archives to recreate what actually happened. In fact, some New Deal histories don't even mention her name at all. It was wild — there are maybe two references reflecting on something about her work with FDR, but it's extraordinary how quickly she was neglected and written out of the story."

Part of the reason for her glaring absence from history may be due to Perkins' reluctance toward life in the spotlight. "Frances Perkins didn't run around currying favor or chasing publicity — she got things done and moved on to the next thing," Downey says. "Many of the men who wrote books about events in which Frances Perkins was a key player don't even mention her name."

"Frances Perkins was a pioneer," Downey says. "She was the first woman to hold a high profile position in Washington and blazed the trail for Nancy Pelosi and Elizabeth Warren, both of whom have said she's inspired them every day by what she did. Elizabeth Warren even had campaign events in Washington Square Park to remind people of the Triangle Shirtwaist factory fire. People casting votes to give more money to unemployment insurance are voting in support of Frances Perkins' handiwork."

As for the ways in which America will adjust to life in a post-pandemic world, Downey says Perkins' legacy will continue to have a major impact and leave a lasting legacy. "One thing that's super cool about it is that one of the first economic bills that just passed to give people money in addition to the money from the federal government's unemployment insurance was passed almost unanimously," she says. "So what we ended up with in 2020 was this incredible ringing bipartisan endorsement of her handiwork. When seeking out ways to help people through misery, Republicans and Democrats both turned to the tool crafted by the person who I think is the single most important progressive in American history — male or female. That's the thing I learned in the book, is that she did more to create a social safety net than anyone else."

Perkins' lost legacy is finding new life, thanks to the social and economic similarities to post-Great Depression America that may emerge as the world continues to cope with COVID. "Frances Perkins' handiwork is the system we're using right now to relieve the distress of hundreds of millions of people," Downey says. "The bottom line is that Frances Perkins' life's work was recognizing that in the course of human events, bad stuff happens, and it's predictable that it happens, and what you want to do is create a system of elasticity that helps you have a solution to fix it."

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