Frances Perkins: The Most Effective ‘Politician’ Never Elected

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In March 1911, Frances Perkins, the executive secretary of the Consumers’ League in New York, was attending an afternoon tea in a Washington Square home along with some of the city’s prominent society women. They became aware of a nearby commotion, and Frances went out to see what was happening. It proved to be a disastrous fire at the Triangle Waist Co., a manufacturer of women’s clothing, that killed 146 of its female workers and, indirectly, led to the New Deal, some twenty-two years later. The road from Washington Square to the White House ran through Albany.

Frances was a real Yankee, born Fannie Perkins in 1880 on Beacon Hill in Boston. She was a descendant of a Revolutionary War leader and of a Union general in the Civil War who ran afoul of too many postwar politicians because of his advocacy for the improvement of the conditions of freed slaves. Fannie was educated at Mount Holyoke College, taking an interest in the sciences. Inspired by one of her educators, she developed an interest in social causes, not unlike a lot of students at similar institutions over the decades since then. She got a job teaching science in Chicago, where she fell in with people who were active with the Addams House settlement program. Her interests drifted back to the problems of working conditions and poverty. Leaving teaching, she then worked for settlement houses in Philadelphia and New York.

Perkins always managed to maintain good relations not only with the kind of society that paralleled that of Brahmin Boston, but also with the kind that were clients of the settlement houses. She also enjoyed the company of the intellectuals who wrote about their situation. She began to alter her persona, becoming “Frances,” instead of the more frivolous “Fannie”. The combination of society connections and social activism were to stand her in good stead throughout her career. Gradually she also began to understand how she might achieve her social objectives in a man’s world. One biographer calls her “a natural actress.” Frances was also beginning to find that she was a “natural” at managing an organization and at fundraising.

Moving from Chicago to Philadelphia to to New York, she became involved with all kinds of social and artistic causes, and counted writers Theodore Dreiser, Sinclair Lewis (who was in love with her) and future infrastructure czar Robert Moses among her friends, as well as many women in the upper reaches of society. She gained a master’s degree in political science from Columbia University in 1910, and started work with the Consumers’ League.

The Triangle fire was a turning point for many concerned with the conditions most workers faced. It showed that even successful union organizing and tactics were not enough to make the necessary changes to most aspects of corporate behavior. Organized workers could improve their wages and hours, but either could not, or did not want to, involve themselves in improving workplace conditions that were seen as “management’s” domain. Further, unions’ democratic structures meant that they tended to reflect the (male) mores of their membership, something that was most obvious when it came to representing women’s issues. For progressive women especially, their only recourse was to get legislation passed requiring employers to improve specific conditions or face the might of the state. Unions were useful, but not as useful as legislation.

As executive secretary of the Consumers League, Frances was expected to spend time in Albany lobbying for legislation. Prowling the lobbies of the state legislature after the Democratic victory in the 1910 election, she began to be accepted by two of its most powerful politicians, Al Smith and Robert Wagner, the leaders of the Assembly and the Senate, respectively, and both about her age. She also met the new State senator from upriver, Franklin D. Roosevelt. Smith and Wagner realized that, to stay in power, the Democrats had to shift from providing individual and ethnic favors for constituents to embracing legislative reform that favored the whole workforce. Gradually, Frances Perkins learned that she could be more effective if she looked more matronly and, at thirty-four and recently married, she changed her look to appear older than she really was. Politicians and reporters began to refer to her as “Mother” Perkins (she had kept her maiden name), but found they could now relate to her more easily, especially as she cultivated their wives and mothers. She became a very effective lobbyist and a good public speaker.

Frances managed to develop a working relationship with Smith and Wagner as members of the Factory Investigating Commission (FIC), which the New York government created in 1911 in response to the Triangle fire. The two men were the driving force behind the FIC, which recommended fifteen new laws on fire safety, factory inspections, and health regulations, of which eight were enacted. Frances was ‘loaned’ to the FIC to help with its research program. Next on her agenda was passage of a law regulating the hours that women in most industries could be required to work in a week, which had languished for years in the state legislature. Frances was disconcerted by the terms of the bill, which exempted women in the cannery business, but even though her friends in the movement opposed passage, she decided to support it and to take what she could get--- the cannery workers were added the following year.

New York State began to lead the nation in workplace reform, and the Democratic machine realized that progressive politics could be a vote getter. It began to advocate for a minimum wage and for giving the vote to women, which New York accomplished in 1917.

In 1912, Frances was asked, at the suggestion of Theodore Roosevelt, to be the executive director of the Committee on Safety, a non-partisan, though Republican-supported, reform group. Soon, the offices of the FIC were located in the Committee’s premises and Frances was effectively the executive director of both. By the time the FIC wound up its work, a plethora of legislation regulating all kinds of labor practices from hours of work to sanitary conditions had been passed. Frances also became the first woman on the State’s Industrial Commission after Al Smith was elected governor in 1918. Gradually, the other commissioners began to let Frances do the Industrial commission’s administrative work, and she gained the respect of both upstate businesspeople and the unions. When Smith was defeated in 1920, she went back to non-profit work, returning to state government in 1922 when Smith was re-elected. One of her major accomplishments was to expand the new system of workers’ compensation to more industries, especially hazardous ones that had complained of the cost of premiums.

When Smith left the governor’s mansion to run for president in 1928, his successor, Franklin Roosevelt, kept Perkins on, in part due to her growing friendship with his wife Eleanor. Frances’s policy advice to him, especially on structuring a program of unemployment insurance when the economy fell apart after the Crash of 1929, made him the leading governor in the nation who was trying to blunt the effects of the Depression. Her advice on how to respond to the needs of the working class voter made the patrician Roosevelt a credible presidential contender.

Upon his election to the White House in 1932, Roosevelt asked Perkins to work with him in Washington as Secretary of Labor. Frances agreed, provided he in turn would agree to her policy agenda. She thus became the first female US cabinet member, a post she held until Roosevelt’s death in 1945. Her friend from the state legislature, Robert Wagner, became Roosevelt’s connection to the US Senate and sponsored the New Deal’s legislation in that body.

She managed the creation of the first New Deal job-creation program, the Civilian Conservation Corps, helped establish the strength of the national labor movement, oversaw the development of unemployment insurance and social security, and encouraged states to pass workplace legislation that the courts felt was not within federal jurisdiction. By Roosevelt’s death, much of the agenda she had developed while working in Albany had been enacted nationally, and the factory environment had changed for the better in a significant way.

Perkins was not the only person involved in the workplace legislation that characterized the New Deal, but for over three decades she was at the center of it all. The Triangle fire had thrust a problem to the fore that all the politicians knew had to be addressed someday. Perkins, with her understanding of the male politician, managed to insert her ideas quietly into their calculations in such a way that credit went to them, rather than to her. “Mother” Perkins chose to get the job done through legislation, and became one of the most effective politicians who never ran for office.

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