Interview with Kristin Downey

Author Kristin Downey on the labor rights activist Frances Perkins, who would go on to become the secretary of labor and the first woman in a U.S. Cabinet.


Chapter 1: Family

Frances Perkins was born in 1880. And that's when we see a very large surge of immigration to the United States. The U.S. population is changing very dramatically. A lot of companies are doing a lot to recruit immigrants, particularly from Europe to the United States and, and in many cases paying them very poorly when they arrive and having the workers work in very poor conditions. What this means is that you see a very great and growing gap in wealth between the rich and the poor. And for people like Frances Perkins and her family, who are great believers in equalitarian democracy, this is a troubling trend. They see that you can have an underclass that is not treated as well and an overclass that can become very wealthy at the expense of the others.

Chapter 2: Education

Frances Perkins' family was conventional but they did something with Frances that was quite unconventional for the day. At that time only three percent of American women went to college. Frances Perkins' family sent her to college. They sent her to Mt. Holyoke, which was a woman's small, private woman's college close to their home in Worcester.

It was believed that an educated woman would be a less desirable marriage partner for men. And at that time, marriage was the end goal of most families for their daughters. So this was quite an unusual thing to send Frances off to college. What she chose to study was also unusual. She majored in physics and chemistry at Mt. Holyoke. She took the heaviest courses.

Chapter 3: New York

She goes to live alone in New York City at this period, and she actually goes into the area that's the most avant-garde place in the United States, arguably one of the most avant-garde places in the world. She settles in Greenwich Village. And at that time there was an enormous ferment and excitement in Greenwich Village. There were immigrants pouring in from all over the world; there were political radicals; there were free thinkers; there were birth control advocates; there were communists; there were socialists; there were ideologues of all kinds; there were aspiring writers; there were people that hoped to use the political system to change the world. It was a very heady cocktail of life that she had in Greenwich Village. And she loved it. She partook of it and she learned an incredible amount during those years.

Everything about her life at this time is unprecedented in the American experience. She's living alone. You know first she's in a settlement house with other women. Then she gets an apartment and she's living alone in New York City at a time it was very unusual for women alone. She's changed her name. She had been born with the name Fannie. She's renamed herself Frances. She's traveling with a lot more radical and socially adventurous crowd in New York City. At this time, let's put this all in context, women don't have the right to vote. They're not allowed to appear very much in public. They can't go to a hotel. It's considered improper for them to eat alone in a restaurant. They can't travel anywhere unaccompanied with a man they're not married to. These are all things that are extremely limiting to women who have big dreams for themselves. And Frances Perkins sets out to flout every one of those conventions.

Well we see Frances Perkins very interested in social causes from a young age. But she's still quite young at this time, you know. She's in her late 20s, just about 30. She's learning that the problems are much more are much more difficult to solve than she'd early hoped. Like many idealists, she originally hoped that people who saw a problem, who once informed of the problem, would be quick to find a solution. What she found is it's much more difficult to make social change than that. And she began to realize that she would need to be a lot more proactive.

Chapter 4: Labor Conditions

In 1910 Frances Perkins ended up landing a job with the woman who had so impressed her, Florence Kelly, when she'd been a student at Mt. Holyoke. She goes to work at the National Consumers League which is an organization devoted to fighting child labor and bad working conditions. She begins immediately to do research and investigate New York's factory conditions where her particular interest is fire safety and fire hazards in factories and in retail stores. And she begins to gather information immediately.

As competition grew greater in the American workplace, as companies sought to prosper by shaving costs they began to ask workers to work longer and longer hours often for lower and lower wages. And more and more children came to be employed in places that we would now consider an industrial setting. In fact it was there that Frances Perkins first saw children working in factory settings. And this was very shocking to her. Children working long hours; children younger than herself working long hours and frequently suffering injuries on the job.

At that time there were no limitations on how many hours workers could be asked to work and there was no standard, workplace standard. It was very common for workers to be asked to work 12 hours a day. There were times that some workers worked as many as a hundred hours in a week at that time. Frequently they worked on Saturday and even on Sunday. What Frances Perkins and the people at the National Consumers League came to believe was that this was very dangerous for the health of the workers and terrible for their families who would -- often children would be left untended for hours at a time while both the father and the mother worked. If there were any further problems in the family, the children would be put to work as well. You had children as young as seven and eight years old working 12 and 14 hours a day in various factories. This was very disturbing to Frances Perkins but it was also very difficult to legislate a change.

Frances Perkins and her allies at the National Consumers League were trying to get a 50-hour-a-week limit imposed on women's employment so women would not have to work more than 54 hours a week because so many studies had shown it was very hard on their health and on the health of their children if they worked more hours than that.

Chapter 5: The Triangle Factory Fire

It was a lovely spring day. And Frances Perkins set out for what she'd imagined would be a lovely afternoon with her good friend Margaret Morgan Norry who had a home facing Washington Square in New York City. She went to join her for tea. And the two women were just sitting down when they heard a commotion on the street. The butler came in and said he'd heard there was a fire. And the women jumped up from their seats and raced across the park. Frances Perkins arrived at the base of the building just as the first women begin jumping to their deaths.

It was a horrifying moment. She had studied workplace conditions, particular fire hazards. But this is the first time she sees in front of herself the real terror and horror that is occurring in these workplaces where there are no fire safety measures. She sees more than a hundred people die that day. She's horrified by it. She's shocked. She's appalled. She's galvanized. She begins to believe that she's got to change this, make it stop and she begins to try to mobilize every tool that she has to make that happen.

People who knew her said that she was forever changed by that sight; that she was never the same carefree, young woman that she had previously been living in Greenwich Village. She felt an enormous sense of social obligation to solve the problem. She had known that workplace conditions were very bad. She was beginning to realize how difficult it was to lobby for regulations to change those conditions. She felt it was her duty to try to fix it.

Chapter 6: Legislation

Frances Perkins is already doing work along these lines so it was only natural that she would be a logical candidate to play a lead role in trying to crack the legislative remedies that activists thought were needed. And in fact she was already becoming so well known that it was Teddy Roosevelt who specifically suggested her to be to be a leader of the committee on safety. Frances took on the job. She went to Albany. And now instead of just representing the National Consumers League, she's part of a group called the Committee on Safety.

She took a lead role as investigator for this Committee and she began to arrange hundreds of hearings all over the state of New York. Thousands of people testified about workplace conditions all over the state. And people began to raise concerns about what they were seeing unfold in work places all over. Now it wasn't just workers or activists testifying, these were employers, foremen, bankers, insurance men, all the people involved in the economic system all came and testified about the conditions that they were seeing in their workplace. And together they began to craft legislative solutions. Now almost immediately this resulted in legislation. Very quickly fire drills became mandatory; fire exits began to be marked; fire water sprinkler systems began to be installed in new factories. And this these were all things that could save many lives. Occupancy limits were established for buildings. Now remember this is a key issue because one of the things that happened in the Triangle fire is it was so overcrowded that people couldn't safely get out of the exits. These were all things that come out of legislation that Frances Perkins helps to craft and helps to draft.

Frances Perkins engineered this entire series of hearings. They appear in a 13 volume series of books with hundreds of people testifying all over the state. Her fingerprints are everywhere. Her name appears almost nowhere. But to the people who knew what was happening, to the people who were participating in this, they knew what a primary role she was playing. Al Smith called her the chief investigator but opponents called her the most prominent agitator.

Chapter 7: Legacy

The Triangle fire and its aftermath marks a major turning point in Frances Perkins' life. Until then she'd been really uncertain what course she was gonna take in her life and really somewhat undecided about how aggressive she was gonna be in pursuit of her career. But after the Triangle fire she is a very well known person in New York City. By the time she's 33 years old -- and remember she still does not have the right to vote -- she had drafted and enacted dozens of pieces of legislation in the state. She has addressed the National Fire Prevention Association meeting as their keynote speaker. Her workplace and fire safety reforms are being promoted all over the country. She has become a famous person in her own right. She's a person who's known and it's only reasonable to expect that she will be a person who will go on to a more important position in industrial relations in the coming years in New York State and in the country.

The Triangle fire haunted Frances Perkins for the rest of her life. When she joined Franklin Roosevelt as his Secretary of Labor in 1933 when he was elected president. Workplace safety was one of the key issues that she brought to his attention. She'd held a series of state conferences where she pushed state officials all over the country to enact the same kind of workplace regulation that they had enacted in New York. That's why anywhere that you go in the United States now you will see signs on occupancy limits, people will come and remove the flammable trash from the office, you will experience fire drills, you will know where the fire exits are. These are all landmark actions taken by the State of New York and it spread everywhere thanks to Frances Perkins' stewardship in 1913 and for the next 60 years.

Well Frances Perkins is a questioning person and she's an empathetic person. She looks at the world around her with great interest all her life and asks questions about why is it, what can explain the gap between rich and the poor? Why are some people rich and why are some people poor? And is there anything that can be done to improve the situation? She describes it as vicarious physical agony that she feels when she contemplates the very poor living conditions that are emerging in the United States and as she deals with, as she begins to think about how that can be remedied.

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