|Frances Perkins as a member of the |
[Triangle] Factory Investigation
Frances Perkins is rightly heralded as the visionary behind some of the most far-reaching labor reforms in American history, but throughout her long career as a leading voice for social change, she was never alone.
Perkins was a member of a long line of women, from Jane Addams to Eleanor Roosevelt, who took up the cause of women's rights in the workplace and led a swelling social movement that amplified the call for a voice for working people at the highest levels of government.
The movement was galvanized on March 25, 1911, when a fire at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory in Manhattan caused the deaths of 123 women and 23 men.
Perkins witnessed the fire, and in its aftermath, stood in solidarity with the workers who rose up, many of them women of the International Ladies' Garment Workers' Union, to call for change.
Perkins was among a group of women [suffragists - including Inez Milholland and some Vassar colleagues] that became known, mockingly, as "the Mink Brigade" — a reference to their patrician roots. It included women from families of prominent industrialists, such as Anne Morgan (daughter of J.P. Morgan) and Alva Belmont.Comment: I have posted before on the Triangle fire. The landlords at the Triangle building successfully fought civil and criminal suits against them. The laws just did not make them responsible. The same thing may still be seen today in low-wage factories overseas, where labor laws are not on the books or are not enforced. Perkins, as noted above, was galvanized by the Triangle Fire and left the comfort of her patrician family to join the effort to get new legislation passed. When FDR became governor, he brought in Frances Perkins to strengthen labor laws. When he was elected President, he brought her down to have the same impact nationally, with the encouragement of Clara Beyer, who in 1928 was appointed as director of the Children's Bureau of the Labor Department. She played a behind-the-scenes role in getting FDR to appoint Perkins as the first-ever female Cabinet member. Perkins served FDR for more than 12 years, longer than any other subsequent Secretary of Labor (her time with FDR was the same as my father's; he was recruited by Henry Morgenthau at Treasury). The factory owners' lack of accountability for the loss of the lives of 146 workers, mostly very young women, was used as an argument for the need for votes for women. As noted in, for example, the Triangle book by David von Drehle, Inez Milholland was deeply involved in taking the side of workers in the strike against the Triangle Shirtwaist Company, in the two years before the fire.
As Perkins ascended to state labor commissioner for New York and then U.S. secretary of labor, she never forgot the women of the Triangle factory and other victims. In 1933, she wrote an influential op-ed calling for a higher minimum wage and increased workplace protections, using the figure of the young woman toiling in a garment factory as her subject and titling it, "The Cost of a Five-Dollar Dress." • Read "The Cost of a Five-Dollar Dress" • View the Centennial Timeline • View the Centennial Video