Frances Perkins was born into a Boston middle class working family in 1880. She took pride in self-reliance, democratic beliefs and had an ability to see behind human foibles in order to create change. Her tenacity and understanding of the cause and effect of poverty, her acute sense of justice and her excellent skills at social networking carried her from a young woman, who learned from pioneering activists, to becoming the first woman to be a cabinet member. She would be named Secretary of Labor in 1933 under FDR. She was witness to the Shirtwaist fire in 1911 in NYC that took the lives of 149 young Jewish Italian immigrant women. This tragedy set in motion the changes of workers safety that would transcend the American workplace. Her work on safety regulation brought her to the forefront, where her activism took root and would propel her to work-related issues in the state of New York and then the as cabinet member of FDR administration.
The "crash" of 1929 revealed symptoms of underlying issues...she was instrumental in creating a state employment service that created unemployment insurance and work-sharing practices while working for NY state government. Under FDR she took on 1) corruption in the labor department 2)immigration, 3) national labor policy that addressed child labor, improved working hours, increased minimum wage, public works projects for temporary work, 4) workers health 5)workers safety 6) built better working relations between state and federal agencies 7) unemployment insurance and 8) Social Security (old age pensions, child health funding, aid to homeless, dependent and neglected children funding, and aid to crippled children). Frances would also work for a National Health plan, but that would not happen for 60 plus years. Francis had the vision behind the great recovery and employment programs of CCC (Civilian Conservation Corp gave jobs to young men); PWA, CWA (Public Works and Civilian Works Projects), Federal Employee Relief Programs (FERA); FHA (Federal Housing Association). During her years of service, labor union strength went from 0% membership to 35%. Make no mistake...Frances WAS the New Deal of FDR, that employed 8.5 million during the depression, built more than 650,000 miles of highways, built or repaired more than 120,000 bridges and put up more than 125,000 public buildings. It provided a safety net for ordinary Americans, provided unemployment and disability insurance, as well as aid to widows, orphans, and the elderly. Her programs supported labor and regulated business, banking, and the stock market. They provided electrification to rural areas, built schools, post offices, airports, and hospitals around the country. When WWII broke out, the new system provided the strength that enabled the US to defend democracy successfully against fascists.
She held the "ear" of the president, who took advantage of her talents, claiming her vision to be his own, and, shamefully, did not defend her during her impeachment trial (for defending a labor union organizer from communist accusations - she was acquitted). Her "power" brought out festering jealousies among her peers and the press, but she stuck it out, unfaltering in her vision and problem solving. She left the office of Labor Secretary at the end of Truman's term and worked with the International Labor Movement to further the causes of Workers around the Globe.