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Ranting On

Well, FDL, I find it irritating that once again the security certificate for this website is invalid. Seems to be a problem in Scottsdale, Arizona, once again, though I am miles and miles from there.

I am going to ignore this certificate problem for the time being, in order to continue my rant.

Today, my inspiration will be, yes, another historical biography about a woman: Frances Perkins’s extraordinary professional life essentially spanned two Roosevelts, Teddy to Franklin. Her bent was progressive, her legacy immense.

Kirstin Downey’s biography titles her, descriptively, The Woman Behind the New Deal.

One hundred years ago, in 1912, Frances Perkins was falling in love with the man she would marry while doggedly championing the rights of American workers and consumers. A veteran of Chicago’s famed Hull House, and an actual eyewitness to New York’s tragic Triangle Fire (she was at a meeting across the square), Frances Perkins led an investigation into workplace horrors in the wake of its many deaths of young working women.

The successes of Perkins’s Committee on Safety included the establishment of a bureau of fire prevention. Her activism led to changes in the law, from fire drills to sprinklers, to fire escapes, to inspections, to factories being equipped with washing facilities, clean drinking water, and ventilated restrooms.

All in all, the fact-finding commission following the fire came up with thirteen volumes of recommendations and testimony. In the future, child laborers would have to be proved by a doctor’s certification to be at least fourteen years old. Her goal was the 50-hour work week for women.

Why don’t more people know about Frances Perkins? Women of the day who agitated for the importance of individual human lives worked largely invisibly. After all, women didn’t have the vote then.

As the biography says of the commission report, “Frances’s name appears nowhere in the record of the proceeding, but her fingerprints are everywhere.”  At the National Consumers League, Frances had already been working tirelessly for years, trying to alleviate poor conditions, low wages, long hours for women, child labor, and workplace fire hazards, not without controversy.

It’s easy for us modern types to forget that changes for basic safety and welfare were once blocked by powerful business people. Too expensive. Too much trouble. Suspicious.

A commissioner named McGuire called Perkins a professional agitator.

Meanwhile, the fire code they created made New York City the national model for hazard reductions in office buildings.

Frances Perkins’s friends laughed at her when she, from a family of “rock-ribbed Republicans,” announced that if she ever got the vote she planned to vote Democratic.

All I know is this,” she said. “When the Republicans are in power in this state, we don’t get any social legislation at all. The bills and things I’m interested in make no progress at all. When the Democrats are in power, we make some progress.

When Franklin D. Roosevelt tapped her for Secretary of Labor, it was she who boldly suggested she’d only take the job if she could push for safety regulations, unemployment insurance and a system of old-age pension, where workers could pay in when they were young and then receive a minimum allotment when elderly. FDR was dubious. Then she went home to talk to her sickly husband about it, because she knew the job would take her away from him and their then-teen-aged daughter. Afterward, she burst into sobs because she knew it would be harder than anything she’d ever attempted in a stellar career of activism for working women.

She wasn’t wrong.

The reaction: disgust. Labor leaders said they could never be reconciled to the president’s choice.

Some male Labor Department staffers threatened to resign rather than report to a woman.

The press took to calling her “Ma” Perkins.  An editorial in the Baltimore paper read:

A woman smarter than a man is something to get on guard about. But a woman smarter than a man and also not afraid of a man, well, good-night.

Frances Perkins, then in her 50s, learned from a sympathetic New York cop that gangsters associated with Dutch Schultz in the Labor Department’s immigration bureau were threatening newcomers with deportation, even if they were legally in the country, by demanding “fines” and doing back-room deals for employers who brought foreign workers to America for short-term contracts, ignoring legal quotas.

She closed down that department, Section 24, but came in one night to find its former employees rifling through government files stealing records from official investigations. Though frightened, she reorganized the Labor Department around statistics. She hired women. She tried to resist post-World War II red-baiting and McCarthy Era snooping. But Frances Perkins always, always had a difficult row to hoe.

When businesses resisted New York laws like the maximum ten-hour day for women, they moved across state lines.

Restrictions on child labor proved extremely unpopular, especially in the South.

When Perkins proposed a floating minimum wage tied to a regional cost of living, a Texas congressman tried to trap the bill in committee so it couldn’t proceed to a vote. Congressmen sought unsuccessfully to impeach her. She always tried to take the higher ground, to keep her personal goals in mind, but it cost her dearly.

Why recall Frances Perkins today?

Today’s young women may not appreciate, not fully, how positive changes in this country’s labor laws, which offer them greater opportunity, basic workplace safety, and protection for their children from abusive labor practices, only recently took place – possibly in living memory for some elderly women. Elderly women who may have a small amount of Social Security to keep them from starvation and the poorhouse.

Nor do they realize exactly the sort of price exacted on change agents.

Right-wing activists who seek – still – to smear FDR and fall back to those good old days of untrammeled free-market capitalism, whether in this country or in some other place, need to realize that it is women and children they will be hurting and it is probably women who will, finally, have to stand up and say no.




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