In honor of International Women’s Day, we over here at Eagle Eye are choosing to remind everyone of the legacy of Frances Perkins. She came from a long line of New Englanders who, like many Yankees, believed in the value of educating women, so Frances went off to Mt. Holyoke for college and studied physics and chemistry. But it was a history teacher there who would have an outsized impact on Frances – well, the teacher and the teacher’s assignment to study working conditions in nearby factories. It was an epiphany.
After graduation, Frances worked with Jane Addams (the first American woman to win a Nobel Peace Prize) in Chicago and was active in the suffragette movement. Then onto Philadelphia to help care for European immigrants and African Americans moving up to Philly in the early years of the Great Migration. She was present, too, for the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire, in which 146 garment workers were burned or jumped to their deaths. She focused on workplace safety.
Later, Frances would become the country’s first cabinet secretary, serving as Secretary of Labor for FDR’s entire presidency. She guided such programs as the Civilian Conservation Corps; she drafted the legislation that created Social Security. She also had to care for a mentally ill husband, who was confined for most of their marriage. Indeed, on the afternoon of the signing ceremony of the Social Security ACT, she received a phone call that her husband had wandered away from his hospital. Immediately after the ceremony, she raced to Union Station and then to New York, where she found him.
She was a starchy woman, who cared deeply for others, fought hard for them, and was not eager for attention, even as she carried the burden of mental illness in the family. Frances Perkins was tough. A great woman who made our country better for a lot of people. Our cup of tea.