Thanks to Frances Perkins by Deborah Hopkinson
Why write about Frances Perkins, America’s longest serving Secretary of Labor and the force behind the Social Security Act?
The short answer is that when Peachtree’s publisher Margaret Quinlin and my editor, Kathy Landwehr, suggested Frances as the subject of a picture book, I jumped at the opportunity to write about a woman I’ve long admired. I’m especially delighted to partner with Kristy Caldwell, whose fabulous illustrations bring Frances and her time to life.
Another part of my impetus for writing Thanks to Frances Perkins goes back to childhood. Not what I learned—but what I didn’t.
Before the 2020 pandemic, I spent each spring leapfrogging across the country from school to school. I usually begin author visits by showing a photograph of a female textile worker in my hometown of Lowell, Massachusetts, where “mill girls” launched the long struggle for fairness and equity in the workplace.
I often tell students that growing up in a historic place has spurred me to write about history and social justice issues. That’s true enough. But in childhood I wasn’t aware of forgotten stories drifting like ghosts in the depressed, deserted factories around me. Searching for them would come long after I left Lowell.
And while Frances Perkins was born in Massachusetts in 1880 and went to Mount Holyoke College (down the road from where I was an undergrad), I never heard her name in school. It would’ve been inspiring to know that the first woman to serve in a presidential cabinet came from my state. Instead, working-class girls like me were urged to learn to type “to have something to fall back on.”
I first encountered Frances Perkins while researching the Triangle Waist Company fire. Frances, trained as a social worker, was having tea with a friend near the Asch Building in Washington Square on Saturday afternoon, March 25, 1911. She witnessed the tragedy first-hand. One hundred and forty-six workers, mostly immigrant teen girls, perished in eighteen minutes.
Labor activists had mounted strikes to protest poor working conditions and unsafe practices, including locking factory doors so workers couldn’t get out. But as we know from our own national reckoning now, eight or eighteen minutes can become a tipping point.
And, back in 1911, the Triangle fire shocked the nation. Marches and rallies followed; there were outpourings of grief and outrage. On April 2, 1911, Frances Perkins attended a memorial, where she heard labor activist Rose Schneiderman. It’s worth repeating some of Rose’s famous speech:
The strong hand of the law beats us back, when we rise, into the conditions that make life unbearable. I can’t talk fellowship to you who are gathered here. Too much blood has been spilled. I know from my experience it is up to the working people to save themselves. The only way they can save themselves is by a strong working-class movement.
Too much blood has been spilled.
In oral histories and interviews, Frances Perkins marked the fire and Rose’s words as turning points in her life. Her determination to effect change would last a lifetime. She went on to dedicate herself to labor reform in New York State under governors Alfred E. Smith and Franklin D. Roosevelt. The laws passed in New York on fire safety became a model for the nation.
Then, in the midst of the Great Depression, FDR was elected president.
I love to share primary resources with readers and encourage historical thinking skills: sourcing, contextualization, corroboration, and close reading. In Thanks to Frances Perkins, we include several sources in the back matter, including an oral history from Columbia University: http://www.columbia.edu/cu/lweb/digital/collections/nny/perkinsf/index.html and a link to the Frances Perkins Center: https://francesperkinscenter.org/. The book also includes information about Social Security and financial literacy, since I believe economics education is important.
In addition to speeches and oral histories, I consulted Frances Perkins’s The Roosevelt I Knew, in which Frances shares her memory of meeting with FDR at his home in early 1933. I love how she sets the stage, capturing the hub of activity around the president-elect:
The place was a shambles… Rugs were rolled up and piled in a corner. Overshoes and muddy rubbers were in a heap near the door. The floor was littered with newspapers. Trunks were jammed into one corner, and in another stood boxes containing Roosevelt’s papers which had just been send down from Albany and had to be sorted and filed for reshipment to Washington.
On her way in, Frances met Harold Ickes for the first time; he would become Secretary of the Interior (and makes a brief appearance in another Peachtree book of mine, Sweet Land of Liberty. I seem to have a soft spot for public servants.)
Frances knew what FDR wanted to ask her. “I said that if I accepted the position of Secretary of Labor I should want to do a great deal….I thought that Roosevelt might consider it too ambitious to be undertaken when the United States was deep in depression and unemployment.”
Frances outlined her goals: She wanted to propose federal minimum wage laws, maximum hours, “true unemployment and old-age insurance, and abolition of child labor.”
An ambitious agenda, indeed. But in the end, much of it would become part of the New Deal, transforming the nation. Her “old-age insurance” became the Social Security Act, signed into law eighty-five years ago, on August 14, 1935. (You can read about Frances on the Social Security Administration’s history website: https://www.ssa.gov/history/fperkins.html.)
In his introduction to The Roosevelt I Knew, Adam Cohen writes, “If American history textbooks accurately reflected the past, Frances Perkins would be recognized as one of the nation’s greatest heroes—as iconic as Benjamin Franklin or Thomas Paine.”
As we contemplate the enormous challenges our nation now faces I’d like to share an excerpt from a radio address Frances gave in February 1935, to introduce the concept of the Social Security to Americans. (You can find it here: https://www.ssa.gov/history/perkinsradio.html.)
As I look back on the tragic years since 1929, it seems to me that we as a Nation, not unlike some individuals, have been able to pass through a bitter experience to emerge with a newfound insight and maturity. We have had the courage to face our problems and find a way out. The heedless optimism of the boom years is past. We now stand ready to build the future with sanity and wisdom.
The process of recovery is not a simple one. We cannot be satisfied merely with makeshift arrangements which will tide us over the present emergencies. We must devise plans that will not merely alleviate the ills of today, but will prevent, as far as it is humanly possible to do so, their recurrence in the future. The task of recovery is inseparable from the fundamental task of social reconstruction.
Let us hope we also have the courage.
Deborah Hopkinson is the award-winning author of numerous critically acclaimed picture and chapter books, including Keep On!; Sweet Land of Liberty; Under the Quilt of Night; and Shutting Out the Sky: Life in the Tenements of New York 1880-1924. She lives in Oregon. You can visit her website here.
Teacher’s Guide available at https://peachtree-online.com/pdfs/TeachersGuides/ThankstoFrancesPerkinsTG.pdf
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