Today–March 25th–in 1911 a fire broke out in the Triangle Shirtwaist Company, located on the top floors of the Asch Building in New York City. Hearing the clanging of fire bells and the clattering of hooves as horses pulled fire engines through the street, thirty-year-old Frances Perkins, who was having tea nearby, rushed to the site. In my biography of Perkins, I quote her: “It was the most horrible sight . . . People were hanging out of the windows by their hands . . .One by one, the people would fall.” The final death toll was 146 workers, all but fifteen of them young women. The scene became “a never-to-be-forgotten reminder” for Perkins of why she devoted her life to protecting and bettering the lives of workers. Appointed secretary of labor, the first woman to hold a cabinet position, by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Frances Perkins served from 1933-1945, and was the architect of some of the most far-reaching and important reforms and social legislation ever enacted in America, including the establishment of Social Security.
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