I recently received a text with two photographs from my longtime friend—Sue, "the scientist," Kirch— and former colleague at Queens College, the City University of New York, where we both taught teachers who were studying for their master’s degrees. Like Frances Perkins, Sue is a graduate of Mount Holyoke College, and she shares my admiration for Frances Perkins. Sue is also well acquainted with my passion for landmarks to historical women. Here is her text about discovering the Frances Perkins’ historical marker in Homestead, Pennsylvania, which is seven miles from downtown Pittsburgh, where Sue and her husband had recently relocated. "Just ran into this historical marker on our way back from a bike ride. In the town of Homestead! Totally random!! We were a little lost and then . . . . Frances Perkins to the rescue! I can hear you explaining to the Queens teachers that markers are a great way to learn history—they provide a path that we may never see otherwise. Plus it's fun. Happy day to you!"
Appointed by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt (FDR) as Secretary of Labor, Frances Perkins was the first woman to serve in a president’s cabinet. I wrote how FDR insisted that she accept the position in my book A Woman Unafraid: The Achievements of Frances Perkins.
"On February 22, 1933, Roosevelt invited Perkins to his house at East Sixty-fifth Street in New York City.
‘My appointment was for eight, but I arrived early," Perkins recalled. ‘The place was a shambles . . . . Overshoes and muddy rubbers were in a heap near the door. The floor was littered with newspapers . . .’
Roosevelt wasted no time telling Perkins that he wanted her to be Secretary of Labor. She tried to talk him out of it. But it was no use. Finally she tried another approach. 'I said that if I accepted the position of Secretary of Labor I should need to do a great deal,' Perkins recalled. Then she outlined an extensive program of 'labor legislation and economic improvements.' Her plan included a federal law of minimum wages and maximum hours, unemployment and old-age insurance, the end of child labor, the creation of a federal employment service, immediate aid to the states of direct unemployment relief, and health insurance.
'Are you sure you want these things done? Because you don't want me for Secretary of Labor if you don't,' Perkins concluded.
‘Yes, I'll back you,’ Roosevelt answered."
By the end of her twelve years as Secretary of Labor, through the Great Depression and World War II, Frances Perkins had achieved everything on her list except for health insurance.
Frances Perkins was in the thick of the action as FDR launched his New Deal aimed at ending the Great Depression. She reviewed thousands of ideas. Met with experts. Proposed programs. Revised programs. Over and over again, she testified before Congress about various measures. One of those measures allowed industries and workers to get together and write "codes of fair competition,” to set minimum wages and maximum weekly hours, as well as minimum prices at which products could be sold. The steel industry developed one of the first codes. Frances Perkins represented the interests of the steel workers.
Determined to let the steel workers know that she was "realistically and vigorously" considering their needs, she decided to visit some steel factories in western Pennsylvania. Not wanting to descend with an official entourage, Perkins considered going alone. Then she decided to take Father Francis Haas with her. 'I chose him because he was a friend of labor . . .and because I needed at least another individual to go along as aide and observer and helper.
Walking through great steel plants, she later wrote, “is a thrilling experience. There is no such blazing light in Fourth of July fireworks as when they tip the great containers and let out the white-hot steel, there are no more beautiful colors than the violet and rose tones that steel takes on as it cools—and perhaps no more strenuous place to work.”
Everywhere she went she asked questions. She ate lunch in the cafeteria with the workers. She visited them in their homes. In Homestead, the site of a bitter and bloody labor dispute in 1892, she arranged with the burgess, or mayor, to hold a meeting in the Hall of Burgess. The historical marker that Sue Kirch happened upon is the result of Perkins' encounter with the burgess. Here is the backstory that I described in my book:
"As the meeting in the Hall of Burgess ended Frances Perkins heard a disturbance downstairs.
'A newspaperman whispered that a lot of men are in the lower hall and on the sidewalk because the Burgess had not allowed them to come in,' she wrote later.
She asked to meet with the men.
But the Burgess got ‘red in the face, puffed and stormed. No, no you've had enough. These men are not any good. They're undesirable Reds . . . They just want to make trouble.’
Frances Perkins went outside and started to speak with the crowd. The burgess appeared with the police in tow. ‘You can't talk here . . . there is a rule against making a speech here,’ he shouted.
‘All right—I am sorry. We will go over to the public park,’ Perkins said.
‘You can't do that, there is an ordinance against holding meetings in public parks.'
Frances Perkins protested. Then she spotted the American flag flying over a building and realized that it must be the post office. As an officer of the federal government, she figured that she ‘must have some rights there."
‘We will go to the post office, there is the American flag,’ she told the crowd.
The post office was about to close. Quickly Perkins explained the situation. The postmaster let her and the crowd in. ‘We stood in the long corridor lined with postal cages. Somebody got me a chair, and I stood on it and made a brief speech about the steel code. I asked does anybody want to speak,’ she wrote later. About thirty men did. Perkins listened and invited the ‘most vocal and obstreperous of the speakers’ to testify at a public hearing in Washington.”
Within weeks, the steel code was completed and specified minimum wages; maximum hours; abolition of child labor; and safe, sanitary working conditions. "The code as it was finally adopted was not a perfect code," Perkins wrote later. "It left much to be desired, but at least it opened the door to a continuing improvement in the lives, the work and wages of the people who work in steel."
A door that Frances Perkins devoted her life to opening for all workers.
Images, Click to enlarge: In order from top to bottom:
FRANCES PERKINS historical marker, and U. S. Post Office, in Homestead, Pennsylvania. Photographs by Sue Kirch
“Frances Perkins Is Named As Cabinet’s First Woman,” Democrat and Chronicle, March 1, 1933. p. 1. The caption reads: “Two views of Miss Frances Perkins, who will be Secretary of Labor in the Roosevelt cabinet. The President-elect confirmed her appointment yesterday.”
"Labor Secretary Tours Steel Mills, Visits Men," Altoona Tribune, July 29, 1933, p. 1.
"Madame Secretary Visits Workers in Steel Mills," The Capital Times, July 31, 1933, p. 4. The caption reads: “Frances Perkins, first woman secretary of labor, enters the steel code hearings with some personal idea of what it is all about. For she toured several plants in the Pittsburgh district, talking with executives, foremen and workmen. Above, she is shown shaking hands with Bob Graham, foreman of the Carnegie mills in Homestead, Pa., surrounded by steel workers.”
“Madame Secretary Meeting Workmen,” Pittsburgh Sun-Telegraph, July 28, 1933, p. 1. The caption reads: “Labor Secretary Frances Perkins Talking with Workmen at Carnegie Steel Today.”