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Frances Perkins: Making History

by Olivia Sandbothe  |  March 03, 2016

Frances Perkins: Making History Frances Perkins stands behind Franklin Roosevelt as he signs the Social Security Act into law. (Library of Congress photo)

Women’s rights and worker’s rights are closely intertwined in American history, and Women’s History Month in March allows us to reflect on the heroism of women whose labor, activism and ideas have shaped the world we live in.

Women have been an important part of the labor force throughout human history, even though we haven’t always been paid for the work we do! In the United States, women were at the forefront of efforts to improve conditions in the factories and mining towns of the 19th and 20th centuries.  So it’s no surprise that the first female cabinet secretary in this country was leading the Department of Labor.

Frances Perkins arrived at the White House in 1933, when the Great Depression was at its worst. But many of the nation’s working people had already been suffering for decades. Prior to the New Deal, there were virtually no protections for workers in the United States. Child labor was common. People worked for long hours surrounded by dangerous machines, suffocating dust and fire hazards. There was no minimum wage and no overtime. Most people retired with little to nothing in the way of savings.

By the time Franklin Roosevelt left office, America’s working conditions would be revolutionized—and we can thank Frances Perkins for much of it. Although she was often the only woman in the room, Sec. Perkins wasn’t afraid to be a powerful voice for change.

She was behind some of the most important legislation of the New Deal, from the Fair Labor Standards Act, which established wage and hour protections and placed limits on child labor, to the Social Security Act.  She was also the driving force behind the National Labor Relations Act of 1935, which established the legal right of workers to organize and bargain collectively.

Perkins served as Secretary of Labor from 1933 to 1945, the longest tenure in the department’s history. She made history not only as a woman but as an architect of modern life in America. Every pay stub, Social Security check and union card is a testament to her legacy.

Today, as right-wing interest groups try to dismantle the New Deal, we should take time to remember the extraordinary progress that we’ve made as a nation since 1933. Women like Frances Perkins made sure we moved beyond a nation of subsistence farmers, tenement-dwellers and child factory workers. It’s up to us to make sure history doesn’t repeat itself.

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