Frances Perkins (April 10, 1880 – May 14, 1965)
Frances Perkins, FDR’s Secretary of Labor and the first woman to serve as a cabinet secretary, was the principal architect of the New Deal, credited with formulating policies to shore up the national economy following the nation’s most serious economic crisis and helping to create the modern middle class. She was in every respect a self-made woman who rose from humble New England origins to become America’s leading advocate for industrial safety and workers’ rights.
On March 25, 1911, Frances Perkins was having tea with friends in New York City’s Washington Square when the group heard fire engines. Running to the scene of the fire, Frances Perkins witnessed in horror as 47 workers – mostly young women – jumped from the eighth and ninth floors of the building to their deaths on the street below. In all, 146 died as flames engulfed the upper three stories of the building. The fire at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory was, she later proclaimed, “the day the New Deal was born.” In response to the fire, a citizen’s Committee on Safety was established to recommend practices to prevent a further tragedy in the city’s factories.
At the suggestion of Theodore Roosevelt, Frances Perkins was hired as the group’s executive secretary. One of the Committee’s first actions was to seek a state commission to investigate and make legislative recommendations. The Factory Investigating Commission’s mandate was much broader than originally contemplated: to study not only fire safety, but other threats to the health and well-being of industrial workers and the impact of those threats upon families. Frances Perkins, by that time a recognized expert in the field of worker health and safety, served as expert witness, investigator and guide, leading legislators on inspections of the state’s factories and worksites to view first-hand the dangers of unfettered industrialism. The Commission’s work resulted in the most comprehensive set of laws governing workplace health and safety in the nation.
Source: Frances Perkins center