Frances Perkins, the nation's fourth secretary of Labor and first woman Cabinet official "was fired with indignation" by abuses of workers and the need for social reform, said White House consumer affairs adviser Esther Petersen.
Out of that fire grew a formidable political record and series of accomplishments, including such monuments as the Social Security Act of 1935 and the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938.
Today the Labor Department will dedicate another monument to "Madame Secretary" Perkins, renaming the Labor Department's massive headquarters on Constitution Avenue the Frances Perkins Building.
The ceremony comes on the 100th anniversary of Perkins' birth and coincides with the issue of a 15-cent stamp commemorating Perkins and an exhibit about her life and times in the first-floor lobby of the building.
As much as anything, the dedication is a late-arriving tribute to a quiet, forecful, consistent woman with an absolute command of politics and a driving social conscience.
A Boston-born Mount Holyoke graduate and daughter of a mercantile family, Perkins had read Jacob Riis' book "How the Other Half Lives," a chilling description of life in the tenements, and "had straightway felt that the pursuit of social justice would be my vocation," she wrote later.
That pursuit took her to work in the settlement houses and to work with the New York Consumer's League. In 1911, she watched the Triangle Shirtwaist Co. fire in which 146 persons died. Many of the dead were young women or girls who leaped from windows or burned inside because the doors were locked or the stairways too narrow.
Perkins not only saw the abuses for herself, she made certain that the men who made the laws would see them, too. As an investigator for the Factory Investigation Commission, created in response to the Triangle fire, "we used to make it our business to take Al Smith, the East Side boy who later became New York's governor . . . to see women, thousands of them, coming off the 10-hour night-shift on the rope walks in Auburn," she wrote in a book about Franklin Delano Roosevelt. It was Roosevelt who named her to the Labor post.
"We made sure that Robert Wagner personally crawled through the tiny hole in the wall that gave egress to a steep iron ladder covered with ice and ending 12 feet from the ground . . . labeled "Fire Escape" in many factories," she said.
"We saw to it that the austere legislative members of the Commission got up at dawn and drove with us for an unannounced visit to a . . . cannery and that they say with their own eyes the little children, not adolescents but 5, 6, and 7-year-olds, snipping beans and shelling peas. We made sure that they saw the machinery that would scalp a girl or cut off a man's arm."
It was a technique that worked well in New York and worked later with Roosevelt. Roosevelt was not a purely intellectual man, Perkins said. "He had to have feeling as well as thought." He needed to understand the human dimensions of problems and Perkins saw to it that he did.
"In my whole life I've never been around anyone as effective as she was in getting things accomplished, working quietly but consistently," said Clara M. Beyer, who helped direct the labor standards division of the Labor Department under Perkins.
Perkins had a valuable ally in Eleanor Roosevelt as well.
It was Perkins' view that much of the progress in social welfare reform came because the country was ready for it.
"I am convinced that the pull of social forces rather than vote-getting considerations moved politicians in this direction," she said.
Laws enacted in New York with her help led to national legislation aimed at correcting some of the same problems.
Perkins' appointment was controversial for reasons other than that she was a woman. She was also the first labor secretary not to come from labor, which had its own candidates.
She had been a suffragette and felt strongly about women's rights, but tried to keep the issue from distracting from the job she wanted to do. "I think she was a feminist in the sense of -- look what women have the brains to do," said Petersen. "She did everything on substance, on getting things done."
Getting things done was what she did very well. "Frances had had that experience in New York and understood politics. She understood Tammy Hall. She moved Roosevelt, no question about that in my book," Petersen said.
Although formidable in her accomplishments, "She wasn't formidable in her manner or her speech," Beyer said. "She was never harsh. She was always a lady, but she had the brains and the information at her fingertips."
"The amazing thing is that Roosevelt's placing a woman in the Cabinet wasn't followed by all other presidents," said W. Averell Harriman. "She handled herself with great skill and got along well with labor leaders and business. She was a great force during the Roosevelt years. She did an outstanding job."