This article is excerpted from a tribute delivered yesterday.
It was extraordinary that Frances Perkins ever came to the Department of Labor in the first place -- and even more extraordinary that she was one of only two members of Franklin Roosevelt's original cabinet still in office at the time of his death. (Harold Ickes was the other.)
William L. Green of the American Federation of Labor declared that labor would never be reconciled to her appointment -- and certainly that was true of John L. Lewis, who treated her to some of this choicest Shakespearean epithets. Martin Dies ranked her on his list of dangerous individuals, just behind Joseph Stalin and Adolf Hitler.
That may be written off as partisan invective. But she didn't fare much better even on her own side of the fence. Rexford G. Tugwell, who admired her, said she suffered from a "passion for veracity" -- certainly a rare quality in Washington in that day, or this, and not one likely to endear the first woman cabinet member to the strong-minded men she dealt with in the corridors of power.
She didn't have much support even among her own kind. When Martin Dies moved to impeach her because she refused to deport Harry Bridges, the radical labor leader, Eleanor Roosevelt wrote:
"She is alone, and I wish that the women of this country, particularly the organizations, could be induced to realize the true story on the whole Bridges question . . . many of the federation of women's clubs are down on Frances."
She was, quite simply, the most obvious target for any politician who sought to make a headline by hunting a witch.
So she was Franklin's teacher and Eleanor's confidante, and when the chauvinists of that day sought to cut her down with ridicule, those two stood behind her. The record of her unprecedented tenure in the cabinet is one of efficiency and unblemished integrity.
So you see, even long before there was women's liberation, a woman's movement -- or any of those phrases that were part of the 1970s, and a part of our vocabulary -- Frances Perkins was stirring up a hornet's nest -- and, of course, typically, she was charged with all sorts of things.
But if you were to lose your job today, you would get unemployment insurance for many weeks -- thanks largely to Frances Perkins.
If you need a job, the U.S. Employment Service will help you find one -- thanks largely to Frances Perkins.
If you are injured on the job, you get workmen's compensation -- thanks largely to Frances Perkins.
Your chances of getting injured at all are greatly reduced -- thanks largely to Frances Perkins. It is no longer common for unguarded industrial machines to cut a worker's arm or hand off, as happened with distressing frequency until the tireless crusader got some protective laws passed.
Forty hours -- that, too, is thanks largely to Frances Perkins.
And when you get old and no longer work, you will get Social Security -- again thanks largely to Frances Perkins.
People did not understand a married woman who called herself "Miss Perkins." They didn't understand a well-born young woman who would spend her time trying to salvage laborers. They didn't understand -- or empathize with -- a woman who would pound the corridors of the Albany statehouse -- or this Capitol -- and sit down with cigar-smoking old pols to demand decent wages, hours and working conditions.
So they did, alas, what came naturally to the forces of ignorance in our land. They labeled her a communist.
Until they met her, that is. There was the day when a group of Missouri businessmen came to see her, steaming because the department has exposed lead poisoning in their plants.
"How can you work for that communist?" they said as they stomped around the outer office. But when they met Miss Perkins, it was a different story. "Where did that woman get that reputation? She knew all about our problems," they said.
I am grateful that I came to Washington -- as a very green cub reporter -- in time to see Frances Perkins in action. Our's was not a close association, but I remember her austere, almost prim, appearance, her invincible dignity. It seems to me she dressed always in black, and never without the tricorn hat that I knew as her trademark long before I arrived here. She kept the hat on even in her office -- her mother had once told her it became the shape of her face. And there never was time to take it off.
One of the newswomen who covered her, and is still around, Esther Van Waggoner Tufty, told me: "She dressed rather dowdily -- but as soon as you saw her face, and heard her talk, you forgot her clothes, anyway."
Dr. Jonathan Grossman, this Labor Department's historian, says she deliberatly cultivated the "dowdy look."
As the only woman in a largely male world, she was very conscious that she should dress very carefully -- nothing low-cut, nothing flashy or flamboyant.
The image of the embattle secretary that comes down to us, in any case, is that of a somewhat dowdy little lady in a tricorn hat. But that is the product of the distorting lens through which the press always viewed her. Screened out were the qualities of compassion, charm and political savvy that enabled her to survive the alarms and excursions that attended her remarkably productive career.
Her boss knew what she had. Once when Old Ironpants Hugh Johnson was raging in the Oval Office, threatening to resign from the NRA and ride his high dudgeon down Pennsylvania Avenue, FDR whispered to Frances, "Stick with Hugh and keep him sweet."
That probably would have been beyond the capacity of Greta Garbo, but the secretary drove the irascible general around Washington for four hours while he simmered to a low boil.
This is the 100th anniversary of Frances Perkins' birth -- we think! I believe she would have been slightly amused, with her pixielike sense of humor, that even today we are not certain whether we are celebrating her 100th anniversary -- as we think we are -- or her 98th.
A moment occurs in your life when you realize your obligation to mankind. For Frances Perkins, it was the Saturday before Easter 1911 -- just about this time of year.
She and a friend were having tea when they heard fire bells clanging, and they rushed out to see that the top floors of a 10-story loft building across Washington Square were on fire.
The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory occupied the top three floors of the loft, and the employees were working overtime, turning out "Gibson Girl" shirtwaists that were the rage at the moment.
As the two women drew closer, they saw frail young girls, already aflame, hurl themselves out the high windows, screaming as they crashed to their deaths on the pavement, or impaled on an iron fence. In all, 146 lives were lost.
The fire escapes had become too hot to stand on, and eventually crashed to the ground. Many victims might have escaped to the roof, then leaped to safety onto other roofs, if the doors of the stairwell had not been locked. The owner had locked them, for fear the employees might steal a few shirtwaists -- and in some kind of sinister plot, drop them off the roof to waiting cohorts below.
For Frances Perkins, the fire never went out. It burned like a torch within her until her death at age 85. From that moment, the well-born, well-educated young social worker, a descendant of the Revolutionary War patriot James Otis, committed her life to fighting indifference and injustice in industrial America.
For her, the memory of the charred bodies never dimmed. And all of us are the better for it. The reforms she launched changed the lives of working Americans.