Warren, a Democratic presidential candidate, isn’t the first politician to use public memory of a historic figure to convey her message, but Perkins, who rarely receives national attention today, is a unique choice. Although Warren’s speech marks a key point in remembering Perkins, it also offers insight into the candidate’s hopes for a potential presidency. She depicted Perkins as a trailblazing female politician who fused progressive idealism and pragmatic policy change, exactly what she hopes to be.
Perkins was the first female Cabinet secretary in American history, and she was also the longest-serving labor secretary, occupying the post throughout Franklin Roosevelt’s more than 12-year presidency. From this perch, Perkins was a key architect of the New Deal. As Warren noted, however, Perkins’s activism had actually ramped up decades before Roosevelt’s presidency, when she happened to witness the Triangle Shirtwaist fire in 1911.
At the time, Perkins headed the New York Consumers League with a focus on working conditions. Her undergraduate education at Mount Holyoke College, volunteer experience at the settlement home Hull House in Chicago, and economics and political science graduate work at the University of Pennsylvania and Columbia University, respectively, prepared her for the job. But nothing prepared her to watch a factory burn with workers trapped inside.
The fire killed 146 people, mostly immigrant women, by burning them alive or forcing them to jump to their death. Their employers had ignored complaints about life-threatening working conditions for the sake of maximizing profit. As Warren reminded her audience, the “business owners got richer, politicians got more powerful, and working people paid the price” — something she argues is happening today.
After the fire, women’s trade unions organized demonstrations and marches, while Perkins established the Committee on the Safety of the City of New York and became its executive secretary. Together, Perkins and the trade unions organized and advocated for better working conditions and fire safety regulations, and they won. This victory contributed to Gov. Franklin Roosevelt appointing her as the first New York state industrial commissioner, and then when he became president in 1933, labor secretary.
Perkins reoriented the mission of the Labor Department. While the Hoover administration had devoted significant energy and resources to chasing and deporting immigrants (the Immigration and Naturalization Service was under Labor Department jurisdiction until 1940), Perkins replaced many Labor Department staff members with progressive reformers she had met while organizing for better working conditions in New York.
During her first year in office, Perkins implemented a public works relief program called the Civilian Conservation Corps, and she collaborated with social reformer Harry Hopkins on an emergency relief program. In 1935, she mobilized her networks to push the Social Security Act through Congress to aid the elderly and unemployed, as well as other Americans who couldn’t provide for themselves. And in 1938, she did the same for the Fair Labor Standards Act, which formally ended child labor and established a national minimum wage and the 40-hour workweek.
Warren told much of this story in her speech, emphasizing the parallels between herself and Perkins: Just as Perkins was the first female Cabinet secretary, Warren would be the first female president. She also sees Perkins as a model: a relentless advocate for the causes in which she believed, and someone who didn’t work alone. Following Perkins’s example, Warren asked supporters to sustain a movement and apply pressure from the outside, so that big structural change might happen.
The balance between activism inside and outside of the establishment is delicate, and to Warren, Perkins found the right mix of the two. Perkins effectively mobilized grass-roots activists while also working with elected officials and powerful labor unions, throughout her career.
But Perkins also faced significant obstacles that hint at why Warren’s plan to be an activist-leader may be challenging. Coming to politics as an activist and outsider, Perkins faced political pushback; Congress tried to impeach her for refusing to deport communist immigrant Harry Bridges. Consequently, she endured a seemingly endless impeachment trial that distracted from important work and lessened her political capital, making it harder to achieve her aims.
Furthermore, Perkins couldn’t prevent Roosevelt’s New Deal from compounding racist policies. Reform efforts during the Great Depression provided no refuge to people working as domestic laborers or sharecroppers, both predominantly African American professions.
Scholars have wondered whether these compromises actually bothered Perkins, for whom combating racism wasn’t an evident priority. Indeed, following Warren’s speech, a New York Post article asserted that Warren’s interpretation of Perkins erased her less than progressive record on issues of racism. The article pointed out that Perkins was skeptical of the Brown v. Board decision that integrated schools in 1954.
But by invoking Perkins, Warren isn’t claiming to follow in her every footstep or suggesting that her agenda should be enacted in 2020. Rather, she’s reviving Perkins in Americans’ collective memory because public imagination is powerful, and Perkins has the potential to be a potent symbol — if we restore her to her rightful place in public memory as an activist who enacted real change as a government official.
When she became the first female Cabinet secretary in 1933, Perkins was on the cover of Time magazine, and in 1980, on a postage stamp. Her name is also on the Labor Department building, and she was significant enough that in the 1987 film “Dirty Dancing,” the protagonist Baby reveals that her real name is “Frances, for the first woman in the Cabinet.” Nonetheless, leading historians of the New Deal gradually wrote Perkins out of their narrative in the decades following the 1930s, as a result of a combination of sexism and scarcity of sources.
By devoting a significant part of her well-attended speech to Perkins’s activism, Warren added Perkins to the lineage of historical figures politicians used to rally supporters. When Warren’s supporters checked their emails the following day, they were greeted by a fundraising email with the subject line “Frances Perkins.”
Warren isn’t trying to lionize Perkins; instead she’s turning her into an inspiring shorthand to signal collaboration between activists and the political leaders they can push to transform American society.