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Frances Perkins, labor rights pioneer

In recognition of Labor Day, we're honoring labor rights pioneer and New Deal champion Frances Perkins -- who served as U.S. Secretary of Labor throughout President Franklin D. Roosevelt's four-term presidency. As one of the most trailblazing women in the history of the U.S. government, Perkins is largely responsible for many of the New Deal reforms including the creation of child labor laws, social security, unemployment insurance, and the federal minimum wage.

After attending Mount Holyoke College and Columbia University, Perkins became head of the New York Consumers League in 1910 and sought better working conditions and hours during a time when labor rights and factory safety standards were nearly nonexistent. The following year, she personally witnessed the horrific Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in which 146 garment workers -- most of them young girls and women -- perished. Many of victims jumped to their deaths out of windows because the doors and stairwells of the factory were locked.

Witnessing the fire and the large loss of life due to the absence of safety regulations was a pivotal event in Perkins' life. She soon joined the Committee on Safety of the City of New York. The work of this Committee and others led the 60 new state safety and labor regulations in the two years following the tragedy. In 1929, she became the New York State Commissioner of Labor; a role in which she worked to end child labor, reduced women's workweek to 48 hours, and championed other reforms including the creation of the first unemployment insurance laws.

In 1933, at the height of the Great Depression when unemployment had reached 25% nationwide, Roosevelt appointed Perkins as U.S. Labor Secretary, a position she held for twelve years. During this period, Perkins was the main force behind much pioneering legislation including the creation of the Civilian Conservation Corps; the Public Works Administration; the Social Security Act; and the Fair Labor Standards Act, which established the 40-hour work week and the first minimum wages and overtime laws.

In addition to her tremendous legacy on behalf of American workers, Perkins was also a trailblazer for women as the first female Cabinet member. As she once stated: “The door might not be opened to a woman again for a long, long time, and I had a kind of duty to other women to walk in and sit down on the chair that was offered, and so establish the right of others long hence and far distant in geography to sit in the high seats.”

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